Politics & Policy

Back in the Halcyon Days of the Conservative Movement

They looked more like our own than many purists appreciate.

When I was a kid, many cartoons used the phenomenon of the mirage as a useful plot device. It’s the natural phenomenon where the refraction of light over a sandy horizon often appears as a sheet of water or an oasis. The refraction of time over political action creates a similar mirage. For progressives, the mirage is always ahead of them. They thirst for justice. Behind them in time, they see that even progressives of the past were helplessly casting about to find it, but they were lost. For them, justice is just over the horizon. Conservatives are at the back of the traveling party, and as the tribe goes forward, they see the mirage behind them, the time when the conservative movement was an oasis of sanity and high-mindedness. Maybe it was the founding of The Weekly Standard, or before the last reform of the House of Lords. Conservatives back in the halcyon days had wit, they policed the kooks, they were funny and good-hearted. They cared about serious things.

The Donald Trump presidency, and the depredations of this or that little faction of the conservative movement, has brought in a long round of complaints about how it was back in the halcyon days. Some of those complaints are even here at National Review.

I also withheld my vote, and I still withhold my confidence, from Donald Trump on grounds of moral turpitude. Why should a political party and movement have as its leader a reality-TV star? I also cannot help but feel that something in America is coming to an end and that the conservative movement is subject to some degradation. But I want to be clearer on the details, both to guard against despair and to restore a sense of realism. Would the conservatives back in the halcyon days have recognized this man for the charlatan he is?

Back in the halcyon days, you didn’t have Ann Coulter. True, you had Westbrook Pegler. Back in the halcyon days, you didn’t have Sean Hannity, you had Bob Grant, and before him, good gawd, you had Father Coughlin.

Is Donald Trump the great fall? Perhaps. But he’s not the first media star with dubious political credentials to win over sufficient, or enthusiastic, support from the American Right to win high office. Hannity promoted known philanderer Arnold Schwarzenegger for the governorship of California, over the more ideologically solid Tom McClintock. This was after Schwarzenegger was credibly reported to have defended his extramarital activity with the phrase “Eating’s not cheating.” I’m not sure where to file that aphorism among the eternal verities.

And of course there was Ronald Reagan, too. He was also an actor, or what conservatives in another set of halcyon days would have called “a whore.” Reagan still functions almost like a saint or apostle in the conservative movement, even though his marital status would have disqualified him among conservatives, back in yet further halcyon days, as a bigamist. Then there’s his wife. Before it lost its standards, the moral majority of the halcyon days even further removed would have seen the reports of her séances and recognized her for what she was, even in the White House: a practicing witch.

Looking back to the halcyon days, conservatives often fool ourselves about our clients. Conservatives who think that the American Right has undergone a recent a terrible fall, newly despising the elites, when we used to despise Communists, have forgotten more than they remember. The entire political theory of the modern American conservative movement was that the elites were soft on Commies. “When did we start to despise the experts?” we ask plaintively. The founder of this magazine answers from the early 1960s: “I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”

That brings us to Europe. The great debate running through Europe now is the same one that the founder of this magazine confronted then. Are we to be ruled by an ideological nomenklatura of planners and experts? And if we’re not, we’re going to have to assert the role of the masses, and the nation. That is, conservatives are going to have to be better democrats than progressives are.

This week we are subject to complaints about the appearance of Marion Maréchal-Le Pen at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. People who believe themselves to be classical liberals spit: Why, back in the halcyon days, the American Right totally abjured the depredations of throne-and-altar European rightists! From 1957 comes the voice of this magazine’s founder, writing from Spain to say that Generalissimo Franco has “wrest Spain from the hands of the visionaries, ideologues, Marxists, and nihilists.” The European heroes of the intellectual American conservative movement, Cardinal József Mindszenty among them, were not themselves classical liberals.

But that was different, it was an era of Communism! True, it was a different era. The current generation of the managerial elite in Europe and America has accepted capitalism, not because they repent of Communism but because they find in it a more effective solvent for Christianity, the family, and other pre-liberal institutions and traditions they despise. With somewhat free markets, and the encouragement of a consumerist society, they are receiving the great payoff that Communism promised and couldn’t deliver. Western Europe is led by men who have souls no more deep or colorful than an Excel spreadsheet. It is in the places where people were subject to Communism and that are relative newcomers to capitalism — Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia — that Christianity is still putting up some resistance.

The modern American conservative movement has always been contending with, and bargaining with, media rabble-rousers.

As far back as I look into it, I cannot find a time when the modern American conservative movement was free of the debates, difficulties, and problematic affinities we imagine are uniquely besetting it today. The movement has always been contending with, and bargaining with, media rabble-rousers. It has always been bruised in the battle with improvers, torn up as it passes through the gauntlet, sometimes defending high principles, sometimes caught defending the ugly prejudices that can accrete around worthwhile principles. Sometimes the movement gets so prissy about the attendant prejudices that they lose on the principle, adverting their good manners.

All the while the Republican party has been producing paranoiacs like Nixon, who are uniquely besieged by the media, or celebrities like Reagan and Schwarzenegger. The movement always had factions and figures who looked to the European Right for guidance, inspiration, or even alliances. The movement always had tub-thumpers, and intellectuals who were corrupted by the opportunity for a quick buck. It’s a great, whirling, exasperating, and occasionally gag-inducing, adventure, in which few of us can come to exhaustive agreements over which scraps are worth it and which were not. Any other view of our history is a look into a mirage.

In the year before he died, Bill Buckley had me over to his house in Stamford a few times. Even in this last year of his life, he could snap into sharp, alarming focus. In a way, those few lunches together were my halcyon days. And the man I met there wasn’t so goddamned precious as some of his admirers take him to be. I am often tempted to try and find the most correct and savvy position, rather than the right and brave one. When I am uncertain, I’m surprised by how vividly the memory of him dares me forward. It’s useful to measure ourselves against him, a man marked by the fight.