Conservatives used to boast that the Right has ideas, while the Left has only an enemies list. There was a time when that was true, but it isn’t true anymore.
My colleague Jonah Goldberg has done great work illuminating the progressive mode of politics captured by the phrase “the moral equivalent of war.” War is not necessarily ennobling or even unifying (see Iraq), but the two great wars of the 20th century illustrated that the industrial and economic might of the United States can, at least for a time, be turned by the state toward a single national purpose. (We romanticize those wars, especially the second, but our war provisioning was in reality marked by the incompetence, corruption, and profiteering one would expect with any big federal spending project.) As Goldberg writes in Liberal Fascism, “War socialism under Wilson was an entirely progressive project, and long after the war it remained the liberal ideal.” After both wars, there were those in government who argued that Washington should maintain its extraordinary wartime powers in order to turn them to such peaceful ends as a “war on poverty.” Warren G. Harding ran on the opposite idea — his “return to normalcy” — as Dwight Eisenhower did in a less insistent way. (Indeed, Eisenhower’s dismissal of the conservative project seeking a return to the prewar, pre–New Deal settlement was the proximate cause for the founding of this magazine and the modern conservative movement; American conservatives have always been running against the Republican party.)
“The moral equivalent of war” (which is really the political equivalent of war) is more useful as rhetoric than as an actual model for organizing domestic reforms, as evidenced by the failed war on drugs and the failed war on poverty. It is a way to move one’s pet issue, whatever it may be, to the front of the line, and perhaps to suspend ordinary legal and constitutional constraints in the pursuit of one’s most pressing political agenda items. Wilson desired to see the presidency invested with autocratic power giving the executive (under expert guidance of course; progressives treat government as a branch of science) the power to command the domestic resources of the United States the way a general commands those of an army. Modern progressivism, with its “moral equivalent of war” mentality, is Wilsonian war socialism on the installment plan: one emergency at a time. That’s how you get people who think of themselves as good ACLU liberals arguing that we should suspend the constitutional rights of American citizens based on their being on a secret government list, without due process or appeal, as many of our well-intentioned progressive friends seek to do in forbidding firearms purchases by those on various terrorism watch-lists. (In the case of the no-fly list, that would include many people who simply share a name with someone suspected of being connected to terrorism.) There’s no time for due-process considerations in an emergency, when you’re under the gun, when you’re at war, when it’s the moral equivalent of war.
The “moral equivalent of war” mentality is useful when it comes to organizing and funding large projects that are truly national: the Apollo project, rural electrification, the canals and other infrastructure programs that Lincoln described as “improvements.” That has always been the attraction of classical progressivism: the idea that government can step in, take charge, and execute large and complex programs to improve our common life in ways that the market and private actors can’t or won’t. Understanding why that rarely works out as intended is conservatism. It isn’t only economists who must “demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
The Right has its own moral equivalents of war: the war on drugs, famously, but also various big-ticket infrastructure programs and Keynesian stimulus measures that Republican officeholders convince themselves are somehow connected to national security. Senator Rubio ridiculously argued that subsidies for Florida sugar barons are a national-security measure, but conservatives have made very similar arguments about commodities such as steel. (Lenovo’s acquisition of IBM’s personal-computer business, its later acquisition of IBM’s x86 server business, and its purchase of Motorola from Google all were denounced as national-security threats.) President Eisenhower, who had found American roads wanting during cross-country military exercises in 1919, sold the national highway system as a national-security measure; its formal name is the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. The freeways to suburbia are the American war machine in repose.
The interstate highway system was a mistake, poorly planned and corruptly executed, but it is easy to see the attraction of such big, national projects, which present ideologues and partisans (and experts and cranks) the opportunity to rebuild the country in their own image, at least in part. Lyndon Johnson was a moral monster and a cynical political calculator, but he was genuine in his belief that the poor in America, especially the rural poor, were simply dealt an unfair hand, and that government could (and therefore should) step in and make some of that right. He had the experience of the New Deal to draw on and, like most Southern Democrats, he was a New Deal man through and through. (The popularity of the New Deal in rural Texas would be difficult to overestimate: In 1949, when the tiny railroad town of Monroe, Texas, finally got a post office, the town fathers discovered that there already was a Monroe, Texas, and the town was renamed New Deal, the name it and three other nearby municipalities had given to their consolidated school district in 1935.) The problem is that there are not a great many big, inspiring, and truly national tasks waiting to be done. Even the perennial push for a big federal infrastructure package mainly amounts to national subsidies for local pothole repairs.
And many political manias do not fit easily into the World War II model. Mass killings such as the one in Florida are a distressingly regular feature of American life, but they do not add up to very much in the annals of American homicide. (They are sharks in a world full of moose.) Violence against transgender people is to be deplored and prosecuted, but the nation is hardly convulsed over the condition of transgender people in 2018 the way it was over, say, the condition of African Americans in 1954. The parades of charismatic victims and poster-ready faces of hot-button social issues (the Parkland students, Caitlyn Jenner, the DACA families) is intended to communicate a moral emergency, but efforts to create national crusades around these issues have proved ineffective. In 2016, the Gallup poll found that support for a ban on so-called assault weapons had hit an all-time low; a recent Quinnipiac poll found that far more people (77 percent vs. 58 percent) believed that mental-health reform might have prevented the Parkland massacre than believed that additional gun control was likely to have been effective. Millennials are less likely to support banning semiautomatic weapons than are their parents and grandparents. There’s no draft for the war on semiautomatic rifles, and there isn’t any rush to volunteer, either.
When the moral equivalent of World War II is not available, then the next best thing is the moral equivalent of Hitler.
When the moral equivalent of World War II is not available, then the next best thing is the moral equivalent of Hitler. This is the style of political rhetoric that insists that those who hold different views do not simply disagree and are not simply wrong but instead are evildoers doing evil. “You know who else would have laughed at my preferred pronouns? Hitler.” “You know who else would have opposed same-sex marriage? Hitler.” “You know who else didn’t like pineapple on his pizza? Hitler.” Hence the current Democratic style of insisting that Republicans are not simply people with different political preferences but are in fact anti-intellectual bigots. Democrats insist that Republicans are driven by racism, religious bigotry, sexism, hatred of homosexuals, hatred of Muslims, etc., or else that they are acting out of greed in the service of some obscure program of self-enrichment. When you hear a Democrat say that some Texas conservative supports gun rights because the NRA pays him to, what you’re hearing is: “That guy is Hitler.”
Republicans have never been entirely immune to that sort of thing, of course: “Pink right down to her underwear,” welfare queens, etc. Republican appeals to our baser instincts have historically been couched in expressions of nationalism. T. Boone Pickens, visiting the offices of National Review, flew into a rage when I suggested that his plan to mandate the use of natural gas in trucking was in fact a plan to put a whole lot of money into the pockets of T. Boone Pickens, thundering: “You must be in favor of foreign oil!” Donald Trump’s early focus on the issue of illegal immigration was clever in that it offers the combination of a real issue — illegal immigration is a genuine problem, as is the persistence of poorly assimilated immigrant ghettos around the country — while also appealing to the strain of xenophobia that has always been associated with populist politics in the United States, currently most energetic on the right side of the political spectrum. (But it is by no means exclusively a right-wing phenomenon: Senator Bernie Sanders, the grumpy Muppet socialist from Vermont, talked a great deal like Trump on immigration during the Democratic primary, denouncing the “open borders” view as a billionaires’ plot to undermine the American working man.) But from the 1980s until approximately the day before yesterday, the Republican party was an instrument of the conservative movement. It was the inverse of the Democratic party, in which various intellectual tendencies and political constituencies serve the party and are dominated by it. The Republican party was more strongly an ideological organization, the Democratic party more strongly a collection of interest groups. (Of course both parties are both things, but the GOP has long been the more ideologically rigorous of the two.) The Republican party had invective, of course, but it also had ideas, and, especially in the 1980s, a lively and enriching transatlantic relationship with conservatives in the United Kingdom. Intellectuals such as Milton Friedman and Jeane Kirkpatrick were enormously influential figures, especially for young conservatives, and the most prominent spokesman for conservative views was William F. Buckley Jr.
Rick Brookhiser is right to insist that the emergence of Fox News as the Right’s loudest voice was a “gigantic mistake, frenzied and stupefying.” It has left the Right angrier and less intelligent — and it has made the Right more like the Left in its instinctive reliance on the enemies-list model of politics. You’ve seen how this works by now, I’m sure. The Parkland students get some predictably good press for this gun-control rally, and Fox News jackasses like David Clarke see the shadowy hand of George Soros. The special counsel hands down another passel of criminal indictments against Trump’s campaign executives, and the real story is all about . . . Hillary Clinton. The enemies list is long: “elites,” Washington insiders, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Bill Kristol, the Deep State, Barack Obama, out there, somewhere, scheming . . .
Conservative critics of Trump receive a constant complaint: “You don’t know who your friends are or, even worse, who the enemy is.” Warming to the “moral equivalent of war” — in this case, the Cold War — they insist that we must smile and nod and happily swallow whatever unsalted s**t sandwich is being served up today because to do anything else is to give aid and comfort to the “cultural Marxists,” one of the most ridiculous bits of voguish new terminology on the right. For them, it’s always the end of the country, the republic hanging by a thread. It’s a fundamentally unserious view of the world that serves mainly to provide its adherents with a form of emotional catharsis that is not at its root about politics at all. They get a frisson of virility when they hear the president — the president of the United States of America — describe his political rivals as “treasonous.” The idea that opposition to the Big Boss is opposition to the nation itself — that to criticize the Big Boss is treason — is a very ancient superstition, and a very stupid one.
But these are stupid times, especially for Republicans, who in their pursuit of fleeting political advantage must pretend to be something other than what they are and pretend that Trump is something other than what he is. The easiest way to get through that is to do what the Left has been doing since the 1950s — convince yourself that the alternative is Hitler. (And, hey, if you read Dinesh D’Souza, you know that George Soros was a Nazi, right? And Soros is behind . . . everything.) And that works, if you don’t think too hard about it, which doesn’t seem to be an obviously pressing problem for Sean Hannity and his ilk. But as Republicans work their way down their enemies list, they ought to stop, if only for a moment, to ask what it is they are working their way towards. This year at the annual CPAC conference, the president and the vice president shared billing with Marion Maréchal-Le Pen of the French fascist political dynasty. Funny that some of her admirers on the American right such as the gentlemen at Breitbart are fond of denouncing their critics as “Vichy” conservatives. If you’re looking for the road to Vichy, ask the Le Pens — they know the way, if that’s the way you want to go.