Politics & Policy

Wait Just One American Moment

(Larry Downing/Reuters)
A new organization’s complaints about conservatism seem somewhat disingenuous — and self-serving.

Conservatives have long railed against the D.C. Swamp. They are largely right to do so: Being the home of the federal government, Washington does not merely play host to the ugliness and corruption of national politics, but now also supports an entire economy of nonprofits, lobbyists, contractors, media outlets, and other entities whose dealings and doings naturally invite suspicion. Such suspicion grows as the D.C. area itself grows in wealth, and in power over the lives of other Americans, transforming into an interest in favor of its own expansion.

But if you believe the people behind the new organization American Moment, the main problem with the Swamp is simply that the wrong people have been in charge. In case you were wondering, they think they are the right people. “Across time, every society has had an elite — the select group of people whose actions, words, and decisions decisively impact the common good,” Saurabh Sharma, Nick Solheim, and Jake Mercier, the group’s co-founders, write in The American Conservative. The implication being: Why not us? They claim to have been for years “frustrated by the lack of organizations in the conservative movement” discussing the ideas and cultivating the talent they think we need, and hope “to not only identify and educate, but also to credential the young, civically-minded people who will meet the significant challenges of this American Moment.” A look at this nascent group’s public statements, however, reveals not only an incoherent logic behind its animating concerns, but also a broader, worrying aspiration simply to become one of D.C.’s defective institutions.

It’s worth starting by taking American Moment at its word. The organization appears to be one of several emerging groups and players (and would-be players) on the right who condemn what has variously been called the “dead consensus” or “Conservatism Inc.” You could include in these ranks people such as Oren Cass (and his organization, American Compass), Sohrab Ahmari, and Saagar Enjeti (who, unsurprisingly, is on American Moment’s board of advisers). Here is American Moment’s spin on this increasingly familiar claim:

The right is overseen by tired nostalgics, corporate shills, and bow-tie clad “intellectuals” who fiddle while our cities burn. This “conservative” elite class is clamoring to restore its agenda, which proved time and time again to be an electoral disaster and a civilizational dead-end.

In this telling, those invested in this status quo both sufficiently angered primary and general electorates to make them willing to vote for Donald Trump in defiance, but then these same status-quo beneficiaries undermined Trump as president. These “underminer” conservatives — was “wrecker” taken? — when working with or in the Trump administration either directly attempted to prevent him from making good on the agenda he was ostensibly elected on, or indirectly attempted to direct his agenda back to their allegedly failed consensus. As a promotional video for the organization states, “The administration was taken over by out-of-touch and malicious underminers of the president and his voters.”

This is a self-serving narrative that simplifies or elides much of what actually happened from 2015 onward. Trump’s 2016 election remains a monumental event and is certainly worth interpreting as a signal of discontent. But it was multifaceted, depending not only on Trump’s opponent — a corrupt, cloying figure conservatives had rightly loathed for an entire generation — but also to some extent on Republican victories nationwide over the preceding years. During that time, Republicans took control of the House, Senate, a majority of state governorships, and nearly enough state legislatures to have passed constitutional amendments. For all the complaints about a lack of winning — understandably driven by resentment over what the presidency and the Supreme Court, then the two institutions conservatives did not control, could still do despite conservative influence elsewhere — it’s worth remembering all of this, and not pretending that history began on November 8, 2016.

It’s also worth remembering what actually happened during Trump’s presidency. Instead, American Moment elevates it into a world-historical accomplishment but deprecates its actual achievements. There are complaints to make about Paul Ryan’s tenure as House speaker, but was he undermining the president when he spearheaded the tax cut that became Trump’s primary legislative accomplishment? Was Mitch McConnell undermining Trump when they worked together to fill the federal judiciary with constitutionally minded jurists? These are aspects of Trump’s presidency lost in the group’s simplistic framing.

An expected response might go something like: Ah, but those weren’t the underminers. The underminers were people such as H. R. McMaster, Nikki Haley, Jared Kushner (Trump’s son-in-law!), and others whose views on American foreign policy and border security subverted the Trump administration. But this leaves out the God Emperor in the room: Trump himself. Trump, in this reckoning, is simultaneously somehow a titanic force, yet easily undercut by an entrenched establishment he installed. For this to make sense, you either have to believe that an incompetent elite that has screwed up everything it touches is also so cunning and devious that it can defy someone of Trump’s import (apparently American Moment’s view) . . . or you can accept that Trump undermined himself and betrayed his voters by his presidential conduct. No attempt to learn what can be learned from the Trump years will be successful if it refuses to look at Trump’s own failures by his own supposed standards. They include, for one, losing an election: However many votes he received — a fact American Moment highlights — more people voted against him in 2020.

His failures also include undermining his own agenda at key instances. Consider Trump’s treatment of Jeff Sessions, who believed in much of what Trump did well before the former president descended that escalator in 2015. After securing a blurb from Sessions, American Moment claimed that he “is a hero of ours” who will “continue to fight for the priorities he’s championed his entire career!” Sessions was the first member of the Senate to endorse Trump for president. His reward was to become attorney general . . . and then, when he refused to do what Trump wanted, to be removed from the administration, and spurned by Trump when attempting an ultimately failed second run for Senate in Alabama. If there is to be a new status quo, it will have to sort out Trump’s vices from his virtues; any attempt at “realignment” that ignores the basic lesson of learning from mistakes — and you don’t have to be a rabid Never Trumper (which I am not) to believe there were some — will have difficulty succeeding.

The principals of American Moment either don’t realize this, or ignore it in the hope that they can somehow avoid these difficult problems. All the better to smooth the pathway to their becoming another part of the Beltway constellation they claim to loathe. It doesn’t require much inference or speculation to accuse them of this. You just have to look at the fact that the organization enjoyed the most Swampy of things, a launch party. One attendee considered it “appropriately swanky” for its goal of “reshaping the political class to reflect populist priorities.” If you’ve ever heard — either in using it or being accused of it — the accusation that conservatives sell out so they can attend Georgetown cocktail parties, you might be interested to learn that cocktails were available at this party. (“‘They’re easy to slam,’ remarked one attendee. Sharma urged the crowd to eat and drink their fill with the promise of an after party for the especially ambitious.”) You might also be interested to learn that noted serious policy thinker Marjorie Taylor Greene dropped in on the proceedings.

You can also look at the preponderance of airy buzzwords in American Moment’s promotional material. There’s the earnest and approving use of the word “operators.” There’s this description of Trump’s victory in an announcement video: “In 2016, millions of Americans voted to break the comfortable consensus of our ruling class in favor of a new paradigm.” And there’s the organization’s description of itself as

a product with no parallel. Part streaming service, part intellectual canon, it’s a dynamic collection of books, essays, podcasts, YouTube videos, short pieces, features, and more on what we believe.

In this, the organization’s primary innovation on the standard Beltway-organization model of fellowships, events, parties, happy hours, networking, podcasts — which, to be clear, it plans to do plenty of as well — is to sound more like Prestige Worldwide than a serious operation. The comically inchoate business brainchild of the idiot titular characters in 2008’s Step Brothers ends up succeeding in the film’s bizarro world of comedy logic, but in the real world, it’s hard to make much of “management, financial portfolios, insurance, computers, black leather gloves, research and development.” So, one is inclined to think, with American Moment.

Beneath the defective reasoning and the vapid self-promoting, however, it remains possible to discern a through-line to American Moment: to become the clearinghouse of D.C.’s new conservative elite. Its complaints about what it perceives as the successful failures of the old one — unable to arrest America’s decline, yet still powerful enough to thwart Trump — amount to a kind of projection, or wish-fulfillment, in this light. For its founders do not disdain the idea of a Swampy elite, nor do they reject the predicates of the administrative state on which such an elite depends. Their main resentment seems to be that they are not the ones on top. The organization brims with a presumption that its founders not only deserve to be, but, through sheer force of will, can make this so. This also goes for its claim to be speaking on behalf of “the voters,” whom they treat not as individuals with particular concerns but as an abstract mass on whose behalf only American Moment, conveniently, can speak.

In this group’s warped understanding of politics, the conservative movement becomes a kind of machinery that churns out “bow-tie clad intellectuals” (as I’m sure I’ll inevitably be described for writing this, despite preferring running shorts) — as though the key to securing influence were some formula that could be discerned and copied. Such a mindset accords well with the mechanical gears in the group’s logo, and also with the dehumanizing logic of administrative bureaucracy. How well does it fit, though, with the restoration of representative government? That American Moment seeks “to spearhead the endeavor to find and connect the young people who will make up a new elite” assumes that such people can be, in essence, manufactured on a large scale (and then, presumably, made to owe fealty to American Moment). Have the principals of American Moment met anyone in the conservative movement? Sure, many benefit along the way from the variety of institutions and people it contains. But its constituent parts all took idiosyncratic paths to their positions. There is no button to press, no magic spell to cast, no genie’s lamp to rub. There is only the messy work of politics and organizing.

That American Moment has attempted to establish itself as the one to do this credentialing bespeaks yet more wish fulfillment. There is space for organizations that educate and connect young conservatives and prepare them for government work; Yuval Levin has proposed something along those lines here. But this doesn’t automatically entitle American Moment to lord over conservatism as new Beltway kingmakers.

There is also space within the debate over conservatism’s future for the ideas American Moment claims to advance. Some of them don’t seem very objectionable. Or, frankly, that original. A great deal of them, in fact, had personal and institutional champions well before this new organization emerged. But American Moment appears to have no interest in attacking at their roots the problems that have made the Swamp what conservatives rightly complain about today. It would just prefer to host the cocktail parties.

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