I’m increasingly convinced that The American Conservative should consider a name change. A few weeks ago, they published a historically illiterate article by Hunter Derensis in praise of John C. Calhoun, the intellectual progenitor of the Confederacy. After I corrected the many errors of that particular piece, they decided that Calhoun’s reputation is, like Little Round Top, a hill worth dying on. They published a riposte to my essay in which the authors argue that Calhoun offered only “a moderate defense of slavery that was thoroughly mainstream for his day” and that he “should be understood as a source of moderation amid seas of extremism.” Of course, if this were even remotely true, Calhoun’s reputation as the father of the “positive good” theory of slavery would be quite difficult to explain. The historically informed reader will be aware that the moderate approach to the slavery question in the early 19th century was still that of the Virginian Founding Fathers: Slavery, as Jefferson wrote, was viewed as a “hideous blot” that should be put on the path to peaceful extinction. Calhoun’s words certainly don’t locate him in this Jeffersonian tradition:
I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good–a positive good.
Calhoun held “that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.” His vision of a “civilized” society founded on slave labor has, however, had its admirers over the past couple of centuries, chiefly among fascists:
Since the Civil War, in which the Southern States were conquered, against all historical logic and sound sense, the American people have been in a condition of political and popular decay. . . . The beginnings of a great new social order based on the principle of slavery and inequality were destroyed by that war, and with them also the embryo of a future truly great America.
These are the words of Adolf Hitler, who appears to have shared in the enthusiasm for Calhoun and his thought that some on the American “Right” are now attempting to stoke.
I note all of this because just this week, Nick Hankoff graced the homepage of The American Conservative with a piece entitled “Vote For The Good Dad This November,” the subheading of which reads “a great leader functions as a father to the nation, and it’s clear between Trump and Biden who is better suited for the job.” Now, up until Donald Trump descended the escalator in 2015, one surefire way of forcing American conservatives to flip the safety on their rifles was to tell them that “a great leader functions as a father to the nation.” Few sentiments could possibly be more fascistic or less American than this one. The analogy between fatherhood and the presidency implies a whole host of analogous rights and responsibilities that American conservatives thoroughly reject. Fathers traditionally make the rules of the household (jointly with the mother in our more enlightened times). Presidents do not — they enforce laws that others pass. Fathers treat their children as obedient dependents, which is a diametrically opposite role to the one that Americans have taken up ever since they spilled Papa George’s tea all over Boston Harbor. Our forefathers brought this country into being precisely by behaving like disobedient independents, who do not generally make good children. Good fathers also try to provide a moral example for their children. The idea that presidents should do the same for citizens has historically been one from which conservatives have recoiled in horror. In the famous “A Time For Choosing” speech that catapulted Ronald Reagan into the political stratosphere, for example, the Great Communicator treated this analogy with the scorn it deserves:
Senator Fulbright has said at Stanford University that the Constitution is outmoded. He referred to the President as “our moral teacher and our leader,” and he says he is “hobbled in his task by the restrictions of power imposed on him by this antiquated document.” He must “be freed,” so that he “can do for us” what he knows “is best.” And Senator Clark of Pennsylvania, another articulate spokesman, defines liberalism as “meeting the material needs of the masses through the full power of centralized government.” Well, I, for one, resent it when a representative of the people refers to you and me, the free men and women of this country, as “the masses.” This is a term we haven’t applied to ourselves in America.
This speech, it should be remembered, essentially launched the conservative takeover of the Republican Party. And yet, here we have a piece in a publication called The American Conservative that would have the Gipper spinning in his grave like a beyblade:
When millions of Americans witnessed President Donald Trump remove his mask upon returning to the White House from a brief hospital stay for Covid-19, that was the defining moment for the 2020 election. Along with his subsequent, encouraging remarks, the moment also distinguished Trump as the fatherly leader of the nation.
It gets worse: “If Biden were to govern as he campaigns, he would turn into the nation’s absent father. . . . Wouldn’t it be easier and feel safer to just not have a fatherly leader who reminded you of your lost potential?”
This kind of language does not belong on the website of a publication called The American Conservative. Many brilliant men and women have spent entire lives and careers working to define what it means to be an “American conservative.” One of them founded National Review. If only out of respect for the work and achievements of these real American conservatives, the proprietors of this magazine should rename their publication and be done with it. They’d be improving upon the clarity of political language in English.