The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Politics of Cooties

President Trump declares a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border while speaking about border security at the White House, February 15, 2019. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

I very much enjoyed David French’s observations about what conservatism has conserved.

One of the peculiarities of Trump-era (and Trump-style) conservatism is that it is fundamentally ahistorical — and ahistorical conservatism is an oxymoron.

It’s as though nobody remembers where the country was in, say, the 1970s, or the political path it was on in the 1930s and 1940s, and conservatism’s role in changing that. We joke around here about the desire to “immanentize the eschaton,” but the temptation is eternal. Conservatives rightly recoiled from Barack Obama’s declaration of his intent to “fundamentally change” the country, but the pseudo-revolutionary style and rhetoric of conservatism in 2019 denotes nothing less than that same desire. “But we want to fundamentally change America in good ways!” they’ll say. Obama and his cronies thought the same thing.

One of Ronald Reagan’s unappreciated gifts to American politics was a Democratic party so chastened and abashed that it nominated Bill Clinton as its presidential candidate in 1992. Clinton was in many ways as tie-dyed a child of the 1960s counterculture as any member of his generation, but he led an effort (successful for a time, but impermanent) to deradicalize the Democratic party. He complained bitterly that he was in effect an Eisenhower Republican dominated by the bond market, but he acknowledged reality.

Both parties are more radical today than they were in 1996: The Republicans are more culturally and rhetorically radical, while the Democrats have backslid into their 20th century errors, socialism prominent among them.

The cynic in me thinks that the worst thing that could happen to the country in 2020 would be a presidential election that is close. If a Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren were to get within spitting distance of the White House, then the Democrats’ radicalism would be affirmed, at least for a time. At the same time, if the Democrats do win in 2020, then a humiliating defeat might be the best thing for the Republican party, which is in desperate need of reconnecting to reality, including certain historical realities. No, I am not eager to see the Supreme Court and other institutions disfigured by what would certainly be a clown show — the “binary election” rhetoric is overdone and silly, but to my mind the most persuasive argument for Donald Trump in 2016 was Compared to what? — but neither am I eager to see the GOP entirely transformed into a nationalist farmer-labor party whose organizing principles are grudges and social insecurity.

We are about as far removed in history from the 1990s today as the 1990s were from the 1960s (if the math looks a little funny to you there, it’s because the 1960s, which began in 1963, ended in 1972), and we have been severed from the old political continuum by the events of September 11, 2001, and the developments subsequent to them. For those of us who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, the “new normal” of 2019 seems abnormal indeed, and disquieting. That is part of the divide within conservatism, too: A great many nationalists were born on 9/11 and during the 2008–09 financial crisis.

Our confrontation with Islamic radicalism is one of the reasons why so many Trump-style conservatives find so much resonance with the European populist movements focused on Muslim immigrants, even though the United States has a tiny Muslim population. (Muslims account for about 1 percent of the U.S. population, compared to 6 percent in Germany, 8 percent in Sweden, and 9 percent in France.) Many of those who came to feel at home on the right after 9/11 have very little background or interest in Milton Friedman’s economics, Robert Bork’s legal thinking, or Ludwig von Mises’s understanding of totalitarianism. The libertarian tendency has always been a minority constituent of the right (an important one, but rarely the dominant one) and the niceties of constitutionalism often have taken a backseat to the aggrandizement of the executive rooted in the perceived need for immediate and sweeping action in the face of this or that crisis. But the balance has been altered, and many of our new friends on the right are simply former moderate Democrats terrified by 9/11 or repulsed by the cultural radicalism of fantastical gender ideology, anti-police riots, and the like. At the same time, the shift away from books and newspapers toward a political culture of social media and memes all but ensured the greater prominence of conspiracy-theory politics, naked tribalism, and other tendencies inhospitable to classical liberalism.

As Jonah Goldberg writes, one of the happy aspects of the partisan divide in the United States is that the socialism and nationalism were long quarantined from each other in competing political parties, even though they produce many of the same policy ideas. (As Jonah asks: What exactly is the difference between a nationalized industry and a socialized one?) But certain aspects of the new political culture (what I sometimes call antidiscourse) have created a politics in which the most bitter and energetic partisans on either side have grown to hate each other even more intensely the more closely they have grown to resemble one another. The social-media partisans of the angry young-ish left are, to me, culturally indistinguishable from their Twitter-based opposite numbers in the so-called alt-right. Theirs is the politics of Year Zero.

Whatever it is, a politics of Year Zero isn’t conservatism, even if it is in some way rightist.

In practice, of course, the big ideas get trampled into mush by the stampeding herds of independent thinkers. The social-justice Left and the apocalyptic Right of “binary” politics both show that you don’t have to know what streitbare Demokratie is to embrace some mutant version of it. (For populists, it’s always 1933, the other side is always the moral equivalent of Adolf Hitler, and hysterical politics — “resistance!” — is the moral equivalent of war.) But the critics to whom David French is responding have a kind of a point, though it is almost the opposite of the one they think they are trying to make: Trump-style “conservativism” is not especially interested in conserving what conservatives have long tried to conserve — a liberal international political and economic order led by the United States abroad and limited government under the rule of law and a slightly vague consensus Protestantism at home — and, to that extent, old-style conservatism and its institutions must seem to them largely irrelevant. They want nationalism, a measure of authoritarianism (in the form of a caesaropapist presidency), and “wins” over their perceived enemies, whose offensiveness is more cultural than political as such.

In practice, this means, among other things, a politics of cooties. The weirdly personal backlash against the Bulwark deputizing a standard-issue lefty to cover the CPAC freak show (potentially a very fine idea, if well-executed) is pure cooties-as-philosophy-analog: How could you lie down with one of Them? Cooties politics involves a lot of tribal taboo-policing, and that is what the “What has conservatism conserved?” canard is really about, and all that dopey “Real America” rhetoric, too: New York City and Washington-based institutions are Them, and Them have cooties, and people affiliated with such institutions must be infected with Them cooties, even if Them are in actual fact church-going Evangelical veterans who live in Tennessee, as David French of Harvard Law (Cooties U.) knows from personal experience.

Forgive me for repeating this story, but it’s a useful one: I have a relative who thinks of himself as a conservative. When I told him eleven years ago that I was coming to work for National Review, which I had been reading since I was a teenager, his response came in the form of this question: “Is that the one with that ol’ boy from New York who talks like a queer?” That’s what a pretty-well-representative septuagenarian Republican voter knew about William F. Buckley Jr. in 2008. That I would voluntarily move to New York City was, to him, incomprehensible: That place is nothing but cooties, including talk-like-a-queer cooties.

There are conservatives, and there are conservatives. We’re the former, I think.

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