The Corner

Politics & Policy

What Might Have Been

President Donald Trump speaks in Washington, D.C., January 23, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS)

One of my biggest complaints at the beginning of the Trump insurgency was how so many conservatives who had long ignored — or heaped scorn on —  reform conservatism because its lack of purity suddenly argued that the economic nationalism at the heart of Trumpism was necessary to win over the working class. Many of the same people who ridiculed talk of Sam’s Club Republicans and other arguments for applying conservative principles in innovative ways to new problems suddenly turned their ire on the very pointy heads who identified the problem Trumpism was supposed to fix. Maybe if more people listened a decade ago, the anxieties Trump exploited wouldn’t have manifested themselves to the point that Tucker Carlson’s tirade resonated with so many.

It occurs to me you can make a similar argument about the old push for “National Greatness conservatism” pushed by none other than Bill Kristol and David Brooks. Here’s David Brooks over two decades ago:

Our culture no longer speaks of a unified and coherent order. The post- modernist view emphasizes fragmentation and disorder. Philosophers talk about contingency and irony and the ever-shifting meanings of words. Since Hemingway, our intellectuals have perceived hypocrisy, not transcendence, when words like “honor” and “glory” are used.

Our official culture disdains the idea that history is a story of progress unfolding. We think it naive. Maybe it was World War I that made the idea unpopular, or the Holocaust, or a thousand other events in our pessimism- inducing century. We no longer look at history as a succession of golden ages. Instead, history is something of a chaos; cultures bubble about in a relativistic stew. Historians do not measure cultures by their contribution to one central world civilization.

And, save in the speeches of politicians who usually have no clue what they are talking about, America is assigned no special role as the vanguard of civilization. Nobody talks of America as a New Jerusalem; that would be ethnocentric. Nor do we engage in grandiose hero-worship; indeed, we are more adept at debunking than idolizing. We are suspicious of hierarchies, of the idea that one art form is higher than another, that one way of living is superior to another. On the contrary, as Denis de Rougemont says, “It is whatever is lower that we take to be more real.”

And a bit further on:

But it is primarily the fault of conservatives that America has lost a sense of national mission and national greatness. After all, this is a conservative era, and one shouldn’t expect the Democrats to come up with the energy that animates a conservative era. But since Ronald Reagan returned to California, conservatism has shrunk.

The fact is, if liberals choke on the “greatness” part of national greatness, conservatives choke on the “national” part. Most conservatives have come to confuse “national” with “federal.” When they hear of a national effort, they think “big government program.” Conservatives have taken two sensible ideas and ballooned them to the point of elephantiasis. The first is anti-statism. They took a truth — that government often causes suffering when it interferes in the free market — and stretched it into a blanket hostility to government. Instead of arguing that government should be limited but energetic, slender but strong, they have often argued that government is itself evil.

In so doing, conservatives have introduced their own version of the liberal sin by allowing the private to eclipse the public . . .

Now I had disagreements with National Greatness conservatism then — and now. But it seems interesting to ponder what America would be like today if more people took the idea seriously in the late 1990s. Would the only version of National Greatness be the often backward-looking and nostalgic version championed today. Or would we have inoculated ourselves to it?

Just something to ponder.


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