Magazine | August 15, 2016, Issue

Liberated Warrior

I should confess that it’s become increasingly hard for me to find topics that satisfy the objective of a column named “Happy Warrior.” “Angry Warrior,” perhaps. “Dejected Warrior,” maybe. “What-in-the-Holy-Hell-Do-You-People-Think-You’re-Doing? Warrior,” definitely. Keeping up good cheer? Well, the struggle is real.

And the Republican National Convention did nothing to lift my sagging spirits. Surely I can’t be alone. Mr. Trump’s acceptance speech, with its halting blasts of authoritarian rage aimed at an imaginary dystopia, sucked much of the light, joy, idealism, and intellectualism out of conservatism.

But, as one of the most popular Trumpian radio hosts likes to say, let not your heart be troubled! At least, not completely. So before I wash down this Zoloft with my last swig of vodka, let me point out that it’s an invigorating and freeing experience to be part of the principled counter-revolution. There can be real joy in it.

My working theory is that this newfound freedom among conservatives is what most enrages Republicans who accuse Never Trumpers of treachery. As the president of the Susan B. Anthony List unintentionally revealed last week, the anger directed at Ted Cruz’s “Vote Your Conscience” convention speech wasn’t merely about a lack of partisan unity. “Why is he the only one who gets to be pure?” she wondered aloud.

A good Republican is now someone who stands athwart history, yelling “Fall in line, you traitors. We did!”

She’s wrong, of course. You too can be pure. This can be Year Zero. This is creative destruction. It is punk rock. It is the ultimate do-it-yourself project. The chance to grow a movement from the ground up. Consider it a startup.

Hey, it’s going to be a blast huddling with the entire membership of the New Federalist party in the quiet car of the NYC-bound Acela for our inaugural convention in 2020. (Mollie Hemingway for president, y’all!) Unless, that is, Trump wins and we find ourselves brushing up on our conversational Russian at the Laura Ingraham Center for Quality Thought in gorgeous West Palm Beach, Fla. Either way, it’s a fight worth having.

Happy Warriorism will be unique moving forward. Because, let’s face it, this election cycle has seen our discourse — never what one might call salubrious to begin with — devolve into an ALL-CAPS Twitter tirade festooned with exclamation points.

I have to admit, it was perplexing to watch a self-styled visionary such as Newt Gingrich refer to Cruz’s non-endorsement of Trump — a speech filled with positive conservative idealism and principled constitutionalism — as “chilling” but describe the GOP nominee’s gloomy, regressive rhetoric as “Reaganesque.”

How can this be? After all, Donald Trump doesn’t even pretend to be conservative. There was almost nothing in his speech that was built on notions of limited government or individual freedom. The man mentioned the words “liberty” or “freedom” exactly once in a swirling 75-minute word salad — and only in the course of promising to make free trade less free. “I, and I alone,” a messianic Trump exclaimed, can save America from a regime of job-stealing globalism and rampant criminality that, in reality, not a single person in that auditorium actually lives under.

After listening to him and the parade of glum speakers featured at the convention — there was not a Happy Warrior in the entire lot — I decided to read through some transcripts of Ronald Reagan’s speeches. They are not all as cheery as admirers may romanticize, but most of them are full of rhetoric that champions community, freedom, and merit — making them significantly different from the aggrieved, victimized tone of today’s Republican party.

Yet the truth is that many thousands of Republicans stood and cheered for Trump. Millions more will enthusiastically vote for him. Many in the Republican-entertainment complex — once allies of the cause — helped make this possible by normalizing his autocratic language and corrupting their own stated values to comport with his. It is also true that a great many blue-collar Americans, and other traditional conservative constituencies, agree with Trump’s unsympathetic depiction of American life. They are angry. But one can acknowledge their anxieties without trying to exceed their fury.

The great social critic Robert Nisbet once defined conservatism as the “protection of the social order — family, neighborhood, local community, and region foremost — from the ravishments of the centralized political state.” If you agree even broadly with this definition, you probably understand that conservatism is, more often than not, on the defensive, pushing back against modernism and utopianism and socialism and authoritarianism and a whole bunch of other -isms and stupid ideas. It will rarely get the credit it deserves.

When William F. Buckley Jr. launched this magazine with its statement of defiance, for example, conservatism was in even worse shape than it is today. “We must bring down the thing called liberalism,” Buckley wrote a few years later, “which is powerful but decadent, and salvage a thing called conservatism, which is weak but viable.”

Buckley and Reagan — among others — injected a wit and intellectual dynamism into a fossilized party of genuine liberal-establishment types. Today’s conservative holdouts have a similar task. It is not to adopt Pollyannaish rhetoric or avoid hard criticisms of the corruption of our political system — neither of those men engaged in that sort of self-delusion. To the contrary. Nor does it mean aping the policies and rhetoric that were successful half a century ago. The idea that citizens are helpless without a strongman or the state to lift them is cheerless and depressing. The American ideal of liberty is still a joyous and idealistic one. We can’t give up on it.

– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of The Federalist.

David Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, From the Revolution to Today

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