Magazine March 9, 2020, Issue

Hasbro Conservatism

National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr.

The conservative fusionism forged by people like our beloved founder, William F. Buckley Jr., is arguably the least vital force in American politics today. 

Sure, there are six or twelve of us who are still quite fond of it, but as a coherent program that can marshal big numbers, “movement conservatism” is stock-still. 

It brings me no pleasure to report this, but I also suspect it isn’t really news to you. The old consensus has been terminal since at least 2015. (Or maybe 2008? Or 1990-whatever? Depends on whom you ask.) 

There were the understandable if often embarrassing and desperate measures taken to save the patient (nobody looks good giving mouth-to-mouth to a worldview). Then there was the inquest, and the eulogies, and the respectable period of mourning. But, to agonize the metaphor beyond all decency, we’re now into the matter of settling the estate. Of answering questions such as who gets the stuff—so-and-so policy to the technocrats and the neoliberals, such-and-such dispositions to the libertarians or the traditionalists—and, more vitally, what happens to the kids?

What started as an inchoate mass of essays and op-eds and memes and manifestos on a successor conservatism soon coalesced into books, handsomely bound and impressively blurbed, and then into whole new monthlies and quarterlies with formidable horn-rimmed glasses; symposia and conferences with rakish haircuts; think tanks and centers and programs in tweed and corduroy and seersucker. Every week, it seems, there is a new one. 

It’s heady stuff, if you’re geeked by ideas, the whole “present at the creation” vibe these days on the right. The dangerous heresies, once whispered in the safe harbors of friendships with people who knew you were only asking questions, can now be spoken aloud. Shouted on television, even. There’s fresh, unclaimed rhetorical real estate for youngsters on the make, or at least real estate left derelict by long-obscure thinkers poised for fresh reestimations. And for a generation of heterodox research assistants and legislative aides who fetched coffee while their narrow-minded bosses in the old establishment commanded the loftiest of Marriott conference-room daises, there is the unmistakable taste of victory, and vengeance. 

You can taste it in the press releases. In the podcasts and tweets. And in the mini-glut of ethnographies of the bright young things who are supposed to be its vanguard (“Could My Six Friends Be the Future of the Right? The Answer, Which Is ‘Yes,’ May Surprise You”). 

I’m a Millennial, strictly speaking, and therefore not so old as to be immune to the appeal of getting in on this new thing while the getting is good. Heck, I experimented in college like anyone else—did enough uncut Bush doctrine to kill a small horse. But I’m just not fully sold on any of the several flavors of New Conservatism on offer. 

I know what you’re thinking. “That’s because you are bought and paid for by the swamp, Foster. You’re not fooling anybody.”

Alas. I don’t much benefit monetarily from the old establishment. But I generally favor monetary benefit wherever I am concerned, and would be open to hearing about ways the new establishment could monetarily benefit me. 

No, my skepticism stems from a simple test I’ve come to employ whenever I encounter another breathless mission statement from a visionary who goes by an Internet alias (I crap you not, one of these outfits had a Festschrift for a “theorist” named “Bronze Age Pervert”), or when some impeccably dressed populist throws up a West Coast Straussian gang sign and starts asking every girl in the room if she wants to see his thumos

And the test is this: Could I imagine this person play-acting their basic argument, alone in their bedroom, with muscle-rippled Hasbro action figures from the 1980s? 

All too often, the answers are disturbing.

I first performed this thought experiment when I read “The Flight 93 Election”—in that case it was He-Man and Skeletor—and it has rarely steered me wrong since. 

Look, I don’t want to be dense or Pollyannaish about what’s going on. Or rather, considering how wrong I’ve been about so many different things these last few years, I don’t want to add further density or Pollyannaishness to my already dubious résumé. 

So, for the record, I don’t think the liminal edge of conservative thought is a 1983 version of Reaganism. I do think that the world created by digital ubiquity, liberal cultural predominance, the globalization of capital, Chinese ascendance, and NFL instant replay has brought about unique and uniquely terrifying political problems and that we should be solicitous, even promiscuous, in our search for answers.

And I know that momentous questions are dramatic ones, and that drama is thrilling, even sublime, and so perhaps the whiff of costumed role-playing in some of these conversations is unavoidable.

It’s just that the frisson, the aesthetic accoutrement, the shiver of transgression that accompanies so much of the talk about the Next Big Thing on the right is antithetical to the stodgy reliability, the comforting dullness, the sheer unrelenting ordinariness that is supposed to be conservatism’s principal political virtue.And it is clear to me that we could use a more boring politics right now. It would sure beat the hell out of what is increasingly looking like an electoral choice between down-home Peronists and honest-to-God revolutionary socialists in the middle of the most prosperous age in the history of man. Even for 2020, that seems a bit melodramatic, no?

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Daniel FosterDaniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

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The Week

The Week

It will be something if 2020 ends up being a choice between a crass and vain New York City billionaire with an ugly Twitter habit and Donald Trump.
Athwart

Column Calumny

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