Postmodern Conservative

More on Roger Scruton (and Stage-2 Trump Analysis)

So stage 2 of Trump analysis — what we can learn from his success — has morphed from the present to the past tense. Now that his unexpected success is over, and he’s fading away, what did we learn?

None of these analyses is much good. They include such gems as Trump did us the favor of getting the immigration conversation out of the way well before anyone voted, and nobody is going to press it any further once he’s out of the race. And Trump was right to emphasize that America is being suckered left and right, and we need to get tough and arm up, although it’s socialist to replace, as he did, “free trade” with “fair trade.” In general, the thinking goes, Trump’s really a liberal or even a socialist (on, say, health care) and not a conservative at all, and it’s obvious that there’s no real content in his campaign — as opposed to mere style — that might transform the campaigns of the insiders. So it remains the case that the narrative is that Trumpism need not disturb the Republican brand of maxing out on market freedom plus vague but insistent hawkishness in foreign policy. Libertarian Ilya Somin indulgently explains in USA Today that support for Trump must be explained as a display of voter ignorance. 

The most honest critic admits that Trump’s biggest flaw, from a big-donor/establishment/public-intellectual perspective, was to give Republican voters a taste for outsiders. And for now, he, Carson, and Fiorina remain the top three in the polls. So the showdown between Rubio and Cruz that some see coming — in which, it is predicted, Rubio will be just conservative enough to prevail — is definitely speculative future tense. I’m not saying it won’t happen, although it’s just as likely that the final showdown includes Fiorina.

At this point, it’s pretty clear that the genuine outsiders in the Republican race were the authentic insiders, those with executive experience, the governors and former governors. Bush, Kasich, Walker, Christie, and Huckabee have all fared worse than expected and, in a couple of cases, than is reasonable.

I’m sticking with my conviction that there’s a lot more for the likely Republican nominee to learn before he (Rubio) can or deserves to win. Still, Rubio is probably the strongest candidate (maybe by far) the Republicans have. The country is evenly divided in a very confused way. That means that victory will come to the better candidate. When is the last time that the Republicans had a candidate younger, more eloquent, and much more of a babe magnet (in the non-gender-specific sense) than the Democrats? Rubio’s the closest thing the Republicans have to the fabulous candidate Obama. Women might complain that it would be better still to have a woman, which is why we just have to see how Fiorina vets over the next few months.

Well, one more point: I said maybe six months ago that Hillary Clinton has only a 50–50 chance of being nominated. I want to emphasize today that her chances have not gotten worse. Sanders has only a very remote chance. I agree with those who wonder whether Biden is just too obviously Zelig-like to sustain the scrutiny of an extended campaign. Or: When it comes to Joe, is there really any there there?

Turning to another taste of my comments coming up at Rhodes on Roger Scruton, which are meant to provocative. And I’m not saying that I really agree with what Scruton says.

So the conservative, Scruton says, is a functional anthropologist, as opposed to a natural scientist or evolutionary psychologist. That natural scientist is not concerned with sustaining nature itself, but he too becomes an anthropologist when considering the effect of the person on nature. And a conservative has an anthropocentric or functional concern with the interdependence of natural and social ecology.  

When thinking about liberals, the conservative anthropologist “smiles indulgently.” The liberal thinks he is liberated enough to “question every given fact of community,” but if he really did so, he would be left entirely naked and disinherited. He would have ended up exterminating the world in which the illusion of autonomy is credible. The truth is that the lifeworld in which we distinguish between good and evil and are capable of sharing joyfully in living in the truth is constituted by “social artifacts,” including “morality” and “self.” The truth is that people are “born into a web of attachments,” which could never all or even mostly be validated by personal consent or personal intention.  

I didn’t chose or construct the world in which I can experience myself as a confident and responsible “I,” and so my “very existence” as a particular person is or ought to be “burdened with a debt of love and gratitude.” We are born and die debtors, and the burden of being gifted is readily distinguished from what some libertarians call the tyranny of the gift. And we can escape only in a limited way from “the absolute claim of the locally given,” and a full escape would be from everything that makes personal and relational freedom more than nothing left to lose.

Well, the conservative doesn’t always smile indulgently at liberal pretensions concerning the autonomous liberation of the “I.” Scruton rails against the opposite of xenophobia, or “oikophobia” — “the repudiation of inheritance and home” — that disfigures English (and, it becomes ever easier to add, American) public intellectuals. The result is that “the loyalty people need in their daily lives, and which they affirm in their unconsidered and spontaneous social actions, is now habitually ridiculed or even demonized by the dominant media and educational system.” 

The habits that govern ordinary life, which are mostly unconsidered and unchosen, yet absolutely indispensable to be at home in a particular place in the world, are allegedly outed as the behavior of thoughtless suckers and oppressors. These habits, in persons, make up for what might be regarded as an instinctual deficiency in members of our species, and their spontaneous effectiveness can’t really be replaced by calculated deliberation about everything or even most things. The wholesale repudiation of loyalty disarms what freedom we really do have, which can’t be sustained detached from its relational context.

“Educated derision,” the irony is, may be capable of extinguishing “the freedom to criticize” that makes it possible. No freedom has a future without people prepared by settled relational inclination to live and die for it. The freedom to criticize properly understood is the source of social improvement or adaptation to changing circumstances and technologies. It ministers unto social sustainability, and so most conservative freedom to criticize is directed against the fecklessness and ingratitude of liberals short on both prudence and basic self-knowledge. 

It’s important to emphasize that conservative criticism is Socratic: Because liberals don’t know who they are, they don’t know what they’re supposed to do. Well, in one way it may or may not be Socratic: Those who believe that the highest form of self-knowledge is the liberated self-consciousness of the philosopher who is not essentially a part of a city and experiences the serenity of transerotic solitude are also self-deceptive liberals, even if unusually prudent ones, too. American Straussian neoconservatives are conservative liberals, not, as those with genuine self-knowledge are, liberal conservatives.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...


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