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They Were the Republicans
The tension between conservatives and radicals has always been at the Republican Party’s heart, which has just been torn out.
Writing almost a century before National Review described the mission of organized political conservatism as to “stand athwart History, yelling ‘Stop!’,” the Republican journalist James Redpath, a radical abolitionist, chastised his party for doing just that: When confronted with the monstrosity of slavery, he wrote, the most that could be said of that grand new party was, “The Republicans said, Halt.” It was for this reason, Redpath reported, that the abolitionist hero John Brown loathed the Republican Party even as he cooperated with its members out of necessity:
It has been asserted that he was a member of the Republican Party. It is false. He despised the Republican Party . . . . He was too earnest a man, and too devout a Christian, to rest satisfied with the only action against slavery consistent with one’s duties as a citizen, according to the usual Republican interpretation of the Federal Constitution. . . . Where the Republicans said, Halt, John Brown shouted, Forward! to the rescue! The old man distrusted the Republican leaders. He thought that their success in 1860 would be a serious check to the anti-slavery cause. His reason was that the people had confidence in these leaders and would believe that by their action in Congress they would peacefully and speedily abolish slavery. That the people would be deceived; that the Republicans would become as conservative of slavery as the Democrats themselves, he sincerely and prophetically believed.
The 19th-century Republican party was home both to radical abolitionists and to conservative businessmen. Among its founders was Francis Preston Blair, an influential conservative journalist and Democrat who opposed the expansion of slavery and supported Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams on the Free Soil ticket in 1848 before quitting the Democrats entirely — although, as it turns out, only temporarily — over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which undid the Missouri Compromise and renewed the possibility of slavery’s geographic and political expansion beyond the South. Blair was typical of mainstream Republicans in opposing the expansion of slavery but not, at least as an immediate matter, slavery as such. He himself was a Kentucky slaveholder.
Abraham Lincoln, later the Great Emancipator, came into office with the Republican Party’s radical abolitionist wing as his enemy.
Unlike many of those who have appropriated the term in our time, Lincoln was a genuine constitutional conservative. As my colleague Richard Brookhiser writes in Founders’ Son, Lincoln saw in the Northwest Ordinance specific hostility to slavery and read in the Declaration of Independence the moral case against slavery: “If the Negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal,’ and there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” But in the Constitution, Lincoln saw documented and enshrined the practical political compromise with slavery. Brookhiser writes:
The Constitution gave slavery certain guarantees: Lincoln mentioned the protection of the slave trade for twenty years, the obligation to return fugitive slaves, and the three-fifths rule, whereby slaves were counted in the apportionment of the House of Representatives. These had been necessary concessions to get slave states to accept the Constitution, and Lincoln accepted them in that spirit. “[They are] in the constitution; and I do not . . . propose to destroy, or alter, or disregard the constitution. I stand to it, fairly, fully, and firmly.”
In 1860, Lincoln assured a correspondent in Georgia that he had no interest in upending the constitutional compromise over slavery: “The South would be in no more danger in this respect than it was in the days of Washington,” he wrote. It is easy to forget that the Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime measure that freed slaves only as a military exigency and only in those states in rebellion against the Union. If the Civil War had not dragged on long enough for the 13th Amendment to finally escape the House of Representatives, many of those men and women set free by Lincoln’s proclamation might very well have been forced back into manacles.
It is easy to sniff at the compromisers, the half-a-loaf men, the letter-of-the-law men. It is easy to sneer at the conservatives who stand in the way of doing the right thing with their quaint concerns about process and order. But we can turn that around, too: It wasn’t Chief Justice Earl Warren who desegregated the schools: It was President Dwight Eisenhower, who deployed the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to get it done. But Eisenhower thought Brown was a bad decision and came to regard his appointment of Warren as chief justice one of the great blunders of his presidency. That skepticism about Brown was superseded by his conviction that it is the duty of the executive to enforce the law rather than to make it unilaterally, as a dictator.
Should we regard Eisenhower as a moral laggard who failed to grasp the moral urgency of desegregation? Or should we understand him as the responsible and competent executive who saw to it that the orderly operation of government made possible, in the real world, what Brown imagined and, eventually and imperfectly, what justice demanded? A third possibility: Should we regard him, as many right-wing radicals did at the time, as a moral coward who enforced a Supreme Court decision he believed to be mistaken? The first of these is certainly possible: Eisenhower pressed for and signed an important civil-rights bill in 1957, but, like Preston Blair a century before him, had no interest in immediate radical social change. The second option is more attractive but commits us to a species of consequentialism that has troubling implications. The third may be dismissed in the particular — by which I mean to say that the many conservatives who opposed civil-rights action for good-faith reasons were nonetheless wrong in their opposition — but the principle must be confronted as a general constitutional question: We have three branches of government and other checks and balances because any one branch can get it wrong at times and will get it wrong from time to time. When it is doing its job, the Supreme Court checks wayward presidents and Congresses, but the Supreme Court goes wrong from time to time as well — e.g, Dred Scott — and the other branches must challenge it. When should a president or a representative accept a Supreme Court decision he believes to be wrong, and when — and how — should he fight a Supreme Court decision he believes to be wrong? Unless the Court is to be a “nine-headed Caesar,” in Antonin Scalia’s evocative phrase, that question must be answered, if only provisionally and ad hoc. It isn’t an easy question: Many progressives who once embraced the expansive view of the Supreme Court championed by Warren et al. must currently be rethinking that stance. In a similar way, it is easy to imagine that even many of those who believe that Barry Goldwater took the wrong view of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 might concede that his criticism of the public-accommodations doctrine and its lack of a limiting principle was justified.
(William F. Buckley Jr. at first opposed Brown, and he recoiled from the thuggish segregationist George Wallace even as he insisted that local school boards had a legitimate right to decide to impose segregation if they chose. Buckley was horrified by the bombing in Birmingham, Ala., but he also insisted that it was in part the result of “revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court’s manifest contempt for the settled traditions of constitutional practice,” placing the blame partly at Earl Warren’s feet, clever as rhetoric but unconvincing as analysis. Buckley’s racial views — at that time; Buckley’s mind was not preserved in amber in 1955 — were distinctive in that they were subordinate to his anti-majoritarianism and his practically Federalist contempt for rank democracy: Considering the political situation of blacks in the South disenfranchised on the pretext of their being uneducated, he argued that the prudent solution would be the rigorous disenfranchisement of uneducated people of all races both in the South and beyond. Buckley’s famous line about preferring to be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone book rather than by the faculty of Harvard has given some people a mistaken view of his attitudes respecting populism and elitism.)
The distinction between the prudent choice of making a compromise and the blameworthy eventuality of being compromised is a very fine one. It is complicated by the fact that it so often is the case that one party (most often the radicals) may be right as a matter of moral principle while the other party (most often the conservatives) is right as a matter of practical politics — and, until quite recently in our history, there was a world of difference between the attitudes of those who actually hold power and bear responsibility for its use and those who have a public platform but no power. In Lincoln’s time, and especially in the period immediately after his assassination, abolitionist clergy in the North were far more radical than even the most radical Republicans in Congress, demanding mass executions in the South. Lincoln, for his part, bitterly noted that if he had listened to the radicals in the early days of the Civil War or in the lead-up to it, then the war almost certainly would have been lost with the defection of the border states. The result would have been the preservation not of the Union but of slavery — and not merely its preservation but almost certainly its expansion. As a moral question, we might be with John Brown, even while we concede that as a political question Abraham Lincoln had the better case.
To understand that, as conservatives must, is to put yourself into the intolerable position of looking into the face of a man suffering the worst kind of injustice and tyranny and then explaining: “It’s horrible, of course, but it just isn’t practical at the moment to relieve your inhuman suffering. Maybe in four years, after the next election.” Like the debate over slavery, the debate over abortion is predicated on the question of who counts as human. Like the slavers of old, the abortionists of our time insist there is no human question here at all, only a question of property and self-determination in disposing of it. Like the abolitionists of old, the anti-abortion movement has violent partisans who insist that we whose lives are not at stake cannot in good conscience wait patiently as the process of political reform plays out at a majestic, glacial pace, that there is no tolerable compromise with so great an evil as this. Some of them have carried out assassinations, bombings, and other acts of terrorism.
John Brown or Abraham Lincoln? I keep portraits of both in the rooms where I work.
John Brown was hanged for treason by a government born of treason. The United States is a nation founded in revolution — that’s what treason is called when you win — with a long history of resistance, sometimes violent, to duly constituted authority. The danger in the permanently revolutionary American ethic, as I wrote some years ago in the matter of Cliven Bundy, is that every Timothy McVeigh thinks he is Paul Revere. It is not very difficult to trace a reasonably straight American line from John Brown to the Unabomber. If we did not have a national soft spot for radicals with guns, we wouldn’t be naming high schools after Malcolm X.
I hope you will forgive this excess of prologue, offered to put into context my subject here, which is the Republican Party.
I left that party a long time ago but never found another. I’d voted for the Libertarian Party in the 1992 presidential election and for a few lower offices over the years, but for most of my career as a voter, I was a Republican voter. In many elections, I followed the example of Susan B. Anthony, who boasted to Elizabeth Cady Stanton that she had “positively voted the straight Republican ticket.” (She was arrested for that, and ultimately convicted for illegal voting.) As long as I have had political ideas, I have never been anything but a conservative. I have at times leaned more pronouncedly into classical liberalism and at other times more into the businessmen’s conservatism that largely dominated the Republican Party for most of its post–Civil War history. I sympathize with the radicalism of Albert Jay Nock but have come to believe that the most radical thing you can be in our time is an Eisenhower Republican.
And Dwight Eisenhower represents the one thing the modern Republican Party hates most of all: the Establishment. The modern GOP hates the Establishment so intensely that the party establishment works overtime to establish its anti-establishment credentials. Eisenhower was a general, true, but he wasn’t a swaggering oaf such as George Patton or a sneering kook such as Curtis LeMay — he was, first and foremost, a bureaucrat, and an excellent one. He had beliefs but little or no ideology. To the great irritation of the founders of this magazine, he accepted the New Deal as settled policy, and at that time he might as easily have run for office as a Democrat. On top of all that, he had been — impossible to imagine for a modern Republican — the president of an Ivy League university. That last one alone would brand him an untrustworthy Establishment man, a Deep State man, in today’s Republican Party, which has only one tedious story to tell, over and over: “We the People!” vs. the (evil, elitist) Establishment.
I have met the people, I know them well. And if this country has any future, it is with the Establishment. The People are insane. Meet the People:
With apologies to Bill Buckley, our choice isn’t between the Harvard faculty on the one hand and Mr. Aaberg of Beacon Hill and Mr. Aaarumugam of Roxbury on the other, but between the Harvard class of 1997 or so — and an awful lot of people who will remind you an awful lot of the Harvard class of 1997 or so — and that jackass criminal in the photo above.
“Just so,” you may be thinking. “But what does all this have to do with abolitionists and John Brown and Abraham Lincoln?”
The original tension in the Republican Party, between radicals and conservatives, between ideologue-crusaders and cautious businessmen, defined the party for a remarkably long time, really from the party’s founding through the first year of the 21st century. And for most of that time — from the end of Reconstruction through 9/11 — the businessmen’s conservatism was the party’s predominating current and its default position. There were eruptions — Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich — but those were largely reabsorbed by the party as a whole and subsumed by the Chamber of Commerce–style conservatism that came naturally to a country that experienced the remarkable economic growth and innovation this country enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century. And if there is a faint whiff of heresy in that, it is because when ground down to a predigested pabulum for mass consumption, that philosophy amounts to a secular version of the “prosperity gospel,” with a thousand pinstriped Joel Osteen impersonators telling you that capitalism wants nothing more than for you to be living your best life now. Even in a society enjoying the kind of prosperity the United States did in the second half of the 20th century, that vision must be finally unsatisfying.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, upended that radical-conservative dynamic in the Republican Party, but that binary system already had been disintegrating. For one thing, the vital centers of American business life were no longer Midwestern manufacturing concerns and banks but technology companies in California and esoteric financial operations in New York City, and the commanding heights of American business were — as they are still — occupied by Democrat-affiliated progressives. With the nearly singular exception of Charles Koch, who clearly would prefer to wear antiseptic gloves when shaking hands with many of the Republicans he supported for all those years (a habit of which he has lately partly repented), it is difficult to think of an A-list American businessman who is an out-and-open Republican of long standing: The largest U.S. corporations by market capitalization are firms such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet, and Tesla; by revenue, the top of the list comprises Walmart, Amazon, ExxonMobil, Apple, CVS, and Berkshire Hathaway. Which of those firms is led or owned by Republican-friendly, conservative-leaning activists? Jeff Bezos is said to be something of a Reason magazine–style libertarian, and he obviously despises Donald Trump; Elon Musk is an eccentric who chafed under California’s conformist culture and relocated to Texas but would clearly prefer to be on Mars; people associated with ExxonMobil lean heavily Republican in their political donations, although they gave more to the DNC in 2016 than to any candidate or committee. Tim Cook? He attempted to cultivate Trump for obviously self-interested reasons and got burned. Not as badly as Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO who served for a time as Trump’s secretary of state and will never recover his reputation. Peter Thiel was all in for Trump in 2016 but has since cooled. Mark Zuckerberg? Warren Buffet? Even the Walton family has had enough of the GOP, as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette attests: “A thorough search of Federal Election Commission records didn’t turn up any direct Walton support for Trump, either in 2016 or 2020.”
As businessman conservatism was on the wane, the seemingly contradictory character identified by Bill Buckley in 1955 — the “radical conservative” — was waxing. “Radical” describes a posture, and radicalism is a vessel into which almost anything can be poured, including its notional opposite, conservatism. The radical conservatives described by Buckley were “those who have not made their peace with the New Deal,” as he put it in 1955, unlike Eisenhower and his clique. And Buckley’s 1955 assessment will sound entirely familiar to contemporary ears: “Radical conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by the liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.” Radical conservatives were not “conservative” in the sense of cautious and slow-going but conservative in the sense of right-wing. They had a program for radical social change, and it was not merely a revanchist push for a pre–New Deal status quo ante (at which point they would presumably shout, Stop!) but something more like a reversion of the welfare state to its pre-Depression footprint, combined with a revival of Christian piety and demonstrative patriotism — with all of it fortified by the presence and example of a military that would be kept at or near its wartime state of readiness with a national attitude to match. Buckley rejected the label “nationalist,” as befit a restless cosmopolitan who spent part of every year in Switzerland and differed with Ronald Reagan on such nationalism-inflected issues as the Panama Canal, but there was something of the spirit of nationalism in those “radical conservatives” from the beginning.
As I have argued before, Donald Trump is the candidate of the 9/11 Republicans, whose politics is Kulturkampf and whose style is paranoid. (It is not for nothing that the worst and most embarrassing of his sycophants described 2016 as the “Flight 93 election.”) Trump is, of course, a New Yorker, one who tried to make some bizarre hay out of 9/11, boasting — and lying — that with the fall of the World Trade Center one of his buildings had become the tallest in downtown Manhattan, and then lying about helping with the rescue effort, and then lying some more about seeing “thousands” of Muslims cheering the destruction of the Twin Towers. Conspiracy theory has been part of the American political character from the very beginning (see Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, “A Note on Conspiracy”) and it was a kind of national pastime by the middle of the 20th century (see Irving Wallace’s lurid novel The Plot), but 9/11 and the subsequent events unleashed a new and particularly virulent mutant strain of it, from 9/11 Truthers to the cranks convinced Halliburton was secretly running the world from behind the scenes. Donald Trump, an avid conspiracy buff — 9/11, vaccines, Barack Obama’s place of birth, etc. — found himself in a petri dish practically tailored to his cultural DNA. And he found himself there just as the right-wing radicals were abandoning the policy debate, with the radical posture becoming its own raison d’être — “radical conservatives” ceased being part of a political movement and became part of a tribe, one half of a symbiotic dyad whose identity is defined by — and limited to — not being part of the other tribe, hating and despising the other half of the dyad. It did not matter that Trump had been, until five minutes before seeking the Republican nomination, pro-abortion and pro-gun control. It did not matter that he was a Democrat who had donated a six-figure sum to the Clinton Foundation. It certainly did not matter that, as a Republican candidate, he remained vocally in favor of raising taxes on investment — the people who cared intensely about investment taxes had either left the Republican Party already or were thoroughly marginalized within it.
Buckley’s “radical conservatism” was constrained: by a deep and orthodox Christian belief, to begin with, but also by intelligence and cultivation, by an understanding of hierarchy and its social necessity, and by a patriotism that amounted to something more than a treacly Lee Greenwood tune. In Buckley himself, it also was constrained by catholic friendships with people such as Norman Mailer and John Kenneth Galbraith, who did not share his political sensibilities, as well as a revulsion at bigots and kooks. Michael Lind limns the politics of such complications:
The embittered libertarians and far-right “paleoconservatives” who were the subjects of these purges denounced Buckley as an opportunistic social climber who had abandoned his earlier principles to hobnob with Truman Capote, Bill Blass, and David Bowie. My own judgment is that Buckley’s gradual, lifelong move to the center was sincere. Referring to National Review’s subscription base, he complained to me: “Half of our readers seem to live in Arkansas.” He told me confidentially that he had angered his friend President Reagan by arguing that the Reagan budget cut too many benefits for the poor. He supported the decriminalization of marijuana. He made a juvenile joke about tattooing gay men with AIDS to warn their partners, but he also hosted civil debates about gay rights on Firing Line. In 2004 he conceded that “federal intervention” had been necessary to destroy Jim Crow. He opposed the Iraq War. Many on the right believed that the older Buckley, like his friend Barry Goldwater in his old age, had gone soft and betrayed the cause. By the standards of today’s radical right, they had.
Funny phrase: “by the standards of today’s radical right.” Standards? Surely not intellectual standards in the age of Donald Trump’s aphasic stroke-victim public speaking and bottomless imbecility. Moral standards? I have it on good authority that if Donald Trump ever speaks three true sentences in a row the Statue of Liberty will sprout wings and fly off to Mar-a-Lago. Standards of competency? The coronavirus numbers are moving in the wrong direction, and so are the jobs numbers. Patriotism? He is a funny kind of patriot who cheers the sacking of the seat of government by barbarians carrying enemy flags. Republican radicals once stood for resistance to the worst kind of tyranny. Today’s Republican radicals stand for tyranny itself, for junta government, and they march under the banner of the very tyranny the Republican Party originally was constituted to oppose.
Like its financial counterpart, moral bankruptcy happens two ways: gradually, then suddenly. In 2016, I wrote that the likely outcome of a Trump presidency would be the end of the Republican Party as we had known it. And so it ends for the Grand Old Party: From abolition to anarchy, from republicans to rabble, a bloody-minded, homicidal gang in thrall to the very democracy John Adams warned us about. A dog in this condition would be put to sleep. It would be a piece of mercy.
Words about Words
Some words that may be of interest to you in relation to the foregoing. In addition to enjoying the sublime The Good Lord Bird, about which I plan to write a bit more, I recommend to you H. W. Brands’s new study of Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, The Zealot and the Emancipator, along with LeeAnna Keith’s When It Was Grand: The Radical Republican History of the Civil War. Of course, Richard Brookhiser’s Founders’ Son, mentioned above, must be read. And you might enjoy Irving Wallace’s The Plot, if you can find a copy, for a taste of that High Cold War paranoia that has so long outlived the communist enterprise itself.
Home and Away
You can buy my latest book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. It’ll harsh your buzz.
What can Republicans do in the Biden years? What should they do? Will Joe Biden be able to deal with his own radical problem? Some thoughts in the New York Post.
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