They’re all dead now. All the unofficial fathers of modern conservatism: William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan. All of the self-anointed torch bearers for Edmund Burke are dead, and you might be tempted to think that these men (always men) would be aghast at what the Republican party has become under Donald Trump. Trump is, after all, a graceless, ignorant sack of shit. Whereas the forebears of his party were men of principle. Good men. Strong men. The kind of men you could have a whiskey and civilized argument with! These were the mythical good conservatives.
And being a “good” conservative is a very marketable thing to be right now. It’s done wonders for Senators like John McCain and Jeff Flake, both of whom have earned lavish praise for offering the occasional STERN REBUKE to Trump and doing little more. And it’s made stars out of columnists such as Bret Stephens, who was hired off his #NeverTrump cred and who has since spent his tenure at the New York Times taunting college students and defending Woody Allen.
Because we live in a two-party system, there is an eternal need for legacy media outlets like the Times and CNN to be “balanced,” to give conservatism a platform to rebut all those dirty, screeching liberals. It’s as if the Times strives to recreate every hallway conversation on The West Wing by dishing out a healthy salary to any conservative writer who imitates a William F. Buckley fart from 1971 like it's a bird call. It’s a nice thought, this balance. And lord knows that liberals (like me) have a habit of shouting down those that they don’t particularly agree with.
But here’s why I do that from time to time: it’s because conservatism is a big fucking lie.
This take has already been issued, but Trump is hardly an anomaly among Republicans. He is not some hideous byproduct of conservatism gone astray. There are shades of Trump in every Republican president of my lifetime. In Reagan, there is Trump's vacuous celebrity. In George H.W. Bush, there is a touch of Trump’s signature horniness. In George W. Bush, there are Trump’s malapropisms, his disdain for intellectuals, and a rich Northern boy’s need to look and sound tough. In all three men, there is Trump’s steadfast belief that the USA is exceptional, a literal gift from God and a shining beacon to the world. And my lifetime doesn't even cover Nixon, who could claim Trump as his spiritual love child.
Trump is a blunter instrument of conservatism than those men, but he’s a conservative all the same. In fact, he’s such a useful instrument of the cause that legislators under him will forgive virtually ANY sin (and there are many!). Trump is a proven liar, but on a grander scale he’s the embodiment of a lie that conservatives have been peddling for decades.
That is because the entire philosophical foundation of conservatism is a template for exploitation. William F. Buckley was a rich asswipe with an affected accent who never had to worry about money a day in his life, and yet he remains a hero of the conservative movement for founding National Review and establishing the credo that the magazine, and the conservative movement as a whole, “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” It is the stupidest credo ever devised, but it makes perfect sense coming from a man whose life stood to benefit in every way from the preservation of the status quo. And boy, did Buckley benefit. He ran a magazine. He hosted a TV show. He went to fabulous parties. He died with an estate valued in the tens of millions of dollars (FUN FACT: he specifically omitted his illegitimate grandchild by name from that estate, saying in his will that the boy was “predeceased” to him).
There is no universally agreed-upon set of principles for modern conservativism, but you can make a rough list of them from both Buckley’s NR mission statement and from the ten principles of conservatism laid out by author Russell Kirk, whom Buckley revered. Now, like most conservative writings, these principles are written in the kind of highfalutin dipshit-ese designed specifically to impress any self-declared “enfant terrible” in your school’s debate club. It’s all insufferably pompous. But if you plow through all of Kirk’s bone dry copy, you will see the blueprint for the con laid out. There must be a moral order, although whose morals should be adhered to isn’t quite clear. You cannot create a Utopian society, so there’s no point in trying. Change is bad and dangerous. Inequality is not only inevitable but necessary. Men should only count on their fellow man for help, and not on any kind of state-created support system. And “the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human Passions,” which makes it clear that Kirk doesn’t like too much of the sexy business going on.
Finally, there’s a tenth principle:
Tenth, the thinking conservative understands-that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any.
“He doubts whether there is any.” Think about the depth of cynicism and ignorance required for you to believe such a thing. It’s not hard to think about that statement in tandem with every Republican lawmaker throwing their hands up impotently in the wake of a school shooting. I know Trump is currently president, but look around you. There is so much longer to go, but social progress is not an illusion, especially if you compare the world now to how it was centuries ago. It seems fairly obvious here that Kirk doesn’t see much room for social improvement because he’s a white dude whose life could not be improved upon.
The only way you can doubt that social progress can ever be made is if, quietly, you do not believe that the progress that has been made—particularly for women, gays, and people of color—is an “improvement” at all. You’ll notice a lot of important things missing from those ten principles. Kirk never addresses racism, or sexism, or environmental issues. There is only the timelessness of conservativism to act as a bulwark against hysterical liberals who, I dunno, might want a few laws against police brutality put on the books. The concerns of the downtrodden are not only ignored, they aren’t even heard.
Buckley’s own manifesto for the National Review is similarly lacking in any acknowledgement of life outside the bubble of a well-off man. In fact, the bulk of it rails against “social engineers,” “intellectual cliques” (rich coming from THAT guy), “labor unions… with doctrinaire socialist objectives,” “satanic utopianism,” “world government,” and any other potential external challenge to the institutions that benefited him so handsomely. Buckley also rejects the idea of bipartisanship outright. He writes, “The most alarming single danger to the American political system lies in unreasoned slogans as ‘national unity,’ ‘middle-of-the-road,’ ‘progressivism,’ and ‘bipartisanship.’” Now read that and tell me you that isn’t where Mitch McConnell got his obstructionist, “go fuck yourself” style of leadership from, and tell me why Democrats should ever give Republicans the benefit of the doubt.
It’s all there. All the bad of the Republican Party today is the clear fruit of these principles: the blithe disinterest in progress, the complete lack of recognition of injustice, the lionization of intractability, the hatred of working government, the hilarious lack of creativity, and the Pence-ian lust to control everyone’s “passions”. There are blind spots within these principles that you could drive a truck through. They’re not unlike the same blind spots to the oppressed that the Founding Fathers had when they drafted the Constitution, so no wonder conservatives are so eager to adhere to that document literally.
This is the kind of faulty philosophy that resulted in Buckley requiring a luxurious ten years to walk back his notorious pro-segregation editorial "Why The South Must Prevail", and why he claimed to support equal rights for women but not the actual machinery needed to achieve them. It is how Grover Norquist and his other think tank buddies came to believe that government is the most vulnerable spot for corruption in society, which simply isn’t true in an America where corporations have been granted both the same rights as actual human beings and unfettered access to the levers of power. It is how conservatives have come to view all men as created equal with NO acknowledgement or care that all men do not come from equal standing.
In fact, if you go by Kirk and Buckley, any attempt—even by popular vote—to help level the playing field is actually immoral, and a quick path leading us to the evergreen bogeyman of a liberal dystopia. This nightmare comes in many forms, but usually takes the shape of either Soviet-style Communism, a giant Manson Family commune, or (gasp!) corrupt black politicians running things. If you ever wanna keep a conservative up all night, just show him a supercut of every Clay Davis scene from The Wire.
I grew up during the downfall of the Soviet Union, so I understand why men from the generation before me are so wary of Communist and socialist ideas, and why they endlessly worship Reagan for helping precipitate its downfall (one author created a set of Reagan-style bedrock principles, and they are as equally blind and dated as the others). I am a greedy capitalist at heart, and I do not like the prospect of a Commie Russia endgame any more than they did. But these guys were so obsessed with how liberalism might go sour that they seem to have never once considered how their own philosophy could do likewise.
Because it has. Today’s Republican Party is nothing more than a gross celebration of inequality. It is loose collective of yahoos and rich assholes and fringe libertarians and pious hypocrites whose only shared trait is their vindictiveness. You can see it in Trump’s fervent undoing of every Obama-era policy. And all the “good” conservatives out there—be they corporate raiders like Mitt Romney, or Bush-era warmongers like David Frum, or even pleasantly niche conservative thinkers like Daniel Larison—who think Buckley would be appalled by Trump are wrong. The old fucker’s ghost would be right there with Trump to stomp on the brake pedal of American progress. His own unreadable magazine handed its spine to Trump long ago, and I see no reason why Buckley himself would have been any different. This may not be [Rubio voice] quite how he envisioned it, but it's still very much the byproduct of conservative purity.
And so it’s long past time to stop giving credence to conservatism as a whole, to treat it as the failed intellectual exercise it has proven to be. Look where it’s gotten us—endless war, mass incarceration, mass shootings, mass opioid death, mass inequality, for-profit schools and jails, virtually legalized white collar fraud, open racism, suppressed voting rights—and tell me it’s worth anything. Tell me this wasn't the PLAN all along, so that the comfortable can remain comfortable. I say this as someone who has seen liberalism fail in all sorts of predictable, hilarious ways. The Democrats are a perpetual mess. Occupy Wall Street fell apart thanks to its complete lack of leadership. Opening a small business is certain cities requires enough paperwork to make you kill yourself. Liberalism isn’t without its faults. But the ideal of a liberal democratic America that features things like, oh, I dunno, free education and free health care, maybe even free housing and a basic guaranteed income? That is not a pipe dream. That is not impractical. That is not a slippery slope to becoming East Germany.
Quite the contrary, it is conservatism that has led us to the wildly corrupt klepto-state we currently live in, with Republicans serving their corporate masters and centrist Democratic leadership not far behind, and ALWAYS searching in vain for conservative approval. Communist Russia isn't a threat any longer, but a conservative capitalist Russia, which Trump seems hellbent on replicating here, very much is. So it’s time. America is the fastest-moving country in history, and ought to pride itself on that quality. Indulging conservatism and treating it as one equal half of America’s guiding principles is a waste of time. William F. Buckley is dead. And we're not gonna get anywhere until his worldview is finally discredited and left in the ash bin, where it belongs.
Date Posted: Wednesday, March 21st, 2018 , Total Page Views: 1963
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