Lionel Trilling in 1950:
…it is the plain fact that nowadays,there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation…The conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in actons or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.“
There you have a seventy-two-year old manifestation of liberal smugness, ignorance, illusion and isolation. But perhaps this was, indirectly, a call to arms for the conservative movement which was underground and burst out in full view in the mid-fifties and, happily, struggles on today between the extremes of Democratic radicalism and Republican fecklessness.
But it is not entirely inaccurate to suggest that genuine conservatism, as opposed to Trumpism, etc., has once again lost its confidence or sense of direction.
Academia and the mainstream media treat conservatism as a kind of mental disorder. And they are likely to confuse the rabble that burst into the halls of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 with conservatism. I submit that this is a willful libel, and that they know better. I guess that action would fall into Lionel Trillings curious and wrongheaded 1950 diagnosis of a “conservative” action, or an “irritable mental gesture” transformed into mass action.
But, in the realm of ideas, look out there and see who really look like the crazy ones.
To be fair, look left and right. But don’t just observe the “irritable mental gestures” or actions of one side. Read! We’re talking about ideas here.
Sadly, however, there may be, as I think about it, much truth in British philsopher Roger Scruton’s diagnosis of the crisis of conservatism as stated in 1980, thirty years after liberal Lionel Trilling offered his two cents worth on the subject. Scruton wrote, Conservatism may rarely announce itself in maxims, formulae or aims. Its essence is inarticulate, and its expresson, when compelled, skeptical.
Conservative New York Times columnist Roger Douthat wrote recently, the ossified Reaganism that the younger conservatives intend to supplant is locked into the world of 1980.
Yes, there are, indeed, new brands of conservatism afoot in the land. Among the exponants of one such brand I might be at a loss to label might be counted Roger Kimbell, an art, culture and political commentator and editor of the journal, The New Criterion. And in the midst of a long analysis of the current state of conservatism in the current issue, he suggests that the election of Donald Trump, “unlikely though it seemed at the time” and given the alternatives, might have amounted to a battle for the soul of the country and, for some scholars and voters, in the current polarized state of affairs, may well have represented “the only chance for national survival.”
Which is why Kimball, an obviously intelligent and cultivated fellow, has spoken and written well elsewhere of Trump’s four years in the White House — of how he cut down illegal immigratiion, cut down on witch hunts on campus under Title IX provisions and mandates and racialist attacks throughout the federal bureacracy under the rubric of “critical race theory.” He’s written of how the 1776 initiative, begun under Trump, aimed at reviving in schools and colleges and, in the culture, an appreciation of our founding ideals — over against the tendendcy to blame America first in Academia, the media and corporate culture.
But, properly speak, he noted, this was more the “populist spirit” than conservatism, strictly speaking. (I’d also note that there is a strong strain of libertarianism in it.) And there were those elements of The Strongman, of which I, for one, remain deeply skeptical, if not fearful, when it occurs on the right or the left. In history, fascism, right and left, always seemed to coalesce around a single person and become a cult.
But what is that “populist spirit” as it is manifesting itself on American soil?
It is anti-globalist, prizes individiual liberty, limited government, distrust of the regulatory and administratie state and identity politics.
Ultimately, it is a case of the powerful influence of the elite in academia, the media and corporations versus the rest of us.
It is, I’ll admit, very odd to have cultivated, conservative intellectuals and historians on the order of Kimball or Victor Davis Hanson vouching in any way for the crass Barbarian Donald Trump. Kimball has merely suggested that Trump is “a narcisist who never managed to learn the subtleties of narcisism.” I read in that an implied comparison with the likes of Trump’s presidential prececessors Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama, though I could be wrong.
Keep in mind that the flagship publication of the traditional conservative movement, The Naitonal Review, founded by the late William F. Buckley, Jr., declared itself in the harshest terms opposed to a Trump presidency even before Trump won the nomination. And that opposition remains in place today. It has been critically suggested, among other things, in the pages of that journal, that Trump shattered the norms of presidential behavior in ways toxic to the body politic. And he’s still out there, aching to get back into power, while Democrats, drifting out to sea in a barque captained by a vain, borderline senescent stooge of those powerful interests enumerated above, pulls out to sea with him.
But, back to ideas. The late conservative scholar Richard Weaver wrote a book called, Ideas Have Consequences. I think I need to read it. Perhaps we all do.
More on all this later. For in 2022, ideas are going to have many consequences.