George Will’s latest column is kind of amazing in its own deranged way. He’s obviously appalled at what has become of conservatism, but he’s as deluded about its past as he his about its prospects in the future. He begins with this:
In 1950, the year before William F. Buckley burst into the national conversation, the literary critic Lionel Trilling revealed why the nation was ripe for Buckley’s high-spirited romp through its political and cultural controversies. Liberalism, Trilling declared, was “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in mid-century America because conservatism was expressed merely in “irritable mental gestures.” Buckley would change that by infusing conservatism with brio, bringing elegance to its advocacy and altering the nation’s trajectory while having a grand time.
Today, conservatism is soiled by scowling primitives whose irritable gestures lack mental ingredients. America needs a reminder of conservatism before vulgarians hijacked it, and a hint of how it became susceptible to hijacking.
Will proceeds form there to detail Buckley’s isolationist views, mentioning that he named his first yacht “Sweet Isolation” and attended Charles Lindbergh’s America First rally in Madison Square Garden at the age of fifteen. He doesn’t even hint that this was an objectively pro-Nazi position that was naive at best and downright evil at worst. He doesn’t really go into much detail about Buckley’s opposition to the Civil Rights Movement on the basis of objective white supremacy, only going so far as to note that Buckley once said that the name of the NAACP was acknowledgment that blacks are not as advanced as whites.
As a result of soft-pedaling these aspects of Buckley’s worldview, Will is able to create a distinction between him and the “vulgarians” that existed within conservatism at the time and that have taken over his beloved GOP in the present. Buckley, in Will’s telling, effectively rescued conservatism by giving it intellectual respectability and elegance and a sense of joy in combat.
Will finishes his piece by comparing Buckley favorably with Whittaker Chambers. Chambers was an example of the wrong kind of conservative that is so recognizable in the Trump base:
[Buckley], to his credit, befriended Whittaker Chambers, whose autobiography “Witness” became a canonical text of conservatism. Unfortunately, it injected conservatism with a sour, whiney, complaining, crybaby populism. It is the screechy and dominant tone of the loutish faux conservatism that today is erasing Buckley’s legacy of infectious cheerfulness and unapologetic embrace of high culture.
Chambers wallowed in cloying sentimentality and curdled resentment about “the plain men and women” — “my people, humble people, strong in common sense, in common goodness” — enduring the “musk of snobbism” emanating from the “socially formidable circles” of the “nicest people” produced by “certain collegiate eyries.”
As for Buckley, well he was the right kind of conservative:
Buckley, a Bach aficionado from Yale and ocean mariner from the New York Yacht Club, was unembarrassed about having good taste and without guilt about savoring the good life.
“His true ideal,” Felzenberg writes, “was governance by a new conservative elite in which he played a prominent role.” And for which he would play the harpsichord.
I’m not writing about this to trash Buckley one more time, but to point out that Will has simply not come to grips with a basic, fundamental fact about left/right politics.
If the right is basically the home for business interests and the left is basically the home for workers’ interests, the right will always be very badly outnumbered. Because the right has most of the money, they can mitigate these disadvantages in various ways. They can restrict the franchise. They can control most of the media and thereby dominate the national political conversation. They can outspend their opponents which gets them more ads and helps them compensate for having fewer natural followers and organizers.
But, ultimately, none of that will help them win elections and maintain their power unless they can find a bunch of workers to abandon their natural home. Conservatism is a strategy for accomplishing this. At root, it is nothing else.
The reason that, in 1950, Lionel Trilling was able to argue that liberalism is “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in mid-century America is because FDR/Truman had effectively led the country out of a depression and won a worldwide war. By 1950, even most of the business leaders who had opposed the New Deal in the 1930s had come to terms with it. The weakness for the Democrats was different in kind. They weren’t just a workers’ party and a party for the business establishment. They were also the party of white supremacy and Jim Crow.
What’s interesting about conservatism is that they didn’t tap into the wedge the way you’d expect. Instead of criticizing the Democrats for their backwardness and vulgarity, they sought to steal the segregationists away from the party and keep them for themselves. This is the course that Buckley pursued. Rather than strengthen the GOP in his home turf in the North by pointing out the Dems’ allegiance with the cultural neanderthals in the party’s southern congressional leadership, Buckley chose to make white supremacy respectable among the cocktail set at the Yale Club and the New York Yacht Club.
What happened in the 1970’s was similar in kind. An amalgam of Christian conservatives was brought into allegiance with Buckley’s jet-setters to form the backbone of the Reagan coalition. These new Republicans were the furthest thing from Bach aficionados and most of them had only seen yachts on television. But they served as the bodies that business interests needed to prevail politically and begin to beat back a New Deal that was no longer working as well as it had. Buckley and his allies didn’t give a damn about prayer in school or restricting abortion rights, but they needed an army that would back them on opposing federal regulations, high marginal tax rates, and strong antitrust enforcement.
Conservatism was always about raising an army of vulgarians to serve the interests of a new conservative elite in which folks like Buckley would “play the harpsichord.” That’s it. That’s all of it.
I don’t dispute that looked at from the other end of the stick, these folks weren’t just unwitting dupes but real people with real grievances and interests that didn’t necessarily coincide with the workers’ party. I don’t want to dehumanize them the way that George Will does, but I think Will’s depiction is an accurate portrayal of how Buckley viewed them.
At best, they were viewed as rough around the edges and in need of the kind of leadership that only Yale men could provide. And as long as they consented to this arrangement, George Will was fine with the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
So, my question for Will is to ask if he has the foggiest idea where he might get the votes for his post-Trump Republican Party if not from the same folks that conservatives have always attracted? Is it simply a matter of believing that better leadership will improve their morals?
If Will believes that, he needs to look around. Because the conservative movement has built a post-factual media grievance machine that churns out bile 24 hours a day. They didn’t do that for giggles. They did it because it was required to get them from near-permanent minority status to where they are today, with all the levers of government in their control.
They made this happen by showing incredibly bad leadership that destroyed people’s morals. It was intentional and it’s not going to stop both because it has been successful and profitable. To replace it with something high-minded that values high culture and the finer things in life, that would be a recipe for building a political party scarcely bigger than the editorial staff at the National Review.
I don’t know if he’ll ever fully realize it, but George Will’s life’s work has been in the service of amplifying every abhorrent and dysfunctional thing that he bemoans now. His conservatism was a con-job and a deal with the devil. In some way, on some level, I feel certain that he’s known this all along. How could he not considering his arrogance and dismissive attitude toward the horde that he’s cultivated for so long?