An early test of my theories

January 22, 2016

The world of academic book publishing moves pretty slowly. For the most part, that's a good thing. Collecting thoughtful peer-reviews and allowing the author sufficient time to make needed corrections is a long process, and it is only through this process that you can be sure that your work is careful and accurate. That said, when the world is changing very quickly, a work that discusses current events can quickly seem very dated. This can be especially frustrating if a work becomes partially out of date before it is even released.

 

I don't feel that this going to be the case with Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism. The overwhelming majority of the book is focused on ideas and history that are worth studying and contemplating regardless of ephemeral developments in partisan politics (but I would say that, wouldn't I?).

 

Nonetheless, I do regret that I submitted my final draft before Donald Trump had arrived on the political scene, and that it will be released after the first two important presidential primaries. I would have preffered a shorter delay between the submission of my final draft and publication -- this is not the publisher's fault, it's just the nature of academic presses.

 

The fact of the matter is that many of the things I (cautiously) predicted in the book are now happening, though not quite in the manner that I suspected. I think the last six months have verified my intuition that the conservative movement has largely lost its ability to police ideas and personalities on the right. The days when someone like William F. Buckley and his allies could "purge" a deviant movement out of the national conversation are clearly behind us. I predicted that a new movement or individual would soon emerge that rejected one or more of the conservative movement's main tenets, the movement would attack the heretic for failing to be a "true conservative," and the world would shrug its shoulders, ignoring the criticism.

 

This was definitely the case for the Donald Trump phenomenon. Most of the leaders of the conservative intelligentsia have been on the attack for months, and have had no discernible effect. George Will, Glenn Beck, and all the others can't seem to shave any points off of Trump's poll numbers.

 

Now my theory is being dramatically but to the test. The latest National Review is focused entirely on making the case against Trump. Prominent figures from across the conservative movement make their arguments within the issue. These essays are also all available online. I have read them, and they all pretty much restate the arguments we've been hearing for awhile. Some are more compelling than others.

 

In any event, if I am correct, this will not make much of a dent in Trump's poll numbers. I just don't think that many people care what William Kristol or Erick Erickson have to say. Those that do care were not going to support Trump anyway. I do not believe this will have the same long-term effect as National Review's famous "In Search of Anti-Semitism" issue had back in the 1990s; that was the issue that emphasized one of the many problems that the organized conservative had with Pat Buchanan.

 

If I am wrong, I guess I will have to eat crow. That prediction was a relatively small part of the overall book, however, and it will not change my general view about the future of the conservative movement.

 

I should, however, acknowledge what I definitely did not see coming. As I was writing the book, I thought the next great challange to the conservative movement would come from a more libertarian direction. I suspected this because libertarians already have such a strong infrastructure in place, motivated young people, and money. The disastrous Rand Paul campaign showed me that even his watered-down libertarianism does not have much support, at least among Republican primary voters. I don't think libertarians are irrelevant, but they are not about to replace the established conservative movement as the dominant alternative to the progressive egalitarianism of the Democratic Party.

 

I did not foresee (but perhaps should have)such a poweful revival of the kind of nationalistic populism that Trump represents. He is clearly the new voice of Middle American Radicalism (a term popularized by Sam Francis, but not invented by him). Trump's movement is driven by many of the same sentiments that propelled Buchanan's failed presidential runs. Trump has definitely shown that there is a large vein of anger and resentment within the American electorate that no recent candidate has been able to effectively tap. Whether this will be enough to win Trump the nomination (let alone the presidency), remains to be seen, obviously. There are still reasons to be skeptical.

 

The political developments in the coming weeks look to be some of the most interesting of my lifetime.

 

 

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