U.S. Intellectual History Blog


The so-called “alt-right” has been much in the news this past week, with a prominent speech by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton invoking the movement by name and tying it to the campaign of Donald Trump. Journalists, political junkies, and historians alike are scrambling to figure out where precisely this movement comes from, who its key figures are, what their ideas are, and how it relates to far-right movements of the past, to far-right movements in other nations today, and to the broader political landscape of the present and the recent past. Who are these guys?

Part of that history and analysis is already being written by brilliant young historians like Tim Shenk, who published the must-read piece “The Dark History of Donald Trump’s Rightwing Revolt” in The Guardian recently.[1] Shenk points out at the beginning of his essay how discombobulated the “conservative intellectual establishment” has become while trying to wrap their head around the fact that they have to ask these questions, too. They are very abruptly reckoning with the possibility that the history of their movement has in reality been quite different from the stories they tell about themselves, that Trump isn’t some one-off demagogue who has captured lighting in a bottle. As Shenk writes,

Trump is a unique character, but the principles he defends and the passions he inflames have been part of the modern American right since its formation in the aftermath of the second world war. Most conservative thinkers have forgotten or repressed this part of their history, which is why they are undergoing a collective nervous breakdown today. Like addicts the morning after a bender, they are baffled at the face they see in the mirror.

The history of the alt-right will absolutely need more such interventions from gifted scholars, and if you know of other resources or good articles, please put them in the comments below.

But I am also interested in what the conservative intellectual establishment is going to do now, and particularly—as an intellectual historian—where they will turn for the ideas they will need to rebuild their party and movement. I am certain that after the election—no matter what happens—we will hear about a “reboot” of conservatism. I am asking, what programs are they going to load when that reboot happens? Roguishly I query, who is going to be the CTRL+ALT+DEL Right?

It is possible, of course, that this reboot will simply be a rebranding, that no serious intellectual work will be undertaken by the conservative intellectual establishment in the next few years, and that those in the establishment will try quick political or organizational solutions rather than any deep re-thinking of conservative principles and conservatism’s history. Many critics from the left would also argue that, because genuine self-analysis and self-criticism will shatter the illusion of an “honorable” conservatism cleanly separable from the kinds of ideas espoused by the alt-right, conservative intellectuals will probably perform only a superficial examination of their movement, reiterating previous mission statements and rewriting old manifestos.

The cynic in me acknowledges that these possibilities may very well come to pass: we’ll see a well-publicized flurry of ostentatious seriousness and the publication of some fat tomes of half-digested and fully-footnoted political philosophy, but very little in the way of sincere soul-searching. The political window is too small: four years from now, these conservative intellectuals are going to be back thinking about how to get their man in the White House, not how to reframe a durable, coherent, and well-grounded set of social and political principles. Ideas may have consequences, but elections have winners… and losers.

Are conservative intellectuals are committed enough to ideas to accept short-term political losses in the next electoral cycle or two? I’m not sure, frankly, but my hesitation has more to do with assumptions about the political elites of both parties than it does specifically about conservatives. It is, I’ll acknowledge, a question you cannot simply blink away. But let’s for the moment at least focus less on the cynical reasons why a thorough self-examination is not likely to occur and think about the pressures pushing conservative intellectuals toward a serious and genuine re-booting.

First is that—again, regardless of what happens in November—Trump and the alt-right are very unlikely to fade away over the next four years. The alt-right may mutate in some way, but its critique of mainstream conservatism has forced many issues to the fore which will be difficult to brush off or pivot from because they are grounded in large structural issues—principally: inequality, immigration, and the global division of labor—which are unlikely to change soon and which conservative political elites in fact have little power to affect. These are major vulnerabilities for mainstream conservatism, and punting on them will not be sufficient.

Second, the apparent accuracy of the left critique of the modern conservative movement—that it is actually a reactionary politics rooted in base emotions like fear and resentment rather than the noble principles (liberty, order) it likes to see as its core—has, I think, genuinely shaken many conservatives. The Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde metaphor has sometimes been used to acknowledge but also contain the presence of unreconstructed racists, sexists, and homophobes within the conservative movement, with the implied premise that perhaps Jekyll really could vanquish Hyde. But the correct Victorian narrative explaining the nature of the conservative movement, it turns out, is not Stevenson’s but Wilde’s: we can almost feel Dorian Gray’s sharp intake of breath as mainstream conservatives begin seriously to wonder if their portrait was drawn correctly by Corey Robin and not by George Nash.

Furthermore, the historical narrative of post-WWII conservatism is at stake in a second way. The strength of racism and xenophobia within the Republican Party is not the only repressed truth which conservative intellectuals have been forced to confront with the Trump revolt. Conservative intellectuals believed they had successfully made their case to at least the Republican base if not to the broader U.S. electorate on some core questions—government spending, national defense, trade, taxes—that they had in essence won a war of ideas. The intensely heterodox nature of the Trump movement on these very issues therefore threatens the validity of that narrative—what if, establishment conservatives now have to ask, they were never listening in the first place? Spurning a cosmetic patch-up and returning to an intellectually hungry existence—fewer speaking fees, more nights in the library—would be a powerful way to rebuke the whispers of self-doubt: “it never mattered what you said because it was the money talking. Money and not ideas won elections; you never won in the marketplace of ideas.”

Third, there seems to be a considerable amount of support among liberals for the idea that an ideologically solid and electorally competitive center-right party is necessary for a healthy body politic, and so establishment conservative intellectuals can expect encouragement and maybe even aid from that quarter. As Clinton said in her speech,

My friends, this is a moment of reckoning for every Republican dismayed that the Party of Lincoln has become the Party of Trump. It’s a moment of reckoning for all of us who love our country and believe that America is better than this.

Twenty years ago, when Bob Dole accepted the Republican nomination, he pointed to the exits in the convention hall and told any racists in the Party to get out.

The week after 9/11, George W. Bush went to a mosque and declared for everyone to hear that Muslims ‘love America just as much as I do.’

In 2008, John McCain told his own supporters that they were wrong about the man he was trying to defeat. Senator McCain made sure they knew – Barack Obama, he said, is an American citizen and ‘a decent person.’

We need that kind of leadership again.

We can have our disagreements, and believe me, I understand that. I think that’s healthy. We need good debates…

It is difficult to see this as merely tactical rhetoric, trying to draw in moderate Republicans for this single election or perhaps on a more permanent basis. Clinton may be hoping that Trump’s nomination catalyzes a fundamental electoral realignment pushing “suburban Republicans” (read: white, well-educated) into becoming fairly consistent Democratic voters, but this reads to me like a statement of belief, not just an appeal for votes. The felt need for a “decent” or “honorable” opposition is a powerful belief, particularly among liberals.

A strong(ish) center-right also makes the professional lives of both journalists and liberal politicians much easier. Many people have already written very well about the way “balanced” or “objective” reporting has ended up meaning simply “equal time,” but that simple equation only works when both sides at least act professionally, meaning that both sides maintain standards of decorum and frame their arguments as good faith efforts to persuade “the other side.” When it becomes clear that one side simply uses their airtime to push an unabashedly divisive message that deliberately insults any supporters of their opponent and peddles conspiracy theories, “equal time” is harder to justify. Similarly, liberal politicians find a productive tension in arguing with a center-right party largely because it preempts or marginalizes the less productive and quite often destabilizing tension between the center-left and the left. If you’re a liberal appearing on a television show to debate a moderate conservative, chances are the program did not also invite a socialist to provide a counterpoint to your ideas. One critique of gradualist liberalism at a time, please!

Those three reasons—the continued presence of the alt-right, the challenge and apparent accuracy of the left critique of the conservative movement, and the likely support from liberals—provide some grounds for believing that establishment conservative intellectuals could over the next four or so years take a genuine stab at a deep re-thinking of their political philosophy and a revisionist re-writing of their own history. This post has already gone on for too long, so I will save some further thoughts about where this re-thinking and re-writing might turn. Until then.

[1] Another important but brief piece concentrating on identifying some links of the alt-right to far-right movements in other nations is “The Rise of White Nationalism, from the US to Russia,” by Jason Wilson, appearing online at Overland, a progressive Australian journal. It’s also worth pointing out that C. Wright Mills–whose 100th birthday was yesterday–published with Hans Gerth a 1942 essay [paywalled] on James Burnham, who is one of the principal intellectual influences Shenk examines in his essay.

6 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Great post, Andy. Really gets at some core issues. Though let me add, parenthetically, that though he’d probably never admit it, on one core issue, George Nash and I are in fundamental agreement. Conservatism, he wrote in his classic history, is the “resistance to certain forces perceived to be leftist, revolutionary, and profoundly subversive of what conservatives at the time deemed worth cherishing, defending, and perhaps dying for.” That’s my argument in a nutshell.

    Which leads me to the more substantive point. I’ve been banging on about this for a while, so I’ll make it quick, but I don’t think you’re going to see the kind of intellectual resurgence you’re talking about until conservatism, defined in the terms I set out in my book (and in synch with what Nash says above), experiences a major cataclysmic social defeat. Not a defeat at the polls, which any party withstand so long as its ideas and interests are hegemonic, but a defeat on the order of the defeats that has prompted, since 1789, conservatives to dust themselves off, arise, take stock of their estate, and formulate genuinely new ideas. We’re seeing glimmers of a resurgent left, but let’s face it, they’re just that: glimmers. You’d need to see some major form of dispossession—not just discursive but comprehensive (material and symbolic, political and economic, and so on), and not just in terms of distribution but in terms of action, a movement of dispossession in other words, along the lines of the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, the feminist movement—that succeeded before you’ll see a genuinely new conservative thinking.

    Over the years, you’ve seen some desperate attempts at this from the Reformicons. Folks like Douthat, Salam, etc. The reason they’ve gone nowhere is that they lack a social constituency. That’s death for conservatism. And the reason they lack a social constituency is that there aren’t the kinds of movements I’m talking about (I don’t think immigration, which is a secular fact of cultural and political and economic change, counts. You need a political insurgency and that’s different.) The only thing that prompts Douthat et al is a concern about the polls and long-term demographics (i.e., you can’t build a party on the basis of white people alone anymore). That’s just not a generative kernel of conservative thought of the sort that we saw with Burke, De Maistre, Calhoun, Hammond, Nietzsche, Pareto, Hayek, Friedman, and so on. Never has been, never will.

    The Trump phenomenon, insofar as it does represent some kind of heterodoxy within the conservative movement (and I agree that it does, for the reasons you cite), is more a symptom of the partisan dynamics of conservatism rather than the deep tectonic plates that I’m describing above. That is, as party regimes start to decline—and that is definitely the case, I would argue, with the GOP; with one exception, the GOP presidential candidate has not won the popular vote since 1988; there are legislative victories at the state levels, but you saw that among Democrats in the 1970s, only to see massive realignment in 1980—reformers within the parties start casting about for new coalitions. Trump is trying to do what George McGovern and Jimmy Carter tried to do in the 1970s (in very different ways). Reconstitute the Republican Party on a different basis. I think he’ll fail. Obviously he’ll fail in November. But I think the movement is on life support so you can’t get the kind of reforms that will carry it through for the long term.

    Okay, went on long enough! My apologies.

    • Thank you, Corey–no apologies necessary, for sure!

      I am entirely in agreement with you that this moment is not likely to birth a work of political philosophy that can rightly be placed alongside the works of Burke et al. But I guess I have a kind of morbid fascination with where things might be headed even still! Even there, though, I am more interested–and perhaps I should have said this more clearly–with what some of the potential sources of this coming conservative reboot will be, and less with what the reformicons or reboot-and-rallyers will turn that thought into. Whom will they be reading and citing? Is the question I want to get to.

      You’ve given me a lot to think over here, and I’ll try to address the issue of dispossession more directly in the next post. But I’ll muse a bit here, too. I am wondering if the feeling of dispossession can’t be scaled down quite drastically and yet retain some impetus to serious (albeit perhaps not original or complex) thought. I think it’s fairly evident that organs like the National Review and a number of the beltway think tanks felt a very powerful sense of ownership over the conservative movement and its history, and they derived a tremendous sense of pride and satisfaction from that sense of possession. In that sense, how can we characterize the experience of a Douthat or a Kristol watching the events of the last year other than dispossession?

      I mean, yes, we have to set aside the hypocrisies and self-deceptions involved in Kristol shifting from Palin promotion to Trump bashing, and there is certainly no way I’m asking anyone to feel sorry for either Douthat or Kristol or John Podhoretz or George Will. But with that said, I am genuinely intrigued by what comes next for them intellectually and how they will process the Trump revolt historically within the narrative they’ve built.

      • I think the answer to your question—what will it look like, what resources will it draw upon—depends less on the conservatives than on the left. We have to see what kind of challenge the left poses for that sets the parameters and terrain. It doesn’t dictate the response by any means, but it shapes it.

        In terms of the mini-dispossession you speak of, I’m not inclined to think it can have that kind of effect. There’s always positioning and jockeying within the movement. That’s the stuff of palace intrigue and court gossip. I don’t think it can be generative, or even interesting, in any sense. As you say, Kristol toggles from Palin promotion to Trump bashing: what kind of social theory, or political practice, can you make of that? I suspect not much.

  2. Thoughtful post. I would like however to qualify the statement about Trump’s heterodoxy.

    Conservative intellectuals believed they had successfully made their case to at least the Republican base if not to the broader U.S. electorate on some core questions—government spending, national defense, trade, taxes—that they had in essence won a war of ideas. The intensely heterodox nature of the Trump movement on these very issues therefore threatens the validity of that narrative…

    Trump parts with the Repub establishment orthodoxy on trade and on certain aspects of foreign policy, but I think he’s pretty orthodox on taxes and on the overall level of defense spending.

    On trade and the U.S. global posture, Trump reaches back to Pat Buchanan and perhaps (though I’m not sure) Ross Perot. So in ideological terms Trump getting the nomination roughly equals the Buchanan or paleoconservative faction in the Repub party taking it over (minus Buchanan’s emphasis on the culture wars).

    This may represent, as Jeremy Young suggested in a guest post here a while ago, a long-term realignment of the center-of-gravity Repub position on trade, in that future successful Repub nominees will have to be critical of trade agreements, of China etc. Probably too soon to be sure.

    On another subject, I didn’t realize C. Wright Mills’s 100th birthday just passed. I would probably put The Sociological Imagination somewhere on the list of my favorite books (not at the top, but on there somewhere).

    • Louis,
      These are excellent points, and I have to say that perhaps I’m shooting in the dark a little on some of these issues, or responding more to tone rather than content. Part of the problem, of course, is that Trump has been so vague about real policies–and where his campaign has put forward substantive content, he’s seemed uninterested in it–that it is difficult to characterize the nature of his alignment with the Republican establishment even on core issues.

      To be honest, what I was thinking more about than any positive policy recommendation from the Trump campaign was certain unusual absences in his rhetoric, certain notes that he doesn’t play. For instance, his habits of deflection and deferral over the “how are you going to pay for that,” or the use of such obviously bogus and impracticable answers to that question–what does it say about Trump that he tells us that he’s going to make Mexico pay for the wall, for example, rather than either mumble his way through some voodoo economics or gesture at a whole bunch of programs he’ll cut to free up the money? So, yes, he doesn’t differ from a mainstream Republican over, say, the capital gains tax or estate taxes, but his attitude toward taxes and spending seems to me tonally very different. Maybe I’m making too much of that, though.

      • Andy —
        Yes, I think there are tonal differences. (For the rest, I was going on my impressions based on what I’ve heard Trump say from time to time and especially in his convention acceptance speech; I haven’t read the position papers on his website.)

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