‘Decent people should ignore politics, if only they could be confident that politics would ignore them.’ The words of William F. Buckley Jr., the intellectual father of American conservatism, in the 1950s foreshadowed the sentiments of millions the day after the US Presidential election. After a historically unpleasant campaign that seemed to last an eternity, Donald Trump upended the polling consensus and conventional wisdom by defeating Hillary Clinton by a hefty margin. All of a sudden, despite the ceaseless nightmare of campaigning, despite the collective societal distaste for unrelenting mudslinging and blatant bipartisan deceit, those opposed to Trump are desperate for a do-over. The Left is in a chaotic uproar of denunciations, denials, and even destruction: violent riots and lootings have been interspersed with the more predictable complaints about the Electoral College and allegedly ubiquitous racism in the American electorate.
On the Right, however, reaction from the scattered pockets of opposition to Trump has been far more reserved. The stalwarts of the #NeverTrump movement were likely to lose either way come November, barring a Utah miracle from Evan McMullin, so they could hardly share in the visceral shock and disappointment of Clinton supporters. Their own spray-tanned catastrophe was already six months old. The Indiana Republican primary on 3 May 2016 marked the death of Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign at the hands of the “Tangerine Dream.” The final obstacle to Trump’s nomination at the Republican National Convention was cleared. For conservatives, 3 May saw not only a death, but also a divorce. After a successful marriage lasting for over 35 years, conservatism and the Republican Party were finally going their separate ways. The legacy of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 conservative ‘revolution’ was cast aside in 2016, ironically, by a demographic that bears his name: the Reagan Democrats. With no party to call their own, conservatives found themselves returned to their roots: on the outside looking in, politically alone in a sea of big-government partisans, ideological orphans once again.
These roots lay not with Reagan, but with a young Catholic writer recently graduated from Yale University in the early 1950s. William F. Buckley Jr. published his first book, God and Man at Yale, in 1951 and founded what would become the flagship publication of the conservative movement, National Review, in 1955. Buckley’s goal was to unify several disparate schools of American political thought into what he saw as a natural ideological alliance. He began with what has become known as traditionalist conservatism, which had, at the time, no fiercer advocate than University of St. Andrews graduate Russell Kirk. Working from the legacies of thinkers such as Edmund Burke, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and T.S. Eliot, Kirk propounded the virtues of natural law, the beauty of diversity and subsidiarity in the human experience, the link between property and freedom, and, critically, the danger of radical revolutionary change unmoored from natural human associations and traditions. In the American context, Kirk stressed that the most important traditions to uphold were America’s foundational principles: individual liberty, limited constitutional government, and democratic republicanism. Buckley married this traditionalism with laissez-faire economics and libertarianism, both of which were becoming increasingly concerned with the growth of the federal government through the New Deal and Cold War military spending. Finally, with his socioeconomic coalition secured, Buckley turned to the third great pillar of his new ‘fusion’ conservatism: anticommunism. With the advent of the Cold War, the question of Communism took on a central importance in American political thought. The anticommunists saw both communism and socialism as completely incompatible with the values of a free and happy society and thus advocated their expulsion wherever they were found. Anticommunists, of course, disagreed with both traditionalists and libertarians on a number of issues, as did traditionalists and libertarians with each other. But it was their common ground that brought them together and, under Buckley, fused them into a coherent, modern ideology.
However, for Buckley, what the conservative movement was not was just as important as what the conservative movement was. Buckley rejected the John Birch Society, an organization that saw cabals of Communist, globalist conspirators everywhere, including at the highest levels of the US government, the Civil Rights movement, the American war effort in Vietnam, and especially the United Nations. Regarding them as radical, conspiratorial, and simply ‘far removed from common sense,’ Buckley denounced them in 1962. Ayn Rand represented another challenge. The Russian-American Objectivist author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged had a wide following in the new conservative coalition, especially among libertarians. But Buckley, who held intellectual and moral transcendence to be a key point of emphasis for conservatism, scorned Rand’s unfeeling egoism, hostility toward religion, and uncompromising dogmatism. He published highly negative reviews of Rand’s works and tried to exclude her influence from his new movement, though she still has a dedicated core of supporters in conservative circles to this day. Finally, Buckley denounced without exception the myriad discriminatory political movements of the day, from George Wallace’s segregationists to the white supremacists of the 1960s to the anti-Semites in the so-called Liberty Lobby. These groups Buckley identified as completely incompatible with the conservative values of natural law, inherent human dignity, and individual liberty and so he barred them from employment at National Review, or any of his other organizations.
Though Buckley was enormously successful in the intellectual unification of American conservatism, his followers remained in the cold politically for decades. In the 1950s, the Democratic Party was still committed to expanding government in the spirit of the New Deal and added social progressivism to its agenda after the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, both of which were anathema to conservatives. With the exception of 1968 presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party was little better. At the presidential level, Republicans Eisenhower, Nixon (for whom National Review famously revoked support in 1971), and Ford were far closer ideologically to the establishment Left than they were to this new ‘movement conservatism’ on the Right. All three engaged in government expansion, crony capitalism, and federal social activism. It wasn’t until 1980, a quarter century after Buckley launched his experiment, that a conservative president was finally elected. Ronald Reagan ushered in the ascendancy of conservatism in the Republican Party. His emphasis on American freedoms, traditional social values, and active resistance to Communism set the template for two generations of Republican politicians. Reagan, and Bush Sr. represent the zenith of conservative influence in the Republican Party and, by extension, American politics.
But those days are long gone. No rational person could consider the President-elect a true conservative. And despite the hysteria of some on the Left, Donald Trump comes not as some crypto-fascist bent on reversing the social progressivism of the last decade, but as a blank slate with only big-government instincts to rely on. His first policy objective as President is a massive infrastructure-spending package on the scale of the Obama stimulus paid for by taxpayers. His record of past support and remarks on the campaign trail read more like a progressive’s wish list than a Republican President’s: legalized abortion, Planned Parenthood, single-payer healthcare, same-sex marriage, etc. The advent of the virulent alt-right represents the long-awaited revenge of the outcasts of the American right: John Birch conspiratorialists, Ayn Rand egoists, and a motley crew of anti-Semites and white nationalists are ascendant, despite their relative miniscule numbers. With the sacrifice of the GOP on the altar of Trumpism comes the exile of Buckley’s conservatism. Constitutionalism, free markets, free trade, traditionalism, reform instead of revolution, individual liberty ordered by the rule of law; all have now been proven to be ideas without constituencies, replaced with base nationalism, populism, and tribalism. Conservatism and the GOP are no longer lovers, only occasional allies at best. For followers of Buckley’s idea, now begins a long night of the soul. Yes, they have Paul Ryan. Yes, they may end up with some originalist Supreme Court Justices. Yes, they may even repeal Obamacare. But the question remains: at what cost?