The Old Right’s New World

This Labor Day weekend, I made an attempt to catch up on the magazines that have been accumulating around here for the last couple of years. I did come upon some things I wanted to note.

For example, in both a column about his personal evolution on questions of immigration policy the July 2016 issue of Chronicles and an article about the electoral prospects of the Libertarian Party in the July/ August 2016 issue of The American Conservative writer Justin Raimondo presents the same quote from Murray Rothbard’s speech to the 1992 meeting of the John Randolph Club:

The proper strategy for the right wing must be what we can call “right-wing populism”: exciting, dynamic, tough, and confrontational, rousing and inspiring not only the exploited masses, but the often-shell-shocked right-wing intellectual cadre as well. And in this era where the intellectual and media elites are all establishment liberal-conservatives, all in a deep sense one variety or another of social democrat, all bitterly hostile to a genuine Right, we need a dynamic, charismatic leader who has the ability to short-circuit the media elites, and to reach and rouse the masses directly. We need a leadership that can reach the masses and cut through the crippling and distorting hermeneutical fog spread by the media elites.

I don’t fault Mr Raimondo for presenting this excerpt twice, not only because the pieces are quite different from each other, but also because it is so uncannily like what he and other admirers of Mr Don-John Trump seem to see in their presidential candidate. I am an undisguised social democrat, and do not see much evidence that a tacit commitment to social democracy characterizes the policy-making of either the Democratic or Republican Parties in the USA.

Nor do I think that Mr Trump’s campaign represents a particularly strong challenge to the elites where they are in consensus; on immigration, the one issue where Mr Trump’s position has been fairly consistent and sharply at odds with the leadership of the Republican Party, I tend to agree with those observers, ranging from Slate magazine on the ultra-relaxationist left to John Derbyshire on the ultra-restrictionist right who say that the likeliest outcome of a Trump campaign is an electoral defeat that will push restrictionism to the margins for years to come. I grant it is possible, indeed rather likely, that Hillary Clinton will be such a shockingly bad president, leading the USA into pointless wars and so on, that the Republicans will win a huge landslide in 2020. That would give the Trumpians just enough time to establish themselves as a major part of the Republican Party, and not enough time for the entrenched elites to push them back out.  In that case, the president who follows the Clinton Restoration may have little choice but to throw a sop to the restrictionists every now and then. However, that’s a long way from the kind of epochal change Rothbard prophesied and for which Mr Raimondo hopes.

There are some other interesting bits in recent issues of my favorite “Old Right” reads. In the May 2016 issue of ChroniclesSrdja Trifkovic reviews Dario Fernandez-Morera’s The Myth of The Andulusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (2016,) which along with Sylvain Gouguenheim’s Aristote au Mont Saint Michel (2008) and Raphael Israeli’s Islamic Challenge in Europe (2008) represents a powerful scholarly riposte to happy-talk about Islam. Professor Trifkovic himself is rather fonder of unhappy-talk about Islam than may seem strictly necessary, but even at his angriest he is less obnoxious than are aggressively ignorant Washington figures such as Madeleine Albright and George W. Bush who have spent the last couple of decades setting themselves up as the authorities on what constitutes “true Islam.” No matter how hostile he may be to Islam, at least Professor Trifkovic doesn’t purport to speak as the arbiter of its orthodoxies.

In the June issue of Chronicles, Gerald Russello reviews Barry Alan Shain’s The Declaration of Independence in Historical Contextwhich builds on the thesis of Professor Shain’s 1996 book The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought. Professor Shain argued in that book that the principal influence on American political thinking in the late eighteenth century was Calvinism, and in his new work collects documents that illustrate the extent to which the Declaration of Independence is a Calvinist tract. That thesis may sound familiar to readers of this blog, though I have so far been only vaguely aware of Professor Shain’s work. That looks like a gap in my erudition that I will need to fill post haste!

The August issue of Chronicles included a remarkably charming bit of light literary writing by Derek Turner, of all people. Mr Turner discusses Samuel Johnson and James Boswell’s famous tour of the islands and Highlands of Scotland, comparing their experiences with some recent observations of his own as he visited the same areas.

The September issue of Chronicles features Aaron D. Wolf’s discussion of Don-John of Astoria. Mr Wolf theme is that the word “conservatism,” as used by Republican luminaries who attack Mr Trump for his lack of ideological formation, is an empty one; Mr Wolf appeals to the late M. E. Bradford’s critique of all ideologies, branding every attempt to discover a totalizing set of political values as a reversal of history, an imposition of the present on the past in order to justify whatever one’s favorite political movement happens to be doing at the moment. Like Bradford, Mr Wolf values an attitude of respect for the particular, for particular places, particular times, particular customs, particular people, as an antidote to the brutality that so regularly finds a cloak for itself in the abstract and general language of ideology. Bradford could describe himself as “conservative” because that attitude of respect led him to want to conserve things, not because the word named a program that he was committed to carrying out though the heavens fall.

Don-John of Astoria is no more a conservative in the Bradfordian sense than he is in any of the ideological senses that the recent leaders of the Republican Party have tried to attach to the term, and Mr Wolf does not try to claim that he is. But he does close his column by finding a redeeming quality in the rise of Mr Trump:

Trump’s statement [that “if you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country”] resonated with a great many of the American people, whose impulse is conservative (regardless of party and ideological affiliation,) and who had to be convinced by ideologues of both political parties that their impulse is immoral and contrary to “conservative” values.

Given that milieu, it’s no wonder that the only candidate who could break through with an argument for immigration sanity was a man of Trump’s character, whose narcissism makes him immune to their ideological attacks.

So it is precisely in the characteristic that would most have horrified Don John of Austria that Don-John of Astoria makes his contribution to the latter-day Battle of Lepanto to which the anti-Islamic writers of Chronicles imagine the West to be heading, rallying the forces of Christendom by throwing a series of self-aggrandizing tantrums.

The July/ August issue of The American Conservative includes not only the Justin Raimondo piece mentioned above,  but also an essay by David Cowan about economist Frank Knight, a pioneer in the study of uncertainty as the precondition for innovation and growth. Along with that is an excerpt from Knight’s work.

The September/ October issue of The American Conservative features Samuel Goldman’s review of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatismby George Hawley. Professor Goldman’s review is full of gems; I’ll quote these four short paragraphs from the middle of the piece, since they seem to form the heart of his case:

Hawley begins with the observation that the historic pillars of the American conservative movement—limited government, an assertively anti-communist foreign policy, and quasi-Christian moralism—have no necessary connection. Beginning in the early ’50s, these elements were packaged together by a group of intellectuals and activists led by William F. Buckley. The story is often told as a process of addition, in which disparate constituencies were brought into a grand coalition. Hawley emphasizes that it was also a process of exclusion, as unsuitable ideas and characters were driven out.

All students of the conservative movement know about the marginalization of Robert Welch and other leaders of the John Birch Society. Hawley reminds readers that the purges did not begin there. National Review was established partly to distance conservatism from the anti-Semitism that bedeviled the Old Right. Its founding manifesto was also a statement of protest against so-called New Conservatives of the 1950s who accepted the New Deal. Secular-minded anticommunists like Max Eastman were theoretically welcome in conservative circles but found their ostentatiously pious tone intolerable. In its first decade, the conservative movement was defined as much by who was out as who was in.

This process of self-definition did not end with the nomination of Barry Goldwater, the first movement conservative to seek the presidency. Since then, Southern nostalgists, critics of the U.S.-Israel alliance, opponents of the Iraq War, and offenders against the movement’s code of racial etiquette have all been treated to quasi-official denunciations. Skeptics of supply-side economics have also been encouraged to make their homes elsewhere. This magazine has its origin in some of those disputes.

One result of this boundary-policing is a “true” conservatism of striking narrowness and rigidity. Its less recognized corollary is the development of a diverse ecology of ideas outside the movement’s ever shrinking tent. Some of these uncultivated growths are bitter and even poisonous. Others might contain the tonic that the right needs to recover its relevance.

“Some of these uncultivated growths are bitter and even poisonous. Others might contain the tonic that the right needs to recover its relevance.” Indeed, many of those the bitter and even poisonous growths flourish in and around Chronicles magazine, and the attention I’ve paid to that magazine so far in this post should suffice to show that I believe that healing tonics may sometimes be distilled from bitter and even poisonous growths.

In the May/June issue of The American ConservativeAlan Mendenhall reviews Paul Gottfried’s Fascism: The Career of a Conceptin which Professor Gottfried neither neglects fascism’s connections to the political left nor denies that it was, after all, a creature of the far right.  That may not sound like much, but lesser writers do often resort to sleight of hand to disassociate labels they accept (and Professor Gottfried does accept the label “rightist”) from odious labels (and no label is more odious than “fascism.”)

The March/April issue of The American Conservative includes Richard Gamble’s review of John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.  Evidently Professor Wilsey argues that the USA should let go of religious ideas that incline it to militaristic enterprises around the globe, but adopt religious ideas that will incline it to humanitarian enterprises around the globe. As a student of the thought of Irving Babbitt, Professor Gamble recognizes in this proposal an exchange of one indulgence of the expansive temperament for another, and sees in the apparently benevolent expansive humanitarianism the barely-concealed potential for warfare. He calls instead for what Babbitt endorsed, a truly humble policy that is founded in self-restraint and self-denial.

 

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