As the Republican Party has morphed from a traditional political party into a White Christian Nationalist cult, pundits and academics have spent a lot of time studying the “base”–the GOP voters who have embraced the radicalization–and have developed a variety of theories about why so many “average Americans” have succumbed to its appeal. (Most of the research projects have come to the same conclusion I have: it’s pretty much all grounded in racism.)
Much less time and attention has been directed toward analyses of the conservative intellectuals whose theories of society were protective of tradition and who proposed policies justified by those theories. A few of them–especially those who were also political strategists–have been horrified by what the GOP has become, and departed, but most have embraced the mob dynamic.
The question is, why? Surely they are bright enough to see how destructive–even nihilistic– today’s GOP has become.
A recent essay by Damon Linker in The Week explored that phenomenon.Linker was once a part of that conservative intelligencia, working for four years at First Things.
Much has been written about the transformation of the GOP over the past several years from the party of Ronald Reagan to the party of Donald Trump and his populist imitators. But at the same time a parallel change has been taking place among conservative intellectuals.
This evolution of ideas and temperament has been catalyzed by the political shift to Trumpian politics, but it isn’t reducible to that change. Ideas, like psychological dispositions, shift according to their own logic. What we have been witnessing among growing numbers of conservative thinkers is a process of self-radicalization driven by the interaction of political events with prior ideological assumptions and moods.
Linker says that what he terms “self-radicalization” has been triggered by hope.
As he explains, during the George W. Bush Presidency, when the intellectuals within the First Things community met to discuss the state of the country and the world, those meetings regularly “devolved into a cry of cultural despair, even though a friend and ally was then ensconced in the White House.”
That’s because the people in the room were profoundly alienated from the moral, cultural, and spiritual drift of contemporary American life, and they didn’t expect that to change. They supported the Bush administration and were willing to provide a public defense of its policy agenda. But in private they doubted any of it would fundamentally change the most troubling trends unfolding around them. Abortion would remain legal. Homosexuality would keep being normalized and even celebrated. Pornography would continue to permeate the culture. Euthanasia would become more widely accepted. Secularism would persist in its march through the country and its institutions.
According to Linker, despair has generally been the default disposition of these opponents of cultural, moral, and political change. Despite the arguments they marshaled against such changes, most (at least according to Linker) doubted they would be able to stem the tide. They fully expected to lose the fight for the culture.
By the time Trump burst on the scene in the summer of 2015, the traditionalist right had nearly given in to outright despair, even in public, with many moving into a purely defensive position. No longer hoping to reverse the direction of the culture, they now hoped they might merely receive modest federal protection from persecution at the hands of emboldened secular liberals.
Their embrace of someone like Trump might seem strange for defenders of “moral purity,” but Linker explains. They might not win the culture war, but in Trump, they saw someone who could tear down “the administrative state” and destroy government’s power to enforce liberal rules and regulations. He could rally popular opposition to “the reigning consensus of bending history toward justice defined in liberal-progressive terms.”
Trump or a populist successor “could at long last give conservatives their chance — not by slowing an inevitable march to the secular left but by razing the liberal edifice altogether, making it possible to found society anew on properly conservative foundations.”
In other words, if you can’t change it, destroy it.
Linker’s final paragraphs are chilling.
What comes next for these conservative intellectuals? Are they prepared to offer unconditional support for another Trump run for the White House, despite his treacherous words and deeds during the two months following the 2020 election? Are there any lies from the candidate or potentially reinstated president that would prove to be deal-breakers? Any acts or policies that would be considered a bridge too far? Or would they be willing to countenance just about anything in return for a presidential promise to crush the infamous enemy, the liberal-progressive regime that currently governs America?
We will learn the answers to these ominous questions soon enough.