The conservative civil war won't change anything
Conservatives are fighting on the internet. Does it matter?
I want to begin by apologizing to 99.9999321 percent of the American people.
If you happen to be one of about 300 living persons with a column at a conservative magazine or a sinecure from one of the big D.C. or New York-based right-wing think tanks or maybe a chaired professorship at one of a handful of small liberal arts colleges, you are probably already up to speed with what National Review's David French wrote in response to an article by the opinion editor of the The New York Post, Sohrab Ahmari, that appeared on the website of another magazine. I probably didn't see your tweets, but I'm sure you thought they were funny or insightful or whatever they were supposed to be at the time.
Otherwise, though, there is a decent chance that you might have read a piece like this one in Washington Monthly and found yourself asking what the heck is going on.
Do you want the long answer or the short one? The long answer is that various factions within what might broadly be referred to as the American right are arguing and that their ostensible disputes about "civility" and other tactical questions are actually a smokescreen for substantive disagreements that sometimes cross over into outright hatred of the other side(s) in ways that anyone who cares about American politics should be concerned with. The short answer is that conservatives are fighting on the internet and that it really doesn't matter that much.
Before I proceed I should say that I have myself been in a very modest way involved in all this nonsense. A few weeks ago I agreed to co-sign a statement drafted by Ahmari (naturally only after the two of us had exchanged dozens of vicious insults on Twitter). I have also written occasionally for National Review (on topics like Winnie-the-Pooh and beer). Before that I was an editor and roving correspondent of sorts at the Washington Free Beacon, the neoconservative equivalent of Gawker, and my first full-time job was at the old American Spectator. In other words, I know my way around the vast right-wing conspiracy.
Which is why I have argued for years now that what used to be called the "conservative movement" in the United States is dead. This does not mean that all the individuals or institutions that were associated with it have disappeared (though in recent years many have). It means that the "fusionist" consensus about free markets, national defense, and traditional morals that more or less united religious conservatives, free-market enthusiasts, libertarians, Cold Warriors, and reactionary academics has broken down for good and that there are few good reasons to believe that anything important will replace it soon.
Donald Trump was, I think, the proximate cause of this breakdown. But not a single one of the arguments that right-wingers of different stripes are having now is new. L. Brent Bozell, the brother-in-law of William F. Buckley, was decrying the utter failure of the conservative movement in the late '60s. The writers associated with Chronicles magazine and The American Conservative have always been skeptical of globalized free trade. Irving Kristol vigorously defended the welfare state, and Christopher Lasch's critique of capitalism was as radical in its way as Marx's.
Matthew Continetti recently identified four somewhat overlapping but still recognizably distinct tendencies within the post-Trump American right. First there are Jacksonian populists who occasionally shun GOP economic orthodoxy and identify America's strength with a kind of neo-backwoods frontiersmen mentality exemplified by figures as disparate as Sarah Palin and Ross Perot. Then there are today's paleos, opponents of the post-Cold War global order who have carried Pat Buchanan's cause into the 21st century. Continetti identifies Tucker Carlson as its most influential exponent. The group he calls the reformcons share some, if not all, of the paleo skepticism of free-market absolutism, but they are more likely to use their library voice (and graphs). Finally, there are the post-liberals, reactionaries who believe that what we used to call "the West" took a wrong turn somewhere between 13th-century France and the present. What they all have in common is varying degrees of hostility to both the tactics and the animating principles of the old fusionists.
It is worth pointing out that a good portion of what remains of the institutional right in America does not belong to any of the above-mentioned factions. At established conservative publications such as National Review, there are still fossilized remains of fusionism as it existed in 1980 or even 1964, people who sincerely believe that we are only one more founding fathers quote or Koch Brothers-sponsored Tocqueville seminar away from getting rid of the New Deal. There are also hardcore libertarians who seem constitutionally incapable of recognizing that every major development in American politics in their lifetimes has gone their way as both of our major parties have united behind neoliberal economics and a program of gradually expanding social license. Last of all, there are the professional Never Trumpers, the civility mavens and decency fiends whose sole purpose in our political discourse is to decry the unprecedented wickedness of Trump. These are many of the writers associated with The Bulwark and conservatives at mainstream media outlets such as The Washington Post.
Back to French vs. Ahmari. Where do these two fall on the roughly hydra-shaped chart I have just attempted to sketch? French is, along with his colleagues Jonah Goldberg and Rich Lowry, probably the best living example of an old-fashioned fusionist, someone who can pivot in the space of half an hour or so from talking about how the liberals on college campuses are destroying all of what remains of Western civilization to defending the recent Aquaman film against its numerous critics. This is probably why Ahmari recently decided to adopt "David French-ism" as shorthand for everything he opposes.
Ahmari himself is a somewhat more mercurial figure. In his recent memoir he recounts an intellectual journey from teenaged Marxism to the Catholic faith. In recent years he would probably have been best identified as a kind of neoconservative. He is now, among other things, an advocate of restoring the Iranian monarchy. It is probably fairest to say that his mind is not quite settled. If I were using Continetti's map, I would place Ahmari in the hinterlands somewhere between the paleos and the post-liberals.
Far more significant than the specifics of their dispute is the sense in which it functions as a kind of litmus test. Regardless of whether one lines up with French or Ahmari on every possible issue, everyone on the American right today will find himself or herself in sympathy with one or the other. I think that it is more or less beyond argument that most of the intellectual energy these days is with people on the anti-French side. They are the ones winning converts from liberalism and from the older establishments camps within the American right. What's more, there is a good case to be made that the blocs named by Continetti have far more in common with one another than Catholic reactionaries did with libertarians and former socialist Jewish intellectuals during the Cold War. It is entirely possible that we could see a new fusionism emerge from the coalescence of populists, paleos, reformcons, and post-liberals, a four-legged table united in their rejection of classical liberal economics and failed proceduralist engagement with liberalism.
There is really only one important takeaway from all of this though, namely that it doesn't matter a whole lot. Suppose that the four groups did somehow pool their resources and create a new set of institutions — periodicals, think tanks, nonprofit organizations, campus groups — complete with their own pet senators and congressmen and even presidential candidates. The old fusionist network could die out slowly, perhaps by merging seamlessly into the broader liberal coalition. This would be an astonishing feat of coalition-building and sheer logistics. And it probably also wouldn't change very much.
Consider what the fusionists have done so far. At the height of their influence under George W. Bush, the old fusionist conservatives managed to cut taxes once before the Iraq War cost Republicans their majority in the House of Representatives in 2006. It would be another decade before the GOP once again controlled the executive branch, the House, and the Senate. What did they do with their all-too-brief stranglehold on Washington? Cut taxes again.
On its face, this more or less accurate summary of the Republican Party's thin résumé while in power reads more like an indictment of fusionism and its ambitions than anything else. It certainly is that. But it is also a reminder of how little regard national politicians have had for anything that does not enrich the wealthy. How many leaders of the GOP have come forward to celebrate the pro-life victories of their counterparts in state legislatures and governors' mansions throughout the country? How many of them will say that they think Obergefell should be overturned? Wall Street and Hollywood have made their positions clear on everything from trade to abortion to China: It's dollars all the way down.
This is not to suggest that the post-fusionist right cease all of its present activities and disengage from American public life. Politics is inevitable. So too for the foreseeable future are political defeats.