How social conservatives traded causes for clichés

What does it really mean to love the flag or to dislike campus snowflakes or to suggest that #MeToo has gone too far?

A Q vote.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

In 1992, after failing to unseat the incumbent George H.W. Bush from the top of the GOP ticket, Pat Buchanan delivered one of the most memorable speeches in modern American history at the Republican National Convention in Houston. The "Culture War" address is a masterpiece, rightly studied by rhetoricians, including those who find its contents loathsome. One of its most remarkable passages comes when, having recalled encounters on the campaign trail with factory workers and an unemployed legal secretary, he praises the native wisdom of the American working class, men and women outside the conservative movement who nevertheless embodied its principles:

My friends, these people are our people. … They come from the same schoolyards and the same playgrounds and towns as we come from. They share our beliefs and convictions, our hopes and our dreams. They are the conservatives of the heart. They are our people. And we need to reconnect with them. We need to let them know we know how bad they're hurting. They don't expect miracles of us, but they need to know we care. [Pat Buchanan]

This was nearly 30 years ago, but one could easily imagine President Trump saying something like it today. Certainly the group of voters to whom it refers belong to the same loosely defined but undoubtedly valuable demographic who were responsible for Trump's victory in 2016 and upon whom he will depend in 2020.

Otherwise, though, one wonders how relevant the speech really is. Where are the conservatives of the heart in 2020? How many of them still agree with Buchanan about "homosexual rights" or "the raw sewage of pornography that so terribly pollutes our popular culture"? What has aged better, his unabashedly reactionary moral views or his laugh lines about Al Gore, radical feminism, and the spotted owl? I think we know the answer.

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Buchanan's strident traditionalism has given way to a new social conservatism, one that is simultaneously more concrete, grounded in real-world debates about Colin Kaepernick and Brett Kavanaugh rather than in abstractions and universalisms, and more nebulous, floating freely above such mundane questions as whether Trump has actually built the wall, much less gotten Mexico to foot the bill for it.

The new social conservatism is libertarian, if not libertine. Many of its totems — sentimentality about the flag and the military, contempt for environmentalists, an absolutist understanding of the Second Amendment — are old, but others, including the cherished rights of pornographers and male undergraduates who wish to engage in fornication while intoxicated would have been incomprehensible to the Buchanan Brigades of the early '90s. The pornographic actress Brandi Love no doubt spoke for millions of Republican voters when she praised "Sex, Drink, and Rock 'n Roll conservatives [sic]" who "love God and our flag but generally dislike organized religion" and "like to hang out on the deck drinking a beer, talking sports, listening to country, rock, and rap while using colorful words to describe Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Anthony Fauci." These people, she said, are representative of Trump's base; they are also the kind of people who pay money to abuse themselves while she removes her clothes in front of a webcam.

The value of the new social conservatism for politicians is obvious. Unlike the pro-life movement, whose unfulfilled ambitions have remained the same since 1973, the new culture wars require no obvious conditions for victory. What does it mean to love the flag or to dislike campus snowflakes or to suggest that #MeToo has gone too far? Any politician can serve these causes because they are not really causes but clichés. When Buchanan called upon his supporters to rally around President Bush in 1992, he was proposing something nakedly transactional: In exchange for their support, Bush would take specific actions in defense of their views on abortion and other issues. Today in Trump's case, all he is really expected to do is retweet wrestling GIFs.

Hence the next logical step in the development of the new social conservatism: its embodiment in the person of the president himself. Trump the man has taken the place of abortion and same-sex marriage as the most feverishly debated topic in American public life. During the last three and a half years the most divisive political questions — Kavanaugh, the response to the current pandemic — have been explicitly framed by his supporters and detractors alike as referendums on Trump. Voting for him is still, in some sense, transactional, but what is being offered on one side in exchange for political support is some sort of vague psychological gratification, the lineal descendent of Buchanan's call for conservative Republicans to let the Silent Majority "know we care."

Nowhere is the personalization clearer than in the case of something like the QAnon conspiracy. Here we see vast swathes of Trump's base simultaneously inventing non-existent victories for the president and absolving him of any blame for his numerous failures. Trump has not replaced the Affordable Care Act or saved millions of good manufacturing jobs or remade our trade relationship with China, it is true. But no one expects miracles, after all. Besides, has he not worked tirelessly, if invisibly, to root out corruption, to expose the sinister plots of the cabal behind the Democratic Party, to remove anthropophagic pedophiles from the upper reaches of the federal bureaucracy? Has he not, in accomplishing all these things thanklessly, amid the persecution of his enemies in the liberal media establishment, shown us he cares? Whatever individual Trump supporters might believe about the actual facts of the alleged conspiracy, the bare outline of QAnon — Trump winning for them simply by existing and holding the office of the presidency — is in fact an accurate representation of their feelings about him. Exposing the lizard people is just an outré way of saying "own the libs."

This is why no one should be surprised at the recent victory of the self-proclaimed QAnon supporter Jo Rae Perkins in the Oregon GOP Senate primary. So far from signaling the attitude of a lunatic fringe within the party, Perkins is speaking forthrightly on behalf of millions. She is fighting the culture war for the soul of America every bit as much as the author of Suicide of a Superpower was in 1992.

It would be naive to assume that her side is going to lose.

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