When conservatives become revolutionaries
Conservatism used to mean a resistance to change. Not anymore.
The conservative intelligentsia keeps returning to authoritarianism.
Back in June of last year, I wrote a column about how the intellectual right was talking itself into tearing down American democracy. The occasion was a debate between David French, a social-conservative defender of the right to religious freedom enshrined in the First Amendment, and Sohrab Ahmari, a more stridently right-wing opinion journalist and editor who favors a politics actively devoted to re-ordering American life "to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good," even in the absence of popular support for such a religiously informed project.
Ahmari's side of the debate received a considerable boost this April when Harvard Law School's Adrian Vermeule published an essay in The Atlantic in which he took aim at the conservative jurisprudence of "originalism," which in theory restrains the actions of Supreme Court justices by insisting that they defer to the meaning of the Constitution as it was understood at the time it was drafted and ratified. In place of originalism, Vermuele advocated something called "common good constitutionalism," which would use the law to inculcate a comprehensive moral view rooted in conservative Christianity.
At the time, I described this proposal as "an impatient dismissal of the need for democratic legitimacy and a full-throated endorsement of political authoritarianism." Last week, President Trump signaled his administration's approval of such views by announcing it plans to appoint Vermeule to a three-year term on the Administrative Conference of the United States.
In the months since Vermuele's essay appeared, the mood among conservative intellectuals has turned darker and more desperate, as the likelihood of Trump winning re-election has diminished — and as the president himself has begun to use federal officers to quash protests on the streets of American cities over the objection of local elected officials, while also repeatedly suggesting that voter fraud in the upcoming election could render its results illegitimate.
Just how dark and desperate is the right becoming? So much so that it is now increasingly common to find conservative writers flirting openly with ideas that clearly point in the direction of outright political radicalism — including talk of civil war, permanently purging liberals from political office and positions of cultural influence, the need for revolutionary action, and hopes for a "refounding" of America using "regime-level power."
This is how political actors talk when they have lost faith in the legitimacy of the political opposition and begin dreaming of overthrowing the system as a whole in favor of one that will be more inclined to place people like themselves in (potentially permanent) positions of power.
To get a sense of where the conversation on the right is going, it's useful to begin looking below the highest levels, where arguments are often made with a greater degree of subtlety and sophistication, to focus instead on the blunter formulations favored by professional trolls. For this purpose, a series of recent tweets by Kurt Schlichter, a rabidly pro-Trump senior columnist for Townhall, is revealing.
Schlichter began his social-media provocation by asking liberals "to explain to me why Trump is morally obligated to leave the White House if he allegedly loses the election, and why we are morally obligated to treat his opponent as the winner." When someone responded by pointing out that "that's the way democracy works," Schlichter replied by rejecting the premise: "Except it doesn't work that way. I'm going to need more information on the source of this obligation and why Trump should honor it."
In a follow up, Schlichter went further, to imagine what might happen "if the Democrats start another Civil War, after we crush them." In such a case, "we need to destroy every single institution they control, [and] drive all liberals out of any kind of power." Such an all-out purge of liberalism, Schlichter asserted, would "fulfill the promise of the Constitution."
Was this just the unhinged ranting of someone who earns his paycheck by pumping toxins into the body politic? If only. Schlichter's tweets are an ominous indication of where right-wing minds are going — in favor of one-party rule for themselves and a willingness to entertain revolutionary violence against their opponents if they lose. We can see this from what increasing numbers of conservatives write and publish — but also from the intellectual history and logic of conservative ideas themselves.
As the name implies, conservatism is a political philosophy oriented toward resisting historical change. It seeks to conserve aspects of the present and past — to keep things, or at least some things (especially respect for order, authority, and tradition), as they are or have been, in the face of individual agents or social forces seeking to produce their transformation.
But what if change has already been accomplished, leaving nothing much left to conserve? Conservatives first confronted this dilemma in the wake of the French Revolution. That's when leading conservatives recognized there was no going back to the pre-revolutionary monarchy and established church as they existed prior to 1789, and instead began to formulate a new counter-revolutionary political philosophy. It would seek to overthrow the now-thoroughly corrupted status quo and re-institute primordial order and authority on a new basis through human will and action. It was now possible to be both a conservative and a political radical — a combination of tendencies that ultimately led to the rise of European fascism.
We've seen a re-enactment of this dialectical move on the American right in recent years at the level of ideas. In addition to Ahmari and Vermeule, there's Patrick Deneen, a leading thinker behind a more radical conservative critique of liberalism. Deneen opposes not just individualism in morals, which is common on the religious right, but also libertarian economics — and even goes so far as to reject the entire rights-based form of politics that undergirds our form of government and way of life.
Deenen's important and influential 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed was somewhat vague on the practical political implications of its argument. But in a recent tweet thread, Deneen clarified things. There he wrote that many self-described conservatives are actually just conservative liberals who uphold a political and economic order that "does not 'conserve,' but disrupts, upends, [and] liquifies stability and security." By contrast, true conservatives like himself recognize that "a liberal society is necessarily and inescapably incapable of being genuinely conservative" because "it is definitionally progressive and hostile to tradition, stability, and generational continuity."
The result is a kind of double paradox, with conservative liberals seeking to conserve an order that makes order impossible — and true conservatives taking on the role of "revolutionaries" who seek to "alter the current order, with the aim of making a genuine conservatism possible."
This is a position recapitulated and elaborated in a contribution to a recent symposium in The American Conservative by Matthew Peterson of the Claremont Institute. The essay's title — "America Needs a Re-Founding" — conveys the core of its message. The country was founded on the presumption that "certain truths, the Laws of Nature and Nature's God, could be known by men of good will who understand Nature and Reason, and that these truths ought to shape our political structures and our political and cultural life." Yet the "institutions that should inculcate these truths and way of life do not presently do so." For that reason, "conservatism must face the fact that in our era conserving alone is not enough."
Instead of seeking to conserve the status quo, conservatives need to recognize that the left has already succeeded in "refounding America" — and that conservatives need to "refound" it again in order to restore it to its former glory.
Conservatism must not merely make arguments, and reshape a bold new platform of policy — it must act on them, wielding "regime-level" power in the service of good political order to do so — or it will fail. We must lead a counter-revolution. Since this is not, by definition, "conservative," American conservatism may no longer be called "conservatism" if it chooses to rise to the occasion. [The American Conservative]
When it comes to the question of what will become of those many millions of Americans who do not wish to see their country undergo a conservative counter-revolution, Peterson offers nothing beyond a passing comment that the right "must promote an American way of life that is appealing to Americans of good will" (emphasis added). Those who support Peterson's goals mean well. They are the good Americans. Those who oppose these goals, on the other hand, have more malign intentions. They are the bad Americans, whose preferences, interests, and concerns can legitimately be waved away and dismissed.
We find evidence of the same Manichean outlook on the country and its citizenry when we place Peterson's essay in the context of the conservative writing for which the Claremont Institute is best known today. For much of the past three decades, the institute has developed a severe critique of "the administrative state" that grew out of the progressive movement, with the implication being that it should be largely dismantled in favor of a much less onerous regulatory regime in Washington. Yet Peterson's case for the right using the government to enact a conservative counter-revolution seems to point in the opposite direction — toward the generous use of enhanced federal power to achieve supposedly worthwhile political ends.
It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the right in our time is evolving in the direction of rejecting the regular transfer of power between two legitimate political parties within a liberal frame. In its place, the reactionary conservatives oscillate wildly between support for revolution when its opponents win elections and endorsement of authoritarianism when it manages to gain power.
Both extremes follow from the conviction that only one side in our political disputes possesses legitimacy. You can see where this type of thinking ends.