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.
The most pessimistic and culturally alienated thinkers on the American right have been given hope — and that distinctive mixture is an ideal fuel for political extremism.
During my own time as an ideological conservative, which overlaps quite closely with the first term of George W. Bush's presidency, I worked under Richard John Neuhaus at First Things magazine. Neuhaus was a conservative Catholic priest, but he was also an American patriot and (usually, though not always) an optimist who wanted to believe that all good things could go together. So he sought to develop an ideological outlook that smoothed over tensions among various institutions and projects: The Reaganite Republican Party, including the Bush administration's Global War on Terrorism; the American experiment in democracy; free-market capitalism; political liberalism, rightly understood; evangelical Protestantism; and the Catholic Church of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
According to the outlook cultivated and promoted by First Things in that era, one could be — moreover, one ought to be — a moral traditionalist, a Republican, a promoter of American democracy and neoliberal economics at home and American-style democracy and political economy abroad, and a devout (orthodox) believer in Abrahamic religion. (There were a small number of Orthodox Jews in the First Things orbit, and, prior to the 9/11 attacks, the magazine made overtures to Muslims as well.)
As a pessimist myself and someone predisposed to see intractable problems and contradictions all around me, I came to dissent rather strongly from this ideological project and program. But more interesting in light of subsequent history was the private reaction of many members of the First Things circle of intellectuals to Neuhaus' optimistic drive toward political, moral, economic, and theological synthesis.
Once a year, the First Things governing board would convene in New York City, along with frequent contributors to the magazine, to discuss the state of the country and the world, the conservative movement, and related subjects. I worked at the magazine for nearly four years, and every such meeting 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.
From the emergence of the first conservatives in the wake of the French Revolution, this has been the default disposition of those who have risen up in defiance of cultural, moral, and political change. The latest shift in mores always inspires gloom among conservatives. That doesn't mean conservatives have always been quietists. On the contrary, they have often allied with other, less purely conservative political factions to try to slow, halt, or even reverse the direction of change.
What came to be called the conservative movement in the 20th-century United States was precisely such an alliance, bringing traditionalist conservatives together with factions more accurately described as classical or conservative liberals: foreign policy hawks as well as libertarians out to cut taxes and regulations. Neuhaus' project was the most intellectually ambitious effort to devise a religiously inflected governing ideology for this coalition.
But behind the scenes, many of its traditionalist members doubted their own faction would achieve its goals. Taxes and regulations might be cut. The U.S. might use its military might to challenge threats around the world. But cultural and moral standards in the country would continue to fall further and further from where they once were.
Back in the early 2000s, these laments were largely couched in empirical terms, tied to evidence of failure in the world but without offering a coherent explanation beyond the prevalence of sin and the extreme difficulty of righting a ship so far off course for so long. But as the decade wore on, as Bush was succeeded by eight years of Barack Obama's progressive presidency, and as the Supreme Court elevated same-sex marriage into a constitutional right, the conservative mood darkened further.
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.
At first Trump's campaign didn't inspire much cause for optimism among disaffected traditionalist conservatives. He was, after all, a personal paragon of moral decadence. Yet once Trump seized the GOP nomination, and then the presidency itself, a rethinking began among the most pessimistic conservatives. Might his unexpected triumph open other, more radical options for the future? Could his aggressive, unapologetic hostility to liberal norms and institutions signal an openness among American voters to a fundamental rethinking of ideological premises, cultural limits, and the range of political possibilities?
For a series of pessimistic conservatives — especially the "integralist" Catholics (Adrian Vermeule, Gladden Pappin, Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari, Chad Pecknold) and the philosophically anti-liberal and anti-progressive writers at the Claremont Institute and the American Greatness website — Trump came to represent a new way to achieve old ends. Instead of encouraging Republican presidents to struggle within a liberal framework against the inexorable drift of the country, including its government and its culture, toward the secular left, conservatives could cheer on a political and cultural demolition project that would seek to destroy the liberal framework itself.
The problem with past forms of American conservatism, these writers came to believe over the past half decade, is that they accepted the validity of liberal assumptions — even when, as in Neuhaus' case, they reconceived them in Catholic-Christian terms. No wonder conservatives always lost and pessimism became the order of the day.
Trump opened up another path. The morally degenerate real estate magnate and reality show star who bragged about sexual assault and cheated on his third wife with a porn actress couldn't model a better way within the existing system. But he could work to tear down "the administrative state" that uses government power to enforce liberal rules and regulations. He could aim rhetorical firepower at elite political, legal, cultural, and economic institutions to rally popular opposition to their rule. He could defy the reigning consensus of bending history toward justice defined in liberal-progressive terms.
This was the idea Trump's electoral success inspired: He (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.
That's how Donald Trump gave the most pessimistic conservatives hope — by convincing them they need not accept the existing arrangement of things as a given. Trump inspired them to become radicals, even revolutionaries, while simultaneously holding onto their moral convictions about the rightful ordering of society. Now, those convictions both fuel the newfound revolutionary spirit and serve as a guidepost to a post-revolutionary future, when conservatives will supposedly gain the upper hand and at long last prevail over their opponents.
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.