This election season, the candidacy of Donald Trump has provoked a crise de conscience in the ranks of conservatives. But whatever our sympathy for those who banded together to oppose Trump in the January 21 issue of The National Review, or for the politicians who have brawled with him on stage, and of whatever use such gestures are politically, they surely have had little value in clarifying the crisis of conservatism that has led to Trump’s rise. Instead of focusing on Trump’s business practices and on the ignorance of his supporters, conservatives might do well to consider the possibility that his success reflects an objective political reality: the relative uselessness in a victimocracy of taking “conservative positions,” when the more urgent task is to relegitimize the liberal-conservative dialogue through which policy has traditionally gotten made in a democratic republic. In a word, restoring the art of the deal.
As the defense of the legitimacy, if not the perfection, of the status quo, conservatism is less a doctrine than a rule of thumb, the simplest version of which is no doubt William F. Buckley’s “standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” In the left-right dichotomy born with the seating arrangement in the Assemblée Nationale in 1789, the left defends the moral model of reciprocal equality while the right defends the privileges of firstness in the service of the community. For the left, inequality of reward, if not of power, is in principle illegitimate, and can be tolerated only out of necessity. For the right, social hierarchy, the reward of firstness, is valid in principle. The right is not necessarily conservative; the far right can be as militant in its defense of privileges as the far left in its attack on them. The beginnings of the moderate right philosophy that can specifically be called conservatism were defined in Edmund Burke’s 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France as what we might call a zero-based philosophy of social change: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; appreciate the fact that it works at all.
As this suggests, with the extremes removed, the two sides are not symmetrical. The left demands major changes in the system, and seeks to accrue more power to the government in order to implement them. The right tends to find the system basically acceptable and agrees to change it only reluctantly, except perhaps to walk back some of the left’s changes. Yet the very fact of sitting in the same chamber implies that the two sides hope to reach a compromise through negotiation—as was still the case in 1789. As applied to non-revolutionary parliamentary situations, the right realizes that the left can disrupt the social order if its demands are not met; the left realizes that when the disruption reaches a certain level, the state, even under a left-leaning administration, must defend this order by force. So long as both sides sit together, they tacitly agree, as Churchill put it in a different context, that jaw jaw is preferable to war war.
This system has functioned, not without crises, throughout the history of American democracy. In particular, from the late 19th century through the 1950s, the elected representatives of the various regional, industrial, occupational, and other interest groups, most notably the countervailing market forces of capital and labor, negotiated over specifics while largely confining their moral arguments to rhetoric to rally their supporters. Conservatism was never a major consideration throughout this period; the Republican party, representing large and small business interests, generally took a Burkean perspective (exception: Teddy Roosevelt), but was little concerned with doctrine as such.
But since 1989, the perspective of the New Left, which began in the 1960s as a campus-based opposition to the Vietnam War and came to attack liberal democracy itself, has gone mainstream. After the fall of the USSR, the left no longer needed affirm the superiority of liberal democracy over communism; it was the only game in town. And now that the market system is tacitly understood by both sides to be the final system—Fukuyama’s end of history—a permanent quasi-revolutionary situation is paradoxically reestablished. Since the system is in principle invulnerable, there is no a priori limit to the degree of unrest it can tolerate. The result is an attitude analogous to the behavior of naughty children secure in their parents’ care, one that flourishes more freely on university campuses than in serious workplaces, but which nonetheless increasingly sets the tone for the Democratic party, as Sanders’ surprising success has revealed. In particular, there has been a growing tendency on the left to replace its former structural focus—defending labor against capital—by a fight against inequality attributed to ascriptive differences—seeking justice within the Nazi-Jew/master-slave/colonizer-colonized model.
Because even in the past the left tolerated but never truly embraced the model of politics as negotiation among countervailing interest groups, the right has remained largely unaware of the revolutionary potential of this new development. In political terms, it is far easier to justify wealth differentials along structural lines than to defend against the attribution of differentials among ascriptive groups to “white privilege.”
Traditional conservatives, unprepared for this change in configuration, have been blind-sided by the resulting accusations of race and gender prejudice. The term “PC,” by which conservatives refer to the victimary phenomenon when they do so at all, reduces it to a matter of etiquette, ignoring its deeper political implications. The Republican presidential candidates have almost entirely avoided victimary issues despite their preponderance in the Democratic program: reducing incarceration and criminal prosecution, restraining the police, raising women’s pay from “77 cents on the dollar” and granting women sex-related health benefits, granting “transgendered” boys access to women’s bathrooms, identifying voter-ID laws with “voter suppression,” and generally treating Wall Street, the “one percent,” “millionaires and billionaires” and “the Koch brothers” not merely as greedy cheats but as sustainers of “white privilege”—not to speak of encouraging the “crybullying” about racism and the “rape culture” that goes on at college campuses. Only Trump and, while he was active, Ben Carson (whose recent endorsement of Trump confirms their agreement on this point) have conspicuously denounced PC, and none have made it the focus of their campaigns, except on the point of limiting immigration, which Trump has made so to speak his trump card.
And it goes unmentioned on the right as well as the left that the result of the latter’s promotion of minority concerns not as group interests but in the guise of victimary social justice is that, while its bureaucratic saviors enrich themselves, the minority community has experienced previously unknown levels of social disintegration, with results clearly visible in Detroit, Baltimore, Washington DC, Saint Louis…. There are precious few fora to the left of the ominous “alt-right” where such concerns can be aired.
As I pointed out in Chronicle 508, Trump embodies far more than he articulates resistance to the victimocracy. Yet this is indeed an issue concerning which, at this historical moment, embodiment is more important than articulation. Although Trump rarely denounces PC by name, his demeanor loudly proclaims his rejection of White Guilt—unlike Bernie, he has no trouble telling Black Lives Matter protesters that “all lives matter.” Trump’s unexpected staying power—leading to his “presidential” performance at the March 10 debate—reflects to my mind far more than attractiveness to the benighted bearers of poor-white resentment. On the contrary, Trump’s continual emphasis on “deals” suggests a sharp intuition of how to adapt conservatism to the current victimocratic context. Before we can exercise Buckley’s Burkean resistance to unnecessary change, we have to return to the left-right dichotomy of the Assemblée Nationale. What is required at this moment is not conservatism as usual, but second-degree conservatism, metaconservatism.
The contempt of the voting public for Washington’s inability to “get anything done” reflects the fact that under the current administration, the shift of Democratic politics from liberalism to progressivism, from focusing on the concerns of the working class to those of ascriptive minorities, involves a fundamental change from defending interests to seeking justice. The first can be negotiated on a more or less level footing with opposing interests; the second can only be resisted by unregenerate evil-doers, which is more or less the way the current president and his potential Democratic successors characterize the representatives of the other party. In this noxious context, the (meta)conservative position is not to deny victimary claims, but to normalize them: to turn them back into assertions of interests to be negotiated as political questions were in days of old—in a word, into issues that can be settled by making a deal.
Victimary activism should not in itself guarantee representative status for its leaders on campuses and elsewhere. But when university officials find it appropriate to hold discussions with representatives of the black or gay or Muslim student body, by making it clear that they view the latter as interest groups rather than as communities of the oppressed, they can avoid putting themselves, as such officials all too often do, in a situation of moral inferiority. There is no reason not to allow a group to express what it considers its legitimate interests; there is every reason not to consider the expression of these interests a priori as “demands for justice.”
In their preoccupation with denouncing Trump as a false conservative, the guardians of the flame forget that at a time when the victimary left seeks to portray the normal order of things in American society as founded on privilege and discrimination, Trump’s supporters turn to him as a figure of hope because his mind, unclouded by White Guilt, views the political battlefield, foreign as well as domestic, as a place for making deals. This used to be called Realpolitik.
All too often, to read today’s mainstream press, let alone more extreme publications such as the new New Republic or Salon, is to be subjected to the verbal equivalent of race war. The political discourse of Sanders and Clinton is deeply impregnated with this same rhetoric. Whether or not Trump is its nominee, I hope the Republican party does not need another general election loss to teach it that to articulate and defend a conservative position today, it is first necessary to reject the victimary moralization of politics and return to the liberal-democratic continuum within which conflicts can be mediated. At that point, regardless of the party in power, liberals and conservatives can argue their points, and then come together and make a deal.