The Inherent Tension

Top Stories of the Year: #2

I ended the last item in my countdown of the top stories of the year by observing the irony that a non-ideological figure like Donald Trump could trigger a broad ideological transformation of the entire American conservative movement.

Perhaps this is because those who are seeking to promote that ideological change project their agenda onto him, trying to harness his electoral victory to give credibility to their own ideas. That’s what a lot of people are doing to Prime Minister Boris Johnson right now in response to his historic victory in the British general election. At The American Conservative, Robert Merry tries to draft Johnson as an anti-“globalism” populist working to strike down pro-free-market “neoliberalism.” Merry benefits from a symbiosis with the left, which hyperventilates about “a reanimated Thatcherite vision of exclusionary, anti-egalitarian, moralizing social Darwinism.” Then along comes Boris himself trying to make nice with Remainers by promising to “develop a new and warm pro-Europeanism” and reassuring traditional Labour voters by promising to “invest in the [National Health Service], in schools, in safer streets, in housing.” Read Boris and for better or for worse, you will hardly find him to be the radical others want him to be. (And to head off other inappropriate comparisons, you will also find him to be very different from Donald Trump, not least in his eagerness to share credit for his accomplishments.)

But perhaps this is also because the ideological change precipitated by Donald Trump’s election is not really as fundamental a transformation as we would like to think. Perhaps the Trump era merely drew out an ideological tendency in conservatism that was always there.


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As a longtime critic of conservatism, I am not going to pretend to be completely surprised by this idea. Even so, I originally resisted this as a conclusion from the 2016 election, because I had just seen so many conservatives put forth their maximum effort to prevent Trump from being nominated and then, in many cases, continue to resist him in the general election. Since then, I have watched many of them convert, one by one, not just to reluctant support for Trump, but to support for the illiberal agenda that has adopted him as its figurehead. After overcoming their initial inhibitions, they found this was a direction they wanted to go after all.

First, let’s define what that direction is and how we have seen this ideological transformation unfold over the course of this year.

It began very early in the year with Tucker Carlson’s intensifying campaign against capitalism.

Former presidential candidate and incoming Senator Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed criticizing Donald Trump’s character and some of his recent decisions. That triggered a long and vitriolic response from Tucker Carlson. Carlson is not just a random conservative commentator. He is the leading host at Fox News, in its most prominent 8:00 PM slot, a position he has been elevated to because of his role as a Trump apologist. So what he says is a leading indicator of the ideological direction of the Trump-era right.

Ignoring everything Romney said about character or morality, about foreign policy or domestic tribalism, Carlson denounced Romney—and, by extension, other Trump critics on the right—for promoting free markets….

This is exactly what we feared from the Trump era: the American right is being turned toward European-style collectivist nationalism. It offers all the big government anti-capitalism of the economic collectivists and all the meddling social agenda of the religious right.

By the middle of the year, he was getting a lot more explicit about this, as in his praise for Elizabeth Warren’s economic proposals, an agenda I summed up as left-wing authoritarianism.

Here is Tucker Carlson, who has become the most popular voice of right-wing anti-capitalism. “Yesterday, Warren released what she’s calling her ‘plan for economic patriotism.’ Amazingly, that’s pretty much exactly what it is: economic patriotism…. Many of Warren’s policy prescriptions make obvious sense: she says the US government should buy American products when it can. Of course it should. She says we need more workplace apprenticeship programs, because four-year degrees aren’t right for everyone. That’s true. She says taxpayers ought to benefit from the research and development they fund. And yet, she writes, ‘we often see American companies take that research and use it to manufacture products overseas, like Apple did with the iPhone. The companies get rich, and American taxpayers have subsidized the creation of low-wage foreign jobs.’ And so on. She sounds like Donald Trump at his best.”

Carlson calls for a political faction that would be “nationalist on economics, fairly traditional on the social issues.” What he is calling for is an authoritarian synthesis in which the government will tell you what to do in the boardroom and in the bedroom. Fortunately, I don’t think there is yet a broad market for this synthesis, though a number of conservatives are trying to talk themselves into the idea.

They certainly are talking themselves into it. Tucker Carlson’s anti-market screeds were already being backed up on a more intellectual level by an ideological movement that announced itself in the middle of the year with Sohrab Ahmari’s attack on traditional Reaganite conservative David French. It was a Twitter spat that escalated out of control and became the symbol of a deeper ideological rift.

What looks like a debate over how we fight for our political goals is actually a fight over what our political goals should be….

Ahmari links to a manifesto published in First Things last March which denounced the “Dead Consensus” of the right…. So what was that manifesto all about? It was about purging from the right defenders of civil liberties and the free market, who are, as Ahmari considers them, merely “conservative liberals.” Instead, Ahmari and First Things favor what can only be called illiberal conservatism….

Ahmari denounces French for his “horror of the state, of traditional authority and the use of the public power to advance the common good, including in the realm of public morality.”… But this is not just limited to the culture war. The First Things manifesto begins with sneering references to “individual autonomy” but then moves on to denouncing “the cult of competitiveness,” “free trade,” “economic libertarianism,” “the demands of capital,” “investors and ‘job creators'”—note the gratuitous scare quotes—and “warmed-over Reaganism.”

As for the culture war dimension, I summed up the illiberal conservatives’ agenda as “antidisestablishmentarianism.” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explains that the goal is “creating a new semi-establishment [of religion] that would be Catholic-Evangelical-Jewish.” One of my readers refers to this as an attempt to “re-Christianize” America. But I disagree. It’s a reaction to the conservatives’ failure to re-Christianize America.

[I]f Communism was “the god that failed,” the Catholic Church is the god that failed first…. The church has a 2,000-year-long history of promising the supremacy of virtue on Earth and instead delivering endemic, unreformable moral corruption. And this is still ongoing. The Catholic Church has been embroiled for the past few decades in a scandal in which it has failed to forthrightly admit to a vast scale of sexual exploitation within its own ranks and failed to hold the miscreants and their protectors to account.

How is the church going to save American culture if it cannot even save itself?

But it will never get the opportunity to try. If the illiberal conservatives get their way and promote the idea that coercion is better than persuasion, if they knock down the barriers of free markets and civil liberties that keep the state from imposing its moral agenda—what makes the religious right think that they will be the ones to choose the state’s agenda?…

If we stop making this about freedom and start making this into a contest over which faction gets to regulate everyone’s ideas and actions, then…it’s just a matter of which faction is bigger, more strident, and closer to the levers of power. And my spoiler alert for the Catholics is: this is not going to be you.

The reason this illiberal version of conservatism has spread so rapidly—by the end of the year, it found support from ideological chameleon Marco Rubio and even won concessions from David French himself—is because of what one conservative writer referred to as ideological “tensions” within the right. I translated that euphemism.

The problem is that the “tensions in our political life”…reflect a real and profound contradiction in the philosophy of conservatism. Conservatism is an attempt to combine religious belief with advocacy of liberty, and over the long term, those two things don’t combine terribly well.

There is, of course, some historical precedent for such combination—John Locke and most of the Founding Fathers were both Christians and fierce advocates of liberty—which is how the uneasy ideological alliances of the conservative movement were able to come together in the first place. But the philosophical contradictions are still there, and as we can see in this case, the fundamental dividing line is individualism. Faith will always, inevitably, tend to demand the subordination of the individual to religious authority—yet the case for liberty necessarily depends on the assertion of the independence of the individual.

By late in the year, it became crystal clear that the conflict is between individualism and nationalism. “Nationalism” is a term with different meanings, and there is some debate over whether the term necessarily implies collectivism. But that abstract debate is moot, because it is clear that the group currently calling themselves “nationalists” mean the term in a collectivist sense. A National Review report on a conference of “national conservatives” summed it up: “Their ultimate destination was a rejection of the individual as the basis for political life.” That’s a paraphrase of one of the conference organizers, Yoram Hazony, who issued this manifesto.

“Today we declare independence,” Hazony said, “from neoliberalism, from libertarianism, from what they call classical liberalism. From the set of ideas that sees the atomic individual, the free and equal individual, as the only thing that matters in politics.”… Anti-individualism seems to be the unifying theory of the ascendant political right.

This kind of collectivism is bad enough, but once you start defining people by group identity, things can get ugly fast. The conservatives’ punishment for their flirtation with anti-individualist nationalism is the so-called “Groyper War,” an attempt by the slightly re-branded racists of the “alt-right” to take over the conservative movement, with the help of a few high-profile defectors like Michelle Malkin.

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This is just a sampling from my coverage of this year’s ideological transmogrification of the right. But I should add that I see this change even more vividly because I make a living writing about politics, and that puts me in contact with a lot of other writers on the right. Some of them I have seen change to fit the new anti-individualist mood—or at least, they have had this aspect drawn out of them. Others I’ve seen lose jobs because they didn’t go along with it. I’ve lost a job (at The Federalist) because I didn’t go along with it.

I think Objectivists are going to find that we didn’t know how good we had it. From Barry Goldwater to the Tea Party movement, for about 50 years there was a prominent individualist strain running through the ideology of the American right, one that was indirectly and in many cases directly influenced by Ayn Rand. The influence was often very watered down, as with figures like Paul Ryan, but it was there. What we’re starting to see is what the right will look if Ayn Rand’s conservative critics get their way and the movement is completely purged of her influence.

As readers know, I’m the kind of guy who takes seriously that old saw about “crisis” being the word for “danger” and “opportunity.” So here was the rallying cry I issued in response.

For Objectivists, frankly, this is our moment—a moment of opportunity and also a real challenge to us to step up when America requires our voices. The disturbing part of the past few years has been watching one conservative intellectual after another, one conservative institution after another, succumb to the new fad of illiberal conservatism—and to see that there is no real institution capable of mounting a strong, truly intellectual, philosophical defense of liberalism….

Coming to the rescue of the right, and of the country as a whole, is a job for which Objectivists are uniquely prepared. At any rate, I see this as a task for which I am uniquely prepared, and that’s what I intend to be doing in the next few years.

I have already described the project I intend to use as the vehicle for this defense of the “autonomous individual”—and I will be sharing with you soon my explanation of why I think “autonomy,” the target chosen by the illiberal conservatives, is such a rich and fascinating concept, and why it is particularly good ground on which to mount a defense of the individual.

Someone also recently repeated to me the notion that we shouldn’t waste time on politics and instead focus on “changing the culture.” But the rise of the illiberal right shows that this is a false alternative. Politics is part of the culture, an arena in which people encounter moral and philosophical issues in ways that are often stark and vivid. That’s especially true in the current era, when politics seems to be replacing religion as the main focus of people’s devotion to spiritual issues.

Reason versus emotion, individualism versus collectivism, heck even Plato versus Aristotle—I deal with these issues all the time in writing about politics. And “autonomy” is an issue that starts on the level of metaphysics and goes all the way up. So I view the attacks on individualism as an opportunity to restate and renew the case for individualism.

If you have any doubts about whether this cause can win—well, wait for my overview of the top story of the year, which I will send out just after Christmas.

In the meantime, help me make the case for individualism in this grand arena of political debate with your subscriptions and support. Also remember that this is your last chance to buy a friend a gift subscription to The Tracinski Letter before Christmas. Order by noon on December 24 to make sure they will get a notice of the gift before Christmas Day.—RWT

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