Now, one thing that political commentators are expected to do is to provide some sorts of prognostications of the future – after all, what good is the study of politics and political science if none of it’s prescriptive? And a lot of what I’ve been doing, with these posts that keep referencing ones I’ve written previously, and letting ideas and concepts build on each other, is to try and acclimate you guys to my way of thinking, so that when I do lay everything out on the table and explain where I think American politics is going in the future, it won’t seem radical so much as a logical (albeit distressing, spoilers) progression from where we are now. I’m not ready to do that just yet, and nor do I claim infallibility in my vision, of course – in fact, given how grim the future looks from here, I desperately hope I am wrong in significant ways. But that’s the future piece that I’m building towards, and before I get there, I’m going to address the more immediate issues facing the political left and right in this country. Now, as you guys may remember from my introduction, I think it’s fallacious to see the left and the right as mirror images of each other, so what troubles the left is very different from the issues that plague the right. That said, I don’t think the order in which I address them matters too much, so let’s start with the right.
Now, these readings of the tea leaves are going to be more ambitious than what I’ve been writing so far – in the past, I’ve been condensing things for space, but for this I want to do these concepts and philosophies justice, so I tried to decide whether I should greatly expand the length of the individual posts, or make these two-parters each for left and right. In the end, I’ve decided to split the difference; this will be longer than usual, but I’ll be wrapping up the discussion of the right on Thursday.
Now, you’ll note the title today talks about the future of the “radical” right specifically – the reason for this is that the right has a different story than the left, where it’s accepted routine for the fringes of far-right thinking to be drawn into the mainstream of politics and challenge conservative orthodoxy. This tradition goes back a long way, as well, with Steve Bannon and his ilk merely being the latest incarnation of this dynamic. As weird as it looks for CPAC to welcome Donald Trump and celebrate all that he is, when just a year beforehand they were working overtime to stop his bid for the Republican nomination, it’s not much weirder than a sitting Congressman (a Democrat, oddly enough, but the 70’s still had right-wing Democrats) becoming President of the John Birch Society in 1983, the organization that William F. Buckley called “far removed from common sense”. Or how about 1987, when Alan Greenspan, a devotee of Ayn Rand, traditionally verboten on the right for her atheism, became chairman of the Federal Reserve? For all of the progressive fretting about “normalization” in the wake of Trump’s election, normalizing the far right goes back as far as there’s been a recognizable far right. And speaking of Ayn Rand, the man who’s second in line for the Presidency famously requires his staff to read Atlas Shrugged.
Of course, Paul Ryan holds the Speakership of the House of Representatives precisely because his veneration for Ayn Rand has become, well, normalized; the dark side of this word we’re using is that not only will radical and potentially dangerous ideas come into the mainstream of our political discourse, but that more radical thoughts will replace them at the fringes, leaving someone like Ryan as a compromise choice. And that dynamic explains the place the right is at right now – Ronald Reagan’s mix of Rand and John Birch-influenced economics, politicized evangelicalism, and neoconservative foreign policy has become trite and rote, which explains why his name has become so deified on the right. This collection of different policies has been the conventional dogma of the Republican Party for decades, but because it’s dogma, the Jeb Bushes and Marco Rubios of the world no longer understand why Reagan stood for this particular policy synthesis and how these disparate positions fit together, and so they invoke Reagan’s name and catchphrases like “conservative values”, to try and recapture that synthesis for reasons they don’t understand themselves because they don’t know what else there is. So, not only has Reaganism become self-justifying in the Republican Party, but a mix of policy failures and shifting social dynamics also mean that it doesn’t hold the same relevance to voters that it did back in the 80’s. Rod Dreher touches upon the artificiality of these policy stances when he deconstructs David Brooks’ reaction to Trump’s recent address to Congress:
“Do you realize that there are as many years between the time Reagan left office and Trump was sworn in as there was between Eisenhower’s inauguration and Reagan’s? The Republicans coasted on Reaganism for a long time. Trump instinctively sensed that the House That Reagan Built was riddled with termites, and wouldn’t stand if given a shove…George W. Bush’s calamitous war in Iraq destroyed the eagerness of Americans to serve as the world’s policeman. The fact that average Americans have fallen farther behind, and more economically insecure, while most of the economic gains of the past decades have accrued to the top of the economic pyramid has disillusioned many about the virtues of free-market ideology…as for social conservatism, that’s complicated, but I think it’s mostly a matter of people not believing in it anymore, except in a nominal sense, and of people prioritizing other concerns.”
Now, I actually think there are some differences between Bush’s foreign policy and Reagan’s – Reagan didn’t share Bush’s faith in democracy as a transformative power, since that was a product of the peaceful fall of communism in Eastern Europe that only came after Reagan left office – but otherwise, Dreher touches on one major reason that Republicans are willing to abandon Reaganism at the behest of Trump. They don’t see Reagan’s old catechisms as being the solutions for the problems America faces right now, and because they’ve all but literally become catechisms, their defenders can’t easily fall back on the inherent logic behind these positions to defend them – they’re not used to having to justify them. There’s one other major reason why Trumpism is supplanting Reaganism, and I think it speaks to the unrecognized glue that has held the far-right together for as long as it has; Trumpism is accepted because Trump advocates it, and, more importantly, Democrats quite clearly despise Trump. To explain why this is important, I’m gonna have to talk about Richard Nixon and his role in shaping modern conservatism.
Now, Nixon is a complicated figure to say the least, and his relationship with the far right is equally so since he wasn’t really one of them, and for much of his career was mistrusted by self-proclaimed “principled conservatives”. Nevertheless, Watergate threw this tension, like so many other political arrangements, into chaos. I’ve found two excellent pieces on the conservative movement’s rally in the defense of Nixon during the scandal. Although I think the second, written by Rick Perlstein way back in 2005, offers a good portrait of how conservative honor has been contorted by the defense of Watergate, the first one, appearing in a blog mere days before the 2016 election, paints a more vivid picture of people’s reactions from the time. Nixon’s attempts to defend himself under scrutiny are familiar not only to people older than me who actually lived through Watergate, but to anyone who’s watched a politician face an embarrassing scandal: he attacked the investigation as a partisan witch hunt, claiming that “If I were a liberal, Watergate would be a blip”. These kinds of self-serving rationalizations are familiar, but perhaps more surprising is that for all that Congress, even its Republicans, were ready to go through with impeachment if the standoff continued, Nixon was still able to find allies elsewhere. Indeed, for some on the far right, it was his perceived persecution that constituted the entirety of his appeal to them: as Young Americans for Freedom founder M. Stanton Evans famously quipped, “I never liked Nixon until Watergate”. This is negative partisanship at its most pure – Nixon became virtuous in the eyes of the far right the moment he became a target for liberals, and the more zealously they investigated him, the more virtuous he became.
And that’s why I’m concerned about the threat posed by Trump – if there’s one thing he’s good at, it’s offending the Democratic Party. That’s not to say that there aren’t hundreds of legitimate reasons for it, and as a Democrat myself, I agree with most of the left’s grievances, but we need to recognize that our expressions of distaste give Trump more credibility on the right than a thousand invocations of Reagan’s name and ideals ever could. And this is also why I consider the idea of successfully impeaching Trump to be a fantasy – it would require that Congressional Republicans agree to remove him from office, but even if Republicans are increasingly no longer the Party of Reagan, they are still the Party of Nixon, with Tricky Dick serving not as inspiration or philosopher, but as martyr. To abandon one of their own in the face of left-wing attack is something that they’re sworn to never allow again, and in the face of radical shifts in what the Republican Party stands for, I’m still pretty convinced that this is one Rubicon that they’re not ready to cross. As for Democrats retaking Congress, well, be back Thursday, when I talk about Republican electoral power and what they can do with it. Suffice to say, I don’t think it’s too likely in the foreseeable future.