Publius Decius Mus was the pseudonym of Michael Anton, who in January of 2017 left the private sector to serve on the National Security Council. For his many other writings, visit his Claremont Review of Books author page.
2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.
Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.
To ordinary conservative ears, this sounds histrionic. The stakes can’t be that high because they are never that high—except perhaps in the pages of Gibbon. Conservative intellectuals will insist that there has been no “end of history” and that all human outcomes are still possible. They will even—as Charles Kesler does—admit that America is in “crisis.” But how great is the crisis? Can things really be so bad if eight years of Obama can be followed by eight more of Hillary, and yet Constitutionalist conservatives can still reasonably hope for a restoration of our cherished ideals? Cruz in 2024!
Not to pick (too much) on Kesler, who is less unwarrantedly optimistic than most conservatives. And who, at least, poses the right question: Trump or Hillary? Though his answer—“even if [Trump] had chosen his policies at random, they would be sounder than Hillary’s”—is unwarrantedly ungenerous. The truth is that Trump articulated, if incompletely and inconsistently, the right stances on the right issues—immigration, trade, and war—right from the beginning.
But let us back up. One of the paradoxes—there are so many—of conservative thought over the last decade at least is the unwillingness even to entertain the possibility that America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad. On the one hand, conservatives routinely present a litany of ills plaguing the body politic. Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don’t know anything and, at the primary and secondary levels, can’t (or won’t) discipline disruptive punks, and at the higher levels saddles students with six figure debts for the privilege. And so on and drearily on. Like that portion of the mass where the priest asks for your private intentions, fill in any dismal fact about American decline that you want and I’ll stipulate it.
Conservatives spend at least several hundred million dollars a year on think-tanks, magazines, conferences, fellowships, and such, complaining about this, that, the other, and everything. And yet these same conservatives are, at root, keepers of the status quo. Oh, sure, they want some things to change. They want their pet ideas adopted—tax deductions for having more babies and the like. Many of them are even good ideas. But are any of them truly fundamental? Do they get to the heart of our problems?
If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.
But it’s quite obvious that conservatives don’t believe any such thing, that they feel no such sense of urgency, of an immediate necessity to change course and avoid the cliff. A recent article by Matthew Continetti may be taken as representative—indeed, almost written for the purpose of illustrating the point. Continetti inquires into the “condition of America” and finds it wanting. What does Continetti propose to do about it? The usual litany of “conservative” “solutions,” with the obligatory references to decentralization, federalization, “civic renewal,” and—of course!—Burke. Which is to say, conservatism’s typical combination of the useless and inapt with the utopian and unrealizable. Decentralization and federalism are all well and good, and as a conservative, I endorse them both without reservation. But how are they going to save, or even meaningfully improve, the America that Continetti describes? What can they do against a tidal wave of dysfunction, immorality, and corruption? “Civic renewal” would do a lot of course, but that’s like saying health will save a cancer patient. A step has been skipped in there somewhere. How are we going to achieve “civic renewal”? Wishing for a tautology to enact itself is not a strategy.
Continetti trips over a more promising approach when he writes of “stress[ing] the ‘national interest abroad and national solidarity at home’ through foreign-policy retrenchment, ‘support to workers buffeted by globalization,’ and setting ‘tax rates and immigration levels’ to foster social cohesion.” That sounds a lot like Trumpism. But the phrases that Continetti quotes are taken from Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, both of whom, like Continetti, are vociferously—one might even say fanatically—anti-Trump. At least they, unlike Kesler, give Trump credit for having identified the right stance on today’s most salient issues. Yet, paradoxically, they won’t vote for Trump whereas Kesler hints that he will. It’s reasonable, then, to read into Kesler’s esoteric endorsement of Trump an implicit acknowledgment that the crisis is, indeed, pretty dire. I expect a Claremont scholar to be wiser than most other conservative intellectuals, and I am relieved not to be disappointed in this instance.
Yet we may also reasonably ask: What explains the Pollyanna-ish declinism of so many others? That is, the stance that Things-Are-Really-Bad—But-Not-So-Bad-that-We-Have-to-Consider-Anything-Really-Different! The obvious answer is that they don’t really believe the first half of that formulation. If so, like Chicken Little, they should stick a sock in it. Pecuniary reasons also suggest themselves, but let us foreswear recourse to this explanation until we have disproved all the others.
Whatever the reason for the contradiction, there can be no doubt that there is a contradiction. To simultaneously hold conservative cultural, economic, and political beliefs—to insist that our liberal-left present reality and future direction is incompatible with human nature and must undermine society—and yet also believe that things can go on more or less the way they are going, ideally but not necessarily with some conservative tinkering here and there, is logically impossible.
Let’s be very blunt here: if you genuinely think things can go on with no fundamental change needed, then you have implicitly admitted that conservatism is wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong on the nature of politics, and wrong in its policy prescriptions. Because, first, few of those prescriptions are in force today. Second, of the ones that are, the left is busy undoing them, often with conservative assistance. And, third, the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all understand as conservatism.
If your answer—Continetti’s, Douthat’s, Salam’s, and so many others’—is for conservatism to keep doing what it’s been doing—another policy journal, another article about welfare reform, another half-day seminar on limited government, another tax credit proposal—even though we’ve been losing ground for at least a century, then you’ve implicitly accepted that your supposed political philosophy doesn’t matter and that civilization will carry on just fine under leftist tenets. Indeed, that leftism is truer than conservatism and superior to it.
They will say, in words reminiscent of dorm-room Marxism—but our proposals have not been tried! Here our ideas sit, waiting to be implemented! To which I reply: eh, not really. Many conservative solutions—above all welfare reform and crime control—have been tried, and proved effective, but have nonetheless failed to stem the tide. Crime, for instance, is down from its mid-’70s and early ’90s peak—but way, way up from the historic American norm that ended when liberals took over criminal justice in the mid-’60s. And it’s rising fast today, in the teeth of ineffectual conservative complaints. And what has this temporary crime (or welfare, for that matter) decline done to stem the greater tide? The tsunami of leftism that still engulfs our every—literal and figurative—shore has receded not a bit but indeed has grown. All your (our) victories are short-lived.
More to the point, what has conservatism achieved lately? In the last 20 years? The answer—which appears to be “nothing”—might seem to lend credence to the plea that “our ideas haven’t been tried.” Except that the same conservatives who generate those ideas are in charge of selling them to the broader public. If their ideas “haven’t been tried,” who is ultimately at fault? The whole enterprise of Conservatism, Inc., reeks of failure. Its sole recent and ongoing success is its own self-preservation. Conservative intellectuals never tire of praising “entrepreneurs” and “creative destruction.” Dare to fail! they exhort businessmen. Let the market decide! Except, um, not with respect to us. Or is their true market not the political arena, but the fundraising circuit?
Only three questions matter. First, how bad are things really? Second, what do we do right now? Third, what should we do for the long term?
Conservatism, Inc.’s, “answer” to the first may, at this point, simply be dismissed. If the conservatives wish to have a serious debate, I for one am game—more than game; eager. The problem of “subjective certainty” can only be overcome by going into the agora. But my attempt to do so—the blog that Kesler mentions—was met largely with incredulity. How can they say that?! How can anyone apparently of our caste (conservative intellectuals) not merely support Trump (however lukewarmly) but offer reasons for doing do?
One of the Journal of American Greatness’s deeper arguments was that only in a corrupt republic, in corrupt times, could a Trump rise. It is therefore puzzling that those most horrified by Trump are the least willing to consider the possibility that the republic is dying. That possibility, apparently, seems to them so preposterous that no refutation is necessary.
As does, presumably, the argument that the stakes in 2016 are—everything. I should here note that I am a good deal gloomier than my (former) JAG colleagues, and that while we frequently used the royal “we” when discussing things on which we all agreed, I here speak only for myself.
How have the last two decades worked out for you, personally? If you’re a member or fellow-traveler of the Davos class, chances are: pretty well. If you’re among the subspecies conservative intellectual or politician, you’ve accepted—perhaps not consciously, but unmistakably—your status on the roster of the Washington Generals of American politics. Your job is to show up and lose, but you are a necessary part of the show and you do get paid. To the extent that you are ever on the winning side of anything, it’s as sophists who help the Davoisie oligarchy rationalize open borders, lower wages, outsourcing, de-industrialization, trade giveaways, and endless, pointless, winless war.
All of Trump’s 16 Republican competitors would have ensured more of the same—as will the election of Hillary Clinton. That would be bad enough. But at least Republicans are merely reactive when it comes to wholesale cultural and political change. Their “opposition” may be in all cases ineffectual and often indistinguishable from support. But they don’t dream up inanities like 32 “genders,” elective bathrooms, single-payer, Iran sycophancy, “Islamophobia,” and Black Lives Matter. They merely help ratify them.
A Hillary presidency will be pedal-to-the-metal on the entire Progressive-left agenda, plus items few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments. Nor is even that the worst. It will be coupled with a level of vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent hitherto seen in the supposedly liberal West only in the most “advanced” Scandinavian countries and the most leftist corners of Germany and England. We see this already in the censorship practiced by the Davoisie’s social media enablers; in the shameless propaganda tidal wave of the mainstream media; and in the personal destruction campaigns—operated through the former and aided by the latter—of the Social Justice Warriors. We see it in Obama’s flagrant use of the IRS to torment political opponents, the gaslighting denial by the media, and the collective shrug by everyone else.
It’s absurd to assume that any of this would stop or slow—would do anything other than massively intensify—in a Hillary administration. It’s even more ridiculous to expect that hitherto useless conservative opposition would suddenly become effective. For two generations at least, the Left has been calling everyone to their right Nazis. This trend has accelerated exponentially in the last few years, helped along by some on the Right who really do seem to merit—and even relish—the label. There is nothing the modern conservative fears more than being called “racist,” so alt-right pocket Nazis are manna from heaven for the Left. But also wholly unnecessary: sauce for the goose. The Left was calling us Nazis long before any pro-Trumpers tweeted Holocaust denial memes. And how does one deal with a Nazi—that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.
So what do we have to lose by fighting back? Only our Washington Generals jerseys—and paychecks. But those are going away anyway. Among the many things the “Right” still doesn’t understand is that the Left has concluded that this particular show need no longer go on. They don’t think they need a foil anymore and would rather dispense with the whole bother of staging these phony contests in which each side ostensibly has a shot.
If you haven’t noticed, our side has been losing consistently since 1988. We can win midterms, but we do nothing with them. Call ours Hannibalic victories. After the Carthaginian’s famous slaughter of a Roman army at Cannae, he failed to march on an undefended Rome, prompting his cavalry commander to complain: “you know how to win a victory, but not how to use one.” And, aside from 2004’s lackluster 50.7%, we can’t win the big ones at all.
Because the deck is stacked overwhelmingly against us. I will mention but three ways. First, the opinion-making elements—the universities and the media above all—are wholly corrupt and wholly opposed to everything we want, and increasingly even to our existence. (What else are the wars on “cis-genderism”—formerly known as “nature”—and on the supposed “white privilege” of broke hillbillies really about?) If it hadn’t been abundantly clear for the last 50 years, the campaign of 2015-2016 must surely have made it evident to even the meanest capacities that the intelligentsia—including all the organs through which it broadcasts its propaganda—is overwhelmingly partisan and biased. Against this onslaught, “conservative” media is a nullity, barely a whisper. It cannot be heard above the blaring of what has been aptly called “The Megaphone.”
Second, our Washington Generals self-handicap and self-censor to an absurd degree. Lenin is supposed to have said that “the best way to control the opposition is to lead it ourselves.” But with an opposition like ours, why bother? Our “leaders” and “dissenters” bend over backward to play by the self-sabotaging rules the Left sets for them. Fearful, beaten dogs have more thymos.
Third and most important, the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle. As does, of course, the U.S. population, which only serves to reinforce the two other causes outlined above. This is the core reason why the Left, the Democrats, and the bipartisan junta (categories distinct but very much overlapping) think they are on the cusp of a permanent victory that will forever obviate the need to pretend to respect democratic and constitutional niceties. Because they are.
It’s also why they treat open borders as the “absolute value,” the one “principle” that—when their “principles” collide—they prioritize above all the others. If that fact is insufficiently clear, consider this. Trump is the most liberal Republican nominee since Thomas Dewey. He departs from conservative orthodoxy in so many ways that National Review still hasn’t stopped counting. But let’s stick to just the core issues animating his campaign. On trade, globalization, and war, Trump is to the left (conventionally understood) not only of his own party, but of his Democratic opponent. And yet the Left and the junta are at one with the house-broken conservatives in their determination—desperation—not merely to defeat Trump but to destroy him. What gives?
Oh, right—there’s that other issue. The sacredness of mass immigration is the mystic chord that unites America’s ruling and intellectual classes. Their reasons vary somewhat. The Left and the Democrats seek ringers to form a permanent electoral majority. They, or many of them, also believe the academic-intellectual lie that America’s inherently racist and evil nature can be expiated only through ever greater “diversity.” The junta of course craves cheaper and more docile labor. It also seeks to legitimize, and deflect unwanted attention from, its wealth and power by pretending that its open borders stance is a form of noblesse oblige. The Republicans and the “conservatives”? Both of course desperately want absolution from the charge of “racism.” For the latter, this at least makes some sense. No Washington General can take the court—much less cash his check—with that epithet dancing over his head like some Satanic Spirit. But for the former, this priestly grace comes at the direct expense of their worldly interests. Do they honestly believe that the right enterprise zone or charter school policy will arouse 50.01% of our newer voters to finally reveal their “natural conservatism” at the ballot box? It hasn’t happened anywhere yet and shows no signs that it ever will. But that doesn’t stop the Republican refrain: more, more, more! No matter how many elections they lose, how many districts tip forever blue, how rarely (if ever) their immigrant vote cracks 40%, the answer is always the same. Just like Angela Merkel after yet another rape, shooting, bombing, or machete attack. More, more, more!
This is insane. This is the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die. Trump, alone among candidates for high office in this or in the last seven (at least) cycles, has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live. I want to end the insanity.
Yes, Trump is worse than imperfect. So what? We can lament until we choke the lack of a great statesman to address the fundamental issues of our time—or, more importantly, to connect them. Since Pat Buchanan’s three failures, occasionally a candidate arose who saw one piece: Dick Gephardt on trade, Ron Paul on war, Tom Tancredo on immigration. Yet, among recent political figures—great statesmen, dangerous demagogues, and mewling gnats alike—only Trump-the-alleged-buffoon not merely saw all three and their essential connectivity, but was able to win on them. The alleged buffoon is thus more prudent—more practically wise—than all of our wise-and-good who so bitterly oppose him. This should embarrass them. That their failures instead embolden them is only further proof of their foolishness and hubris.
Which they self-laud as “consistency”—adherence to “conservative principle,” defined by the 1980 campaign and the household gods of reigning conservative think-tanks. A higher consistency in the service of the national interest apparently eludes them. When America possessed a vast, empty continent and explosively growing industry, high immigration was arguably good policy. (Arguably: Ben Franklin would disagree.) It hasn’t made sense since World War I. Free trade was unquestionably a great boon to the American worker in the decades after World War II. We long ago passed the point of diminishing returns. The Gulf War of 1991 was a strategic victory for American interests. No conflict since then has been. Conservatives either can’t see this—or, worse, those who can nonetheless treat the only political leader to mount a serious challenge to the status quo (more immigration, more trade, more war) as a unique evil.
Trump’s vulgarity is in fact a godsend to the conservatives. It allows them to hang their public opposition on his obvious shortcomings and to ignore or downplay his far greater strengths, which should be even more obvious but in corrupt times can be deliberately obscured by constant references to his faults. That the Left would make the campaign all about the latter is to be expected. Why would the Right? Some—a few—are no doubt sincere in their belief that the man is simply unfit for high office. David Frum, who has always been an immigration skeptic and is a convert to the less-war position, is sincere when he says that, even though he agrees with much of Trump’s agenda, he cannot stomach Trump. But for most of the other #NeverTrumpers, is it just a coincidence that they also happen to favor Invade the World, Invite the World?
Another question JAG raised without provoking any serious attempt at refutation was whether, in corrupt times, it took a … let’s say … “loudmouth” to rise above the din of The Megaphone. We, or I, speculated: “yes.” Suppose there had arisen some statesman of high character—dignified, articulate, experienced, knowledgeable—the exact opposite of everything the conservatives claim to hate about Trump. Could this hypothetical paragon have won on Trump’s same issues? Would the conservatives have supported him? I would have—even had he been a Democrat.
Back on planet earth, that flight of fancy at least addresses what to do now. The answer to the subsidiary question—will it work?—is much less clear. By “it” I mean Trumpism, broadly defined as secure borders, economic nationalism, and America-first foreign policy. We Americans have chosen, in our foolishness, to disunite the country through stupid immigration, economic, and foreign policies. The level of unity America enjoyed before the bipartisan junta took over can never be restored.
But we can probably do better than we are doing now. First, stop digging. No more importing poverty, crime, and alien cultures. We have made institutions, by leftist design, not merely abysmal at assimilation but abhorrent of the concept. We should try to fix that, but given the Left’s iron grip on every school and cultural center, that’s like trying to bring democracy to Russia. A worthy goal, perhaps, but temper your hopes—and don’t invest time and resources unrealistically.
By contrast, simply building a wall and enforcing immigration law will help enormously, by cutting off the flood of newcomers that perpetuates ethnic separatism and by incentivizing the English language and American norms in the workplace. These policies will have the added benefit of aligning the economic interests of, and (we may hope) fostering solidarity among, the working, lower middle, and middle classes of all races and ethnicities. The same can be said for Trumpian trade policies and anti-globalization instincts. Who cares if productivity numbers tick down, or if our already somnambulant GDP sinks a bit further into its pillow? Nearly all the gains of the last 20 years have accrued to the junta anyway. It would, at this point, be better for the nation to divide up more equitably a slightly smaller pie than to add one extra slice—only to ensure that it and eight of the other nine go first to the government and its rentiers, and the rest to the same four industries and 200 families.
Will this work? Ask a pessimist, get a pessimistic answer. So don’t ask. Ask instead: is it worth trying? Is it better than the alternative? If you can’t say, forthrightly, “yes,” you are either part of the junta, a fool, or a conservative intellectual.
And if it doesn’t work, what then? We’ve established that most “conservative” anti-Trumpites are in the Orwellian sense objectively pro-Hillary. What about the rest of you? If you recognize the threat she poses, but somehow can’t stomach him, have you thought about the longer term? The possibilities would seem to be: Caesarism, secession/crack-up, collapse, or managerial Davoisie liberalism as far as the eye can see … which, since nothing human lasts forever, at some point will give way to one of the other three. Oh, and, I suppose, for those who like to pour a tall one and dream big, a second American Revolution that restores Constitutionalism, limited government, and a 28% top marginal rate.
But for those of you who are sober: can you sketch a more plausible long-term future than the prior four following a Trump defeat? I can’t either.
The election of 2016 is a test—in my view, the final test—of whether there is any virtù left in what used to be the core of the American nation. If they cannot rouse themselves simply to vote for the first candidate in a generation who pledges to advance their interests, and to vote against the one who openly boasts that she will do the opposite (a million more Syrians, anyone?), then they are doomed. They may not deserve the fate that will befall them, but they will suffer it regardless.