George Nash: American Conservatism and the ‘Problem’ of Populism

George Nash, the notable historian of conservatism, has a worthy piece in The New Criterion (“Populism, I: American Conservatism and the Problem of Populism”) that serves as an overview of conservatism since the mid-20th century, and what historical forces are in play in the current dissension within conservative ranks.

In 1945, at the close of World War II, no articulate, coordinated conservative intellectual force existed in the United States. There were, at most, scattered voices of protest, some of them profoundly pessimistic about the future of their country… History, in fact, seemed to be what the Left was making. The Left—liberals, socialists, even Communists—appeared to be in complete control of the twentieth century.

In the beginning, in the aftermath of the war, there was not one right-wing renaissance but three, each reacting in different ways to challenge from the Left.

What Nash has in mind here are:

  • Libertarianism, of the sort which emanated from Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944)
  • Traditionalism, epitomized by Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953)
  • Anti-communism, from the likes of Whittaker Chambers.

Nash writes:

Each of these emerging components of the conservative revival shared a deep antipathy to twentieth-century liberalism. To the libertarians, modern liberalism—the liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt and his successors—was the ideology of the ever-aggrandizing, bureaucratic, welfare state, which would, if unchecked, become a collectivist, totalitarian state, destroying individual liberty and the private sphere of life. To the traditionalists, modern liberalism was inherently a corrosive philosophy, which was eating away like an acid not only at our liberties but also at the moral and religious foundations of a healthy, traditional society, thereby creating a vast spiritual vacuum into which totalitarianism could enter. To the Cold War anticommunists, modern liberalism—rationalistic, relativistic, secular, anti-traditional, and quasi-socialist—was by its very nature incapable of vigorously resisting an enemy on its left. Liberalism to them was part of the Left and could not, therefore, effectively repulse a foe with which it shared so many underlying assumptions. As the conservative Cold War strategist James Burnham eventually and trenchantly put it, liberalism was essentially a means for reconciling the West to its own destruction. Liberalism, he said, was the ideology of Western suicide.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the three independent wings of the conservative revolt against the Left began to coalesce around National Review, founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955…

Politically, the postwar, Buckleyite Right found its first national expression in the campaign of Senator Barry Goldwater for the presidency of the United States in 1964…

We know how that ended up… but a path was nonetheless forged.

New voices joined the mix: in the 1970s the ‘Religious Right’ became a powerful faction of conservatism, and a conservative coalition reached its 20th century apotheosis with the election of Ronaldus Maximus:

By the end of President Ronald Reagan’s second term in 1989, the American Right had grown to encompass five distinct impulses: libertarianism, traditionalism, anticommunism, neoconservatism, and the Religious Right. And just as Buckley had done for conservatives a generation before, so Reagan in the 1980s did the same: he performed an emblematic and ecumenical function—a fusionist function, giving each faction a seat at the table and a sense of having arrived.

With the fall of the Soviet communism in 1989, however, the communist threat that unified the conservative coalition was no more, and ‘tribalism’ broke out.

Paleoconservatism”, which manifested itself in Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns, was a phenomenon of the 90s, introducing nationalism into the fray.

George W. Bush’s presidency (“compassionate conservatism” + neonconservative foreign policy) was very much a rebuke of Buchanan-styled paleoconservatism, sowing the seeds of discontent that would lead to the Tea Party movement and it’s disdain for “RINOs”, etc.

Nash rightly turns his attention to the wild card factor (or paradigm shifter) of recent decades: the absolutely unprecendented levels of non-Western immigration into the United States:

The number of international students, for instance, attending American colleges and universities now exceeds one million per year—more than triple what it was in 1980. More than 800,000 of these students are from China. In addition, the United States is now admitting a million immigrants into permanent, legal residence every year—more than any other nation in the world. And the number of illegal immigrants currently within America’s borders is estimated as at least eleven million.

This unprecedented, worldwide intermingling, not just of goods and services but of peoples and cultures, is accelerating, with consequences (and concomitant trends) that we have barely begun to fathom. Among them: the rise in the past twenty years of a post-national, even anti-national, sensibility among our cosmopolitan, progressive elites and young people. Closely linked to these denationalizing tendencies is the now entrenched ideology of multiculturalism, with its relativistic celebration not of America’s achievements and singularity but of its “diversity” defined in racial and ethnic terms. In precincts where “transnational progressivism” (as it has been called) holds sway, the very idea of a permanent and praiseworthy American identity seems increasingly passé if not slightly sinister.

Compounding conservative unease is another trend: a rising tide of amnesia about America’s past and animating principles. According to a report by the Bradley Project on America’s National Identity in 2008, “America is facing an identity crisis,” brought on in part by the failure of the country’s education system to impart an adequate knowledge of “our history and founding ideals” to the next generation. As a result, the Bradley study concluded, “America’s memory appears to be slipping away.” It seems no accident that Americans under thirty—the demographic most steeped in multiculturalism from grade school to graduate school—adhere less strongly as a group to the tenets of American Exceptionalism than do any other segments of the population. For conservatives of a patriotic/nationalist inclination, it is a disconcerting development indeed.

Nash turns his attention to the variants of Leftwing populism and Rightwing populism gaining massive traction across the Western world, before turning his attention to Der Trumpenfuhrer:

What I did not foresee before the summer of 2015 was the volcanic eruption of a new and even angrier brand of populism, a hybrid that we now call Trumpism.

Politically, Trumpism’s antecedents may be found in the presidential campaigns of Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan for president in 1992 and 1996. Stylistically, the Trump campaign of early 2016 recalled the turbulence and rough rhetoric of George Wallace’s campaign rallies in 1968. Ideologically, Trumpism bears a striking resemblance to the anti-interventionist, anti-globalist, immigration-restrictionist, and “America First” worldview propounded by various paleoconservatives during the 1990s and ever since. It is no accident that Buchanan, for example, is thrilled by Trump’s candidacy…

I believe we are witnessing in an inchoate form a phenomenon never before seen in this country: an ideologically muddled, “nationalist–populist” major party combining both leftwing and rightwing elements. In its fundamental outlook and public policy concerns it seems akin to the National Front in France, the United Kingdom Independence Party in Great Britain, the Alternative for Germany party, and similar protest movements in Europe. Most of these insurgent parties are conventionally labeled rightwing, but some of them are noticeably statist and welfare–statist in their economics—as is Trumpism in certain respects.

To an extent, Nash sees the Trump Phenomenon as an Above/Below dynamic, as opposed to a Left/Right dynamic, something prophesied by James Burnham and Sam Francis:

The rise of Trumpism in the past year has laid bare a potentially dangerous chasm in American politics: not so much between the traditional Left and Right but rather (as someone has put it) between those above and those below on the socio-economic scale.

An interesting thesis of Nash’s is the critical role of new media technologies and their historical relationship to waves of populism:

Facilitating the Trumpist “revolt of the masses” is a revolutionary transformation of the structure and velocity of mass communication, another facet of the phenomenon called globalization. In the past, upsurges of populist sentiment have often coincided with innovations in communication technology that rendered the voices of the “little people” more discernible and easier to mobilize. The era of Jacksonian Democracy (1828–1860) saw the proliferation of inexpensive urban newspapers that both catered to, and shaped, the tastes and political sympathies of their non-elite readership. The “populistic” 1890s witnessed the dawn of sensationalized, yellow journalism. One of its pioneers was the flamboyant business mogul William Randolph Hearst—a millionaire and Democrat who attempted to become President in 1904. In the 1930s the careers of Franklin Roosevelt, Huey Long, and Father Coughlin (the “radio priest”) benefited from the immense popularity of the new medium of radio and from the growing distribution of newsreels that millions of Americans saw every week in movie theaters. In the early 1950s the mass marketing of millions of television sets and the rise of political interview shows on television networks enhanced the visibility and popularity of Joseph McCarthy (though ultimately the new medium helped do him in).

Similarly, in our own time, the spectacular efflorescence of talk radio, cable news networks, the internet, smart phones, and social media have radically enhanced “the power in the people” and diminished the ability of elites to control and manipulate public opinion. In 2015 and 2016 the success of Donald Trump owed much to his masterful exploitation of these relatively new media, including two—Facebook and Twitter—that did not exist a mere fifteen years ago.

Nash briefly delves into the ‘Alt Right’ phenomenon before noting:

[I]n all my years as a historian of conservatism I have never observed as much dissension on the Right as there is at present.

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