Don't Take the Benedict Option

Professor Goldman begins his Liberty Forum essay by urging a striking, but probably unworkable, reconception of the fundamental divide in conservative ranks. Rather than “the familiar distinctions between libertarianism and traditionalism, neoconservatism and paleoconservatism,” he proposes, it’s a conflict between “liberalism and reaction.”

Reaction—meaning reactionary politics such as Trumpism—is, according to Goldman, not easily compatible with classical liberalism. So the people who have been known as conservatives are splitting in two, as Never Trumpers roundly reject the style, and much of the content, of our new President’s politics. They are choosing to stick with limited government, constitutionalism, and—here Goldman makes one of his most distinctive points—a faith in rational debate as the heart of the political process. He could have done more to specify how rational debate should work in that process. Goldman sides with “classical liberalism,” not unreservedly, but as “the best available guide to the means and ends of politics.”

The seemingly fatal split on the Right was, he contends, prepared by a deep cause: the fundamentally poor fit between classical liberalism and “reaction.” The split therefore runs far deeper than the advent of Mr. Trump. It will also outlast him, Goldman suggests. The “patient,” the Right as a single entity, “is unlikely to be cured.”

Both the Never Trumpers’ passion for classical liberalism (as defined by Goldman or anyone else) and the reactionary nature of Trump supporters remain unproven here. But my deeper criticism of this perhaps overly ambitious essay arises from its suggestion, as I read it, that classical liberals are most fundamentally opposed not to Trump backers’ frequent acceptance of much of big government, but to the latter’s highly aggressive attitude toward the American establishment (or toward the Left, in the broadest sense of the term). It greatly troubles Goldman that some conservatives, even before the rise of Trump, “have dabbled in the endorsement of non-liberal means to liberal ends.”

How extensive and frequent the dabbling was, though, is unclear. It has usually meant “adopting populist strategies that cater to the prejudices of the public,” writes Goldman. “Conservative intellectuals have been willing to accept support where they could find it, without inquiring too deeply into its sources.” To help substantiate this, he cites “the role of conspiracy theories and racism in generating support for putatively [classical] liberal candidates and policies” long before Trump. (Presumably Goldman sees conspiracy theories as violating classical liberalism because they mix poorly with rational debate.) “Conservatives have also been less than vigilant about limited government when sympathetic figures are in office. Concerns about executive power, for example, have a way of disappearing when Republicans occupy the White House.”

Although both elements of what Goldman considers the fatally dividing Right oppose the expansive and heavily bureaucratized (“managerial” or “administrative”) state, classical liberals, in his account, have such an overriding loyalty to the Constitution that they are admirably unwilling to use presidential power aggressively to reduce the state’s reach. If, however, “reactionaries” on the Right want Presidents with relatively small government values to do everything reasonably possible to curb the bureaucratic state—and Trump does appear to believe in less government, overall, than any prominent Democrat—they might, in that respect, simply be . . . aggressive classical liberals.

If “aggressive classical liberals” sounds a bit problematic, how does “passive classical liberals” sound? The passive classical liberals of Goldman’s account, rejecting the wielding of presidential tools (would this mean: any presidential act, leverage, or rhetoric that bypasses the interest-group politics that prevails in Congress?) against excessive government, are presumably keeping their constitutionalism pure while continuing their long wait for small government ideas to triumph in the intellectual, and so eventually the political, marketplace. This may be respectable, even commendable if we grant certain premises. But it’s not very political.

Classical liberals are satisfied, Goldman suggests, with their “faith in the long-term salutary effects of countless private actions.” Reactionaries, in contrast, aim at “the acquisition and assertion of power.” If Goldman is right about this, classical liberals depart from their principles when they pursue actual politics, as distinct from mere discussion, in their efforts to change government. It’s fine to try and argue such a claim. But in doing so, one must drop the concept of classical liberalism as a political, not merely intellectual, force.

And if classical liberals who remain true to their principles are not a genuine political force, then why is their political break from the “reactionaries” a problem for the latter, or indeed for anyone? And if somehow the Right becomes dominated by classical liberal anti-politicism such as Goldman admires, shunting aside the Trumpian reactionaries and their desire for power, don’t expect to see big government stopped short of strangling our society and economy. Perhaps, in that case, the classical liberals should let the reactionaries do their supposedly dirty work for them.

Catering to “the prejudices of the public” sounds bad among any readership as well-educated as Law and Liberty’s. But the charge does little, really, to advance Goldman’s argument. Absent specifics, it’s as much a slogan as any of Trump’s. Which prejudices? How immoral or irrational are these prejudices? What exactly do we mean by “catering,” and how far does it extend? Unless a complaint about catering to public prejudices is fleshed out, it has—or should have—little argumentative power. There is all the difference in the world between, say, Nazi propaganda and the utterly normal democratic practice of stressing one’s more popular positions rather than presenting them all equally, like good purists, in take-it-or-leave-it fashion.

Goldman does acknowledge the “plausible, if far from certain” prospects of a “comprehensive Trumpification” of the Right, noting a few vote-attracting possibilities. In addition to what he calls a “demotic style” Trump has promoted, he points to the trade protectionism popular among the President’s following. He also mentions what seems to be a more welcoming attitude toward non-churchgoers, in contrast with “the ostentatious religiosity of the old conservative movement.” In both respects, Goldman concedes, a less ideological (as distinct from less reactionary) Right has been taking shape. On the other hand, there’s the possibility that “white identity politics” will become the Right’s great unifying bond.

That is apparently Goldman’s strongest  objection to Trumpism and the Right’s “reactionary” side. It would be a potent one if there were more evidence for it. The unstated maxim seems to be what Americans of the Left and center used to say in regard to fascism: “It can happen here.” Like Goldman’s rejection of playing to “the prejudices of the public,” this sounds more sophisticated than it may really be. He doesn’t make clear how the troubling prospect of a Right unified by racism would be realized in today’s America.

My final objection to this essay is that it places too much importance on intellectual coherence, too little on the chances that an intellectually less-than-coherent Right might nonetheless continue to be politically viable and consequential. It’s doubtful that a movement is fatally divided if all adherents, save a few at the margins, continue to back the same party. Goldman does suggest the possibility of a classical liberal alliance with the Democrats. Don’t bet on it—they have too little in common. (I’m not, and neither is he, talking about leftists who mistake themselves for libertarians.) More seriously, there is a rather longstanding psychodrama on the Republican side. Many right-of-center Americans disdain “the Republicans,” and more than a few seem to wallow in such attitudes. But it’s hard to tell how much of this carping, among either Trump people or supposed classical liberals, represents a true willingness to either stop voting or do the next worst thing, third-party politics.

If you take the third-party route, which is not viable, or abstain from major elections, your political beliefs may be admirably serious, but you’re no longer engaged in real politics. People have every right to choose intellectualizing, or posturing, over impact. But those who make that choice are no longer a significant part of the political process except, depending on an election’s closeness, as potential spoilers.

On a more positive note, Professor Goldman’s essay is quite realistic in some respects. He points insightfully to a little-noticed fact about the Right’s relationship to its vision of the ideal society: Almost no one in 2017 has any recollection of pre-New Deal America, whereas mid-20th century conservatives “could actually remember the arrangements and mores that many of them wished to restore.” As that world “slips out of living memory,” it “no longer brings together elements of the intellectual Right.” (Or, we might add, and Goldman presumably could add: the Right in general.) The “great” America which President Trump vows to restore was, indeed, something quite different: our country in the two or three decades after World War II.

Goldman then makes a related point that conservatives of all stripes must think hard about. “Intellectual honesty requires us to acknowledge,” he writes, “that these conditions were not the result of classically liberal policies. On the contrary, they were sustained by the very processes of nationalization, bureaucratization, and regulation that American conservatism arose to challenge.” Conservatives certainly shouldn’t let anyone credit postwar America’s prosperity and healthy culture entirely to the New Deal. But neither is it plausible to ascribe them wholly to the free market (or what was left of it), or even to the free market plus greater faith in God and devotion to family.

Any serious effort to analyze the contemporary Right also requires an unflinching awareness of its limited impact, an awareness Goldman clearly shows. Throughout organized conservatism’s more than 50-year history in America, “big government” has kept getting bigger, mostly without interruption, while conservative social values have lost ground in public policy and the culture. Surely it no longer makes sense, if it ever did, to place full blame on Progressive elites, the media, the courts, “the politicians,” the “deep state,” or any combination thereof. We should assume that an additional factor is a far more limited commitment than we conservatives have perceived, among other Americans, to our beliefs. We should also ask whether such a broad, protracted frustration of the Right’s purposes might also reflect certain actual preferences of the American people—despite the faith in a “silent majority” that most conservatives have tended to hold.

Trump supporters last year seemed willing to redefine the Right in terms that could easily accommodate him. No intellectually serious conservative should be entirely happy about this. But Trump’s ideologically mixed message broke through the “blue wall,” winning Rust Belt states no Republican had taken since 1988 (or, in the case of Wisconsin, 1984). His loss of the popular vote by 2 percent shouldn’t be forgotten. But it’s far from clear that a more conventional Republican could have won the popular vote, either. Equally important, Trump beat Hillary Clinton despite formidable advantages on her side and glaring weaknesses on his. Genuine upsets are rare in presidential politics. When they occur, the winner deserves much political respect, even if we have little respect for him otherwise.

However unsatisfactorily, Trump won. However unpleasantly, his campaign succeeded. Mitt Romney lost. John McCain lost. Bush II won in 2000, sort of, thanks to the “butterfly ballot” in Palm Beach and the U.S. Supreme Court’s willingness to slap down the dubious rulings of its Democratic counterpart in Florida. In 1996, Senator Dole lost. Four years before that, the first President Bush lost—despite his obvious moderation and decency, a growing economy that qualified as a recession only by means of propaganda, and his opponent’s manifest character flaws.

Let’s also consider just who the winning Democrats were in this 20-year period. Bill Clinton twice, Al Gore as measured by the popular vote, Barack Obama twice: a sleazy rogue; a hectoring bore; and one of the Senate’s most left-wing Democrats, who should have been disadvantaged (but wasn’t) by that fact, by his thin experience in public life, and by his unrepented close friendships with a former terrorist and a racist “minister.” This sorry Republican record in presidential elections, the only national elections held in our country, is reason enough for conservatives to take up the uncomfortable task of reimagining “the American people.”

That does not mean disrespecting them. Americans shouldn’t think less of their fellow citizens, or discount their interests, due merely to political differences. They should ask themselves what major stumbling blocks stand in the way of building more support for conservative policies. They should then ask whether some adjustments in conservative goals, not just conservative messaging and tactics, are indicated. They should allow for the possibility that the public or any sector of it may, at times, understand its interests better than conservatives do.

For these reasons, Trump’s political stances and his articulations of them deserve a measure of credence in right-of-center politics, even from those who disagree with him. Conservatives need not allow Trumpism to wholly define either the Right’s purposes or its approach to campaigns. But unless powerful evidence against their political effectiveness develops, we should give Trump and his core supporters a chance to influence the conservative agenda; we should not merely tolerate Trump as a lesser-of-two-evils President. A political movement’s goals cannot be defined entirely by what it deems right. They must also reflect what can realistically be achieved in elections and government.

“To forget long-range principle is to be opportunistic,” one of the movement’s founders, Frank Meyer, told his fellow National Review editors in 1961, “but to ‘renounce the short range’ is to be abstract, utopian, aridly ideological.”