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American Conservatism, b. 1955, d. 2020?

Is American conservatism as we’ve known it dead?
September 9, 2020
American Conservatism, b. 1955, d. 2020?
Ashes to ashes (Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Is the Republican party salvageable? Is it worth trying to save? These questions have sparked an interesting discussion, one that raises important issues involving the relationship of principle and prudence, of compromise and accountability, of balancing the past with the future.

But what is the Republican party—or any political party? It is, in large measure, a vehicle for certain ideas.

For a couple of generations, the Republican party has been the vehicle for American conservatism. So saving the Republican party probably only makes sense if American conservatism is worth saving.

Is it?

That’s a big question. And it will have to be confronted after November 3. But it can’t hurt to at least turn it over in our minds now.

If modern American conservatism can be said to have been born in 1955, with the founding of National Review, it may be said to have effectively died—committed suicide?—in 2020.

Not in 2016. Four years ago, lots of conservatives opposed Donald Trump and viewed his primary and general election victories as a fluke.

Not in 2017 and 2018, when reasonable conservatives could still have believed that Trump might be hemmed in by “the guardrails of democracy.” After all, many of those guardrails were provided by conservative figures and ideas both inside and outside of the Trump administration.

Not even in 2019, when the Mueller report finally arrived and reasonable conservatives could have talked themselves into believing that it was imprudent to get all worked up about something that hadn’t quite delivered a proverbial smoking gun.

But in 2020 the question of how conservatives were to deal with Trump came to a head. The guardrails clearly had not held. The stakes were raised from abstract ideas and future threats to reckless mismanagement that cost the lives of 200,000 Americans. Judgment—real, definitive judgment—was finally demanded of conservatives.

But it turned out—it had already turned out, in the last half of 2019—that most conservatives—whether elected officials or political donors or commentators—had no interest in helping to find a conservative challenger to Trump for the Republican nomination.

It then turned out that—with very few honorable exceptions—there was no support for impeachment of the president for his renewed clear violations of the Constitution. Worse still, there was not even support for chastisement among Republican members of Congress or the people who make up the conservative movement. Instead of rebuking Trump, conservatives actively defended him.

And then, when the Democrats selected Joe Biden, the most moderate imaginable nominee, vanishingly few conservatives were willing to desert Trump. Even if only to sit out the election, let alone support Biden.

So perhaps we need to acknowledge that it has come to this: Real, existing conservatism as it exists in America in 2020 is an accomplice to, an apologist for, and an enabler of Trump’s nativist, populist, unconservative, and illiberal authoritarianism.

This authoritarianism is as far from Burke as from Hayek. As far from a concern for liberty as for virtue. As far from American greatness as from American decency. And “conservatism” now rides along with this authoritarianism in a nicely cushioned sidecar.

Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, there were always elements in American conservatism which carried these traits. Many of us believed that they had been, over the decades, suppressed or expunged. But that turns out not to have been the case. Instead, they were merely dormant, ready to emerge and be exploited by an able demagogue in tune with the times.

And perhaps every political movement has a natural lifespan: Modern American conservatism was born in 1955, peaked in full flower in the 1980s, and then aged, mostly gracefully, for three decades. Until it could easily, if suddenly, be pushed aside in its dotage—forced, or induced, to surrender to its younger and stronger, if disreputable, distant relative.

In sum: 2020 was the year in which American conservatism as we have known it for three generations was weighed in the balance, and found wanting.

What next? A revived American liberalism that rescues and incorporates what was admirable in American conservatism? A new political vehicle—a new institution or set of institutions? A New Center or a New Party of Freedom, to step up to the task?

Or perhaps from the ashes of a Trump defeat, the old American conservatism—suitably updated, of course—might be reborn?

That would be a pleasant thought. But conservatives know that in the real world it is rare for a phoenix to rise from the ashes. Most of the time, the aftermath of a conflagration is . . . just ashes.

William Kristol

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.