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What if It’s All Burned Down Already?

If fusionist conservatism is in ashes, then it's time to build something new.
August 9, 2020
What if It’s All Burned Down Already?
A protester with an upside-down American flag marches on the last night of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida on August 30, 2012. (Photo by Edward Linsmier/Getty Images)

As it looks increasingly likely that President Trump is going to lose reelection in November, the attention of disgruntled Republicans has moved down the ballot. Hence the “Burn It All Down” debate: To what extent should Trump’s failures be taken out on the rest of the Republican party?

Mona Charen, for example, argues that “the only thing that will send a message to the Republican party commensurate with its moral abdication over the past four years is to lose in a landslide. Not just Trump, but his silent enablers too.”

To some extent, I suspect this debate is academic. A lot of voters have already decided to extend their disgust with Trump to other Republican officer-holders, and as we saw in 2018, they’re doing it indiscriminately. So we may not have to worry about burning down the Republican congressional majority. The voters are going to do that for us whether we think it’s a good idea or not.

That’s why it’s a mistake to look at this question on a purely electoral level. The real question for the right is: What if it’s all burned down already? What if it’s not just Republican majorities in Congress or in the statehouses that are in danger?

What if the underlying ideological coalition of the right has been shattered?

And what if it’s not going to come back together again?

The unspoken premise behind the current “Burn It All Down” debate is that this coalition will come back together. Many NeverTrump conservatives want to burn the party down, but only so the old Reagan-era ideological coalition can be magically reborn from the ashes. I’m not so sure that’s going to happen.

The old coalition was the product of conservative “fusionism,” which tried to draw together the religious right, free marketers, and anti-communist foreign policy hawks—all of them held together, particularly in later years, by a kind of cultural populism. One of the things that united all three wings was that they were looked down upon by people in highbrow cultural institutions. So a contempt for “coastal elites” did a lot of work papering over genuine ideological divides within the coalition.

But the ideological rifts remained, and the Trump era has blown them wide open. I don’t think they’re going to be glued back together.

What has opened the rift is the rise of an openly illiberal vein of conservatism.

Haven’t conservatives alway railed against “liberals”? Yes—while also crowing loudly about how much they love freedom. From a philosophical, historical, and international perspective—pretty much everywhere except America, “liberal” has always meant “pro-freedom” and usually described the more pro-free-market party—this makes no sense. But American conservatives long ago accepted the left’s attempt to rebrand itself as “liberal” and used that term to describe the entire agenda of expansive government as “liberal.”

This historic mistake left an opening for a wing of conservatism to turn against freedom itself.

This is driven by the frustration of a subset of religious conservatives who believe that the “fusionist” coalition ripped them off. As they see it, they made common cause with secular free-marketers in a partnership where everyone was supposed to benefit, but while free-markets got tax cuts, the religious conservatives got gay marriage and a precipitous decline in religious belief.

This case vastly overstates what free-marketers have gotten: I don’t know a free-marketer who thinks we’ve won a major political battle since the 1990s. It’s also a bit of an exercise in excuse-making. Keeping the flock in the fold is primarily a job of persuasion and, well, evangelization. The Culture War is supposed to be waged primarily in the culture, not in Washington. But having lost the war out in the countryside, there is a group of religious conservatives who want to turn to politics in the (delusional) belief that if only they can control the government, then they will turn back the secular tide.

There are some who argue, quite plausibly, that the opposite it true: That it is this association of religion with partisan politics that is driving many people away from the faith.

Be that as it may, the upshot is that the fusion between religious conservatives and free-marketers—their sense of having a common cause that keeps them together—has been broken. And the religious conservatives aren’t getting along much better with the hawks. Those who think government should be using its power to impose traditional values and religious belief have a tendency to be sympathetic to authoritarian regimes, such as Russia or Hungary, which claim to be doing the same.

These are broad generalizations with many exceptions. But like most generalizations, they’re useful for understanding the overall outline of what’s happening.

These divisions filter out to the masses through Trump apologists such as Tucker Carlson, whose whole show is dedicated to promoting an illiberal perspective in which Big Business is more of a villain than Big Government, and the only problem with Elizabeth Warren is that she’s on the wrong side of the Culture War.

While Trump is resolutely anti-intellectual, some of the more ideological, big-picture politicians are trying to give a coherent shape to the politics of his era. See the efforts of that human chameleon, Marco Rubio, who has briskly moved from Reaganesque fusionism to nationalist “common good capitalism.”

Moreover, Trump’s big selling point was his willingness to throw out good manners, yet good manners—and yes, a little hypocrisy—are part of what helps keep an ideological and political coalition together. It may be necessary, once in a while, for a politician to sell out one faction of his coalition. But a prudent politician will do it while still assuring them how much he values and appreciates them. Trump targets them.

An ideological coalition depends on manners that maintain a degree of mutual respect and the sense that we are all on the same side. Built on that, there is also usually a network of personal friendships and professional partnerships that keep the factions tied to one another. Trump’s unique genius for constant conflict has broken many of those connections apart.

The result is that the ideological factions of the right are more at odds than they have been in at least 50 years—since the factional conflict between the Goldwater Republicans and the Rockefeller Republicans back in the 1960s.

What if the rift can’t be repaired?

The chaos on the right isn’t happening in a vacuum. The ideological coalition of the left is experiencing a rift of its own, one that is opening up between the illiberal left, with its mania for social media mobs and censorship, and the “liberal” center-left that has recently stood up in favor of “open debate.”

A lot of these center-left types are also hoping for some kind of grand restoration of the status quo ante. The pro-free speech liberals who are rebelling against “cancel culture” often seem like they just want to rewind the clock 10 or 20 years, to the last time mainstream left-of-center culture was hospitable to them.

I don’t think they’re going to put the pieces of their ideological coalition back together any more successfully than the right will.

And that raises some interesting possibilities.

We are in a period of chaos in which the old ideological coalitions are falling apart as their different factions follow the inexorable logic of their creeds. At the same time, this offers an opportunity for the formation of new ideological coalitions.

There has already been some speculation that the alliances of convenience between the center-left and the NeverTrump right could persist beyond the Trump administration. Certainly, both the left and the right have relatively liberal factions that are not being well-served by their current leadership and are increasingly at odds with their respective illiberal factions. What if they could find common cause precisely around this principle of liberalism—that is, the advocacy of freedom?

Could we draw together the group often referred to contemptuously by the far left as “neoliberals”—old-fashioned liberals who still believe in free speech and are willing to grasp that the free market has some significant value—and the “classical liberals” currently despised on the right by the rising nationalist faction?

Call it “neo-classical liberalism.”

That’s the sort of deeper strategic thinking we need to start doing. Let’s start thinking less about political parties and more about the ideological coalitions that lie beneath them.

And rather than debating whether we want to burn something down, let’s start talking about whether we want to build up something new.

Robert Tracinski

Robert Tracinski is editor of Symposium, a journal of liberalism, and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.