The Republican Civil War

The GOP’s current identity crisis is the product of a long tradition of conservative insurgency.

November-December 2015

AFTER THE GOP lost the November 1954 midterm elections, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s cabinet met for a postmortem. Eisenhower asked Richard Nixon, then vice president, to explain the politics behind the defeat. “There were just too many turkeys running on the ticket,” Nixon said. Then he pulled a mechanical drummer from his pocket and released it. According to Irwin F. Gellman in his illuminating new book The President and the Apprentice, Eisenhower stared with surprise as the toy marched across the table banging its drum. The lesson of the election, Nixon said, was that “We’ve got to keep beating the drum about our achievements.”

What will the GOP bang the drum about in 2016? Just as in the early 1950s, when internal party divisions over Senator Joseph McCarthy damaged the GOP at the polls, so leading figures on the right are once again feuding with each other, as the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner recently illustrated. But no issue is roiling the party more than the Donald Trump candidacy. Charles Krauthammer, who has repeatedly pronounced Trump’s demise, said on Fox News that “This is the strongest field of Republican candidates in fifteen years. You could pick a dozen of them at random and have the strongest cabinet America’s had in our lifetime and instead all of our time is spent discussing this rodeo clown.” But if the field is really so strong, then why is Trump able to run rings around it, with the much-ballyhooed Wisconsin governor Scott Walker retiring from the race—and begging other candidates to emulate him so that, as he put it, “the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current front-runner”—before a single primary has even been held? Rather than imploding, Trump appears to dominate.

For all Trump’s prowess at upending the party establishment, however, the sources of the current ferment likely go deeper than just him. While political parties periodically suffer from identity crises, the GOP in particular seems to fight over the same terrain with unusual fervor. One reason that it experiences these recurrent battles may be that the term “conservative,” which is traditionally synonymous with sobriety and caution, hierarchy and deference, has always occupied an equivocal, if not embattled, status in America. There exists a conservative movement in America, but no such thing as a nationally successful, formally named Conservative Party. Instead, the closest representative is the Republican Party, which has attempted to straddle the divide between moderates and conservatives, rendering it perennially subject to the charge from the right that it doesn’t stand for conservatism—or indeed much of anything. When former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, for example, announced in February 2012 at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference that he was “severely conservative,” he earned widespread derision on the right as well as the left. “[W]hen he sells himself to conservatives,” the Weekly Standard complained, “he sometimes comes across as a right-wing caricature.” In this regard, Republican contenders for the Oval Office can often seem to resemble Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, a French politician who during the 1848 revolution heard a mob late one night shouting outside his bedroom and rapidly got dressed. “There go the people,” he said. “I must follow them. I am their leader.”

The problems do not end there. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of American conservatism is that, unlike its European counterpart, it does not reverence state power as conducing to stability but, rather, hopes to tame, if not overthrow, it. So whether America can even reconcile conservative principles with its own revolutionary founding is debatable. In 1955, the historian Louis Hartz published The Liberal Tradition, which essentially read conservatism out of American history. It argued that the absence of a feudal tradition and landed aristocracy meant that America was the “first new nation.” Hartz’s contention exemplified the rise of a self-confident liberal establishment in the 1950s, one which nourished the conviction that older ideological disputes, whether on the left or right, whether about economics, politics or culture, had largely vanished to be supplanted by a “consensus society.” The Eisenhower era, a byword for political and cultural somnolence, seemed to confirm its existence.


THE SAME year that Hartz’s book appeared, however, William F. Buckley, Jr., who had published God and Man at Yale in 1951, which created a national furor in upbraiding his alma mater for what would today be called political correctness, set out to establish a new magazine called National Review. It hoped to demonstrate that the notion of an American conservative political tradition was not a contradiction in terms. The fortnightly directly reflected the preoccupations of the political theorist Willmoore Kendall, Buckley’s mentor at Yale and a champion of Joseph McCarthy. Saul Bellow, in his short story “Mosby’s Memoirs,” portrayed Kendall, a former Trotskyist, as vexed by the “weakness of conservative doctrine, the lack, in America, of conservative alternatives, of resistance to the prevailing liberalism.” Interestingly, a number of figures at the magazine, including Willi Schlamm and James Burnham, also emerged from a Trotskyist milieu, which imbued them with an apocalyptic sense of politics. The exception to this crowd was Buckley. He was never a convert to the cause, having imbibed the conservative gospel as a child from his father, William.