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.
In its inaugural issue, NR, as Buckley biographer John B. Judis has observed, located itself on an unusual intellectual continuum: “Conservatives in this country,” Buckley wrote, “are non-licensed non-conformists.” This was Buckley in his early, radical incarnation. Buckley didn’t want to marinate in the resentments of the prewar, isolationist right; rather, he hoped to go on the offensive with carefully crafted arguments delivered with dry wit and remorseless logic. He welcomed conservatives of various stripes, but his fundamental mission was to prosecute a culture war. He insisted that more was at stake than mere policy differences. The peril that America confronted was immediate and ubiquitous: a “decadent liberalism” had turned its back on permanent moral truths, thereby emasculating its will to battle against Soviet communism. Thus, in 1959, he declared that the “secular ideology of liberalism, which sets the tone of contemporary Western thought, is no match for Communism because it is not a redemptive creed.” Nor was Dwight Eisenhower—a “miserable president,” in Buckley’s estimation—up to the task with his sunny bromides and distaste for partisanship. Buckley sought to create a populist insurgency that targeted the Republican as much the liberal establishment.
As the new film from Magnolia Pictures Best of Enemies, an engrossing exploration of the ten debates between Gore Vidal and Buckley that aired on ABC News during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions, reminds us, Buckley had gone some ways toward achieving his goal by the late 1960s. He had already helped conservatives clean up their act by anathematizing the John Birch Society in a 1962 essay. The very fact that he would appear on national television to comment on the conventions was itself a kind of validation of the newfound importance of the right. But ABC, which figured that the confrontation between Vidal and Buckley might buck up its sagging ratings, got even more than it may have bargained for in holding the debate. Its genteel moderator, Howard K. Smith, was barely able to get in a word edgewise as the two men jousted with each other. Buckley announced that he desired the “asphyxiation” of liberalism, while Vidal decried him as shedding “crocodile tears” for the poor and the GOP as constituting a repository of “human greed.”
At their August 28 session at the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Vidal branded Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” for defending the local police force’s actions against protesters—a term calculated to enrage Buckley, who had attempted to purge the right of its former dubious associations (the word also clearly perturbed Smith, who had served as a reporter for CBS in Germany until December 6, 1941, and interviewed Hitler as well as a number of Nazi bigwigs). An incensed Buckley dismissed Vidal as a “queer.” How much really separated the two—each was a frustrated aspirant for political office, each spoke in a patrician accent, each was an Anglophile and each reveled in verbal combat—may be wondered. But while Vidal won the intellectual battle between the two by never dropping his lordly air of superiority, Buckley ultimately prevailed in the political one. Buckley reached out to neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol to provide the intellectual basis for a broader conservative movement, one that would work to peel away white working-class voters from the Democratic Party. This new alliance prompted Michael Lind to observe in Politico that by the 1980s Buckley “was a neoconservative in all but name.”
The cultural fissures that had opened up during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency—the riots at the Chicago convention, the rise of the antiwar movement and black power—issued in Richard Nixon’s presidency. But Buckley and his cohort never viewed Nixon as a true conservative. As Jeffrey Hart, a National Review stalwart and speechwriter for Nixon during the ’68 campaign, observed in his insightful chronicle The Making of the American Conservative Mind, the shrewdly calculating Nixon positioned himself as a centrist—to the right of Hubert Humphrey and to the left of George Wallace: “He would beat back Wallace and the segregationists, letting the Deep South go, but trying hard for everything outside that Wallaceite core… In the sense, he had a ‘border state’ rather than a ‘southern’ strategy.” Nixon never succeeded in cementing a durable coalition and indeed was attacked by the neoconservatives. But with Reagan’s triumph, a conservative revolution was consummated. Buckley, once seen as a heretic, was, as media critic Eric Alterman notes in Best of Enemies, now a “kingmaker.”
But what has happened since to the kingdom that Buckley once presided over? In 2004 Sam Tanenhaus, writing in the New Republic, noted that with the bungled 2003 Iraq War, Buckley had become increasingly skeptical of the neocons and questioned “the wisdom of having opened the gates quite so wide.” Today, fights are erupting over how best to interpret Buckley’s own legacy (and, as Geoffrey Kabaservice cogently notes in this issue, others on the right are even looking all the way back to Jack Kemp, the champion of supply-side economics and reaching out to minorities, as an inspirational model for the GOP). The tohubohu centers on Trump’s conservative bona fides. Washington Post columnist George F. Will, for example, recently invoked Buckley’s shade to depict Trump as a counterfeit Republican. According to Will,
He is an affront to anyone devoted to the project William F. Buckley began six decades ago with the founding in 1955 of National Review—making conservatism intellectually respectable and politically palatable. Buckley’s legacy is being betrayed by invertebrate conservatives now saying that although Trump “goes too far,” he has “tapped into something,” and therefore . . .
Others on the right will have none of this high dudgeon. The talk show host Laura Ingraham, for example, recently depicted National Review as essentially consisting of conservative quislings for publishing an essay suggesting that Mitt Romney might enter the 2016 presidential race. She said, “What the establishment is doing is looking for a way to go backward. This piece about Mitt Romney today in National Review—National Review. I don’t know what’s happened to National Review, but this is not the publication of William F. Buckley.”
But this may not be quite right. Buckley himself evolved over the years, from scourge of the establishment to a more measured conservatism. Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that National Review and others on the right at institutions such as the American Enterprise Institute are touting a “reformicon” agenda that focuses on the middle class. It savors strongly of a neoconservative message that seeks to reshape rather than overturn big government. As Irving Kristol put it in 2003 in a valedictory essay in the Weekly Standard, “the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.” In an interesting development, some reformicons are beginning to view Trump with something other than hostility. The conservative intellectual Reihan Salam observes,
In an ideal world, the rise of Trump would force elite conservatives to recognize that voters, including GOP voters, care more about wage stagnation than about high-end tax cuts, and that the GOP base is not reflexively opposed to the safety net, provided it encourages those who can work to do so, and that it provides a decent minimum for those who cannot. . . . Without belaboring the point, I believe that there are more black, Hispanic, and Asian voters who are open to voting for a more populist GOP than is commonly understood. Conservative populism is the way to appeal to these voters and the voters who’ve been most energized by Trump.
Whether any of this will actually occur is of course another matter.
SO MUCH for domestic politics. What about foreign affairs? Here, there are even fewer signs of a glasnost taking place. Instead, the Republican candidates routinely indulge in chest-thumping. Carly Fiorina is a case in point. During the September presidential debate, she said, “Having met Vladimir Putin, I wouldn’t talk to him at all. We’ve talked way too much to him. What I would do immediately, I would begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, I would begin rebuilding the missile defense program in Poland, I would also conduct military exercises in the Baltic states, I’d probably send a few thousand more troops to Germany.” Actually, America has already conducted exercises in the Baltic states, and there’s no cogent reason to send more troops to Germany, unless Fiorina wants to help the Bundeswehr resettle Syrian refugees.
Nor is this all. The debate on Iran has been none at all, at least in the sense of any cogent, let alone potent, criticisms being voiced. As President Obama sailed ahead with the agreement, the GOP never landed a glove on him. Instead, it blustered about forging a better agreement with Iran. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that what the detractors really want isn’t some elusive, superior agreement, but war.
Indeed, Dick and Liz Cheney resurfaced to depict Obama as uniquely indifferent to American national security. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on September 7, where Paul Wolfowitz, I. “Scooter” Libby and Michele Bachmann, among others, were in the audience, Cheney declared that the deal is “madness” and presented himself as a truth-teller who was compelled to dispute the “veracity of the president’s claims.” Cheney and his daughter Liz had already offered a manifesto on August 28, based on their new book, in the Wall Street Journal to restore, as they put it, American exceptionalism. Instead of explaining how to defang the Iran threat, however, the Cheneys repeated the hoariest of neocon clichés: “The Obama nuclear agreement with Iran is tragically reminiscent of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s Munich agreement in 1938.” They concluded their denunciation of Iran and Obama’s agreement with an exhortation for an educational program to inculcate America’s youth with neocon dogma. “We must ensure,” they write, “that our children know the truth about who we are, what we’ve done, and why it is uniquely America’s duty to be freedom’s defender.”
William F. Buckley knew better. For him such sentiments in the face of widespread hostility in the Arab world toward American intervention amounted to the real madness—tantamount to a declaration of intellectual suicide by the GOP. Bush’s utopian language, Buckley told the New Yorker in 2005, was to be viewed with skepticism because “It’s not, in my judgment, conservatism. Because conservatism is, to a considerable extent, the acknowledgment of realities. And this is surreal.” So far, however, surrealism appears to be more enticing to many in the GOP than sober realism.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.
Image: Flickr/Michael Vadon