Is Conservatism About to Have a Civil War?
A struggle between different factions seems imminent, but will it be a true “civil war” between cogent conservative positions?
“The Dumbest Coup”
It’s taken its sweet time, but the house of cards is finally starting to fall.
Donald Trump swept onto the scene like a force of nature, progressing steadily and unstoppable as, one by one, every pundit, politician, and partisan voter on the Right succumbed to the mythos of the Trump narrative. “He fights,” “He wins,” “He’s making American Great Again,” and all the other slogans that combined to project nobility and significance onto a petty and small-minded huckster were embraced as articles of faith in the conservative movement and the Republican Party tasked as a vessel for its erstwhile values.
But in the days since Donald Trump’s defeat became obvious to honest observers, the scales have slowly begun falling from the eyes of those who should have always known better. Donald Trump is being swept from relevancy in similar swiftness to the way he suddenly came to dominate the scene. His presidency and his standing as the leader of the Republican Party and a commanding voice in the conservative movement is falling to an even greater veritable force of nature: the American system of government.
The federal system places responsibility for elections in the hands of the states. This makes a conspiracy to gain electoral office almost impossible. There are simply too many moving, independent parts. A project to thwart the people's will by “stealing” the election through ballot fraud would require getting tens of thousands of state and local officials as well as election volunteers on board. Such a scheme is as improbable as it is impossible.
Not only would it be impossible to coordinate so many moving parts into a believable result, it would be impossible to keep a lid on it. Unless whoever cooked up the scheme was able to do what even La Cosa Nostra couldn’t (through reigns of terror and blood), there would be defectors and whistleblowers popping up all over the place if such across-the-board fraud had been attempted.
But, not to be deterred, the Trump campaign has levied a slew of legal challenges across the country. And, as unimpressed judges have summarily dismissed them one by one, Trump’s campaign is now levying a campaign asking State Legislatures to ignore the election results and send Trump-friendly electors to the Electoral College. (spoiler alert: that ain’t gonna happen)
Every day these shenanigans continue, more Republican politicians and conservative voices speak out against them. Likely voices like Mitt Romney, Kevin D. Williams, and David French have made their positions clear, but they’re being joined by the likes of Ben Sasse and even Tucker Carlson.
Donald Trump can tweet, his campaign can file empty lawsuits, and the enablers of this farce on talk radio and conservative news can sow their seeds of propaganda from today until January 20th, but that will still be the day Joe Biden becomes President. All that will have been revealed between now and then is that Donald Trump, to quote Noah Rothman, is “more of a whiner than a fighter.”
So, Does This Mean Civil War for Conservatism?
Obviously, a slow but steady slew of conservative intellectuals and Republican politicians jumping from the Trump train is not enough to overcome what the Trump era has done to both the conservative movement and the Republican Party. The debate over what happens next is going to be intense.
A vast swathe of Republican voters still views Donald Trump as their champion, have been convinced by the Trump campaign’s efforts that Joe Biden’s election is illegitimate, and have been acculturated to populist nationalism’s deviations from the norms of conservative orthodoxy. But while a struggle between different factions seems imminent, will it be a true “civil war” between cogent conservative positions? I hardly think so.
As I argued in a guest post for Saving Elephants about the back and forth between Sohrab Ahmari and David French last year, “As opposed to a schism or a conservative civil war, the Trump era represents serious intellectual decay in the conservative movement.” (I’ll be quoting liberally from this guest post throughout the rest of this article)
Trumpism represents intellectual decay in the conservative mind, not intellectual evolution. In the Trump era, “social conservatism [has shed] the classical liberalism of the conservative coalition,” not out of the embrace of new doctrine but in order justify deviations from principle necessary to support Donald Trump.
Trump’s Republican Party “maintain[s] the trappings of the founding vision but…stands in favor of new and aggressive strongman politics. The direction of the conservative movement…has moved from a desire to slay Leviathan to one where they seek to wield it as a weapon in the culture war.”
But again, this isn’t out of the adoption of a new orthodoxy. It’s in response to the embrace of Donald Trump as a political champion by the American Right. This is a visceral response and “does not yet represent a conscious abandonment of classical liberalism.”
Attempts to turn Trumpism into some sort of consistent political doctrine are just “attempt[s] to craft something coherent out of an incoherent moment in American history.”
Donald Trump is an incoherent man. In the five years that American politics has revolved around him, his stances on policy and his sensibilities have been all over the place. In the “deeper realm of underlying beliefs and ideals,…Donald Trump is…entirely incomprehensible.”
Donald Trump is visceral, his movement is visceral, and nothing philosophical or doctrinal can be honestly procured from such a mess of resentment, fear, and misinformation. So, “attempts to categorize Trump and his followers as occupying a space in the traditional understanding of American conservative politics [falls] short. To say they are part of some or another conservative tradition is to say they are conscious of where they stand intellectually. They are not.”
Trumpism lacks self-awareness. It’s “visceral, instinctive, reactionary, and angry.”
What’s happened in recent years, and what’s about to happen, is far from a true conservative civil war. To consider it one “is to flatter the active and vocal aspects of the movement with an intellectual stature it has mostly lost.”
What we’re seeing is an intellectual disease. “A body succumbing to disease is not at war with itself; it is dying from pathogenic invasion and decaying as the natural faculties fail.” In the last five years, we saw “fundamental and pervasive intellectual decay” in the conservative movement. What we’re seeing right now in the hysterical declarations of voter fraud and the refusal to submit to the will of the American people is not dissimilar to an “animal facing what it fears as its last limb of life, its mind…backsliding to a visceral understanding of its fight for continued existence as it loses its grip on conscious reality.”
But despite “the nihilistic sense of doom peddled so successfully by Trump and his ilk,” neither the American Republic nor conservatism is existentially threatened at this moment. Just as attempts to craft a coherent political doctrine from the Trump moment are mostly manufactured, so are the fever-swamp agitations that attempt to peg the future of this great nation on the shoulders of a bullyish oaf.
So, while the struggle will be very real, those of us who haven’t lost our heads, who have stood, “athwart the zeitgeist of this moment in history and are remaining conscious of what we believe, of our intellectual ancestry, and of what we as conservatives actually want to conserve,” aren’t truly fearful that the tenets of classical liberalism and modern conservatism have been permanently thwarted or even truly threatened by the populism of the moment.
The last five years have not been a “war” or even a “debate or conflict between camps of conscious conservatism.” It’s been “a backlash against conservatives who remain conscious of their traditions and principles.” And the coming struggle will be a resurgence of those traditions and principles as the anger, resentment, and petty dialogue of sophomoric populism slinks back into the swamp it came from.
The struggle will be “between the coherent and the incoherent, between the principled and the unprincipled, and between a visceral or a conscious conservatism.” And, “the great advantage conscious conservatism has over the self-destructive tendencies of purely visceral conservatism is that we have a higher conversion to our natural conservative sensibility and believe our principles are more than ideal, they are fundamentally true. We believe and trust in the strength of our argument and its capacity to endure beyond ourselves.”