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Hey, If You're Not Using That Conservatism…
Pass it on over.
Last week, I noted the giddiness of Matt Schlapp (who runs the American Conservative Union and Conservative Political Action Conference) over the idea of Tulsi Gabbard replacing Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger in what Schlapp still contends is the conservative movement.
It was just another reminder that, despite their preferred branding, Schlapp and much of today’s Trumpian base don’t have a whole lot of regard for conservatism anymore. After all, the ACU (again, Schlapp’s organization) gives Cheney a lifetime conservative score of 77, and Kinzinger a 57. Gabbard gets a measly 8. Yet, to Schalpp and his ilk, she better represents the tribe’s interests.
“Can we at least pull conservatism out of the crossfire,” I rhetorically asked at the time, “being that it’s an innocent victim in all this?”
My point was that people like Schlapp can worship at whatever altar they choose, and spread whatever rhetorical boob-bait they want, without continuing to falsely frame the garbage as conservatism.
Well, John Daniel Davidson of the very pro-MAGA website, The Federalist, agrees… albeit in a roundabout sort of way.
In a recent piece titled “We Need To Stop Calling Ourselves Conservatives,” Davidson writes that the “conservative project has largely failed,” and that to effectively trounce the gains of the American left, Trumpian right-wing populists like himself should drop the “conservative” mantra, along with traditionally conservative approaches to individual rights, family values, and religious freedom (which I would argue they dropped a while ago).
According to Davidson, they should instead “start thinking of themselves as radicals, restorationists, and counterrevolutionaries.” His government-heavy vision for the “New Right” is built around “wielding power, not despising it.”
The overwhelming online reaction Davidson’s proposal received from traditional conservatives (including me) probably wasn’t what he was expecting.
It was essentially… hallelujah!
“It is time for right-wing nationalists to stop besmirching our good name!” conservative commentator Matt Lewis wrote in response.
Those of us who remain consistent conservatives are no longer in sync with right-wingers or GOP faithful—because they changed. By insisting on calling this new MAGA movement “conservative,” we (the media, the activists, the politicians) are rendering words useless. To be sure, political movements—like the English language, itself—evolve over time. But calling Trumpist radicals “conservative” is tantamount to saying the word “literally” means “figuratively.”
Lewis also pointed out glaring flaws in the charge that conservatives have “failed,” reminding readers that it was largely conservatives who ended the Cold War. And though Donald Trump found himself in the fortunate position of being granted three Supreme Court picks in a single term (thank you Mitch McConnell and Hillary Clinton), it was the conservative pro-life movement that fought a decades-long battle to change hearts and minds on the issue of life, and steadily lower the U.S. abortion rate, while the conservative legal establishment fought (and ultimately) won the battle to overturn Roe v. Wade. Not to mention the trillions in spending Republicans managed (albeit sloppily) to block under Obama, back when there was still some will from the GOP base to do such things.
If the Trumpian right’s anti-conservative argument is more of an electoral one, well — I think it’s clear that narrative is deeply flawed too. After all, it wasn’t conservatism nor a conservative who, in just four years time, handed the GOP its biggest electoral defeats in nearly three quarters of a century. And I don’t think anyone seriously views the red wave predicted for next month (where the polls show traditional Republicans dramatically outperforming those of the “ultra-MAGA” variety) as anything other than a repudiation of the party that currently controls all of Washington.
Getting back to the original point, it would seem to me that it would be a win-win for both groups in this argument, if those who view themselves as “radicals, restorationists, and counterrevolutionaries” would indeed surrender the “conservative” label.
It would let Trumpian/populist righties escape the nagging binds of hypocrisy associated with promoting big-government solutions and morally-compromised “fighters” over the pencil-neck hymns of small-government and personal decency. If conservatism has indeed “largely failed,” as Davidson contends, those on the right who’ve grown weary of it should welcome the disassociation.
The conservative contingent could focus on principles and policies consistent with their beliefs, without having to answer for every right-wing, populist, wannabe celebrity who spews autocratic ideas and other provocative rhetoric on cable news.
With the word “conservatism” carrying some actual meaning again, both sides could more accurately present their visions to voters, and let the electoral chips fall where they may.
But such a divorce, and the surrender of the ex-spouse’s name, isn’t going to happen… and not just because liberals would keep painting them both with the same ugly brush (which they absolutely would).
Davidson may be earnest in his proposal, and I think even accurate in his assessment that the “New Right”, for the most part, no longer values conservative principles. But one thing I’ve learned from talking to lots of MAGA-faithfuls over the years is that they still wear the “conservative” label with pride. They want it as their namesake, because they continue to believe, at least on some level, that identifying as a “conservative” lends them ideological substance and credibility (even if they’ve scrapped the ideology itself).
I believe this is true not only of run-of-the-mill righties, but also institutional ones, like Schlapp, who at minimum understand the history of such organizations’ rise to relative prominence and influence.
Abandoning the “conservative” label would serve as a painful concession that their political sensibilities are no longer bound together by noble, well-constructed principles… but rather by grievance, personality, and tribalism.
While Davidson may have cobbled together some intelligible but ill-advised statist ideas to lead off his “counterrevolution”, the problem he’s perhaps unaware of is that it’s no longer ideas that appeal to the base he’s speaking to. Ideas aren’t even what separated so many conservatives from conservatism in the first place. The aforementioned grievance, personality, and tribalism did. In more general terms, it was about attitude: “they’re screwing you, so we’re going to screw them!”
Let’s be frank. If the charismatic tribal king, Donald Trump, stepped off an escalator tomorrow to announce his re-election campaign — but this time channeled that same “attitude” into a Reaganesque speech touting the wisdom of rugged individualism, limited government, and the power of free markets to cure the nation’s woes — the “New Right” would buy back into that vision with little resistance (and perhaps even less acknowledgment that they’d ever changed their political tune in the first place).
Sure, in the aftermath, there’d be a remnant comprised of Davidson and some like-minded right-wingers. But I’m betting it would be even smaller than the one traditional conservatives currently find themselves in.
What’s been going on in the American right over the past six years hasn’t been a war of ideas. It’s been an abandonment of them.
Matt Schlapp illustrates that about as well as anyone.
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