During the last few days, those of us who have questioned Conservatism Inc.’s willingness to stand up to the cultural left seem to have received new allies. David Marcus at The Federalist, Thomas D. Klingenstein at the Claremont Institute, and the commentator Mark Steyn on Tucker Carlson’s program have all been taking shots at the cowardice of the conservative movement, Republican Party, or both.
According to their charges, if conservative publicists and Republican politicians had taken a stronger position against cultural radicals and not treated the left so indulgently, the crazies would not be taking over our society with such ease. Klingenstein notes that 62 percent of Americans now polled support Black Lives Matter (BLM), which is an organization spreading hate and mayhem. He might have added that according to Rasmussen over 20 percent of Americans now have positive views about Antifa, which makes no pretense of being anything but violent.
The question we paleoconservatives should ask is whether this conversion by members of the conservative establishment is genuine. They have certainly been sounding the right notes recently. My answer is that until further evidence is available, however, we have every reason to be skeptical. Those who are presently criticizing the conservative movement from within are not about to change their longtime political and professional associations. Moreover, these apparent critics have never held out their hand in friendship to those of us on the right who have been expressing the same skepticism for decades. Nor are they telling us exactly when their movement strayed, that is, when other roads might have been taken but were not.
If such an aberration occurred, when did we swerve so far to the left? Was it when the statues of Grant but not those of Robert E. Lee, were toppled? Did this radicalism become a real problem when students ceased to be assigned Martin Luther King, Jr.’s classic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”? This was an omission that deeply offended an editorialist for The Wall Street Journal. Perhaps the decline set in before. But when exactly?
An anthology that I edited points out repeatedly that Conservatism Inc. is so totally dependent on certain sponsors that it can no longer move back toward the right. Like the French Communist Party after World War II, which condemned party members who had been “prematurely antifascist” before the party supported the struggle against Nazi Germany, accredited conservatives want nothing to do with those who went into opposition before them.
Certainly, those who pay for a conservative movement don’t want paleos in their club. These plutocrats are concerned about not sounding “reactionary,” even if that means shunning those on the right who have predicted what is now befalling us politically and culturally since at least the 1990s. Please note how Tucker Carlson had to trim his sails after losing sponsors for being too forthright in discussing the left. Immediately thereafter Tucker had to remind us, a bit too obviously, what awful “traitors” the Confederates were and how “equality” is the “one principle” on which the U.S. was founded and which represents our highest value. Without these questionable tropes, Fox’s most right-wing commentator might have lost his program, together with the disgruntled neoconservatives who sponsor it.
All this leads me to believe that the present moaning over a conservative betrayal represents what Sam Francis and the Frankfurt School characterized as “artificial negativity.” Every now and then members of our conservative media elite find it expedient to give the impression of turning against their comrades to create the appearance of internal opposition. This prevents real opposition from surfacing that may weaken a movement or power structure. Sam pointed to the fictitious “quarrel” in the late 1980s between the Kristol and Podhoretz families, in which the rank and file took sides. While Irving was supposedly seeking an accommodation with the more moderate paleos, Norman and Midge opposed dealing with supposed anti-Semites on the right. As far as I can tell, no such conflict occurred.
For those who may be wondering, President Trump’s remarks at Mount Rushmore on July 3, about Martin Luther King, Jr. understanding the true meaning of the American founding, and an editorial note in the New York Post on July 6 by Thomas D. Klingenstein, chairman of the Claremont Institute Board, make it clear what “conservatives” are now supposed to be fighting for. According to Klingenstein, the promise of equality in the Declaration defines what may be regarded as the acceptable opposition to the left. The “single culture” around which we are to “unite” is presumably Harry Jaffa’s interpretation of the American founding, which President Trump on Saturday ascribed to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Are we getting the customary message from the power players of Conservatism Inc. who have been running the same show for decades now? Lest we on the Old Right imagined that the ban of excommunication had been removed from our heads, the answer should be clear: our detractors are still in charge.
Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.