by Stanley Schwartz

A Russian friend once told me that the Russian equivalent of the Republican Party was the Communist Party, as both have united around traditional values. The Americans on the right to whom I relate this anecdote almost always respond in shock. The surface resemblance strikes them as absurd, and the moral similarity appears dubious based on the history of Soviet Communism.

But if our friends abroad have such difficulty understanding the core of the American Right today, we have not done much to help them. The ongoing chaos in the Trump administration is symptomatic of the inability of Republicans, conservatives, traditionalists, libertarians, etc., to rally around a fixed individual, policy program, or set of ideas. With figures in the administration as ideologically diverse as Steve Bannon, Mike Pence, Gary Cohn, and Jared Kushner, there is no firm foundation of agreement from which to create and govern. Only a strong Chief of Staff could wrangle such diverse interests into a working, if divided, group. Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably given these intellectual divisions, the Chief of Staff position in this administration has been incredibly lacking in security and strength.

It is possible that the lack of unity in the Trump administration is a particular phenomenon, not linked to broader ideological rot within the American Right. Nevertheless, it seems as though nothing could be firmer evidence of a vacuum at the center of the conservative mind in America today than Trump’s election. On the campaign trail, he professed ideas very different from those affirmed by the fundamental conservative thinkers outlined in Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, who were more interested in pursuing truth, goodness, and beauty than in building a big organization. Indeed, Trump’s crucial points of appeal to most conservatives–building a wall, appointing a conservative Supreme Court Justice, and creating jobs–are all practical matters, favors given to dependents in return for obedience.

Yet where was the great conservative thinker who visibly trounced Trump? A number certainly tried, with Jonah Goldberg coming to mind as the foremost example of a deeply thoughtful, influential conservative who maintained an open and sincere opposition to Trump throughout the election. Surely there were others. However, the point is that most people think of them as just that: “a conservative,” not “the Conservative.” Where is the contemporary text that everyone on the right–libertarians, traditionalists, and moderates–has read and found authoritative? The most appropriate work is Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, but most discussion of this book is characterized by skepticism and uncertainty. Such dialogue does not indicate the sort of power earlier conservative classics had to change worldviews and rally broad support.

Contemporaries have noted that Willmoore Kendall proposed writing an encyclopedia of the conservative giants of his day, such as Russell Kirk, William Buckley, etc. Could such a project be undertaken today? Would any two Republican voters think of three of the same names in a list of ten? St. Augustine, affirming Cicero in The City of God, writes that civil society is “an assemblage (of men) associated by a common acknowledgment of right and by a community of interests.” The American Right today fails to fit this description.

The fundamental tendency of a democracy–which mobilizes the community for the achievement of specific practical objectives, while tolerating the existence of large and influential minorities–is toward intellectual splintering. When conservatism exists in a democracy, the question of how great of an extent the free market should have in society does not need to be finally and ultimately answered. Libertarians and Chestertonian distributists can exist and work side by side because they both favor free-market institutions more than a welfare-statist or socialist, both of whom are working together on the other side. As long as ballot issues throw the alternatives far enough to the right and left, diverse political cooperation is possible.

Nevertheless, this has a number of unfortunate effects. The immediate problem is that the only way to rally broad associations is to paint the political arena in extreme terms. The result is that members of certain groups, say a Catholic church, while closer to each other than to their political allies, are unable to find and use their common ground to build a creative bipartisanship. Another less obvious difficulty is that any and every idea to the right of a given position on an issue is accepted into conservatism, and vice versa on the left. The result is a political relativism that fizzles into disparate arguments whenever unity is sought. The ideological positions of two neighbors at a political rally may be no closer than two ships passing in the night. They may never know it.

The remedy for such a difficulty might be a single figure who carries all before him or her: a person to whom all members of the right will humbly submit. But this is exactly what the Trump phenomenon was, and it is clear that this exemplifies, rather than resolves, the emptiness at the core of today’s conservative mind. The pernicious willingness of voters to suspend their suspicion, when faced with a candidate proclaiming personal, self-sufficient certainty, is concerning. This should motivate thinking conservatives to start resolving some of the American Right’s internal debates. Let firm answers be given to the key questions of society, economy, environment, and culture, that the arbitrary will of one strong candidate for president may not abrogate them.

If a leader is not to be trusted due to boldness and persistence alone, the right indicator might be persuasiveness–requiring a strong intellect and the ability to articulate powerfully. Unfortunately, conservatism at the popular level appears deeply suspicious of these qualities, perhaps because they are sometimes tied to the system of elite education which conservatives distrust. I have known sincerely conservative people to reject claims simply because of their universal nature, expressing extreme skepticism towards any claim that follows from the phrase “I know.” This essentially nominalistic practice, which rejects universal truth and gives credence only to the aspirations of the majority, is at odds with conservatism. Conservatives have historically believed that there are things which are good by definition–universal and real goods–even if these things are limited goods like the libertarian’s veneration of freedom.[1]

The democratic atmosphere which surrounds conservatism and shapes its expression has, to this extent, perverted and hidden its intellectual core by making it politically necessary to tolerate all ostensibly similar ideological expressions. The liberal predominance in universities has no doubt fostered in conservatives a suspicion of intellect which has contributed to the phenomenon of the modern American Right: conservatism with a severed head. It is likely that the appearance of a universally and intellectually compelling conservative thinker–a person of virtuosic talents and a mastery of ideas–would likely be met as Moses was in Exodus 2:14 when he sought to resolve a conflict between his fellows: “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?”

Ultimately, without a certain level of humility and a willingness to submit intra-party concerns to the wisest and most virtuous, conservatism will face three problems: a state of intellectual chaos, an inability to resist the rise of pugnacious politicians with tenuous ideologies, and a general lack of great original thought. Certain things must be decided once and for all. If an idea as flawed as Marxist-Leninism may, by pure uncompromising tenacity, ascend to far-reaching global influence, then the philosophy of truth, beauty, and goodness behind conservatism should go at least that far, if backed by a similar level of certainty rooted in fundamental agreement. Until then, American society may simply be rocky soil for a conservative politics, as influential figures, such as Donald Trump or Dwayne Johnson, will find a group of listless voters ready for a champion.

In the early 19th century, the Whig Party ran its ideological champion, Henry Clay, for the presidency four times and was met with defeat on each occasion. The Whigs also ran General William Henry Harrison and General Zachary Taylor, the biggest celebrities of their day, and both were victorious. Unfortunately, because of the party’s amorphous ideological content, it eventually collapsed; promoting States’ Rights in the South and Abolition in the North in the same election does not result in long-term cohesion. If the American Right continues to maintain its boggling ideological multiplicity and infertility, the political party closest to it will be susceptible to celebrity conquests and constantly teetering on the brink of demise–if its counterpart on the left does succeed in manifesting a thinker and leader of truly original vision.

The vacuum at the center of the conservative mind must be filled soon or it will continue to paralyze the politics of the right. The solution may not be just around the corner. Chaotic administrations and TV-era politics will maintain as long as they are accepted by all sides and factions. Is there a current conservative thinker worthy and capable of building a new synthesis on the right? If so, let the ascent come sooner rather than later, lest conservatives be left where they are today–not rebels without a cause, but winners without a dream.

Stanley Schwartz is a native of Indianapolis, Indiana studying history and economics as a senior at Cedarville University. 

Notes:

[1] An example would be Ludwig von Mises’ quote in F.A. Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty that “Restraint, qua restraint, is an evil.”