Did you know that this is the “Flight 93 Election”? In case you haven’t already encountered Publius Decius Mus by now and have no idea what I’m talking about, let me explain in Publius’ (pseudonymous) words:
2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.
Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.
To ordinary conservative ears, this sounds histrionic. The stakes can’t be that high because they are never that high—except perhaps in the pages of Gibbon. Conservative intellectuals will insist that there has been no “end of history” and that all human outcomes are still possible. They will even—as Charles Kesler does—admit that America is in “crisis.” But how great is the crisis? Can things really be so bad if eight years of Obama can be followed by eight more of Hillary, and yet Constitutionalist conservatives can still reasonably hope for a restoration of our cherished ideals? Cruz in 2024!
Well, as one of those ordinary conservatives mocked and dismissed in this essay (and its follow-up) I decided that I couldn’t resist the opportunity to respond to Publius. Many writers I admire have already written very good ‘fiskings’ of the original essay; but Publius put together a response to his critics and ended with this challenge:
Which brings me to the final two objections, which are really the same: I am said to be insane, and my insanity is supposedly evident from my contention that things are really bad, when in fact they are not that bad.
I would be overjoyed to read a convincing account of why things are not that bad, why—despite appearances—the republic is healthy, constitutional norms are respected, the working class and hinterland communities are in good shape, social pathologies are low or at least declining, our elites prioritize the common good, our intellectuals and the media are honest and fair. Or if that’s too big a lift, how about one that acknowledges all the problems and outlines some reasonable prospect for renewal? But only if it’s believable. No skipped steps and no magical thinking. Dr. Conservatism needs to do better than his habitual “Sorry about the cancer, here’s a bottle of aspirin.”
If someone writes such a piece, I promise to read it and try to be persuaded by it. You might be doing me—and others whom I have misguidedly misled—a great favor. Only a fool would choose pessimism for its own sake. In my case, it chose me, against my will, because in current circumstances it just seems more plausible—in greater alignment with the observable facts—than optimism. But if I’m wrong, have at it. That’s what I meant by my reference to the agora. Arriving at the truth is hard enough with open, honest debate. It’s impossible without it. So flay me, by all means, and I will try to learn something.
The country will go on, but it will not be a constitutional republic. It will be a blue state on a national scale. Only one party will really matter. A Republican may win now and again—once in a generation, perhaps—but only a neutered one who has “updated” all his positions so as to be more in tune with the new electorate. I.e., who has done exactly what the Left has for years been concern-trolling us to do: move left and become more like them. Yet another irony: the “conservatives” who object to Trump as too liberal are working to guarantee that only a Republican far more liberal than Trump could ever win the presidency again.
Still and all, for many—potentially me included—life under perma-liberalism will be nice. If you are in the managerial class, you will probably do well—so long as you don’t say the wrong thing. (And, as noted, the list of “wrong things” will be continuously updated, so make sure you keep up.)
Professional conservatives seem to believe that their prospects will remain yoked to that of the managerial class. Maybe, but I doubt it. Eventually their donors are going to wake up and figure out what the Democrats and the Left realized long ago: conservatives serve no purpose any more. Then the money will dry up and—what then? To the extent that our “conservatives” soldier on eo nomine, life will be a lot worse for them than their current, comfortable status as Washington Generals. They will have to adjust to dhimmitude. I can’t tell if they don’t understand this, or do and accept it. Then again, what difference, at this point, would that make?
For the rest of you—flyover people—the decline will continue. But things are pretty bad now, yet you can still eat and most of you have cars, flat screens, and air conditioners. So what are you complaining about?
Keep in mind, this is the best case scenario. Which leaves open the larger questions raised in the prior essay that gave so many the vapors: how long could that possibly last? And what follows when it ends? The #NeverTrumpers don’t even attempt to answer the second because their implicit answer to the first is: forever. Who knew they were all closet Hegelians? Yet I’m called nuts for raising doubts.
Can we at least finally admit, squarely, that conservatism has failed? On the very terms that it set for itself? I don’t mean that in an accusatory or celebratory way—I’m, quite sad about it, honest!—only as a matter of plain fact.
One of those who most objected to the Flight 93 analogy also accused me of “sophistry.” I remind him that, according to Aristotle, “the Sophists identified or almost identified politics with rhetoric. In other words, the Sophists believed or tended to believe in the omnipotence of speech.” Is that not a near-perfect description of modern conservative intellectuals, or at least of their revealed preferences? Except that one wonders what, in their case, is the source of that belief, since they haven’t been able to accomplish anything in the political realm through speech or any other means in a generation.
One can point to a few enduring successes: Tax rates haven’t approached their former stratosphere highs. On the other hand, the Left is busy undoing welfare and policing reform. Beyond that, we’ve not been able to implement our agenda even when we win elections—which we do less and less. Conservatism had a project for national renewal that it failed to implement, while the Left made—and still makes—gain after gain after gain. Consider conservatism’s aims: “civic renewal,” “federalism,” “originalism,” “morality and family values,” “small government,” “limited government,” “Judeo-Christian values,” “strong national defense,” “respect among nations,” “economic freedom,” “an expanding pie,” “the American dream.” I support all of that. And all of it has been in retreat for 30 years. At least. But conservatism cannot admit as much, not even to itself, in the middle of the night with the door closed, the lights out and no one listening.
I tried to tell it, and it got mad.
All right then, consider this post me stepping into the agora to answer Publius’ challenge with “open, honest” debate – an attempt to persuade him that his analysis of our present political moment in America is wrong-headed, factually mistaken (in part) and; while this may seem ironic coming from a blog that has no problem pointing out the manifold problems with modernity, his pessimism about the future is way too apocalyptic for the actual problems faced by our fellow citizens and our leaders.
Let’s begin with the first essay, where Publius lays out his case in these stark terms:
If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.
As a conservative, one may rightly ask -- why does Publius think the cliff has come into view just now? Hasn’t he been paying attention to conservative thought over the 20th Century? To take one (important) representative sample, here’s Richard Weaver from Ideas Have Consequences:
Surely we are justified in saying of our time: If you seek the monument to our folly, look about you. In our own day we have seen cities obliterated and ancient faiths stricken. We may well ask, in the words of Matthew, whether we are not faced with "great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world." We have for many years moved with a brash confidence that man had achieved a position of independence which rendered the ancient restraints needless. Now, in the first half of the twentieth century, at the height of modern progress, we behold unprecedented outbreaks of hatred and violence; we have seen whole nations desolated by war and turned into penal camps by their conquerors; we find half of mankind looking upon the other half as criminal. Everywhere occur symptoms of mass psychosis. Most portentous of all, there appear diverging bases of value, so that our single planetary globe IS mocked by worlds of different understanding. These signs of disintegration arouse fear, and fear leads to desperate unilateral efforts toward survival, which only forward the process. Like Macbeth, Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions. Have we forgotten our encounter with the witches on the heath? It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals. The powers of darkness were working subtly, as always, and they couched this proposition in the seemingly innocent form of an attack upon universals. The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.
Weaver wrote these words in 1948 – let's not use this post to start a big debate about whether or not he was correct in his diagnosis of the start of West’s problems -- but clearly he is one example of many conservative thinkers that can be adduced who will point to events of the past (sometimes the past of five hundred years ago!) who suggest that 'the cliff is coming into view' (e.g. ‘the New Deal represents a fundamental break from our constitutional order and unless reversed our republic will never know good government again') and something must be done to salvage Western civilization as we know it. These laments have a hint of truth to them, as the conservative thinker is usually pointing to a real social problem and/or decline in standards. The issue remains -- what is to be done about this decline and what is the appropriate metaphor to describe the conservative’s dilemma living in modernity. Are we really headed for a cliff? In some sense, for those of us who reject the modern Leftist world-view, things are indeed bleak, but are they any worse than what Christians faced during the early years of the church? During the attacks on the Eastern Roman Empire from Islam? During the wars of religion after the Protestant Revolution? During our fight with Nazism or the communism?
Well, Publius is very much focused on the here and now and with respect to recent conservative thinking, and as a result he rejects the solutions on offer from conservatives over the past 20+ years because he thinks they have been ineffectual and that modern conservatives refuse to own up to the true crisis that America (and the West) faces in this moment:
Let’s be very blunt here: if you genuinely think things can go on with no fundamental change needed, then you have implicitly admitted that conservatism is wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong on the nature of politics, and wrong in its policy prescriptions. Because, first, few of those prescriptions are in force today. Second, of the ones that are, the left is busy undoing them, often with conservative assistance. And, third, the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all understand as conservatism.
If your answer—Continetti’s, Douthat’s, Salam’s, and so many others’—is for conservatism to keep doing what it’s been doing—another policy journal, another article about welfare reform, another half-day seminar on limited government, another tax credit proposal—even though we’ve been losing ground for at least a century, then you’ve implicitly accepted that your supposed political philosophy doesn’t matter and that civilization will carry on just fine under leftist tenets. Indeed, that leftism is truer than conservatism and superior to it.
They will say, in words reminiscent of dorm-room Marxism—but our proposals have not been tried! Here our ideas sit, waiting to be implemented! To which I reply: eh, not really. Many conservative solutions—above all welfare reform and crime control—have been tried, and proved effective, but have nonetheless failed to stem the tide. Crime, for instance, is down from its mid-’70s and early ’90s peak—but way, way up from the historic American norm that ended when liberals took over criminal justice in the mid-’60s. And it’s rising fast today, in the teeth of ineffectual conservative complaints. And what has this temporary crime (or welfare, for that matter) decline done to stem the greater tide? The tsunami of leftism that still engulfs our every—literal and figurative—shore has receded not a bit but indeed has grown. All your (our) victories are short-lived.
More to the point, what has conservatism achieved lately? In the last 20 years? The answer—which appears to be “nothing”—might seem to lend credence to the plea that “our ideas haven’t been tried.” Except that the same conservatives who generate those ideas are in charge of selling them to the broader public. If their ideas “haven’t been tried,” who is ultimately at fault? The whole enterprise of Conservatism, Inc., reeks of failure.
Let’s stop here and unpack this rant for a moment. The first thing we need to ask is whether or not Publius is correct – has conservatism been a total failure? I seem to read this more and more in the blogosphere and certainly used to read it regularly on alt-right blogs – it seems to be what drives the frustration with our current crop of Republican leaders and/or has helped explain the rise of Trump. But what does it mean against reality? Yes, the courts have been trending leftward for quite some time (since Griswold? Earlier?) This is an important distinction given that federal (including the Supreme Court) and state courts have often undermined conservative political victories, as with our efforts in many states to successfully use the state constitutional process to remind the public what the proper meaning of marriage consists of (by my count 38 states had officially passed constitutional amendments defining marriage solely as limited to one man and one woman before the infamous Obergefell decision.)
While the federal government grows ever more onerous and bloated with debt, our state governments are getting leaning and smarter thanks to conservative ideas and governance – at last count 23 states were totally controlled by Republicans (Governor and both houses of the state legislature) versus only 7 for Democrats. There are an additional five Republican Governors (making 28 total) and seven states that are totally controlled (both upper and lower house of representatives) by Republicans (and four more lower houses and three more upper houses controlled by Republicans.) All these Republicans at the state level have been busy – opposing Obama’s agenda, doing what they can to protect the unborn, cutting spending, attacking the ability of unions to raise money, establishing charter schools (or working with the amazing home school movement and organizations like the HSLDA to make sure that homeschooled children are left alone), easing the regulatory burdens on their businesses, etc. They have worked hand in hand with conservatives at the national level to protect our rights to defend ourselves and conservatives should be happy to celebrate Missouri as the latest state to pass a “Constitutional carry” law (essentially, citizens of Missouri no longer need any sort of permit to carry a concealed firearm for self-defense.)
So at a local level clearly the answer to Publius’ question – “what has conservatism achieved lately?” is quite a bit. As for welfare reform and crime, which he points to as conservatives successes of the past that have begun to unravel thanks to the tsunami of leftism that engulfs all temporary achievements, I’m not so convinced. He says,
Crime, for instance, is down from its mid-’70s and early ’90s peak—but way, way up from the historic American norm that ended when liberals took over criminal justice in the mid-’60s. And it’s rising fast today, in the teeth of ineffectual conservative complaints.
As an historical factual matter, this is just incorrect – depending on whose data you look at and for what crime, the “mid-‘70s and early ‘90s peak” is in fact a return to earlier high levels of crime (at least for homicide) that America experienced in the early twentieth century:
The fact that we have brought crime down to the historic lows that existed only in the 40s and 50s is indeed something to celebrate, even if, yes, some leftists are intent on undoing the hard work conservative law and order policies have accomplished the past 20+ years. Likewise, with welfare – it remains the fact that reform took millions of people off the rolls and forced them to eventually get jobs if they wanted to receive any kind of help from this program. Publius is right, of course, to point to ongoing efforts by leftists to roll this success back or I could point to other welfare programs that were not reformed and continue to metastasize. Again, I don’t deny that in many, many ways – especially at the federal level – the government is too big and imposes too much of a regulatory burden on the American people.
But that brings us to the final part of Publius’ essay – his solution. He thinks that we need to “rush the cockpit” and vote for Donald Trump as the last best hope to save the republic from a Hillary Clinton Presidency, which
will be pedal-to-the-metal on the entire Progressive-left agenda, plus items few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments. Nor is even that the worst. It will be coupled with a level of vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent hitherto seen in the supposedly liberal West only in the most “advanced” Scandinavian countries and the most leftist corners of Germany and England. We see this already in the censorship practiced by the Davoisie’s social media enablers; in the shameless propaganda tidal wave of the mainstream media; and in the personal destruction campaigns—operated through the former and aided by the latter—of the Social Justice Warriors. We see it in Obama’s flagrant use of the IRS to torment political opponents, the gaslighting denial by the media, and the collective shrug by everyone else.
It’s absurd to assume that any of this would stop or slow—would do anything other than massively intensify—in a Hillary administration. It’s even more ridiculous to expect that hitherto useless conservative opposition would suddenly become effective. For two generations at least, the Left has been calling everyone to their right Nazis. This trend has accelerated exponentially in the last few years, helped along by some on the Right who really do seem to merit—and even relish—the label. There is nothing the modern conservative fears more than being called “racist,” so alt-right pocket Nazis are manna from heaven for the Left. But also wholly unnecessary: sauce for the goose. The Left was calling us Nazis long before any pro-Trumpers tweeted Holocaust denial memes. And how does one deal with a Nazi—that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.
O.K. then! Again, ignoring all our efforts to stop left-wing madness over the past eight years under Obama (sometimes successful and sometimes not) Publius plows ahead with his case that Trump is the antidote to a Hillary presidency, specifically because Trump gets these three things correct:
Trump is the most liberal Republican nominee since Thomas Dewey. He departs from conservative orthodoxy in so many ways that National Review still hasn’t stopped counting. But let’s stick to just the core issues animating his campaign. On trade, globalization, and war, Trump is to the left (conventionally understood) not only of his own party, but of his Democratic opponent. And yet the Left and the junta are at one with the house-broken conservatives in their determination—desperation—not merely to defeat Trump but to destroy him. What gives?
Oh, right—there’s that other issue. The sacredness of mass immigration is the mystic chord that unites America’s ruling and intellectual classes. Their reasons vary somewhat. The Left and the Democrats seek ringers to form a permanent electoral majority. They, or many of them, also believe the academic-intellectual lie that America’s inherently racist and evil nature can be expiated only through ever greater “diversity.” The junta of course craves cheaper and more docile labor. It also seeks to legitimize, and deflect unwanted attention from, its wealth and power by pretending that its open borders stance is a form of noblesse oblige. The Republicans and the “conservatives”? Both of course desperately want absolution from the charge of “racism.”
Yes, Trump is worse than imperfect. So what? We can lament until we choke the lack of a great statesman to address the fundamental issues of our time—or, more importantly, to connect them. Since Pat Buchanan’s three failures, occasionally a candidate arose who saw one piece: Dick Gephardt on trade, Ron Paul on war, Tom Tancredo on immigration. Yet, among recent political figures—great statesmen, dangerous demagogues, and mewling gnats alike—only Trump-the-alleged-buffoon not merely saw all three and their essential connectivity, but was able to win on them. The alleged buffoon is thus more prudent—more practically wise—than all of our wise-and-good who so bitterly oppose him. This should embarrass them. That their failures instead embolden them is only further proof of their foolishness and hubris.
So here is Publius’ essential case for Trump: that what America needs right now more than anything else is a candidate that will change our immigration policies (so they are more restrictive and are much more serious about the risks of assimilating poor and/or alien – Muslim – cultures), change our trade policies so we are more protectionist and less open to free trade, and finally a candidate that is willing to re-think our foreign policies and be willing to retreat from various alliances and/or foreign theaters of war.
This is supposed to save America?
Let’s think back to Publius’ earlier lament – I thought he agreed with conservatives about the “centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society” and nodded his head along when us conservatives talked about “the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions”? If so, what the heck will Trump do to improve this situation? As Publius himself admits, Trump is nothing more than a liberal Democrat who has unorthodox views on immigration. Trump is not serious, at all, about doing anything with respect to the size and scope of the administrative federal state, the budget deficit, our national debt, entitlement programs, etc. Indeed, what policy detail he has revealed suggest he will make the problem worse!
I’ve already blogged on this site about trade – I just disagree with Publius and Trump that more protectionism is the answer to our economic problems (I think it will make them worse and ultimately hurt the working class.) As for Trump’s “foreign policy” – who knows what he thinks? He was for the Iraq war and then he was against it; he has flirted with left-wing lies that Bush made up the intelligence on WMD in Iraq, he said he supports torture, he thinks Putin is a good leader for Russia (quick news flash – I would like nothing more than peace and prosperity for the Russian people and for our two countries to develop stronger ties with one another – I just think it is kind of hard to do that when a vicious dictator is in charge of one of those countries), etc. Like Publius, I think it would be wise if America pulled back from our heavy involvement in the Middle-East and encouraged others to fight their own battles. If we have learned anything from our past involvement in the region it is that unintended consequences face any action in the Islamic world and unless we are directly threaten by a state we would do well to avoid direct entanglement. But Trump is on record as saying we have to "do something extremely tough over there...like knock the hell out of them" referring to ISIS -- does that sound like someone who is ready to pull out of direct engagement in the Middle-East?
And then there is immigration – the idea that “Conservative Inc.” (except for the brave Tom Tancredo) has been only for ‘open borders’ over the past 20+ years is laughably wrong. Has Publius never read a word that Mark Krikorian has written (for National Review no less!) Yes, some conservatives favor more immigration than others – but there are many serious intellectual conservatives in the mainstream who have been willing to call for serious immigration restrictions or at least focus first on border control and security before any talk of legalization or normalization of the status of illegals already in the country. Senator Sessions has been fighting this good fight for years and Trump was smart to draw on his wisdom in crafting his own policy positions on immigration. The conservative base has dragged the Republican leadership kicking and screaming to our more restrictionist position and we’ve punished those who won’t toe the line (e.g. Eric Cantor.)
But let’s go back to Publius’ central contention – even if we are successful in reducing the flow of immigrants into this country (especially from poorer, third-world and Muslim countries) would that suddenly solve all our problems with the Left? To ask this question is to answer it – the American people are divided. We differ about fundamental first things, to use Father Neuhaus’ old formulation and changing demographics, while helpful; won’t change the fact that people in Massachusetts and California think about the role of the family, government responsibility, and the meaning of liberty in different ways than the people in Texas and Utah. We are even divided within states -- the people of Austin don’t agree with the people in Fort Worth on what constitutes the good life; what it means to defend the good, the true and the beautiful; and what government’s role should be in promoting the common good. Changing our demographic over the next 50 years might help promote domestic cohesion (I think it will) but we will remain divided over these 'first things' for quite some time.
If you are a conservative what will help in the long run are conservative ideas and winning people over to our side – which is why Trump is so disappointing and unacceptable – almost nothing he says and does on the campaign trail helps advance the basic philosophical case for limited government, the meaning of the Constitution and ordered liberty, the importance of the natural law and the complementary role of the sexes in marriage and the family, etc. Think again back to Richard Weaver – idea matter and in the long run there is no easy way around the fact that we have to convince our fellow citizens of the righteousness of our cause.
Finally, there is work to be done outside of politics – in the culture, in our churches, in our local community groups, etc. As Jonah Goldberg said in his response to Publius, concerning the original Flight 93 metaphor:
It’s also not true. Truth would exonerate him. But it isn’t true — and even if it were, he can’t possibly know that it is. I am the first to concede that if Hillary Clinton wins it will likely be terrible for the country. But America is larger than one election for one office in one branch in one of our many layers of government. Indeed, if it’s true that America is one election away from death, then America is already dead. Because the whole idea of this country is that most of life exists outside of the scope of government. Yes, this idea is battered and bloodied. But I fail to see how rejecting the idea — as Decius does — is the best way to save it.