For 60 years, the conservative establishment has worked to overcome the biggest leftist lie of them all: that non-leftists are really Nazis in disguise. To wreck that view, conservatism reinvented itself after World War II.
William Buckley, editor of National Review, led the way. He purged the hard racists, dedicated segregationists, the Falangists, the anti-semites, the crypto-Nazis, the theocrats and ecclesiocrats, and the wildly paranoid conspiracy mongers.
Buckley was the one to do it too, because he was erudite and educated, with a subtle sense of things. It was a massive effort in social and political control, and it mostly worked. The culminating victory came with the election of Ronald Reagan.
So sensitive was Buckley to the charge of Nazi sympathies that he lost his composure completely, on live television, when in 1968 Gore Vidal charged him with being a crypto-Nazi. It was enough to cause Buckley, again on live television, to threaten Vidal with a punch in the face.
And Buckley never stopped the purges even through the 2000s. To be in the Buckley circle, you had to be housebroken. You had to avoid the fever swamps.
Many of these purges were wholly justified, but there was also collateral damage. He also purged the libertarians and the Randians too, for different reasons. Libertarians weren’t on board with the Cold War, so that was enough for him. As for Rand, perhaps it was the atheism above all else, since by this time, a firm defense of religious faith had become essential to the package of this new thing called conservatism.
If Buckley was so worried about the impression that the only alternative to leftism was Nazism, he might have cooled it a bit on suggesting nuclear war against the North Vietnamese and the Russians. If a distinguishing mark of Nazism is the use of mass violence to serve political ends, an ideological change would have been more effective than purges in countering the smears against the right. He might also have shown less affection for police-state tactics against antiwar protestors. After all, these smears from the left have the whiff of credibility for a reason.
And now in 2015 enters Donald Trump. He is not a marginal candidate. His rise and persistent dominance of the Republican field has establishment conservatives panicked, simply because it’s proof that their ideology is not dominant among GOP voters. Every demographic analysis of his supporters shows that they do not get their news from magazines or the internet. These people (middle age, middle income, white) are TV watchers and mostly haven’t been to college. What the intelligentsia says doesn’t impact their lives at all.
And yet their voices have a plurality in the Republican party. We haven’t heard from them that much in recent years because they’ve not had a standard bearer and the establishment has exercised such tight control. Now with Trump, we have the perfect storm: a person who is the caricature of the ugly American. He pushes patriotism to the point of nativism, energy in the executive to the point of fascism, police power as a solution without limits, and military strength to the point of outright worship of war as the only suitable means.
The latent statism of the right reaches its apotheosis in Trump, and it is driving the conservative establishment crazy. He is the painting in the attic, and they want it to remain hidden.
As for populism generally, both conservatives and libertarians have variously toyed with it in the past. Surely the people want liberty. Surely the only real problem is the ruling class and its power. If the people get their way, through an assertive wresting of control from the elites, the result would be a freer America. The real problem traces to the people controlling the party, not the voters as such.
But look at what’s happening. The establishment is losing control, but the result is not a movement that favors freedom but something more like the right-wing version of the Red Guard. The Trump movement is unleashing unguided hate: it was Mexicans, then Syrians, then all Muslims, and now he can stand in front of audiences ridiculing free speech and elicit cheers from the frothing masses.
H.L. Mencken is making much more sense to me today. This is a change for me. I’ve always appreciated Mencken’s love of freedom, his suspicion of the state, his appreciation for high culture, his disdain for the age-old superstitions. All that I could grasp and share. What I could not entirely share was his dread of the common man, and his absolute loathing of the political system that puts the hoi polloi in charge of choosing political leadership. He found the system preposterous.
I’ve always understood the intellectual arguments against democracy and agreed more or less. But I could never muster Mencken’s passion concerning the topic. I’ve never fully understood his intense conviction that democracy is the single biggest threat to liberty.
Trump has changed all that. Now I see it fully. The common man is gold as a consumer, worker, family member, church goer. As a voter and political influencer, the common man is a disaster waiting to happen.
What effect does this have on conservative ideology? It makes the job of seeming intelligent and responsible ever more difficult. If I were a leftist, I would be laughing out loud at all these upheavals. Trump as the only alternative to Sanders/Hillary is not a world I want to inhabit.
My prediction is this. Whether or not Trump snags the nomination, his dominance of the polls in 2015 has given the biggest boost the left has received in half a century. It also calls on conservatives to clean up their act: get more libertarian or prepare for the full Trumpization of your movement.
Trumpism: The Ideology
Why We Should Talk About Fascism
The Eff Word Goes Mainstream
Has Donald Trump Unleashed the Neo-Nazis?
How Carly Fiorina and a Boring Debate Took Out Trump
The Rand Paul Campaign: A Retrospective
Jeffrey Tucker is Chief Liberty Officer of Liberty.me (http://liberty.me/join), a subscription-based, action-focused social and publishing platform for the liberty-minded. He is also distinguished fellow of the Foundation for Economic Education (http://fee.org), executive editor of Laissez-Faire Books, research fellow of the Acton Institute, founder of the CryptoCurrency Conference, and author of six books. He is available for speaking and interviews via firstname.lastname@example.org.