Crossing the Rubicon: Conservative America: 1960-2020

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By Shivaji Sengupta
Rubicon is a mythological river which if one crossed half way over, there was no returning. The phrase is used to indicate action, especially bad actions, that cannot be reversed.
On February 28, the Conservative Party Action Committee, CPAC, ended their annual conference with a speech from the former president, Donald Trump. It marked the latter’s first appearance in a public forum after January 6th, the date on which Congress officially declared Joe Biden and Kamala Harris the president and the Vice President of the United States; and when, right after Trump’s incendiary speech to the pro-Trump rabble, the latter launched its violent assault of the Capitol, resulting in the desecration of the building, hundreds of injuries and seven deaths.
The Conservatives in America are splintering into different groups, although if you watched the CPAC conference you wouldn’t know unless you analyzed their concurrently run seminars from Friday through Sunday. The entire conference centered around Donald Trump, from the very moment he landed in Orlando, Florida, till his speech, signaling its closing.
His speech, largely predictable, formally defined Trumpism, the allotropic form of Conservatism influencing most conservatives in America. Trumpism is about reforming voting rights such that the poor, old and the sick cannot vote by mail without going through elaborate procedures designed to discourage voting; to eradicate all moderate positions having to do with traditional Republican policies, such as fiscal responsibility, government regulations and foreign policy. Trump is, in short, Trumpism.
Yet, listening to Trump and others speak in this conference, you could be forgiven if you came away without having any clear idea of the conservative philosophy. This column will remind readers how it has changed over the years; in what way does it inform contemporary conservative politics. I will explain the difference between European conservatism and American conservatism, the center stage it took in the mid-1950s. I will end with a warning.
The culture of contemporary conservatism has evolved, from what we might refer to as classical conservatism of the 1960s, through rank and file conservatism since Ronald Reagan, and, eventually to Trumpism.
But before I go any further, a necessary caveat. Trumpism is not Republicanism. The media is replete with news that Republicanism is ending because of Trump, its demise slow but meticulous. I am not sure. Even though I am a Democrat, I respect the original values of the Republican Party founded by Abraham Lincoln. I even respect aspects of robust conservatism as espoused by Edmund Burke and Winston Churchill, and, in the American context, Frederich Hayek and William F. Buckley.
In previous columns in this newspaper, I had written that Trump flourished since 2015 because of America’s neglect of the poor and the lower middle class. The whites who fall in this category, in the south and the Midwest, particularly feel victimized by the upper-class elites who have been running the country without caring for them. Furthermore, since President Lyndon Johnson’s historical Civil Rights laws, lifting up African Americans, they have felt even more deprived. Regardless of Republican and Democrat presidents, the white lower middle class and the poor continue to feel pariah. It was the evil genius of people like Rush Limbaugh, Stephen Miller and Stephen Bannon that made it possible to transform what used to be conservatism to a rebel philosophy of the white poor. Limbaugh popularized it by screaming his invectives through radio shows:
“Hey look! Washington doesn’t give a sh-t about you. You are poor, getting poorer! Your jobs are being taken by Mexicans and other Latinos! Their immigration is your downfall! Washington pacifies you by calling you conservatives, you believe them. Now is not the time to have intellectual discussions about who is a conservative. Now is the time to throw George W. Bush and Barak Obama out. One is an oil-rich magnate, the other an elitist intellectual, a pretty boy who has no idea about what America is!”
Steve Bannon and Miller, elites, then “translated” the loud-mouthed Limbaugh into policies to be carried out. They found in Trump, almost as ignorant and uneducated as the white poor, but a superficially wealthy man in huge debts, a convenient receptacle to make their policies reality. Thus, between the transmission of Bannon and Miller and the visceral energy of Limbaugh, Trump founded Trumpism. He calls it conservatism without knowing or understanding what conservatism is. The poor white, seeing only the myth of his riches, believing falsely that he is a self-made man from rags to riches, supported his promise to throw the immigrants out and return the jobs to them. They forgot that, in the first place, immigrants took their jobs because they wouldn’t pay enough and the whites refused them, preferring instead, unemployment benefits. They voted for him in droves, in the south and Midwest, making him the victor in electoral college votes.
Trump though was not much of a conservative. However, Trump, once a Democrat (!), called himself a conservative throughout his presidency. His 75 million followers likewise did so.
But neither Trump, not his followers are conservatives.
The conservative philosophy began in England, in the late 18th Century with Edmund Burke’s scathing criticism of the French Revolution of 1789. His criticism was particularly harsh on English enthusiasm showed by poets like William Wordsworth. English intellectuals from Queen Elizabeth onwards always carried a strong conservative streak. Robert Fulmer, Thomas Hobbes, the poets John Dryen, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift were conservatives; as was Dr. Samuel Johnson, the writer who became world-famous as the creator of the first modern dictionary known as the Oxford English Dictionary.
To the English, human beings struggle between two opposite strengths, energy and control. Energy is the passion to action, to bring about change. Control is the human alter ego, forever reminding individuals to restrain themselves, to temper action with thought and conscience, not to be rash. According to those thinkers, conservatives ably balanced the two forces of energy and control. To the others, those who favored energy were Whigs (in America, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton); those favoring control, conservatives – in America, Republicans such as Abraham Lincoln. Republicanism in the U.S. dovetailed with Conservatism, but the two always maintained differences between them.
Postwar conservatism in America was launched through the publication of groundbreaking books, including Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (1944), Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948), and Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind (1953); the establishment of new, opinion-shaping periodicals, such as Human Events (1944) and William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review (1955); and the formation of organizations such as the Foundation for Economic Education (1946) and the Young Americans for Freedom (1960). Among these, Hayek’s writings were probably the most influential in the 1940s through fifties, and William F. Buckley, post 1960s.
Hayek’s books are concerned with liberty and freedom. The two are not the same. According to Hayek, you need liberty to achieve freedom. Liberty is a form of energy that is always trying to break shackles. It’s natural: you release a bird, it flies away; you let a child loose, it runs. Liberty, politically speaking, is that which respects the autonomy of the individual, a necessary but not sufficient condition for freedom. Freedom, again according to Hayek, is the state humans achieve as a result of certain laws and regulations conducive to liberty. A major example he gives is that human beings should be free to do what they want (or not to do what they don’t want). There should be no laws forcing or coercing individuals to do government’s bid. However, Hayek reminds his readers that there are certain laws, built into the Constitution, and regulations, that require people’s acquiescence to keep public peace and order. Supplemented to the Bill of Rights’ liberty, property and pursuit of happiness, the laws pertaining to liberty, and extending to property and happiness, form the fundamentals of Hayek’s notion of liberty. According to him, these form the basis of a humanistic government.
So what is so conservative about Hayek’s philosophy? Why has he been adopted by the conservatives? It is his opposition to any form of government encroachment to individuals’ freedoms. Coercion and even force deprives entrepreneurialism, the willingness to forge our own future. Hayek was all for releasing the human spirit for adventure within the Constitution. He was one of the principal architects of American Conservatism.
The more recent one was William F. Buckley whom I have seen in regular PBS programs during the 70s, as many of the readers of this paper, who are my age, might have! He started the extremely influential “National Review” magazine, still considered a major proponent of intellectual conservatism. In its premiere issue, Buckley wrote:
Among our convictions: It is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens’ lives, liberty and property. All other activities of government tend to diminish freedom and hamper progress. The growth of government… must be fought relentlessly. …We believe that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience. On this point we are, without reservations, on the conservative side.
Much of Buckley’s ideas have been now adopted by libertarians like Ron Paul, and abandoned by Trumpism. Neither is Conservative, because Senator Paul does not believe in the fundamental controls the Constitution expects citizens to follow. And Trumpism is nothing if it is not coercive.
Traditional Republicans who believe in 1) small government, 2) smaller taxes, especially on the wealthy who invest in gigantic multinational businesses, and 3) limited regulations in business so as to not interfere in the free flow of business, are in a bind: should they soldier on with their conservative philosophy, or should they heed Trump’s 40 million followers and embrace Trumpism? If they do the latter, they will have crossed the Rubicon.
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind!

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