The Maoist Moment in American Conservatism

As of this writing Donald Trump is the presumptive United States presidential nominee for the Republican Party. While it is unclear why Trump has enough popularity to be the nominee (no doubt social scientists and historians will be working on this for a while) the dominant narrative is something along the lines of angry voters tired of “business as usual” politics which do not seem to be paying off for them. So they want to “burn it all down.”

What is interesting is that Trump is the apparent nominee of the Republican Party, the supposedly more conservative one of the two major parties. Yet, for years on talk radio, sympathetic television networks, and “movement conservatism” in general, the talk has been of “revolution,” “insurgency,” “fighting the establishment” and so forth. Such rhetoric is odd given conservatism’s birth as a stance against revolutions. The wellspring of European, and hence American, conservatism is the British parliamentarian Edmund Burke, best known for his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). He was against it.

The conservative movement is awash today in pundits and activists whose mindset is akin to that of Vladimir Lenin or Mao Tse Tung.

The conservative movement is awash today in pundits and activists who seek to outdo each other in doctrinal purity. The mindset of these activists is akin to that of Vladimir Lenin or Mao Tse Tung. The Marxist movement has a history of extreme factionalism, as various fragments sought to outdo one another in doctrinal purity. The Maoist approach to politics posited that unflinching will would bring about success. We see echoes of this in the conservative appeal to “elect so-and-so” and finally we will end abortion or cut federal spending in half or what have you. The current office holders are weak-willed compromisers, the narrative goes, so replace them with the ideologically pure who will not sell out.

CONSERVATISM OR FANATICISM?

The late conservative writer Russell Kirk (1918-1994) identified this attitude as ideology: a fanatical and utopian approach to politics. For Kirk and other conservatives in the tradition of Burke, the needed alternative to the prevalence of left-wing ideologues was not the proliferation of right-wing ideologues. Rather, we needed a politics of prudence: a politics designed to preserve order, justice and freedom. Furthermore, order, justice and freedom were embodied in institutions at the federal, state and local levels. And such institutions included nongovernmental entities such as the family, religious entities such as churches and other kinds of associations. Such institutions of course change very slowly, for good or for ill. Simultaneously, according to this classical conservative view, we need to conserve our intellectual heritage, especially those pre-modern ideas and institutions that anchor us in the rapidly changing world of modernity.

The ideologue, whether right or left, seems to have little sense of the slow pace of political reform. As the great German sociologist Max Weber put it, “politics is the slow boring of hard boards.” In the American context, political institutions are specifically designed to be slow and messy.

One might think that politically conservative American Christians would be less susceptible to current conservative ideologues. Yet this is often not the case, particularly among evangelicals. One possible reason is that conservatism in America may almost be a contradiction in terms. The late Canadian political philosopher George Parkin Grant (1918-1988) noted that it was immensely difficult for the United States to have a genuine conservatism, having no history before the rise of modernity. Grant sought the preservation of a deeper tradition of the pursuit of the good – one rooted primarily in Plato and the Gospels – that had been eroded by modernity. While his own Canada at least had maintained a greater connection to Britain and its pre-modern traditions, America’s foundational philosophical traditions were Puritanism and Lockean liberalism, both birthed in modernity and in opposition to these older traditions. In other words, what is American to conserve if it all was birthed in modernity? Certainly an enduring part of the pre-modern Western tradition, found in both classical Greek and Augustinian strands, is the notion of tragedy in political life, of intractable dilemmas.

As numerous scholars have noted, American evangelicalism is very much the product of modernity. To that extent, has it lost, or never had, the tragic sensibility needed to ward off ideology and fanaticism? Augustinian ideas regarding God’s sovereignty might have entered American political thought by way of the Puritans, but Augustine’s tragic sensibility, found in the eternal struggle between the City of God and the Earthly City, seems to have had less of an effect.

There are of course exceptions. The enduring appeal of Reinhold Niebuhr among some conservatives testifies to this (even though Niebuhr thought of himself as a man of the left). Kirk’s 1953 book The Conservative Mind sought to identify forgotten strands of conservative thought in America. Contemporary academics such as Elizabeth Corey and Micah Watson, writers such as Rod Dreher and online publications like Public Discourse or Front Porch Republic have sought to bring the insights of the classical conservative mindset to bear on both political thought and current affairs.

As many pundits have pointed out, conservatism in America is at a crossroads.  The hardcore ideologues “stand firm” but do not accomplish much. Many current Christian conservative leaders have cozied up to, or at least tepidly support, Trump. As conservative columnist (and leading anti-Trump voice) Peter Wehner, an evangelical, noted in a June 2016 New York Times column, such people will be permanently stained by jumping on the Trump bandwagon.

One upside to the surge in conservative ideology is the stimulation for many Christians who identify as political conservatives to rethink their relationship to politics. The nature of conservatism is to seek to preserve good things that are in danger of being lost. Politics has been seen as a component of this, albeit a limited one. Yet “movement conservatives” have placed so much emphasis on national politics that they have forgotten about the traditional conservative insistence on the priority of the local community. Perhaps the likely upcoming crash-and-burn of movement conservatism will lead to a healthier focus on one’s own community.

Dan Young teaches political science at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.

Image: Peter Griffin, Free Stock Photos, public domain.