Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin isn’t exactly a household name. One of the leaders of the ill-fated French Revolution of 1848, he is known to most Americans solely for one quip as the revolution he thought he instigated began to spiral out of his control:
“There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”— Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin (d. 1874)
Like most renegades and antagonists, once the passions of the mob are unleashed it is quite difficult to get them back under control. Danton and Robespierre tried to do so, but found themselves the victims of the French Terror rather than encouraging a more adolescent form of the same. Lafayette attempted to corral its passions and ended up a prisoner of the people.
This isn’t to compare those who support Trump to the sans-culottes of the past, but it is to appreciate how the intellectuals of the right have attempted to define their role in the rise of Trumpism — a rise most of them vehemently opposed (as do I) yet in true Washingtonian style, flipped to reconcile their consciences and careers with the new reality.
To wit, Emma Green over at The Atlantic attempts to distill what precisely is the game of the modern-day Ledru-Rollin’s of the new commissariat:
On its face, the gathering seemed to be an attempt to superimpose an intellectual framework onto the brute force of Trumpism and, to a certain extent, the populist rebellions that have swept countries from Italy to Poland to the United Kingdom. But at a deeper level, this event was about the future of conservatism at a time of deep fracture within the movement. According to those gathered, the conservative establishment in Washington has been revving in neutral ever since Trump was elected president, knowing they have to go with the moment but unwilling to truly question long-held conservative principles.
Herein lies the problem.
One immediately notices that the populist revolt in the United States is paired like rubber chicken to white wine to the European far-right consisting of Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz, Geert Wilder’s Partij voor de Vrijheid and so forth.
Stringing them all together is a reliance on the work of several political thinkers. Carl Schmitt and Julius Evola have absorbed the lion’s share of the attention from the writers of the New York Times, the illiberal tendencies of the nationalist front are well documented.
Alain de Benoist is the French philosopher that has done the most to crystallize the “new right” in Europe, borrowing from Schmitt and Evola to influence not just the National Front but also another Russian thinker: Aleksandr Dugin and his Fourth Political Theory.
Dugin’s argument runs as follows. Socialism has failed, fascism has been defeated, liberalism is failing. The sole remaining alternative? Dugin uses the term traditionalism; de Benoist would prefer the term nationalism. Liberalism’s failures can be well documented in the rise of a hypersexualized society attempting to cram material goods into a God-sized hole, an effort that Dugin et al. claim will inevitably fail.
Thus liberalism — whether it is the more responsible classical liberalism of the sort found in George Will’s The Conservative Sensibility or the anarcho-libertarian sentiment found in the work of David Boaz or Murray Rothbard — are the enemy, and those who defend the old fusionism between conservatives and libertarians (Buckley, Goldwater and Reagan) are the enemies of this new nationalist consensus.
Need evidence? Let’s return to the pages of The Atlantic for just a moment:
The elite insurgents at the Ritz would like nothing more than to see the old marriage between hard-core libertarians and social conservatives permanently ended, and to build new institutional alliances around a positive, unifying vision of nationalism. “The right has been too economistic in its thinking for a long time, and too libertarian,” Yuval Levin, the policy wonk and author who was recently tapped to lead a new division at the American Enterprise Institute focused on family and civic life, told me. “I think it needs to be more concerned with social and cultural questions—not just two or three that we sort of call the social issues, but the foundations of a free society and family and community and civic life.”
If you hear echoes of Dugin and de Benoist from Yuval Levin, you are hearing echoes of Schmitt and Evola as well. More to the point, if you listening and hearing old conservative stalwarts such as Whittaker Chambers, William Buckley and Russell Kirk cringe with trepidation, because if there is a definition of what we were trying to conserve, it wasn’t “language, borders and culture” but life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Now this isn’t to say that the attendees have magically become wholesale devotees of the “dead consensus” illiberalism that seems to plague the new right in America. Yet it does suggest that our hyper-intellectualized policy thinkers in Washington still don’t understand why Trump captured the hearts and minds of middle America. To some, this is an intellectual movement that must be defined and refined; to most, Trump represents a gigantic middle finger to the elites of both parties, of all stripes, and most of all to confabs such as these.
More to the point, it misses what the Tea Party was all about when it first arrived. The Obama-era “coalition of the ascendant” is the enemy, not liberalism. The handful of hipsters, cubicle dwellers, and 20-something college graduates saddled with debt yet simultaneously blessing the hearts of working class Americans are what sets off the working class. Being told that your job is being shipped overseas while inner cities get covered in brick and glass by marketing gurus and social media types whose idea of production is the number of likes they can accumulate on Instagram — that’s what grates.
Unfortunately, that “coalition of the ascendant” are the sort that get paid to sit and either click buttons or think big thoughts in academia or policy think tanks.
There is a sensus fidelium whose only mantra is “make it right” — not blood and soil. They aren’t racists, they simply want to make sure the opportunities they created will be there for their children and not outsourced in order to move a profit margin from 18% to 22%. They aren’t bigots, but they do resent being told that the values that made America great are entirely insufficient for the present day. They aren’t haters; they just want to be left alone.
Unfortunately, such sentiments can be captured by a demagogue. Time and again we have seen this in American politics. Andrew Jackson did so as the populist tidal wave carried his Democratic Party into the White House in 1828 over the last Federalist, John Quincy Adams. With varying degrees and varying goals, populism is the resistance of the many against the designs of a few, and it can either be a force for good or a malignant tumor in the body politic.
Perhaps the choice isn’t between nationalism against conservatism, but one consisting of its best champions: George Wallace against Ronald Reagan.
Wallace represented a sort of populism that was highly resistant to the interference of the national government, primarily in defense of the segregationist South. Yet it would be an error to insist that this was the entirety of Wallace’s argument,as the populist undercurrent saw an overreaching federal government, an imposition of values through judicial courts rather than by legislative consensus, and a secular-driven sexual revolution that was directly opposed to the Christian values that defined the region. If the old adage of “any port in a storm” holds merit, Wallace was that port.
Yet Ronald Reagan and the architects of the libertarian-conservative alliance of the Goldwater campaign saw the world differently. In their eyes, there was nothing wrong with America that couldn’t be fixed with what was right about America. The efforts of intellectual elites — of the left or the right — that “coalition of the ascendant” of the 1960s? They were the problem, not the solution:
This is the issue of this election: whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.— Ronald Reagan, “A Time For Choosing” (1964)
Reagan was right, as the more these planners planned the more they failed. Reagan held the fire of the “new consensus” against the worn out old consensus. Human freedom was a far better guarantor of civil society, for no amount of coercion can create a virtuous society. Give people the means to become self-reliant and self-sufficient citizens, and they will surprise you with the option for virtue over vice.
Substitute citizenship for subjection to a moral integralism, and we no longer have a republic imbued with virtue — only one excoriated of vice. At least, for a time.
Thus the “dead consensus” thinkers in their attempt to get in front of the populist movement that elected Trump are doomed to fail, not solely because freedom is a more potent weapon than falangism against the illiberalism of the socialist project. Rather, they are doomed because they are rooted in the very same “coalition of the ascendant” that the populists despise — it is the reason why demagogues of the right ultimately fail, not because they are insufficiently radical in their reactionary impulses but because they are insufficiently optimistic in their Jeffersonian virues — quite namely, their faith in their fellow man.
Virtue cannot be coerced or manufactured, nor can it be regimented through political societies. True, such artificial means might survive for a time, but inevitably they collapse to a natural order that is best expressed when human freedom is best allowed to weigh the scales between virtue and vice, or to put it more forcefully, between Aristotle or Schmitt.
If Reagan represented the very best of the former, Wallace represented the very worst of the latter. We should remember that it wasn’t those who followed Schmitt or Evola who ultimately liberated the world from Soviet Communism, but rather the followers of Jefferson and Burke that championed the cause of freedom.
The political right in America is facing its own time for choosing, between freedom or falangism. Attempting to get in front of the populist movement by corralling it into the language of European and Russian right-wing parties is a siren song that should not merely be avoided, but relentlessly called out as something more serious. C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute.