Story by Joseph Ford Cotto
Nowadays, it can be hard to figure out just what it means to be a 'conservative.'
Does it mean the promotion of limited government ideals such as free markets, minimal immigration restrictions, and wide-ranging privatization? This is what untold millions have believed since the early 1980s, when the modern conservative movement crystallized under the influence of Ronald Reagan and his key backers.
The roots of their philosophy -- though some might say 'ideology' is a better term -- stretch back to what California was in the post-World War II age; a land of industry, a magnet for new residents, and fertile ground for diverse ideas. Amid this constant cultural change, pro-commerce voices competed with labor activists for the loudest bullhorn. Anything seemed possible, though a uniquely Californian brand of optimism, palpable as San Diego sunshine, ruled the day.
Nobody ever imagined the good times would come to an end. Who had the gall to think that Reaganism might give way to the New Left superstructure now entrenched in Sacramento?
That Reagan conservatism proved a flash in the pan, rather than a long-term trajectory, is a bitter pill to swallow for most center-right Americans. None too few movers and shakers still speak the late president's name in an almost deistic context. Nonetheless, his beliefs' lack of societal staying power and the hugely unpopular neoconservative ideology that succeeded them have placed a damper on the Gipper's legacy; especially for the under-40 crowd.
Presently, one must ask if conservatism means something different from what Reagan championed. Does it pertain to the preservation of America's Anglocentric culture, the defense of its borders, and the protection of its economic power from emerging foreign markets?
The new conservatism is actually quite old -- a throwback to what the Taft family, Calvin Coolidge, and Teddy Roosevelt stood for. Its resurgence comes against the odds; internationalism was trumpeted as the Washington Consensus until less than a year ago and there seemed little chance of changing this.
Now, a fierce battle of ideas unfolds over not just which variant of conservatism should triumph, but something far deeper: What matters more -- the transcendent ideals of Reagan or the kith-and-soil campaign of the Tafts, Coolidge, Roosevelt, and Donald Trump?
Allan C. Brownfeld is a veteran journalist who, though specializing in Middle Eastern affairs, has covered world history, religious happenings, race relations, and American conservatism for decades on end. The American Council for Judaism’s publications editor, he played a tremendous role in supporting black conservatism and dedicated much of his youth to active participation in civil rights reforms.
Shortly after the 1980 presidential election, Brownfeld served under Ronald Reagan and, to this day, remains devoted to the Gipper's memory. Few people have witnessed the changes in American conservatism at such close range as Brownfeld has, making him a sort of living history exhibit.
Brownfeld recently spoke with me about several matters pertaining to our nation's center-right. Some of our conversation is included below.
Joseph Ford Cotto: How did principles such as immigration restriction and cultural cohesion manage to evade scrutiny from "respectable" politicos on both sides and secure starring roles in the future of American conservatism?
Allan C. Brownfeld: I do not think that it can be said that Donald Trump's presidential campaign reflected American conservatism, at least not as I understand it, and I have been involved with conservatism for many years, having served as editor of The New Guard, the magazine of Young Americans for Freedom, contributing editor to Human Events, and associate editor of The Lincoln Review. In this election almost every major conservative publication----from the Manchester Union Leader, the San Diego Union, the Richmond Times Dispatch and the Wall Street Journal to National Review and the Weekly Standard refused to endorse Trump.
The subjects you mention, immigration and "cultural cohesion," were not major elements of the campaigns of Trump's Republican opponents. While it is true that every nation must control its borders and our porous southern border needs further security, it is not true that we are being overrun with illegal immigrants. In fact, the number of people entering the country illegally from Mexico is lower now than in decades. Indeed, during the last year, more Mexicans returned home than entered the country.
The promise to "build a wall" and have Mexico pay for it was simply campaign rhetoric to stir an emotional response, which it did. Calls for banning Muslims and creating a registry for Muslim Americans was totally outside the American political tradition by dividing Americans on the basis of religion. After 9/11, George W. Bush visited mosques and assured American Muslims that they were viewed as honorable and patriotic citizens. Our battle, he and most other Republicans understood, was with ISIS and radical Islam, not all Muslims.
A free society is rare in history, and very fragile. Donald Trump's divisive campaign was a threat to the unity of our diverse society. It was a mirror image of the divisive "identity politics" we see on the left. There is a conservatism of temperament which was totally absent from Trump's campaign of insult-----"Little Marco," "Lying Ted," "Lock Her Up," etc. Those with whom we disagree politically are not "enemies."
When I worked in the U.S. Senate during the Vietnam War, I traveled around the country debating with critics of the war. Often we would go out for drinks after the debate and continue the discussion. I don't remember anything like the name-calling we have seen from Donald Trump. And this is not over issues of war and peace but about political questions concerning which thoughtful men and women should be able to disagree and compromise, such as how best to deliver health care. Trump and his supporters like to call themselves Christians, and even manufactured a phony "war on Christmas" with which to do battle. But what of the Christian mandate to "love your enemies?"
Cotto: A band of disparate rightists banded together in support of Donald Trump's candidacy. These individuals, opposed to contemporary American conservative orthodoxy, came to be known as the "alt-right." Since Donald Trump's election "alt-rightness" has splintered prolifically. Beyond anything else, why is this?
Brownfeld: The "alt-right" has little relationship to traditional American conservatism. In his novel "Coningsby," Disraeli said that the first thing a conservative must ask himself is what it is he seeks to conserve. What modern American conservatives seek to conserve is the American political tradition, a belief in individual freedom, limited government and a respect for diversity. People in other societies who call themselves "conservatives" often want to conserve entirely different kinds of political arrangements, from monarchy to oligarchy to autocracy.
The so-called "alt-right," in my view, seems not to share the values of American conservatism and appears to have contempt for what most conservatives have viewed as the basis for American "exceptionalism." Its embrace of narrow nationalism, often bordering on racism, and desire for ideological conformity make it more akin to right-wing nationalist movements in Europe, such as the National Front in France, Often, the "alt-right" seems more like a cult than anything else. The modern American conservative movement which emerged after World War II rejected ideological systems, having experienced the manner in which Nazism, Fascism and Communism led directly to tyranny.
Without the Internet, which enables small groups of extremists to bond with one another, it is unlikely that we would even be discussing the "alt right," which represents a small cohort of disaffected men and women. Ironically, it is the Democrats and the Hillary Clinton campaign which elevated this group to the front page of our newspapers and television news reports by doing their best to portray Donald Trump as a part of this enterprise. In any society of more than 300 million people there will always be extremists on both left and right. They make good press but they represent very small numbers of Americans.
Some on the "alt-right," such as talk show host Alex Jones, have attracted a small following with their promotion of false news, such as the idea that the massacre of children and teachers at Sandy Hook, Connecticut never happened. The fact that Donald Trump has appeared in his program and praised his work has helped to promote such dangerous falsehoods. What, one wonders, was Trump thinking when he embraced a figure such as Alex Jones?
Trump and his "alt-right" fans would do well to read Russell Kirk, author of "The Conservative Mind," who along with William F. Buckley, Jr., helped to create modern conservatism. Instead of ideology, Kirk commended political prudence, one of the four "classical virtues," as opposed to "ideology," a word that signifies political fanaticism. Kirk notes that, "Politics is the art of the possible, the conservative says. He thinks of political policies as intended to preserve order, Justice and freedom. The ideologue, on the contrary, thinks of politics as a revolutionary instrument for transforming society and even transforming human nature. In his march toward Utopia, the ideologue is merciless."
In Kirk's view, political ideologies are really "inverted religions." American conservatism embraced his perception that, "The prudential politician knows that 'Utopia' means 'Nowhere,' that we cannot march to an earthly Zion, that human nature and human institutions are imperfectible, that aggressive 'righteousness' in politics ends in slaughter. True religion is a discipline for the soul, not for the state...It is the conservative leader who, setting his face against all ideologies, is guided by what Patrick Henry called 'the lamp of experience.' In this 20th century, it has been the body of opinion generally called 'conservative' that has defended the Permanent Things from ideological assaults."