book cover imageRight-Wing Critics of American Conservatism
by George Hawley.
University Press of Kansas, 2016.
Hardcover, 376 pages, $35.

George Hawley has written a competent, respectable book on conflicts within America’s right wing concerning what is and is not acceptable discourse in the public square. He reports on several decades of in-fighting and the policy positions served and changed through power struggles within the Republican party. His volume provides a generally useful introduction to Republican party politics and how it has been influenced by center-right and conservative voices, as well as an introduction to other right-wing voices rejected by the party establishment.

But what is truly interesting in Mr. Hawley’s respectable work is not what it tells us about conservatism or its right-wing critics, but what it tells us about the nature and deleterious impact of contemporary political analysis. He demonstrates a fixation on power politics, along with a self-assurance that any vision of the common good significantly different from or more robust than contemporary liberalism’s is irrational and dangerous. He thus captures and illustrates the myopic self-satisfaction of mainstream American academia and punditry.

Ironically, its very respectability makes Mr. Hawley’s book a kind of key to understanding the most important recent development in American politics—the rise of Donald Trump. Mr. Hawley does not predict this rise. His stated fear is that American conservatism’s disarray may render it incapable of conducting its one beneficial function: to purge from the public square those whose rhetoric smacks of excessive racism and xenophobia. (I say “excessive” because Mr. Hawley finds much mainstream conservative thought and rhetoric to be at least provisionally racist in and of itself.) But the mode of political engagement and analysis in which Mr. Hawley engages, here, has long been dominant in America and is substantially responsible for the rise of Trump.

Despite the common, overheated rhetoric, Mr. Trump is no Nazi or “alt-right” white supremacist. Neither is he a conservative. He is a populist figure taking advantage of the frustration and anger of millions of average, largely non-ideological Americans who can no longer stomach American politics in its contemporary, fundamentally liberal mode. This mode has for decades silenced opposition, not only from extremist groups on the right, but from traditional conservatives committed to renewing the mainstream of the Western tradition and even from average Americans committed merely to maintaining a decent standard of living and their accustomed way of life.

In accordance with the liberal analytic mode, Mr. Hawley ignores most conservative ideas. He instead focuses on the party in-fighting that has finally put an end to the so-called “conservative movement.” That formerly important movement at its height in the Reagan Administration has morphed into a part of the Republican party establishment. And that establishment has prioritized the privileges of its elites and apparatchiks to the exclusion of citizens’ interests and the principles it claims to espouse. At least since the first President Bush, leaders of the Republican party have promised conservative action but produced only rhetoric and a series of compromises that facilitated a lurch to the left on social and economic issues unprecedented in American history.

Within the liberal mode, policy goals are maintained and analyzed in a manner divorced from the cultural preconditions and expectations of the citizenry. As to the conservative-Republican alliance, when analyzed at all it is presented as a collection of groups united by little more than self-interest and a desire to hide members’ latent racism. The liberal mode is real and accurate in the limited sense that politically active elites in both parties share its assumptions. Its reality has disgusted both conservatives and relatively apolitical Americans to the point of electoral revolt.

Students of conservatism will find Mr. Hawley’s analysis, like his fears, familiar. He argues that conservatism in the United States for several decades was a coalition of those committed to “a strong national defense, free-market capitalism, andmoral traditionalism.” The policy goals that he sees defining this coalition do not in his view mesh well. The conservative movement was held together by opposition to Soviet communism and adetermination—most pronounced and generally exercised in the person of William F. Buckley, Jr.—to monitor important spokesmen of conservatism, purging from the movement those who stepped too far over the somewhat shifting line of acceptable discourse into racism, whether real or perceived, or conspiracy theory. The end of the Cold War, increasing secularization, reductions in crime (but which have increased again under President Obama), and America’s having passed a supposed point of diminishing returns for tax cuts and deregulation have marginalized conservatism, leaving it with a dark, demographically limiting future. This may be a bad thing, according to Mr. Hawley, because it would allow openly racist and otherwise unsavory right-wing movements unfettered access to the public square.

Much of Mr. Hawley’s book is taken up with thumbnail sketches of movements on the right-wing fringes of American politics. Relevant groups include libertarians like the “objectivist” followers of Ayn Rand and anarcho-capitalists. Also included are extremist groups like the John Birch Society and overt racists such as David Duke and various white supremacists and separatists. But Mr. Hawley also considers as “right-wing critics of conservatism” proponents of localism and so-called paleoconservatives, most of whom have seen themselves as mainstream traditional conservatives reacting to the neoconservative takeover of the conservative movement. Neoconservatism itself is treated largely as a non-controversial inheritor of conservative anticommunism, which inexplicably developed into a commitment to American empire.

Mr. Hawley provides some valuable reporting regarding various right-wing groups. Unfortunately, his work suffers from two significant flaws. The first is his focus on public policy positions. The second concerns his unacknowledged prejudices regarding the moral status of those policy positions.

First, Mr. Hawley’s narrow (though sadly common) focus on public policy makes this book less an analysis of conservatism than of the Republican party—with whom he somewhat ironically accuses conservatives of over-identifying. The relationship began as one of convenience, morphing into a union only as leaders of the formal conservative movement became enamored of political power for its own sake. Much of the book reads like a Washington Post recap of electoral infighting over the last few decades. Mr. Hawley even identifies Bob Dole as a kind of Republican/conservative savior for defeating the paleoconservative insurgency of Patrick J. Buchanan. Yet Dole’s humiliating defeat in the general election, while acceptable to party elites, merely reinforced the already widening gap between those elites and the party’s conservative base. This base is the subject of persistent criticism from Mr. Hawley, who uses hostile quotations to liken Tea Party activists to members of the John Birch Society. It was precisely this attitude of contempt for conservative activists that, evinced by Republican elites, produced the losses of the first Bush and of Messrs. Dole, McCain, and Romney as well as the eventual rise of Trump. Even the second Bush could not muster a popular majority in his first run for the White House and left office in disgrace.

As Mr. Hawley recognizes, the Bush II administration marked the final victory of neoconservatives in the struggle for power within the official conservative movement. But that development was less a victory within conservatism than a rejection of conservatism in favor of power politics. The resulting coalition included very few actual conservatives; it was made up of increasingly marginalized and dissatisfied evangelical foot solders led by neoconservative pundits and establishment Republicans. Thelatter were (and are) concerned to maintain Wall Street prosperity, open borders, and managed “free” trade, and are happy to buy support for these policies by supporting progressive positions on social issues and an ever-expanding welfare and administrative state. Neoconservatives, unsurprisingly, had no problem agreeing to support this domestic program in exchange for establishment support of foreign adventurism, something those establishment figures saw as good for American economic interests. The resulting, increasingly vigorous purges of “unreliable” conservatives for failing to toe the line, especially by opposing the second invasion of Iraq, was only a short-term victory for neoconservatives. Their coalition put the stake through the heart of the official conservative movement, but its internal intolerance and abject failures under the profligate Bush II in both policy and politics was central to fomenting the populist rebellion.

Mr. Hawley mischaracterizes this failure as a natural outgrowth of conservatism because he mischaracterizes conservatism. National security for him means empire. Yet Russell Kirk (strangely under-emphasized) and Robert Nisbet (treated as a marginal “critic of conservatism”) along with many other conservatives favored combating the Communist threat without seeking to extend American power. They feared both communist expansionism and an expansionist state that would undermine our republic and other people’s self-government. Support for economic liberty for Mr. Hawley means Wall Street capitalism. Yet Nisbet and many other localists he treats as marginal figures favor economic liberty on main street, unaided by massive bureaucratic “free trade” regimes, subsidies, and the importation of cheap labor. Traditional morality for Mr. Hawley means formal, public Christianity. Yet most conservatives, including evangelicals and the non-theist Nisbet, have seen traditional morality as a set of institutions, beliefs, and practices rooted in family, church, and local association necessary to form the personal virtue at the root of ordered liberty and any good life.

On the latter point it is important to note that Mr. Hawley argues that the non-Christian beliefs of many, especially pre-World War II, conservatives indicate a lack of coherence in conservative thought. But this overlooks the role of the then-still vibrant Judeo-Christian culture defended by unbelieving conservatives like George Santayana. Moreover, many “atheist” conservatives nevertheless believed in an ordered universe (the source of natural law); these figures were in large measure reacting against civil religion and “social gospel”—leftist corruptions of Christianity dominant in Progressive politics.

This kind of analysis is hardly unusual. But it precludes meaningful analysis of the disintegration of the formal conservative movement, or of the Republican party establishment. It is to be expected that Mr. Hawley would not be friendly toward conservatism. That body of thought is at its root a defense of the culture still being transformed in the name of “social justice” defined as government control over benefits and life chances, doled out according to perceived victim status. But his book is a further attempt to present defenders of the mainstream as intrinsically fringe figures by rendering them invisible, with their fundamental positions represented only by racists and racialist fellow travelers. Thus it is a crucial flaw that Mr. Hawley begins by identifying conservatism with Republican party power politics. In this light Buckley is presented only as a political strategist, neoconservatives (liberals “mugged by reality”) are presented as the conservative mainstream, and traditional conservatives like Kirk are represented hardly at all.

The obvious response to this criticism would be that the book is not about conservatism, but about its “right-wing critics.” But Mr. Hawley’s conservatism is only neoconservatism of a fairly recent variety, and his right-wing critics are a kind of dustbin of history to which he consigns, not only those whose anger and racism earned such placement, butalso those who merely lost out in Republican party in-fighting. In this light we might consider Mr. Hawley’s examination of what he deems the paleoconservative insurgency of Patrick J. Buchanan’s presidential candidacy. This significant political moment, seeking to reinsert conservative principles into public debate, is treated as a kind of extremist coup attempt within the Republican party. Yet Kirk, whom Mr. Hawley excuses from identification with paleoconservatism, was a prominent supporter of Mr. Buchanan. And Mr. Buchanan, whose later work has become highly pessimistic from a cultural point of view, is treated as at core a racist. It is ironic that Mr. Hawley repeats the “antisemite” charge against Mr. Buchanan with such unquestioning credulity given the prominence of neoconservative Catholics; this is all the more ironic given the surge in antisemitism from the radical left, going far beyond Buchanan’s calls for a more even-handed Middle East policy toward boycotts and charges of institutional racism in the very being of the Jewish state.

This is no attempt to rehabilitate paleoconservatism. But one should at least recognize that the term was born as a mere statement of opposition to neoconservatism—a declaration that “we were here first and represent the real tradition of conservatism.” Several prominent self-identified paleoconservatives at some point veered into racialist thinking (Samuel Francis is an important example, here), but others, such as the unmentioned George Carey, simply dropped the label when it lost its conservative character.

The treatment of conservative positions at times borders on the smug. For example, he mentions statements by people on the right that imply a belief in the genetic superiority of white people, then flatly declares that the “left rejects all eugenic and white supremacist thought.” Clearly, most everyone on the left (like all but the most extreme on the right) rejects overt racism. Nevertheless, many policies favored by the left may plausibly be seen as rooted in a conviction that members of various minority groups are somehow by nature doomed to destruction unless made wards of the state. As to eugenics, given the sometimes-strident campaign among abortion rights activists to eliminate children with Down Syndrome in the womb before they can “be a burden” to their parents, the claim remains as tendentious as in the days of Oliver Wendell Holmes and his justifications for forced sterilization.

Mr. Hawley distinguishes right- from left-wing movements according to a single criterion: commitment to equality. “In my categorization, all major left-wing movements view universal equality as the ultimate normative ideal. All ideological movements that believe some other value or values should trump the drive toward greater equality and that will oppose the left when its policies threaten these values I categorize as right-wing.” While not entirely inaccurate, this neat bifurcation obscures as much as it illuminates. For example, Christian conservatives in particular insist on the equality of all persons in the eyes of God. There is then a foundational commitment to equality among these “right wing” persons, but one which leads in a radically different direction from those on the left who for decades have apologized (or worse) for programs of mass incarceration and murder in places like Cuba, China, the Soviet Union, and various third-world dictatorships in service to an ideology of material equality denying altogether the dignity of the individual person. Moreover, this dichotomy—equality or “other”—by nature privileges the left by asserting the primacy of its good as the default position of political thought and action, which those on the right deny on account of some other presumably more suspect goal.

Race in particular takes center stage in Mr. Hawley’s discussions of conservatives and their right-wing critics. Thus, for example, he blithely repeats the claim of racism against those, such as Rand Paul, who oppose racial discrimination but also oppose allowing the state to define, punish, and prevent private conduct in the name of anti-discrimination. As already mentioned, his chapter on paleoconservatives considers figures like Samuel Francis who clearly espoused race-based positions, but goes further, confusing ethnic and cultural language with overt racism, or rather refusing to distinguish the two, particularly in regard to the immigration debate.

Some of the problem, here, is rooted in history, for Mr. Hawley continues to find opposition to any position going under the label “civil rights” as by nature racist. Many Americans obviously opposed the original civil rights movement out of mere, ugly racial animus. Such was clearly wrong (especially in Christian terms) and those who did not repent deserve opprobrium. Other Americans opposed desegregation out of anti-black prejudice of a more conditioned variety that was morally regrettable but liable to reform. Unfortunately, conservatism since the 1950s and 1960s has been and continues to be treated as intrinsically racist because many of its early proponents were on “the wrong side of history” and presumed racist because of opposition to the particular tools and methods used in the battle for racial equality.

In this era of Critical Race Theory, Black Lives Matter, ever-changing victim groups, and the near-elimination of conservative voices from college campuses, almost no one is willing any longer to make the distinction between the laudable goal of equal justice for all and the centralizing policies of our current diversity regime. As Mr. Hawley demonstrates, opposition to racial quotas itself generally is labeled racist. But the determination (often by judges) to eschew the rule of law in favor of quick action has produced neither integration nor justice. It has merely increased animosity amid conflicts over the benefits to be had from centralized power.

Both racial segregation and racial quotas are wrong. They violate essential constitutional provisions regarding due process and equal protection of the laws. They set people against one another, undermining self-government in favor of competition for favors from the central state. Thus, to treat as racist any opposition to currently fashionable race-based policies is worse than disingenuous; it is a form of dishonest power politics aimed at silencing principled opposition.

These kinds of charges, constantly repeated on campus, in the press, and in the political arena, have created a public discourse steeped in political correctness. Its adoption by the Republican establishment (whether out of fear or mere political convenience) rendered conservatism all but invisible as it marginalized Americans whose opinions were perfectly mainstream almost literally yesterday. Here the appalling treatment of those who came a week too late to the same-sex marriage bandwagon, such as Mozilla’s Brendan Eich, is indicative. Most political and academic elites expected that only racist extremists would actually rebel against this new regime. They were wrong.

During the last “conservative” era, defenses of family, faith, and freedom have been so empty as to appear hypocritical at best. After the last truly conservative movement (the Tea Party) failed to produce significant change, conservatives became sufficiently disillusioned to cease their political activism or join forces with apolitical populists. The resulting coalition has found in Trump (whether wisely or foolishly is not the point) someone they believe will defend their interests against corporate and intellectual elites who deem them as xenophobic losers for loving their country, their localities, and their way of life. This populist group, which includes but isnot dominated by conservatives, seeks nothing so much as an end to what increasingly looks like a one-party liberal establishment and the ascent of new representatives who will seek to defendtheir way of life.

The rout of the Republican establishment has been facilitated by the crack up of the conservative movement. As abler and more cynical “conservative” functionaries muscled its more principled members out of positions of influence, they produced disaster for their nation at home, abroad, and now for their party. Being populist in character and taking shape in a time of mass politics, the new populism may veer in a number of different directions, for good or ill. But it is not, at least at this stage, the racist movement Mr. Hawley fears. It is instead a kind of visceral reaction to a nanny state that seeks to infantilize its people, and to replace its own citizenry wherever and whenever convenient.

Defending one’s way of life is not racist. The American way of life in particular is open to people of significantly differing religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. But a regime that welcomes those who reject the Western civilization from which our culture grew, who violate our laws by their very presence here, and who refuse to assimilate to the preexisting customs is illegitimate. Such a regime is hostile to the very nature of its own people. The conservative movement was an attempt to bring our then-nascent elites to understand their duties and the limits of their powers. That movement itself was corrupted by power and has ceased to function, along with the Republican party establishment that co-opted it. But the genuine, traditional conservatism of Kirk and Nisbet, of Eliot, Burke, and the mainstream of the Western tradition, remains real and vital so long as people of good will continue to look to it for guidance in addressing the crises of their contemporary lives.

Populism lacks sufficient political and philosophical content to find its own direction. Liberalism’s direction has proven destructive to ordered liberty. It may be too much to hope that a return to conservative principles may guide populists in the troubled times to come, but one thing is for certain: politics and political analysis in the liberal mode no longer reflects meaningful reality. 

Bruce Frohnen is a Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University School of Law.