This essay is based on a speech given at The National Policy Institute’s 2015 winter conference, “Beyond Conservatism.”
What is a conservative? Or do we even need to ask?
“Conservative,” “liberal,” and “leftist” seem to be not so much ideologies as names for social or physiological types. In other words, we know one when we see one.
But we should ask this question more often.
To even begin to answer, we need to dispense with all the hot buttons and bullshit of the postwar “conservative movement”—what we think we know about conservatives.
Many of those who frequently conference in Washington like to pretend that their policies and partisanship derive from a set of “timeless principles.” They’re mostly fooling themselves. Their positions are, to a great extent, the products of pressure groups and electoral coalitions: from the military-industrial complex to Wall Street to the “southern strategy” and beyond.
There’s ultimately no good reason why a person who is, say, a devout Christian should also support unfettered capitalism . . . and military interventions in the Middle East . . . and charter schools . . . and oppose environmentalism.
Conservatism, as it is now, is a botched jigsaw puzzle: The pieces don’t fit, and many are missing. But we’ve been staring at this hob-glob for so long that we think it forms a picture.
So to answer the question, we should get at something much deeper: perennial conservatism, bone-marrow conservatism.
To be a conservative is not to love what is old. Nostalgia and sentimentality are natural human emotions, but as politics, they become vulgar and harmless posturing. When Russell Kirk claimed to be devoted to the 18th-century social values of Edmund Burke, one wonders exactly what, if anything, was at stake. And making a politics out of the past leads to an infinite regress: Should we “go back to the ‘50s”? Or to the 1550s? Why not the Stone Age?
It’s also important to point out that the conservative is not an advocate of “equality,” “opportunity,” and most everything Republicans like to talk about. A real conservative doesn’t want to “save the world,” nor does he love the the world, nor does he think that every human being is a snowflake.
The conservative defends his own. He defends them because they are his own. And he defends them as they are, not as they should be.
In his way, the conservative is the ultimate relativist. His actions and beliefs only make sense within a context. The conservative makes himself a servant of a class, people, or social hierarchy—he is a defender of something real. These characteristics are unsettling for contemporary men and women, especially Americans. For the conservative is, by his very nature, “intolerant,” “racist,” or “classist.” The conservative is hard.
That said, I’m not quite a conservative . . .
My Time on the Right
I do, however, have experience in the Washington-based “conservative movement.” Though my time there is better described as a “dalliance.”
Eight years ago, I dropped out of graduate school and became Assistant Editor at The American Conservative magazine, a publication that, if it is known at all, is known as “Pat Buchanan’s magazine,” rather inaccurately. (To the extent it once was Pat Buchanan’s magazine, working there was the fulfillment of a childhood dream.)
I continue to admire the founding of this publication and the people behind it: Pat himself, Taki—Taki’s one of those people for whom a last name is superfluous, like Jesus and Madonna—and Scott McConnell.
TAC was born in late 2002 as an antiwar alternative. Coming on the heels of September 11th, TAC opposed the Iraq War before it was cool. And it confronted, head-on, the mainstream conservative movement, the post-9/11 Washington consensus, and the neoconservative ideologues and operatives at the height of their power and influence.
TAC was born into a rather dark time for American conservatism—one as destructive as it was stupid and embarrassing. The years 2000-2006 might go down as “The Age of the Flag Pin.” It was a time of patriotarded Congressmen demanding we eat “Freedom Fries” . . . of blonde Fox News females, whose looks were an odd cross between a Sunday School teacher and pornography actress . . . of the televised four-star generals . . . of conservatives undergrads accusing their professors of “treason” . . . and southern homeschoolers flocking to Washington where, they were told, a devout Christian was in White House. This is an age that, sadly, still defines the Right.
Quite unlike the vast majority of conservative activists—who dream of a five-figure existence in the beltway, living off direct-mail fundraisiong of little old ladies in the Midwest—Pat, Taki, and Scott did something that had consequences; they did something that made enemies; and they did something that took balls.
It was at my next stop along alt-conservatism, as Editor of Taki’s Magazine (Takmag.com), that I began working with a man named Jack Hunter, who was a weekly columnist and co-conspirator. Jack is not a particularly deep person, but his trajectory is quite revealing and worth examining here.
I was introduced to Jack as a South Carolina wild man: a journalist and radio personality who once wore a confederate-flag wrestling masks, called himself the “Southern Avenger,” and denounced Abraham Lincoln, affirmative-action, and the income tax (or something like that). Not my cup of tea, exactly. But I admired the fact that he was rooted in something real. (And by the time I was working with Jack, he had mellowed considerably.)
As my days as Takimag’s Editor wore on, my tendency was to get more radical; to return to things I cared about deeply (that is, things other than politics). Takimag covered the 2008 election, but we also published pieces on Nietzsche, Human Biodiversity, architecture, anti-modernism, and beyond.
Jack took a different path. He focused on political libertarianism and hitched his wagon to the burgeoning Ron/Rand Paul movement. As he announced to a diverse crowd of Rightists at the 2009 HL Mencken Club meeting, we can achieve all our goals by limiting the power of the state.
Jack’s strategy is understandable. Modern American conservatism is, after all, distinctively liberal, at least in how it understands itself. Lacking a throne and altar, as well as a racial consciousness, modern conservatism is based on the talismans of “the Constitution,” “freedom,” and “individual rights”; it produces only parodies of traditional conservativism, like Russell Kirk.
So why shouldn’t Jack put on a new mask—libertarianism, this time—and plead that we just want to be left alone? How many legions of men like Jack have repressed wilder, more interesting and dangerous impulses—impulses that inspired them to enter the political arena in the first place—in favor of gentler personas as paint-by-numbers libertarians?
Jack, as we know, couldn’t quite escape his own shadow. In the summer of 2013, mainstream journalists, likely doing opposition research on Rand Paul, found that the senator employed a former race-baiting shock-jock and Takimag columnist as a writer and social media strategist. Jack swiftly resigned from the Paul camp and became embroiled in one of those predictable race controversies: He first ignored and denied accusations . . . then engaged in incredible groveling and begged for forgiveness.
In Jack’s recantation of his former self, he declared, “I’m not a racist; I just played one on the radio.” This elicited a collective eye-role . . . and support and loyalty from the more gullible and simple minded, or perhaps those eager for a redemption story.
The irony is that his words might as well have been truthful. Jack might as well have lived his life in reverse—as a libertarian goofball who only pretended to care about his people and culture in order to be popular.
Another quote by Jack stands out. After Rand Paul supported a very un-libertarian security guarantee for Israel, Hunter claimed that Rand was “just playing the game”: after these concessions were made, and he was ensconced in the White House, Rand would come on strong as a hardcore libertarian. This caused a flutter among mainstream conservatives, who fretted that crypto-isolationists, or even crypto-anti-Semites, were at work inside the GOP. They, of course, had nothing to fear. In the case of Jack Hunter, like so many others, the game played him.
So what does it mean?
During the 2000s, what Jack and I—and all of us in the “alt Right”—operated under what can best be described as negative identity, in other words, an identity of being against stuff. To our credit, the stuff we were against was very bad: the Iraq war, the neocons, amnesty and mass immigration, Black crime, George W. Bush, what have you.
But what lay behind our hatred of “bad stuff”? Who were we, really? Were we vaguely more reasonable than the neocons? Did we more consistently adhere to the tenets of classical liberalism? Were we merely less powerful, and fancied that a virtue?
In this way, the alt Right never truly escaped from the logic of postwar conservatism—which was an extended, decades-long reaction against “bad stuff.” As William F. Buckley’s famously promised in 1955, “To stand athwart history, yelling stop!”
Conservatives would spasmodically react against “bad stuff”: gay marriage . . . Obamacare . . . antiwar protestors . . . illegitimacy . . . if we go back far enough we get to conservative freak-outs over the turnover of the Panama Canal and the institution of Medicaid.
Conservatives have been yelling “Stop!” for years, while other people have been changing the world.
We shouldn’t be surprised that, as a force of reaction, conservatives have lost virtually every battle they have taken up—with the one ignominious exception of promoting lunatic wars in the Middle East.
And it’s also no coincidence that The American Conservative, Jack Hunter, and most all of “Conservative, Inc.” (as Peter Brimelow calls it) have ended up, essentially, in the very same place: They call for more liberalism, attached to vague “American values.” Most of all, they demonstrate a striking inability to actually be conservative—to be hard, to oppose enemies, and defend something real.
In yelling “Stop!” at the world, conservatives have assumed an identity—a White, Christian Americana, a picket-fence normality—without ever asserting an identity.
If you put the proverbial gun to a conservative’s head and demand he answer Who are you?, you’re sure to hear some vague babble about individual rights, low taxes, and the need to blow up dangerous Muslims. It would all probably be summed up with the word “Freedom.”
“Freedom,” in this sense that conservatives use it, is the true coldest of all cold monsters: it’s a means, a mechanism, worst of all, a presence of absence. For us, freedom in itself is of no value at all; it is, at best, a precondition for a value. Freedom has meaning when a people struggles for it, when it struggles to find its innate power and identity. The freedom American conservatives talk about is the freedom of a McDonald’s “extra value” menu.
Five ’Til Midnight
American Conservatives don’t conserve. Sam Francis called them “Beautiful Losers,” but in truth, most of them lose without meaning and honor. It’s this constant losing that gives conservatives a certain apocalyptic character.
For the typical conservative, the time of day is always five-minutes ’till midnight; in their minds, they are always just about to witness “the end of America” (a term I’ve heard thousands of times in my relatively short life) due to some foreign dictator, new social program, or sexual innovation.
In such an emergency, they say, we must forego all the heady stuff and embrace “ruthless pragmatism”; we must gather the troops together and again collectively yell “Stop!”
But conservatives are always too late . . . and, in a way, too early. My friend Roman Bernard has noted that when it comes to preventing the transformation of America, it’s not “five ’till midnight,” it’s five past midnight; and it’s probably long past midnight. There is no easy political solution, no knob twisting or lever pulling, that will prevent the end of the picket-fence 20th century that conservatives hope to revive.
So, you could say, I’m the ultimate pessimist.
But on a deeper level we have a tremendous amount of time lying before us. We are about to experience something radically new and unprecedented: In my lifetime, we will become a racial minority on the American continent. (The European story will be analogous, though with important differences.)
In thinking about our coming minority status, we should remember that race and racial consciousness are not solely biological, nor are they solely intellectual or spiritual. One can only understand oneself as a White man by confronting an “Other,” by experiencing difference.
One hundred years from now, we might look back on the time of mass non-White immigration, and our resulting minority status, with a sense of deep gratitude, even joy. It allowed us, finally, to understand who we are.
It didn’t kill us. It made us stronger.
For the future, we don’t need any more conservative “ruthless pragmatism”—this tendency to yell “Stop!” and flail around at bad things they don’t understand.
In its place, we need “ruthless idealism.” We need an ideology—a cognitive map of the world and style of seeing it. We need those impossible, utopian dreams that we’ve been afraid to dream for the last 70 years.
For what’s critical is not what happens, so much as how we understand what happens. Our minority status could, for conservatives, be our ultimate defeat. Or it could be the start of a stronger, more dedicated new people, one with a higher consciousness and feeling of identity.
This Is the End of . . . Something
Twenty-five years ago, during the fall of the Soviet Union and its aftermath, Francis Fukuyama famously announced “The End of History.” The great ideological battle for the soul of the world was over. Americanism—liberal democracy, human rights, all organized through global capitalism—was it. America was the destination; how other races and cultures reached it was a question only of details and means.
In 1990, “The End” seemed like a kind of triumphalism—“America, Fuck Yeah! Or it could even be imagined as a “conservative” victory: Capitalism, patriotism, self-righteousness, and Ronald Reagan had “won.”
Today, 25 years later, we can only look back on “The End” with a sense of dark irony. The world ended, not with a bang, or even a whimper, but with a tweet and a twerk . . . and an accusation of micro-aggressions.
America never became the homeland of freedom and goodness; it instead became the homeland of the short-attention-span economy; of cultural, social, and sexual decline; of former Marxist revolutionaries shrinking into annoying human-resource managers—all expressions of the endless boredom at the core of postmodern existence.
We have reached “The End” . . . of something: Of America? Of liberalism? Of conservatism? We mistook the culmination of historical progress for a period of fragmentation and decline. And it is this great disintegration, which are now experiencing, that is necessary to open up space for a renewed European identity, to open up space for our futre.
Let us dedicate ourselves to starting the world all over again.