Trump’s strongest supporters are drawn from the network of institutions, spokesmen, and causes established by the New Right some 40 years ago. The single-issue groups fighting for gun rights, the right to life, and right to work are behind him. So is the American Conservative Union. Opinion at the Heritage Foundation is divided, leaving the conservative powerhouse rather muted during 2016. Other institutions have picked up the slack. Trump is promoted by cable news, talk radio, bloggers, the Drudge Report, Breitbart, and Infowars.com.
Phyllis Schlafly was one of Trump’s most committed supporters before her death earlier this year. Buchanan cheers on Trump at every opportunity. Jerry Falwell Jr. gave Trump his blessing. “Donald Trump will be helping to advance the conservative movement,” Viguerie said last summer.
Claremont Institute logoTrump deploys New Right symbols and tropes. His antagonism toward the Eastern establishment is obvious. He made a point last year to obtain the endorsement of John Wayne’s daughter. He earned tepid support from Clint Eastwood in an interview with Esquire. He is strongest where Wallace was strongest, among whites without college degrees, in the south, in ethnic blue-collar enclaves such as Staten Island. In Orange County, California, Trump took 77 percent of the Republican primary vote. Just north of Orange County are the Claremont Colleges, where the Trump-friendly Claremont Institute is based.
Immigration, which emerged as a social issue at the turn of the twenty-first century, was key to Trump’s success. So was his role as outsider, independent critic of the rigged system, scold of elites, avatar of reaction. The apocalyptic predictions, the dichotomy between makers and takers, even the idea of seizing Arab territory and “taking the oil” comes straight from Bill Rusher’s 1975 Making of the New Majority Party. The relentless hostility toward the media, both liberal and heterodox conservative, the accusation that it, the government, and the financial sector is engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Hillary Clinton, the denigration of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the appeal to supporters of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, the charge that the “global power structure” has “stripped” manufacturing towns “bare and raided the wealth for themselves”—this is adversarianism in its purest, most conspiratorial, most totalistic form.
Against Trump NRO coverThe attacks on National Review, on George Will, on conservatives with elite educations, on conservatives granted legitimacy by mainstream institutions is a replay of the New Right rhetoric of the 1970s. Names have been added to the list of Republicans in Name Only, of false, cuckolded conservatives, but the battle lines are the same. On the one hand are the effete intellectuals based on the East Coast, shuttling up and down the Acela corridor, removed from the suffering of the average American, ignorant of the social issues, amenable to social engineering, fat and happy on a diet of foundation grants, magazine sinecures, think tank projects, speaking engagements. On the other are the blue-collar radio and television hosts with million-dollar contracts, the speechwriter for Wall Street banks who uses a pseudonym to cast aspersions on the feckless conservative elite, the billionaire-supported populist website that attacks renegade Jews, the bloggers and commenters and trolls estranged from power, from influence, from notoriety, from relevance, fueled by resentment, lured by the specter of conspiracy, extrapolating terrifying and chiliastic scenarios from negative but solvable trends.
It is the same discourse, the same methods, the same antinomianism, the same reaction to demographic change and liberal overreach that we encountered in the 1970s. The difference is that Donald Trump is so noxious, so unhinged, so extremist in his rejection of democratic norms and political convention and basic manners that he has untethered the New Right politics he embodies from the descendants of William F. Buckley Jr.
The triumph of populism has left conservatism marooned, confused, uncertain, depressed, anxious, searching for a tradition, for a program, for viability. We might have to return to the beginning to understand where we have ended up. We might have to reject adversarianism, to accept the welfare state as an objective fact, to rehabilitate Burnham’s vision of a conservative-tinged Establishment capable of permeating the managerial society and gradually directing it in a prudential, reflective, virtuous manner respectful of both freedom and tradition. This is the challenge of the moment. This is the crisis of the conservative intellectual. What makes that crisis acute is the knowledge that he and his predecessors may have helped to bring it on themselves.
Democracy is good but populism is bad. Both involve majority rule. So what is the difference?
Near as I can tell, populism is a democratic movement where the elites are not part of the majority. Similarly, nationalism is a bigoted form of patriotism that does not include the globalist intelligentsia.
If 90% of the voters agree on something, but that 10% that don’t agree are the elites, the majority is wrong.