George Will's latest is one of those rare must-reads (although I, for one, rarely miss reading George Will). His column is a magnificent display of large thinking, however belated, swallowed by the smallest of visions. With Donald Trump at the GOP's helm, Will's Conservative Project — meant to resign a thousand years —
lies in ridicule and ruin, which Will interprets not as the inexorable morbidity of a pseudoconservatism relentlessly hustled by demagogues, but as the triumph of progressivism.
In "Donald Trump’s rise reflects American conservatism’s decay," it may be that Will's elegiac scribblings over the conservative corpse are merely a brilliant defense mechanism.
Along with countless other conservative intellectuals, the Washington Post columnist watched in silence as the respectable party of Lincoln succumbed to fringe ravings, from Goldwater to the New Right, from Gingrich to Palinism. Opportunities abounded for Will & Co. to stand athwart the accruing madness and yell Stop — to yell that this, my friends, is not conservatism, but radicalism and reactionaryism, inchoate anarchism and creeping nihilism.
Instead, conservatism's cerebral sufferings — if sufferings they were — were filed under indifference; the party's demagogues were, after all, sticking it to the left, and in that there was an emotional satisfaction for right-wing intellectuals every bit as vulgar as that among the unthinking rabble. George Will let it all go — until the monsters he swaddled created Trump.
What to do? Shame oneself? Point an accusatory finger inward? Confess before the altar of self-honesty that conservative intellectualism nurtured the inevitable monster it now decries? Nay, would it not be more comforting to declare that the triumph of Trumpism is but the enemy's triumph — the triumph of progressivism? Yea, there you go, that's the consoling ticket: "About 90 percent of presidential votes will be cast for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, refuting the theory that this is a center-right country…. [O]n some matters he is to Clinton’s left regarding big government powered by an unbridled presidency."
And so Will returns to his hoary conceit. Conservative intellectualism hasn't let conservatism down; no, Americans have let America down. "A demagogue’s success requires a receptive demos," writes Will, "and Trump’s ascendancy reflects progressivism’s success in changing America’s social norms and national character by de-stigmatizing dependency." That, in Will's unshakable opinion, is the essence of progressivism: an unbridled presidency and mass dependency. Such is Will's familiar elegy to a lost America. In taking on powerful private interests, the Progressive Era's Roosevelt I and Wilson launched the wickedness of useful executive power, followed by Roosevelt II's institutionalization of New Deal "dependency," Johnson's Great Society, and — no chuckling — Obama's healthcare reform. Lost are we Americans who see government as us — as a self-force of society's betterment. Better were the days of unbridled private interests, which brought us the Gilded Age's two nations — one sickeningly wealthy, one sickeningly squalid — and the historical lingerings thereof.
Will concludes with this rhetorical masterpiece of utter blindness: "The beginning of conservative wisdom is recognition that there is an end to everything: Nothing lasts. If Trump wins, the GOP ends as a vehicle for conservatism." See paragraph 3, above, the sordid contours of which Will either missed, or dismissed, entirely. The authentic beginning of conservative wisdom lay mostly in leftist critiques of a visibly transmogrifying conservatism, from Goldwater on — which even Goldwater came to regret: "Perhaps I'm one of the reasons this place [Washington, D.C.] is so redneck," he groaned years after his presidential run of pseudoconservative thunder, still reverberating. Indeed, in Donald Trump, it has come to a devastating climax. Pure opportunism and the seediest of demagoguery have replaced conservative principles.
Will's concluding thoughts also include this: "Conservatism’s recovery from [Trump's] piratical capture of the conservative party will require facing unflattering facts about a country that currently is indifferent to its founding." There is of course some philosophically conservative merit to that statement. What it omits is that conservative intellectuals must first face unflattering facts as to their indifferent enabling of conservatism's wholesale degeneration.