WASHINGTON – It is time to say last rites over the American conservative movement. After years of drifting steadily toward extreme positions, conservatism is dead, replaced by a far right that has the Republican Party under its thumb.
Conservatism is a complex creed, some of it less than appealing and some of it noble. The less attractive kind involves an ideology whose main purpose is to defend existing distributions of power and wealth and to resist reforms that might redress the grievances of those facing discrimination and marginalization.
The enticing brand of conservatism is rooted in an affection for a particular place and its way of life. This conservatism is not always opposed to reform since reforms are often required to preserve the arrangements its exponents revere. Conservatism’s positive function is to warn against measures designed to fix things that are wrong, but whose main effects are to undermine institutions that are widely valued. Sometimes, seemingly sensible changes can unintentionally cause new problems.
Obviously, these two forms of conservatism cannot be easily separated. What I have called the attractive kind often serves the needs of dominant groups.
But – again, at its best – conservatism is supposed to be resistant to extremism precisely because it is, in principle, the antithesis of a revolutionary creed. Conservatism is more about tweeds and a good scotch. Neither brings to mind incitement and divisive anger.
Yet for two decades, the tweedy sort of conservatism has been giving ground to the extremists who want not simply to defeat their adversaries but to crush them; who traffic in conspiracy theories rather than in respect for facts and history; and who are willing to destroy the very institutions they claim to be trying to save. This has happened before (as when the white South’s displaced leadership backed the Ku Klux Klan to end Reconstruction after the Civil War), and we are seeing it anew in the age of President Trump.
The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) over the last several days was a clear demonstration of the far right’s success in displacing anything that deserves to be called conservative.
Before Trump, it would have been shocking to see Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a leader of the French neo-fascist National Front, appear at the same event with traditional conservatives like Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex, and also with the president of the United States. But thanks to Trump, European-style ethno-nationalism has become so much a part of the movement that her visit seemed almost natural.
Encouraging responsibility in the sale and use of firearms would seem to be a thoroughly conservative cause, an effort to maintain order and protect the innocent from violence. But the National Rifle Association is one of the most powerful forces within the Republican Party and the conservative movement. It uses paranoid rhetoric and incendiary attacks on its foes to justify riotously permissive firearms policies that no other democratic republic would dream of adopting.
Shamefully, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s top gun who is increasingly becoming America’s extremist in chief, showed few signs of being moved by the slaughter of high school students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. On the contrary, he had the impudence to say that those who think it’s time for some modest reforms in our weapons statutes were “saboteurs” and “socialists” using the deaths of young people to forward a dangerous agenda.
“If they seize power, if these so-called European socialists take over the House and the Senate – and God forbid, they get the White House again – our American freedoms could be lost and our country could be changed forever.”
What should worry us is that the radicalism of the NRA is not exceptional on the American Right. It is what the right is all about.
And The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reported on an otherwise little-noticed CPAC speech by White House counsel Don McGahn linking Trump’s judicial appointments to his dismantling of regulation.
“There is a coherent plan here where the judicial selection and the deregulatory effort are really the flip side of the same coin,” McGahn said. Remember when conservatives criticized the politicization of the judiciary? McGahn is describing a judicial branch that is little more than an instrument of right-wing executive power. This should scare us, too.
The movement toward extremism has been gradual, so it has not been sufficiently acknowledged. But if those who still believe in moderation don’t face up to it now, they will be complicit in the far right’s ascendancy.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.