Editors’ note: The following essay forms part of “The new conservative dilemma: a symposium,” a special section on the challenges facing conservatism today. Roger Kimball’s introduction can be read here.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”
American conservatives have long tolerated the leftward lurch of the governing class. Candidates professing fidelity to the Constitution, capitalism, and the family found the populace willing to excuse their failure to govern conservatively. Republican politicians willing to provide a counterweight to the ever more (il)liberal policies of the opposing party seemed sufficient for conservatism, which, by nature, submitted to the established order.
But the center has collapsed, crushing those who want nothing more than to worship their God, love their country, provide for their families, and instill the same ideals in their children. The freedom and first principles of our Constitution were no longer able to withstand the weight of the leftist ideology that has been institutionalized at all levels. Ordinary Americans can no longer ignore the consequences of what they once tolerated in the belief that the center would hold even in times of extreme turbulence, as it always had.
The center has collapsed.
The center broke from the impact of schools that for decades taught disdain for America, creating division by promoting pigmentation over equality and inculcating the belief in children that boys can be girls, and girls boys. It broke when parents were told that they don’t deserve a say in their children’s education and that, should they complain too loudly, they’ll be targeted by law enforcement as terrorists, leaving them no recourse within the existing political order. The refusal of the federal government to protect and defend our borders, allowing drug and human trafficking to proliferate while creating a humanitarian crisis for citizens and non-citizens alike, moved from a distant concern to one very much personal and immediate as parents lost children to fentanyl or the violence of gangs imported to our cities. Nothing stirs a complacent people like threats to the life, safety, peace, and security of their children.
In retrospect, the government’s response to covid confirmed that conservatives could no longer acquiesce to the now-firmly-installed illiberal ideology of the ruling class. Their closing of schools and places of worship, their bankrupting of businesses, and their mandating limits on social gatherings—but requiring masks and pharmaceuticals of unknown safety and efficacy—proved that power was the real goal of the leftist ruling class, to be achieved by any means necessary. The meekness of many fellow Americans in the face of this tyranny indicated freedom in decline.
The meekness of many fellow Americans in the face of this tyranny indicated freedom in decline.
The further discovery that our government peddled lies to the public and commandeered social media to censor the truthful speech of ordinary Americans and experts alike has revealed our liberty to be an illusion as vivid as the emperor’s new clothes. In the past few years, the collapse of the rule of law has raised more voices against the establishment politics that had abandoned the people to the mobs. That the 2020 “summer of rage” was tolerated by the same politicians and members of the press who advocated jailing covid dissenters, and then later demanded the harshest of sentences for even the nonviolent January 6 trespassers, exposed the real-world impact of institutionalized leftism.
Obviously, “equal justice under the law” has become an antiquated platitude. That our Department of Justice routinely prosecutes pro-life protestors but not those illegally targeting Supreme Court justices, or the leaker of the Dobbs opinion, has further convinced the public that justice is neither blind nor equal.
The disparate treatment of Hunter and Joe Biden and Donald Trump, however, has exposed an even more dire situation—and one that even the most apolitical American could see: the ruling class has weaponized the law-enforcement and intelligence communities to ensure their candidate prevails in our supposedly free and fair elections. And should the wrong man capture the White House? Well, then there will be six ways to Sunday, as then–Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer warned, to thwart the people’s will.
Whether through the Russia-collusion hoax or interference in the 2020 election by the burying of the Biden-family corruption scandal, all but the extreme Left have recognized that our overlords seek to dictate whom we may elect president. (In fact, even leftists recognize that. The difference is that they celebrate it.)
Conservatives’ outrage swelled as belated reports indicated how the Left’s misconduct far surpassed even their worst fears, but no justice would be meted out. Years too late and indicting too few, Special Counsel John Durham confirmed that a partisan doj and fbi had launched an unjustified investigation, Crossfire Hurricane, into Donald Trump in 2016. Meanwhile, a daily drip of news has revealed how the doj and fbi intentionally abrogated their obeisance to the Constitution by ignoring overwhelming evidence that strongly implicates Joe Biden in a pay-to-play scandal and by giving his son a sweetheart deal to avoid jail time. The goalposts don’t stop moving.
In an earlier era, a sense of shame would restrain the Adam Schiffs, Nancy Pelosis, and Elizabeth Warrens of our world. “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency,” was the question the army lawyer Joseph Welch used to kneecap Senator Joe McCarthy. It worked because, at least in part, our press ensured it did.
Today, similar words would merely ricochet off the ruling class, both because we have become a post-decency society and, as we now see, because the hated Senator McCarthy was a Republican, not a Democrat. The McCarthyist tactics used throughout the three years of the Russia-collusion campaign by Congressman Adam Schiff, who claimed constantly to have proof of Trump’s guilt in exactly the same way McCarthy claimed to have lists of communists in the State Department, were celebrated and amplified by the corporate press.
The consequences of this are an increasingly emboldened elite and an increasingly angered populace. Once-covert efforts to destroy disfavored candidates are now undertaken in the open. The plot to hinder Bernie Sanders’s primary bid is now a plain declaration of war by Democrats on Robert F. Kennedy Jr. And no longer do our doj and fbi quietly spy on Donald Trump’s campaign; today, the Democrat-controlled apparatus is indicting him again and again.
Likewise, legacy and social media have no remorse over their complicity in censorship, even as evidence renders indisputable the role they played in manipulating Americans to tolerate, believe, and act on lies about our country, our politicians, our policies, and even basic biology. So too have elite outlets come into the open with their efforts to control not just speech but—through their willful collaboration with universities, well-heeled think tanks, and government—even our very thoughts.
Ordinary citizens witnessing the collapse of our free and open press realize that without the check on government abuse it once provided, politics cannot stem the tide of authoritarianism. And the government’s blatant efforts to establish a censorship-industrial complex to crack down on “wrongthink” has imbued in many an urgency to revolt before it’s too late—that is, before the Constitution is completely shredded, offering no First Amendment protection at all for speaking out.
People are already revolting—against school indoctrination, against open borders, against forced vaccinations, against the weaponization of our government, against the silencing of dissent, against attacks on our constitutional order and family structure, and against the elite and establishment politicians who got us here.
Consequently, conservatives face a dilemma. Do we embrace the people’s movement and accept the populist brand, or do we disdain both label and cause?
This query of course presupposes a common understanding of what is meant by “populism.” In the corporate press and the mouths of elites, it more often than not serves merely as an elastic slur—one “-ism” among many—designed to denigrate opponents without debating the merits of their position. That alone convinces some to stay clear of the label and those attached to it. The inverse also proves true, with those who dislike Donald Trump rejecting populism and populists because Trump, according to the media, is a perfect example of the breed.
Conservatives should know by now, however, that the problem is not one of branding. The problem is policies. Any Republican advancing conservative ideas, which currently correlates with the most vocal concerns of the public, will be labeled a populist. The elite will then decry populism as authoritarianism and conservatives as no different than Chávez, Mussolini, or Hitler.
Disdain for the populist label will thus only serve to distance conservatives from Americans who stand at the ready to rebuild the United States on her foundational principles. The irony here is that those conservatives who most loudly declared populism at odds with conservatism—a refrain repeated ad nauseam to distance themselves from Trump and his supporters—soon abandoned conservatism itself. In Yeatsian terms, these conservatives who considered themselves the “best” by never conceding to Trump’s leadership proved that they “lacked all conviction.” And the “worst” were “full of passionate intensity.”
Beyond concerns about branding or guilt by association with the clamoring masses, some conservatives bristle over populism because it represents a revolt against the governing order. Conservatives tend to take the famous phrase attributed to Gustav Mahler to heart: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
The correct response is that, yes, populism is a revolt, but it is a righteous one, because the current state of affairs is antithetical to our constitutional ideals in a heretofore unseen way.
When the radicals of the 1960s and ’70s revolted against the establishment, the country as a whole, including the members of the countercultural rebellion themselves, recognized that they were revolting against the American ideal—an ideal that was still truly the ideal. And in the face of upheaval, it was freedom of speech, thought, and religion; property rights and economic mobility; the nuclear family; a government of, by, and for the people; and American exceptionalism that held the country together. Even in those turbulent times, even for the wildest extremists, it was taken for granted that the center held.
But the revolutionaries of yesterday have become the ruling class of today. Those who occupy the halls of power embrace Marxism and the destruction of the nuclear family, free speech, capitalism, and every other foundation on which our country was built. A world without these has long been their utopia, but such a hope is no longer considered a rebellion from the norm. It now is the norm.
More, today’s ruling class has instituted a “whole of society” approach to demand that the populace think, speak, and march in lockstep with its radical view. Up is down; good is bad; and Joe Biden doesn’t misspeak, he stutters. Those who disagree will be silenced and shamed, fired and left unemployable, and even denied custody of their children.
After decades of conservative acquiescence to the one-way movement of cultural and constitutional norms, the Left’s ratchet could go no further once it demanded ideological and moral capitulation and celebration of the converse. The ruling class’s “no enemies to the left” approach finally fractured a unified nation by denying Americans a live-and-let-live refuge.
While conservatives may prefer the more refined platitudes of the past, their polite words and attitude of compromise are exactly what sowed the field of authoritarianism that is now choking our liberty. Conservatives are faced with a stark choice. They may remain apathetic and go quietly into the night, or they can welcome into the fold the people who stand ready to rebuild America on her foundational principles.
So, rather than allow the Left to define the movement or the cause, conservatives should champion populism and define it for what it is—an embrace of the lowercase-D democracy that underlies our constitutional republic. Let the Democrats argue against real democracy, which they now refer to as “our democracy” every time they feel their power threatened.
Conservative populism is not a contradiction in terms but the last hope for a nation that increasingly lacks a unity of principles and leaders of conviction and faces the passionate intensity of the enemies of all we hold dear.
The return to America’s roots, however, will not come easy. After generations of indoctrination, half the country believes our constitutional order is fundamentally flawed. But populism’s appeal crosses this divide by reaching the public where they are, and right now the people are angry—angry at the destruction of all that is good, true, and noble about America.
Angry they should be. Angry we should be. Conservatives should feel the anger of the masses, with anarchy having been loosed on our shores and the innocence of youth sacrificed to the perverted ideology of the zeitgeist.
One must wonder too if the umbrage at populists’ complaints in years past was justified, given recent revelations. Have not the last half-dozen years proven the institutions corrupt? Did covid not expose the governing class’s two sets of rules—one for the people and one for themselves and the elite? And did we not learn of the complicity of the corporate press and social media in peddling lies to Americans on behalf of favored politicians?
No longer does populism mean a knee-jerk opposition to the ruling class and the elite; it now takes aim at their underlying ideology. The authoritarianism experienced during the covid pandemic forced a reckoning, when Americans confronted a government acting without the consent of the governed. And when the citizens objected, the populace saw a government ruling as if our rights are only those it deigned to bestow.
By which star shall we guide our country?
What, then, shall we conservatives consider first principles? By which star shall we guide our country back to its governing fundamentals? Only by the consent of the governed does our government hold authority. Our rights come from God. They preexist the government and are protected from the government only by adherence to the Constitution. Not only did the government’s covid response revive an appreciation for these principles, it exposed an utter disregard for them among the ruling class.
No longer, then, are populists a rudderless people searching for a different shore; they are now a populace cognizant of America’s decline and determined to rebuild the country for themselves and their children.
Today’s American populists are conservative, but with a passion of conviction that establishment politicians and most pundits lack. To rebuke the masses, then, is to rebuke conservatism itself. And for what? Our sacred institutions? Those, as the last years have showed us, deserve demolition and reconstruction, not deference. The established order? It is now disorder, and it must be rebuilt on the foundations laid more than two hundred years ago.
Liberty then took a revolution. And it will today as well—not one of arms but of ideas. The masses recognize this reality. It’s time conservatives do too.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 2, on page 26
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