In his committed mendacity, his nostalgia for the 1930s, and his acceptance of support from a foreign enemy of the United States, a Republican president has closed the door on conservatism and opened the way to a darker form of politics: a new right to replace an old one.
Conservatives were skeptical guardians of truth. The conservatism of the 18th century was a thoughtful response to revolutionaries who believed that human nature was a scientific problem. Edmund Burke answered that life is not only a matter of adaptations to the environment, but also of the knowledge we inherit from culture. Politics must respect what was and is as well as what might be.
The conservative idea of truth was a rich one.
Conservatives did not usually deny the world of science, but doubted that its findings exhausted all that could be known about humanity. During the terrible ideological battles of the 20th century, American conservatives urged common sense upon liberals and socialists tempted by revolution.
The contest between conservatives and the radical right has a history that is worth remembering. Conservatives qualified the Enlightenment of the 18th century by characterizing traditions as the deepest kind of fact. Fascists, by contrast, renounced the Enlightenment and offered willful fictions as the basis for a new form of politics. The mendacity-industrial complex of the Trump administration makes conservatism impossible, and opens the floodgates to the sort of drastic change that conservatives opposed.
Thus the nostalgic moment for this White House is not the 1950s, usually recalled warmly by American conservatives, but the dreadful 1930s, when fascists of the new right defeated conservatives of the old right in Europe. Whatever one might think of conservative nostalgia for the 1950s, it is notable for what it includes: American participation in the second world war and the beginnings of the American welfare state. For conservatives, it all went wrong in the 1960s.
For the Trump administration, it all went wrong rather earlier: in the 1940s, with the fight against fascism and the New Deal. Stephen Bannon, who promises us new policies “as exciting as the 1930s”, seems to want to return to that decade in order to undo those legacies.
He seems to have in mind a kleptocratic authoritarianism (hastened by deregulation and the dismantlement of the welfare state) that generates inequality, which can be channeled into a culture war (prepared for by Muslim bans and immigrant denunciation hotlines). Like fascists, Bannon imagines that history is a cycle in which national virtue must be defended from permanent enemies. He refers to fascist authors in defense of this understanding of the past.
Unlike Bannon, Trump is not an articulate theorist, but his utterances do give us a similar sense of when the “again” in “Make America great again” was: it seems to be the same “again” that we usually find in “Never again.” In 2014 he spoke hopefully of some future crash which would bring the “riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great”. The notion of riots as progress is rather telling: his father was arrested at a Ku Klux Klan riot in 1927.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump spoke of “America first,” which he knew was the name of political movement in the United States that opposed American participation in the second world war. Among its leaders were nativists and Nazi apologists such as Charles Lindbergh. When Trump promised in his inaugural address that “from now on, it’s going to be America first” he was answering a call across the decades from Lindbergh, who complained that “we lack leadership that places America first.” American foreign and energy policies have been branded “America first”.
Conservatives came to regard the American involvement in the second world war as a high mark of American morality, the work of “the greatest generation”. The current administration wants no part in this national story. In January, the White House passed over Holocaust Remembrance Day without mentioning the Jews. Its spokesman contrived in April to suggest that Hitler had not killed his “own people” by gas, an error of fact that reveals a deeper absence of ethics. The only way to believe that the German handicapped people and the German Jews who were gassed were not Germans is to accept the Nazi definition of race.
Conservatives always began from intuitive understanding of one’s own country and an instinctive defense of sovereignty. The far right of the 1930s was internationalist, in the sense that fascists learned one from the other and admired one another, as Hitler admired Mussolini.
The far right of today sees Russia as its model. Putin is openly admired by America’s leading white supremacists Richard Spencer and Matthew Heimbach(who is currently on trial for using force to eject people from a Trump rally, and whose defense is that he “acted pursuant to the directives and requests of Donald J Trump”).
As the political scientist Anton Shekhovtsov has shown, Russia supports the extreme right in Europe and the United States in order to disrupt democracy. Nowhere has this been more successful than in Russia’s support of the Trump campaign. Conservatives would see the danger of a president whose major sponsors are abroad.
One of the reasons why the radical right was able to overcome conservatives back in the 1930s was that the conservatives did not understand the threat. Nazis in Germany, like fascists in Italy and Romania, did have popular support, but they would not have been able to change regimes without the connivance or the passivity of conservatives.
The last time around, the old right chose suicide by midwifery, and it seems to be doing so again. If Republicans do not wish to be remembered (and forgotten) like the German conservatives of the 1930s, they had better find their courage – and their conservatism – fast.