Rise of the Reactionary

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tags: election 2016, Trump



Sam Tanenhaus, the author of “The Death of Conservatism,” is working on a biography of William F. Buckley, Jr.

A distrust of high theory used to be a mainstay of conservatism. Edmund Burke, scrutinizing support for the French Revolution, had seen connections with sinister “literary caballers, and intriguing philosophers, with political theologians and theological politicians.” Even in the middle of the past century, when American intellectuals on the right were publishing the books that buttressed a movement—Peter Viereck’s “Conservatism Revisited” (1949), Whittaker Chambers’s “Witness” (1952), and Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” (1953)—a shared aversion to grand philosophizing was palpable. What was needed, Viereck wrote, was a “revolt against ideology” and a defense of what Kirk called “permanent things,” to offset, if possible, drastic changes, whether wrought in the blood of the Russian Revolution or, as Chambers wrote of the New Deal, in “a revolution by bookkeeping and lawmaking.” Conservatives wanted, above all, to conserve. “The American political mind has never thought much along consciously radical lines,” the political scientist Clinton Rossiter wrote, in “Conservatism in America” (1955).

Yet, at more or less the moment Rossiter wrote this, some on the right were making a different case, more strident and aggressive, and unafraid of world-historical theories. In the first issue of National Review, published in November, 1955, William F. Buckley, Jr., and his fellow-editors, several of them ex-Communists, announced that they were “radical conservatives” and vowed “to stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” Like more traditional conservatives, they looked back to a better time, but not in tones of gentle pining. They conveyed instead “strangely exhilarating despair,” as the intellectual historian Mark Lilla writes in his new book, “The Shipwrecked Mind” (New York Review Books), a collection of essays on philosophical and religious reaction. “The militancy of his nostalgia is what makes the reactionary a distinctly modern figure, not a traditional one,” he adds.

Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia, skillfully untangles the apocalyptic “mytho-histories,” “just-so narratives,” and “political bedtime stories” favored by the modern right, in Europe and America. For him “reactionary” is not an insult. It is a taxonomic term. It describes an organic response to political and social revolution, and the quite sensible fear that the shared common life of a people has been wrenched out of its cherished patterns. Nor is the phenomenon limited to the ideological right. The left has reactionaries, too—including progressives in the nineteen-nineties who, Lilla wrote at the time, were convinced that Americans did not grasp the disastrous truth about the Reagan Revolution, “since if they did, they would overturn it.” But reactionaries on the right far outnumber those on the left. “The enduring vitality of the reactionary spirit even in the absence of a revolutionary political program,” he writes, arises from the feeling that “to live a modern life anywhere in the world today, subject to perpetual social and technological changes, is to experience the psychological equivalent of permanent revolution.”

In the six decades since Buckley and company took their stand, conservatives still speak the same militant language. We’re just more used to it now. “All this damage that he’s done to America is deliberate,” Marco Rubio, as a Presidential candidate, said of Obama, which sounds almost like an accusation of treason. The G.O.P. warns that, as President, Hillary Clinton, despite her long record as a moderate-to-slightly-left Democrat, would try to lead us down the road to socialist perdition. Where do these passions come from? Lilla’s answer is bracingly direct. They come from the place that conservatives themselves often point to as the root of all ideological evil: Europe.

The best pages in “The Shipwrecked Mind” are elegant, concise portraits of refugees from Weimar Europe who fled to America after the Nazi takeover and brought with them “some very large and very dark ideas about the crisis of the age.” These ideas reached maturity in the first years of the Cold War. We often think of the nineteen-fifties as the decade of complacent conformism: a robust economy, a beloved war hero in the White House, slow but important progress on civil rights. But it was also “High Noon,” the doomsday thermonuclear clock ticking loudly even as a dangerous storm was brewing abroad: anti-American governments in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, ungrateful semi-socialist regimes in Europe living under the protection of our troops and dollars, Soviet leaps in missile and aerospace technology, and a shooting war in Korea. There were even overtones of Weimar “stab in the back” conspiracy lore in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s accusation that Democrats were guilty of “twenty years of treason.” ...




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