The Demise of the Conservative Intellectual

tags: Conservative Intellectual

Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech and the “Rocking, Socking” Election of 1952.

Two recent pieces published in The Baffler prompt the question: Has the conservative movement gotten to the point of self-destruction? Take, first off, John Ganz’s piece on The New Criterion and the recent writing of its editor Roger Kimball. Ganz begins by recounting how he, a left-liberal, it would seem, took on a secret liking for The New Criterion back in the day (it began publication in 1982). The magazine was once a place that published what he believed to be “pretty stylish prose” and developed a certain “wit targeted at academic jargon.” It upheld a faith in high culture—both for its sophistication and historical rootedness—concerning itself with the impact the New Left and the 1960s had on academe, especially in undermining the intellectual rigor of the Great Books tradition and even appreciation of classical artwork. In upholding “high culture,” Kimball seemed to stand on principle rather than politics. You see, there’s a fear certain intellectual left-liberals share with their cultural conservative peers, as Ganz suggests: It’s difficult to deny that there’s been a coarsening of our culture over the years, a dumbing down of popular culture, and a tendency toward anti-intellectualism.

Yet Ganz goes on to describe Kimball’s intellectual descent as he shifted from being a supposedly “highbrow” critic to a celebrant of populism and Donald Trump. That may seem like quite an evolution, but then again maybe it’s not. Ganz instead sees a great deal of continuity in the worldview that buttresses Kimball’s thinking through the years.

To exemplify this, Ganz describes a literary analogy Kimball uses in much of his writing: “A damsel (America) is locked in a dark castle, which was once a glorious palace in years gone by.”  But now “liberal elites, the bureaucracy, academia” have sapped “her vitality,” turning her “weak and infirm” due to a dastardly belief system in “left-wing ideology, political correctness, egalitarianism.” Using this metaphorical trope, Kimball continued to describe citizens as having turned into weaklings who secretly long for a return to national greatness. This view of decline and decadence, so core to the conservative intellectual tradition, is prone to eventual faith in a strong, authoritarian leader. And thus, Donald Trump becomes, for Kimball, the only one ready to rescue the country from its demise. As Ganz points out, in the summer of 2017, Kimball “published a piece” for a blog called American Greatness entitled “‘Donald Trump as Pericles’ comparing Trump’s speech in Warsaw to the famous funeral oration in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War.” Trump finds praise from Kimball because, like Pericles, he possesses a “frank and manly self-confidence.”

The trajectory of this particular “intellectual” tells us a great deal about the state of the wider conservative intellectual movement today. The window dressing may remain the same: Kimball doesn’t make direct reference to contemporary presidencies in America, but cloaks his arguments through high-minded references to the classics, that sort of conceit of highbrow pretension that once marked a great deal of conservative thought (consider Allan Bloom’s tendency to use Plato to buttress his arguments about what was wrong in American academe or the whole “Straussian” school of thought he was a part of). Yet Kimball winds up highlighting, as Ganz rightfully points out, that “Trumpism represent[s] conservatism at its essential core, a kind of return to its roots in monarchism,” fitting of eighteenth century Western European conservatism (Edmund Burke and other critics of the French Revolution). But here’s another intellectual curve ball: This “monarchism” is now being  nurtured by a populist faith—a combined belief in the supposed goodness of the masses, led by the sort of paternalistic authoritarian leader that conservative intellectuals can get behind.

Meanwhile, as Ned Resnikoff highlights in another article in The Baffler, Steve Bannon has gained the weighty moniker of “thought leader.” This, too, tells us something important about the state of the conservative intellectual movement. How has Bannon, more aptly described as a political strategist with a background in gaming and movies, become somebody who anyone serious would truly consider an “intellectual”? Well, because publications like The Washington Post and Politico have been arguing that he “reads a lot of books,” which supposedly includes Thucydides (there you have it again). Bannon,  in other words, is supposedly “well-read,” and apparently that’s enough for some. Resnikoff sees a real danger in this: “When journalists treat men like Bannon as if they are serious thinkers, they lend undeserved public legitimacy to a racist, conspiratorial, anti-democratic ideology.” They also lower the intellectual bar by making a “thought leader” out of someone who offers little more than ungrounded and impulsive, yet dangerous, arguments. ...

Read entire article at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

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