February 08, 2008
Reflecting on the sorry state of conservative causes in America is a temptation to self-pity, resentment, and salty thoughts of conspiracy. Likewise, the burbling descent of various rightist media down the intellectual bidet can be surely be attributed in part to certain organized interests, crassly selfish lobbies, and coteries of self-promoting mediocrities who blurb each others’ books. But isn’t that how cultural politics has always worked? The rise of the Renaissance humanists at the expense of the Scholastics happened through such seedy means”as Christopher Hollis’ bilious biography of Erasmus documents.
No, it won’t do simply to blame the neocons.
It’s tempting to jump from cabal-istic conjectures to unified field theories of politics, to leave the dreary particulars for shining, smoothly beveled abstractions (German engineering!), which argue that there could be no “real conservatism” in a place like America since it was founded on liberal, Enlightenment principles.
Or that the whole national enterprise went dreadfully wrong at a certain date, when our forefathers blundered down the wrong historical path. (My date of choice for When America Went Wrong would have to be 1763, but never mind.) Such theories make for more erudite essays, of course. I’ll agree with Charles Coulombe over a liter of Trappist ale that it’s a damned shame that (in chronological order):
a) The Spanish Armada didn’t land.
b) Bonnie Prince Charlie couldn’t take London.
c) George III wouldn’t conciliate the colonists.
d) New England didn’t secede in 1812.
And so on, through decades of tragic historical turning points, up through the Joseph McCarthy’s hiring of Roy Cohen, the removal of John O’Sullivan as editor of National Review, and Anne Coulter’s failure to marry Bob Guccione, Jr.
But none of this gets us very far.
Instead, in the Lenten spirit, we might as members of a movement in disgrace engage in some self-accusation. With all due respect to those who have more theoretical objections to the modern conservative project (pace Justin Raimondo, Paul Gottfried, and Brent Bozell), I still see some value to a political tendency that could once, and not so long ago, marshal minds like Russell Kirk, Erik von Kuenhelt-Leddihn, Frank Meyer, Irving Kristol and Thomas Molnar”frequently in the pages of the same magazine. Something there was once, that could elect Ronald Reagan, nominate Robert Bork, fund Lech Walesa, and wield Phyllis Schlafly like a motherly Joan of Arc. And that something was lost, for a complex of historical reasons that would require a book as erudite as Raimondo’s or Gottfried’s”albeit from a different point of view.
In the space of a single blog, I’d like to point to just one turning point, where conservatism’s descent into the rat’s maze it now inhabits took a particularly seedy turn around a very dark corner. And to do so, I’ll have to do something incredibly distasteful: I’m forced to cite Stanley Fish.
This architect of the demolition of liberal arts education at a major American university, now an avuncular columnist at the NY Times, makes worthy points in a recent column, where he cites the sheer intensity of hatred for Bill and Hillary Clinton. Of course he exaggerates, and of course he finds a way to compare it all to (drumroll please)… anti-Semitism.
And there’s a great deal about the Clintons which any conservative must detest. But the sheer intensity of feeling provoked among conservatives by the spectacle of a Hillary Clinton presidency (to the point where some are considering supporting Barak Obama or even John McCain) is a phenomenon worth noting. My girlfriend knows “pro-choice,” pot-smoking Greenpeace activists from Austin who turn pale with terror at the sight of Hillary”although they can’t explain exactly why.
I think I can, and in doing so point to one of the reasons for the decay of the whole conservative movement: With the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 (and with memories of the Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork fights still bloodying their craw), conservative writers, radio hosts and other opinion leaders really did embrace a politics of personal hatred aimed at the newly elected president. I know because I was one of them. While Rush Limbaugh was still considered a fringe phenomenon, waved off as Ron Paul is today, I lobbied SUCCESS, the business magazine where I worked, to assign me a story on the man. The glowing profile, entitled “Why I Win,” was the first magazine cover story on Limbaugh in the United States. It got cribbed by Barbara Walters, and sat framed behind Rush’s head on the set of his TV show. (What I best recall from the interview in Rush’s inner sanctum was his complete, bound leather set of Playboy magazine”going all the way back to 1953.)
I remember gathering in an Irish pub near Grand Central Station with a troop of right-wing Catholics”mostly battle-scarred veterans of Operation Rescue”to watch the 1992 election results. Despite Bush I’s anemic campaign”the party seemed to have spent all its energy demonizing Pat Buchanan, leaving nothing for the general election”we still could not believe what we were seeing. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Democrats didn’t know how to win. They were dull, pedantic Mondales who didn’t understand America. They were chirping, clueless Dukakises who could be taken down with a few imaginary burning flags. (Has there been another a political campaign as successfully stupid as Bush’s run against Dukakis? Or was I the only conservative who was just plain embarrassed by that win in 1988?) As one state after another flipped for Clinton, we stared at the screen in silence. Some stalwarts claimed voter fraud. The rest of us walked off in a daze, a few of us actually weeping like the Frenchmen who watched the Germans march into Paris. Indeed, the next day, I blush to admit that I actually felt like my country had been occupied. When I switched on the Rush Limbaugh program, I said to a friend, “For the next four years this is Radio Free France.” (Rush was more moderate, and called every succeeding day of the Clinton presidency “America Held Hostage.”) All this in reaction to the election of a moderate Democratic governor of a southern state.
Now before my former colleagues at Frontpage magazine conclude that I have done a kind of David Brock, and learned to love the Clintons, let me be clear. I was and remain appalled at most Clinton proposals and policies”from gays in the military to socialized health care to the abridgment of civil liberties, futile military interventions against countries that never attacked us, and of course the leftward lurch of the Supreme Court. But none of this was particular to the Clintons; it was boilerplate liberal policy. What rankled us so much was that, for the first time in over a decade, the Democrats had found someone who was good at peddling this stuff. Who gave Americans a sense of well-being and goofy optimism, even as he threw these daft proposals at the wall to see which ones would stick. We experienced Clinton as the Antichrist, but he was really much more like Louisiana’s Edwin Edwards. His affability and (admittedly sociopathic) charm made him unbeatable. And that drove us into fury.
This rage is what made it so satisfying to hear Rush dub callers “Feminazis,” to conduct (complete with vacuum sound effects) “caller abortions.” The potent alienation from our own government, the sense that it was somehow illegitimate”just because we’d lost an election”fueled the “patriot movement,” whose achievements I have never been able to discover. When Janet Reno conducted the botched, criminally negligent siege of the Branch Dravidian compound, we were primed to consider it the first step in a Bolshevik coup. When Timothy McVeigh bombed Oklahoma City, I knew important columnists who whispered that it was America’s “Reichstag Fire.” In other words, it was an inside job, conducted by a victim of CIA mind control to justify the crackdown on domestic liberties and the Right. (In fact, as Peter Brimelow has written, that domestic atrocity, conducted by a white racialist, helped destroy the otherwise decent chance of reforming immigration. It’s odd to remember that in 1995 there was a bipartisan consensus to pare back even legal immigration, as proposed by a black liberal Democrat appointed by President Clinton. Instead, we now congratulate ourselves for defeating an amnesty proposed by President Bush, and championed by our likely 2008 presidential nominee. How far we have come….)
Later, when the Feds seized Elian Gonzalez, conservative magazines and Web sites treated this bad decision as another instance of totalitarianism on the march. When Clinton intervened in Kosovo, attacking a nation which hadn’t provoked us in order to establish (ahem) a “democracy” in the Islamic world, conservative commentators and congressmen rallied to the old standard of non-interventionism, and rightly howled that Clinton was playing “global policeman.”
Did we ever really believe any of this?
During the Clinton years, conservatism wasn’t just dumbed down. It was lobotomized. A movement which once had fed itself on the essays of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ernest van den Haag, Friedrich Wilhelmsen, Wilhelm RÃ¶pke and John Simon began to gorge on the juiciest dripping hunks of gore served up by The American Spectator, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh”to cite only the most erudite of the Clinton-haters we enabled. When the Whitewater investigation degenerated into a frenzy of crotch-sniffing, enabled by a middle-aged harpy who bugged the conversations of a confused 20-something intern who thought her a friend, we didn’t turn away in disgust. We never worried that the material we were introducing into the public record might corrupt our children. We ignored the sexual sins of previous presidents, and rigged an impeachment trial over (excuse me) a blow-job. At least we tried to remove a president over lying about something serious… as opposed to some trifling lapse of judgment like… a war.
I remember the glee with which we greeted each groaningly private revelation about a middle-aged man in a troubled marriage and his inconclusive dalliances with a sad, overweight girl. The emails we forwarded larded with “facts” about the “dozens” of people MURDERED by the Clintons. The sadistic pleasure we took in each humiliating press conference…. We didn’t just want to defeat Bill Clinton. We wanted to destroy him.
It was during this time that our movement threw its standards to the winds, and created public figures like Jonah Goldberg”whom history must record only became known to anyone because… let’s go through this analytically:
..to stop Monica Lewinsky…
…from a dress.
As I recall, the color was blue.
This wasn’t exactly how James Burnham or Russell Kirk made his bones. (To be fair, Mr. Goldberg seems to be growing in office, and taking seriously men like Ron Paul and Paul Gottfried. If he continues down this road, I look for good things from him in future.)
The inquisitors we created during this squalid ransacking of private sewers are still with us today. The writers who warned that Waco signalled the start of a tyranny now support torture and the Patriot Act. The figures who rightly denounced the Kosovo war label opponents of the Iraq war as “unpatriotic appeasers.” Those who prosecuted Clinton for concealing oral sex helped keep Scooter Libby out of prison. John Kerry was named a coward for exaggerating his service in Vietnam… and George Bush a hero for keeping Viet Cong bombers from strafing Texas. Ron Paul shares the “worldview of Michael Moore” because he opposes a particular foreign intervention. And so on. We turned over our movement to bullies like Sean Hannity, partisan hacks like Anne Coulter, and slanderers like David Frum… and we did it because it felt so good to hate. It was our moment of Dionysian pleasure, our Stonewall riot, our Woodstock.
And now we’re all in rehab. The first step is admitting it.