When Donald Trump was running for the Republican nomination, the so-called “Conservative Movement” was shaken. Some of its venerable members, like Phyllis Schlafly, endorsed Trump, but many others saw him as an apostate and not a “true conservative.” The National Review, that movement’s voice, devoted an entire issue to rebuking Trump in January of 2016. Several prominent conservatives contributed to it, attempting to reaffirm a narrative that the Right has always told about itself.
The movement’s mythology had long stated that William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review, had kicked the extremist John Birch Society out of the movement back in the early 1960s, allowing conservatism to remove the stain of radical reactionary politics. Trump was obviously in the tradition of the Bircher-ite paranoid style, and seemed to represent a threat to the official conservative movement. That movement, drenched in respectability, often thinks of itself as harboring “ideas” and “principles.” (Although both tend to boil down to “give rich people as much money as possible.”) Trump’s brand is crash crudeness, and his “ideas” are just whatever addled thoughts he has after watching Fox and Friends.
Elements of the conservative movement wanted desperately not to be associated with him, and some Never Trumpers like David Frum and William Kristol, have stuck to their guns. For the most part, however, movement conservatives have gone with Trump. However they, like a lot of others, still try to maintain a fiction that Trumpism and conservatism are two different things.
They are not, and an examination of many of conservatism’s founding texts bear that out. There’s no better place to start, in fact, than with William F. Buckley’s famous mission statement for the inaugural issue of the National Review, first published in November of 1955. Its theme, repeated over and over again, is of resentment against intellectual elites, who are purportedly all liberals and leftists. This section lays it out: “National Review is out of place, in the sense that the United Nations and the League of Women Voters and the New York Times and Henry Steele Commager are in place. It is out of place because, in its maturity, literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation.”
The assumption is that “non-literate” America abhors these things, and is being lied to and misled by the liberal elite. This is why, in the most famous phrase of the mission statement, “[The National Review] stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
Knowing the actual history of the time, however, this statement seems absolutely preposterous. 1955 was the high point of the Eisenhower era, a time of social conservatism and the reinscription of domesticity, traditional gender roles, and religion. It was also the tail end of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, where the leftists who actually did advocate for “radical social experimentation” were being fired from universities for their political beliefs. Even the NAACP and the labor movement got in on the act and expelled their leftist members. In the mid-1950s conservatism was more powerful than it had been since the days of Coolidge and Hoover.
Buckley, however, wrote as if he were living in Leningrad. The constant refrain is that “liberals run everything,” and thus the conservatives are rebels, not defenders of the status quo. He has particular venom for college campuses, which for him are hotbeds of relativism training the elite that will force nation to adopt its extremist ideals. (I sense a bit of projection here.) Apart from universities, he assails the media, especially opinion leaders in the field as “conformists.” He paints a picture of persecuted conservatives in a passage I enjoy for its now arcane references:
There never was an age of conformity quite like this one, or a camaraderie quite like the Liberals’. Drop a little itching powder in Jimmy Wechsler’s bath and before he has scratched himself for the third time, Arthur Schlesinger will have denounced you in a dozen books and speeches, Archibald MacLeish will have written ten heroic cantos about our age of terror, Harper’s will have published them, and everyone in sight will have been nominated for a Freedom Award.
But what of the corporate elites, whose economic wealth and power dwarf those of ordinary people? They are, in Buckley’s formulation, “harassed” by a government drunk on power, run by those pesky liberal bureaucrats. Buckley here performs a magic trick that still lies at the heart of modern conservatism. Nixon with his intense hatred of cultural elites, made them public enemies to the point that the term “elite” today usually connotes education and cultural power, not wealth. Nixon also made the term “elite” synonymous with “liberal.” And so the movement most in favor of concentrating wealth in the hands of billionaires has been able to harness the resentments of the masses and call itself “anti-elite.”
Like Nixon, Trump used this weapon well. In one of his more successful attacks, he painted Hilary Clinton as the tool of the “elites.” With that idea of elite in the minds of the public, the reality that he was a billionaire because of his father’s money with a long trail of fraud and stiffed contractors behind him was not held against him. All he had to do was attack immigrants, and suddenly he was a “populist.”
Trump even made the subtext text at a recent rally, musing that ““You ever notice they always call the other side ‘the elite’? The elite! Why are they elite? I have a much better apartment than they do. I’m smarter than they are. I’m richer than they are. I became president, and they didn’t.” I am not sure whether he understands how that word has been weaponized on his behalf, or not. In any case it doesn’t matter, since that sidenote itself was a way to speak to “anti-elite” sentiments, one of his go to moves.
Like Buckley, Trump has also keyed into the notion that conservatives are somehow oppressed and persecuted. Instead of Archibald MacLeish, it’s “SJWs” making it so you can’t use racial slurs anymore. Those liberals won’t let you say “Merry Christmas,” but I’m going to say it! The Trumpkins have been primed for this by decades of programming on talk radio and Fox News telling them of a “war on Christmas” and the bugbear of political correctness. And lest you think that the august magazine of Buckley does not truck in such “war on Christmas” hack nonsense you would be wrong wrong wrong. (The last article came after Trump’s election, and praised his pandering on this issue.)
Buckley himself blamed America’s institutions of higher learning for promoting moral relativism, both in his mission statement and his first book, God and Man at Yale. In the age of Trump conservatives have maintained Buckley’s critique of universities, using them constantly as a rhetorical piñata. Watch Fox or go on any conservative site, and there’s usually something attacking professors. It has become so pervasive that when I was at a funeral of a family member recently (a FUNERAL!) another family member started laying into me about this. Fox and talk radio have merely lifted Buckley’s critique and stripped it of its pseudo-intellectual frippery to make it easier to hawk to the hoi polloi.
Beneath all of this, of course, we must consider Buckley’s idea of freedom and its implications. Like other conservatives of the time, he viewed communism as the ultimate evil, and liberalism as being part of the same continuum, a slippery slope from Arthur Schlesinger to Leon Trotsky. While he talked so much in his mission statement about the evils of government regulation, it helps to ask what exactly he was trying to prevent by “standing athwart history and yelling Stop!”
In December of 1955, a month after the publication of the mission statement, African Americans in Montgomery began their famous bus boycott. If there was a truly shining example of individuals demanding freedom from a repressive government in Buckley’s time, it was the civil rights movement’s attempt to dismantle Jim Crow. Although this issue did not directly come up in his mission statement, Buckley would have plenty to say about race. In the 1950s he vehemently defended white supremacy in the South. In the 1960s he famously tried to publicly debate against James Baldwin on the issue, only to get roasted. After that, his magazine defended apartheid South Africa in the 1970s.
The notion that the racial nationalism of Trump somehow stands in contrast to the “principled conservatism” of Buckley and the conservative movement is laughable when you look at the record. So is the general idea that Trump and his supporters are somehow something new. They, like all of us, are the creation of the past. William F Buckley’s mission statement contains the “anti-elite” resentments so important for Trump’s ascendance. A MAGA hat looks a lot different than a blue blazer and WASP-y neck tie, but they are uniforms in the same army.