Good Friday Morning, except to Joe Biden, who seems to be getting grouchy in his basement these days. He told a reporter, “Unlike the African-American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community.” It makes sense why his campaign is avoiding the hard interviews Trump has been taking and is now phoning in even the DNC acceptance speech in Milwaukee, WI (as astute elections observers noted: it’s not the first time a Democrat has blown off Wisconsin).
You could probably say the same thing about Trump in the interviews he’s had with Chris Wallace of FoxNews and Johnathan Swan of Axios. But at least Trump is showing up! Biden’s camp seems terrified of any interviews at this point. Biden has blown a handful of small ones in the past week. That’s also why my Friday Conservative Institute column focuses on this point: Trump needs to force Biden out in the open and make this strategy of staying in the basement appear to be a weakness. You can’t claim you’re ready to do the job of President but also be incapable of doing a Wallace/Swan interview.
This week I’m going through why I believe the right, in particular, is susceptible right now to “it’s a Flight 93” election. If you’re unfamiliar with that phrase, don’t worry, I’ll explain that upfront. Links to follow.
- TN Senate: Last week I wrote about the Tennessee Senate race and how it showed contours of the future fights of the Republican Party. It had a strong fight between the Trumpian wing of the party versus Ted Cruz/Rand Paul. As I’m finishing up this newsletter, both the Associated Press and Decision Desk HQ have called the race for Hagerty, who sits with ~51% of the vote. Proving that the Trump endorsement did work as a silver bullet. I’m curious if Sethi will even hit 40% in the end tallies. The Trump endorsement matters, and it’ll matter after the 2020 election. That’s why the “burn-it-down” crowd is wrong.
- Trump’s approval rating has rebounded about to where he was pre-protests (late-May). The slump he’s been in has correlated pretty close with the coronavirus blowing up in red states like Texas, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and more. As those states see metrics drop for the virus, I suspect Trump’s numbers will continue improving. All election analysis has assumed Trump’s current numbers could get extrapolated to the election, which never made any sense when you factor in all the variables. The other problem with extrapolation? We haven’t had the conventions, Biden’s VP pick, or seen 2020’s version of an October surprise. Buckle up.
Where you can find me this week
Please subscribe, rate, and review my podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or Google Play — the reviews help listeners, and readers like you find me in the algorithms. Make sure to sign up for the Conservative Institute’s daily newsletter and become a subscriber at The Dispatch, where I’m a contributor.
Fixed Forward on a Star: Conservatism and the promise to black Americans – Arc Digital (Big thanks to RealClearPolicy featuring this piece).
Previewing the upcoming chaos from mail-in voting – The Conservative Institute.
When NeverTrump becomes NeverGOP and AlwaysDemocrat – The Conservative Institute.
The Trepidations of the American Right.
It’s that time of year when everyone starts rationalizing why they will vote the way that they do. Perhaps no single essay encapsulated this better than the infamous The Flight 93 Election essay by Michael Anton. Though when he wrote it in September of 1996, he went by Publius Decius Mus. This name matched the allusion to the Flight 93 narrative in the essay.
Publius was a Roman consul who, according to legend, plunged headfirst into battle with such a fury that his sacrifice ended up leading to an overall victory. Anton drew this story because it aligned with the Flight 93 on 9/11 story. He was calling on conservatives to bravely charge forward and vote for Trump, even if Trump wasn’t conservative; he rationalized this because Hilary Clinton represented an extinction-level event.
For some, they brushed this off as an extreme way to help energize the base and convince people to go out and vote for Trump. And, undoubtedly, that’s part of why he wrote the essay. But it was also meant as a kind of intellectual defense for voting for Trump in 2016. The goal was pointing out the danger on both sides, but arguing that Clinton was an extinction-level event for the American Republic.
We haven’t quite hit that stage of the 2020 election, yet. But it’s coming. The Anton essay didn’t appear until September, so we have some time to rationalize it. We still haven’t gotten past the conventions as of yet. But I wanted to touch on this topic now, because I feel the right, in particular, is susceptible to the Flight 93 argument.
First Reason: Conservatism hasn’t had a plan since the end of the Cold War.
In the podcast this past week, I talked through the history of the conservative movement. The gist of my argument is simple: conservatism had an idea of how to lead and govern the world until the end of the Reagan era. Since then, the reasons why conservatism exists haven’t had the firm grounding that “defeat the commies” had on the intellectual minds of the 20th century.
A slightly different way of phrasing this is that conservatism has come in waves. This is the theory of Matthew Continetti, who shared some of his arguments on Jonah Goldberg’s podcast, which also previews his upcoming book on conservative history (which I will have preordered ASAP). Continetti argues that what we’re experiencing right now is the fourth wave of American conservatism.
No matter how you phrase it though, the central problem is this: conservatives, and the right in general, don’t have a cohesive strategy on how to govern, nor have they come to some vision of how they want the future to become. It’s not the first time conservatism has faced this issue.
The Victorian Prime Minister of England, Benjamin Disraeli, who was a novelist and conservative, wrote this in his novel Coningsby (free on Project Gutenberg): “There was indeed a considerable shouting about what they called Conservative principles; but the awkward question naturally arose, what will you conserve?” It was a question he was trying to answer himself, because in the post-American and French Revolution era, and post-Napoleonic wars, the problem was what to do next? Of the conservatives of his day, Disraeli said:
“In the meantime, while forms and phrases are religiously cherished in order to make the semblance of a creed, the rule of practice is to bend to the passion or combination of the hour. Conservatism assumes in theory that everything established should be maintained; but adopts in practice that everything that is established is indefensible. To reconcile this theory and this practice, they produce what they call ‘the best bargain;’ some arrangement which has no principle and no purpose, except to obtain a temporary lull of agitation, until the mind of the Conservatives, without a guide and without an aim, distracted, tempted, and bewildered, is prepared for another arrangement, equally statesmanlike with the preceding one.
Conservatism was an attempt to carry on affairs by substituting the fulfilment of the duties of office for the performance of the functions of government; and to maintain this negative system by the mere influence of property, reputable private conduct, and what are called good connections. Conservatism discards Prescription, shrinks from Principle, disavows Progress; having rejected all respect for Antiquity, it offers no redress for the Present, and makes no preparation for the future. It is obvious that for a time, under favourable circumstances, such a confederation might succeed; but it is equally clear, that on the arrival of one of those critical conjunctures that will periodically occur in all states, and which such an unimpassioned system is even calculated ultimately to create, all power of resistance will be wanting: the barren curse of political infidelity will paralyse all action; and the Conservative Constitution will be discovered to be a Caput Mortuum.”
Essentially, Disraeli saw that conservatives were always agitated about the change happening in their time but consistently failing to stop it. Once agitation settled down, they simply accepted the new normal, the new institutions, the latest “progress.” It was a succession of continual “losses” that were opposed continuously, ultimately lost, and lived with.
That’s not much of a conservative position when you think about it. Disraeli aimed to change that in his day, outlining clear objectives for conservatives to pursue (his legacy got carried on the Primrose League, founded in part by Randolph Churchill, father of Winston). Modern conservatives in America suffer under the same problem. They oppose all kinds of progress, good or bad, but if the culture wars advance, they just accept this and move on (with the lone exception being, perhaps, abortion). It’s the position of vision-less people.
Conservatives don’t have a clear objective when answering the question: “What do we conserve?” If you can’t answer that question, it’s hard to come up with governing principles. It’s why conservatives didn’t have any plans on healthcare, and it’s why the only real thing they’ve done is tax cuts and confirm judges. Within legal circles, there is a clearer idea of goals in judicial conservatism, and the Federalist Society fosters those debates and visions.
If you don’t know what you’re going to conserve, you’re always on the defensive in cultural and political battles. Eventually, the resentment builds up, as it did with the Flight 93 essay, where voting is nothing more than a primal scream against the other side. Conservatives know they don’t like the liberal or progressive vision of the future, but they don’t have a competing or compelling vision to offer.
As Disraeli said, this kind of coalition can work for a while, but not long term. And if a country encounters one of those inflection points in history, you can’t go in without a vision to sell people. That’s what Disraeli did, it’s what Churchill did in WWII, and Reagan painted a post-Soviet world that remade what was possible. Conservatives have to provide that again, or else they’ll continue floundering, whether in power or out.
Second Reason: Bad eschatology begets bad future planning.
And then there’s the apocalyptic nature to America’s thinking. We always believe we’re just around the corner from Armageddon. In particular, the Christian right has convinced itself that America isn’t in any end-time prophecies, ergo, America cannot be involved in the end times. The only answer is that America collapses and vanishes. But because most Americans are premillennial, which means the rapture saves them before everything hits the fan, they look on with a morose, fatalistic, even nihilistic point of view.
Nothing is going to change, so why bother?
On the left, this kind of thinking displays itself the most extreme climate alarmism. We’re always a decade away from complete extinction if we don’t change our wicked ways. If you just swap out pollution or carbon emission with sin and call environmentalism Christianity, you’ve got all the essential parts of Protestant Christianity.
And they always wrap it up with, “and that’s why we need a complete socialist takeover, to save the planet. If you refuse, you just want everyone dead.”
It’s secular eschatology like this that gets you passages like this, from the Flight 93 essay’s opening:
“2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.
Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”
Anton’s essay is almost perfect Calvinist premillennial thinking: we’re doomed, it’s just a matter of how we’re going down.
This kind of thinking combines well with the first point of not having a vision for the future. If you can’t see a way to rule or govern in the future, everything seems terrible. Reagan ran on “Morning” in America, because he was painting a vision of the future. Neither Trump nor either Bush was able to do the same.
Progressives try, but they’re the most committed to a secular version of original sin that we can’t get atonement for, in any capacity. That’s why they increasingly show crazier and more insane behavior, they believe the world is sinful and damned, and nothing they do, no matter what, will rid the world of it. Sure, they pitch progressive ideas, but even the most woke among them gets town down as being sinful.
It doesn’t seem like much, what I’m asking for here, but it is. I’m asking for conservatism to throw aside the apocalyptic thinking and offer a vision of the future. The thing about conservatism is that it grounds itself — theoretically anyway — in notions of absolute truth, tradition, and institutions that have proven their worth and value over long periods. Through these means, conservatism seeks to guide society as it traverses the future, much like a shepherd does with a flock.
We often delude ourselves into thinking we guide the future. More often than not, our leaders are merely reacting to events and leading us through them. Example:
“When Harold Macmillan became Britain’s prime minister, he was asked what would determine his government’s course. He replied with Edwardian languor: “Events, dear boy, events.” As he well knew. An event–the 1956 Suez debacle–had catapulted him into 10 Downing Street. An event–the sex-and-spies Profumo scandal–would grease the skids under him in 1963.”
We never know what events we will encounter, which is why we should be circumspect about our capacity to predict the future. But when you aren’t grounded in the past, what we’ve learned and know, and what is true, then all future events will spin you about and carry you down the stream of history. More people have gotten lost to the sands of time that way, than those who used the truth, wisdom, and traditions of the past to move forward.
The conservative movement needs to re-ground itself in those principles, especially of the American founding. When you’re painting a future and working towards fulfilling the promise of American liberty, that requires reforming the system, even if you’re reacting to events. This kind of thinking also answers the question, “what do we conserve?”
It makes sense that American conservatism didn’t appear until the 20th century. Until then, we had been continuously building America the nation. Once that process started wrapping up, we had to start asking ourselves what was worth conserving in the American experience was worth conserving? The answer to that question is where the future of conservatism should head.
Links of the week
The Nonconformist: Over a lifetime of scholarship and public engagement, economist Thomas Sowell has illuminated controversial topics such as race, poverty, and culture. – Coleman Hughes, The City Journal
U.S. should boost AI spending to compete with China, paper argues – Ashley Gold, Axios
Tulane Canceled a Talk by the Author of an Acclaimed Anti-Racism Book After Students Said the Event Was ‘Violent’ – In Life of a Klansman, Edward Ball reckons with a white supremacist ancestor. Try explaining that to the students. – Robby Soave, Reason
The Trump Style Doesn’t Work for His Wannabes (like Kris Kobach) – Jim Geraghty, National Review
New York attorney general seeks to dissolve NRA – Associated Press
How the Media Led the Great Racial Awakening: Years before Trump’s election the media dramatically increased coverage of racism and embraced new theories of racial consciousness that set the stage for the latest unrest – Zach Goldberg, Tablet Magazine
Why I’m now leaving MSNBC – Ariana N. Pekary
July Breaks Gun Sales Record: Gun company’s earnings triple, CEO says sales ‘like nothing we’ve seen before’ – Stephen Gutowski, The Washington Free Beacon
The Better of the Two Big Antiracism Bestsellers: Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist lacks subtlety, but it beats White Fragility. – John McWhorterJohn McWhorter, Education Next
Kansas Should Go F— Itself: Author Thomas Frank predicted the modern culture war, and he was right about Donald Trump, but don’t expect political leaders to pay attention to his new book about populism – Matt Taibbi
Portland police record highest number of death investigations in a single month in more than three decades – Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian/OregonLive
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire of the week
Experts Now Recommend Taking Up Vaping To Increase Social Distance – The Babylon Bee
Biden Campaign Cancels Trip Upstairs – The Babylon Bee
Thanks for reading!