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Six Reasons for Optimism

The Trump campaign's bluster can't hide the fact that modern conservatism has lost confidence and direction.

A Donald Trump rally on October 21, 2016. Michael Candelori / Flickr

Below are six causes for optimism. But I should stress, as I have since The Reactionary Mind, that the reason I think the Right has not much of a future is that it has won. If you consider its great animating energies since the New Deal — anti-labor, anti–civil rights, and antifeminism — the Right has achieved a considerable amount of success. Either in destroying or beating back these movements. So the hopefulness you read below, it needs to be remembered, is built on the ruins of the Left. It reflects a considerable pessimism and arises from a sober realism about where we are right now.

1


An ABC News poll has Trump at 38 percent of the popular vote. It’s only one poll, and I haven’t been paying much attention to the polls (what’s the point?), but if Trump does get 38 percent — which is about what I’ve been thinking he’ll get, plus or minus a point — he’ll be squarely within McGovern territory. With very few exceptions, he’s rarely broken, in a four-way race, above 40 percent. (That said, Clinton, with her 50 percent, according to ABC, won’t be in Nixon territory.)

No major-party candidate of the last fifty years, aside from George H. W. Bush, has gotten less than 40 percent of the vote, and in Bush’s case, it had a lot to do with Perot. This will go down as a catastrophic defeat, at the presidential level, for the Republican Party.

Side note: I notice that my Nixon/Clinton and Trump/McGovern comparisons, along with my silent majority reference, are becoming less controversial.

2


For all of Trump’s bluster at the third debate about not accepting the election results, I’m confident that once it’s over, and the verdict is in, he and his followers will go, more or less gently, into that good night.

We on the Left — perhaps liberals, too — are so used to being defeated, demoralized, and depressed, so used to losing to the Right, that we have no sense that the Right can suffer the same. We have no sense of the impact this election will have on the Trumpites. We believe their bullshit: we take their sense of entitlement as a sign of deep wells of conviction, of belief in their right and authority, or perhaps even of their actual right and authority, as if this really is their country.

They have a better, more accurate sense of their dwindling political fortune. It’s what gives their rhetoric its enervating rather than exhilarating character. Listen to Pat Buchanan in the 1970s and 1980s: the inventiveness of his brutality, the energy of his cruelty. There’s a world of difference between the expansiveness of that revanchism and the narrow straits that is Trump’s. The former speaks in pages and paragraphs; the latter in two- or three-word fragments, without any Marionetti-like patter of power.

Trump’s is not the voice of confidence, of right, of command. This is not the voice of a man who can lead a rearguard revolt in the streets. This is the voice of a man — and a movement — who is tired, beaten, and demoralized, who starts sentences he can barely muster enough energy to finish.

3


Consider the decreasing half-life of the American right’s various populist experiments over the past four decades.

In the lead-up to Reagan’s victories in the 1980s, that right-wing populism was represented by the Moral Majority. And it lasted quite a long time, in part because it skillfully fused the racism of the segregation academies issue with the religiosity of school prayer and the gender politics of abortion. That brand managed to carry the GOP all the way from Reagan into the first Bush administration.

Then it was the Christian Coalition, and it lasted a slightly less long time, and with less success. Clinton was president during much of its heyday, and its only electoral victory was the 2000 election of Bush. One of the reasons for its diminution of power, relatively speaking, is that it no longer had the issues of busing and school desegregation to mobilize against the way the Christian right had in the 1970s and 1980s.

Then it was the Tea Party, which, despite the claims of its defenders and critics, has seen an even shorter time in the sun, in part because the Christian right had been so successful on the abortion front, at least at the state level.

And now it’s Trump and the alt-right. And you know what I think about how much time it has left on this earth.

Analysts of the Right tend to think that conservatism is a permanent feature of modern political life, and it is. But what they don’t get is that its existence is cyclical. It has a rise and fall, a life and death, in response to the success or failure of the Left.

We’re coming on the years of its fall, and it has been long in the making (since the administration of George W. Bush, I’ve argued). Among the best pieces of evidence for that decline, I think, are the decreasing half-lives of its populist expressions, these ever more desperate attempts to recreate the magic of its originating moment in the backlash against the labor movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and the women’s movement.

4


Some time around the election of George W. Bush, Irving Kristol — not Bill Kristol, but Bill’s father, the real brains of the operation — told me:

American conservatism lacks for political imagination. It’s so influenced by business culture and by business modes of thinking that it lacks any political imagination, which has always been, I have to say, a property of the Left. If you read Marx, you’d learn what a political imagination could do.

That (and the end of the Cold War), he said, is “one of the reasons I really not am not writing much these days. I don’t know the answers.”

This was not the voice of a tired, old man, though he was tired and old and a man. This was the voice of a movement that had lost its way, its raison d’être.

5


From the 1960s to the 1980s, California was the pacesetter for the Right. It gave us Nixon, Reagan, and Proposition 13.

In the 1990s, California was again the pacesetter, only in the opposite direction: Pete Wilson tried to do on the state level what Trump is now trying to do at the national level. It proved to be a spectacular political failure, long-term, driving much of the state, which previously had been a Republican state (between 1952 and 1992, California went for the Democratic presidential candidate only once), into the hands of the Democrats.

6


I hear a lot of folks saying how terrible it is that a third to 40 percent of the electorate would support Trump. And it is.

But put this in historical perspective: once upon a time, not so long ago, that kind of racism and cruelty propelled the Republican Party to the White House. Not once, not twice, but again and again and again. No more.

And if you think that the difference is that the racism and cruelty were once quiet but are now loud, that argument too can be flipped on its head: It once took only the faintest of dog whistles to get the majority out to the polls. Now it takes a blaring speaker system and even that doesn’t work.

The country that elected a black president with a foreign-sounding name — twice — may have turned a certain kind of corner.