How Should Conservatives Do More Than Conserve?

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The Statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., August 5, 2021 (Brent Buterbaugh/National Review)

Bruce Abramson has a column at RealClearPolitics complaining that conservatives should focus less on conserving and resisting change, and more on going on offense to roll things back. As with many such arguments, the devil is in the details, and Abramson offers none. His column is interesting only because it is a generic example of a whole field of writing. Typically, it opens with a canned potshot at Bill Buckley that glosses over the complexity of the man’s approach to different situations over time. Then we get this:

Shouting “Stop!” is only a smart strategy when you’re ahead. It doesn’t help when you’re losing.

This is half-true. In politics, for example, it is true that just defending the status quo is fine when the status quo is itself good; when the status quo includes all manner of bad things, conservatives should seek to reform them, and do so by appealing to experience, tradition, and precedent when possible, trying wholly new things only when necessary. That said, I would like to have seen some acknowledgement here that, in politics in particular, conservatives are out of power nationally, and left-wing Democrats are, as we speak, trying to do dramatically bad things such as trillions in permanent spending. Maybe stopping those things should be our chief priority in 2021–22.

There’s precious little in contemporary American life worth conserving. There’s a tremendous amount to cherish, however, in this country’s grand traditions. What America needs today is a counterrevolutionary restoration.

There is plenty to complain about in contemporary American life, but when I read sentences like these, I have to wonder how much the writer even likes America or understands its past. Still, we could discuss what it is that Abramson thinks we should restore . . . but the column doesn’t say.

Current circumstances call for a very different personality type: bold, irreverent, eagerly noncompliant, and hypervigilant of the corruption that can render even legitimate authority unworthy of respect. . . .If the right wants to fight, it’s going to have to jettison its collective conservative temperament and embrace personalities capable of leading a restorationist movement.

Again, a willingness to question authority and force more serious changes on our institutions can be a good thing. But simply declaring a preference across the board for upending authority and institutions, without thinking through what replaces them, is the temperament of Robespierre.

The Tea Party broke open the old, cautious Republican Party in 2010. Energetic activists far more interested in radical restoration than in conservative incrementalism began to come forward. In 2015, Donald Trump—a man no one has ever accused of prudence—seized the mantle that had seemed destined for the tonally conservative Jeb Bush. This brash, flamboyant, celebrity businessman from Queens brought a left-wing personality style to right-wing politics. “Make America Great Again!” screams of radical action, not incremental change. That novel combination earned Trump far more policy successes and far more vitriol than any recent predecessor. Trump turned counterrevolutionary restorationism into a true force on the right, in uneasy partnership with prudent conservatism.

At least Abramson acknowledges that Trump had to work in partnership with traditional conservatives to get anything done. But he ignores a lot of history here — how the Tea Party was a successor to the previous waves of 1980 and 1994, or how the Tea Party’s failure led to Trump’s rise. Also, the Tea Party presidential candidates who long outlasted Jeb are shuffled offstage. But what were Trump’s policy successes? Many of them were either traditional conservatism (judges, tax cuts), bolder variations on it (Remain in Mexico, moving the embassy to Jerusalem), or reactions to emergencies (Operation Warp Speed). Very little “radical action” was undertaken by Trump with any degree of success.

Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis, Rand Paul, and Jim Jordan may be less extreme personalities than Donald Trump, but they share his willingness to reject corrupt authority, challenge prevailing narratives, and promote strategic noncompliance. If Trump can forge this younger generation into a sustainable restorationist movement, he will emerge as one of the most consequential figures in American history. If not, he will be remembered as a controversial speedbump on America’s glidepath into wokeness.

What if the next successful movement is not personally led by Trump? This is not considered. In fact, there is an entirely reasonable case to be made that Trump’s disruptive personality was necessary to shake things up and that taking his movement to the next level requires handing over power to somebody else with less baggage and more savvy.

What irks me about so much of this species of writing, which seems ubiquitous on the MAGA right, is its gassy generality. That is not how any form of the Right can hope to prosper going forward. As I have written before, Ronald Reagan won so much and changed so much not by declaring slogans but by making concrete and specific arguments and proposals. That is also a good part of what I like about DeSantis. In a way, columns like this one are congealing into their own stale consensus, in which the rhetoric of 2016 is repeated long after it has lost its freshness. Conservatism can and should be defined both by prudence and by a flexibility to adapt to opportunities. Learning the lessons of the past should be part of every conservative’s tool kit, but we do so best by applying old lessons, not just recycling old slogans.

Abraham Lincoln — along with Reagan, one of my two great Republican role models for how to approach political communication, political coalitions, political principle, and political opportunity — spent the bulk of the 1850s building a case against slavery that was grounded in conservatism (Rick Brookhiser’s book Founder’s Son is a great distillation of how Lincoln did this). The slave power was on the march and corrupting our institutions; Lincoln called back to the Founders and proposed, with due modesty, simply to restrain the growth of slavery. That proved a successful political tactic, which painted Lincoln as reasonable enough to win the presidency in 1860. It was his adversaries’ extreme reaction that created the opportunity for Lincoln to push further and eventually free many slaves through the presidential war power, then persuade the nation to permanently ban slavery in the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln never abandoned his preference for institutions and incremental change; he kept his cool and maneuvered his enemies into being the ones who created the political conditions in which more dramatic rollbacks of the status quo were possible. And when the opportunity presented itself, he pounced, and brought his congressional majorities, state governments, and the American people with him.

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If we want to make big changes going forward, it will take more than attitude and bluster.

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