Elite movement conservatives still do not understand what the 2016 election means for conservatism. Many have not evinced even the slightest bit of introspection or curiosity about whether conservatism, in light of its manifest failures, can—or even should—continue on as it’s currently constituted. The very hint that something—anything—needs to change sends waves of paroxysms through the halls of Conservatism, Inc. Even fellow travelers who do not consistently tout the party line are suspect, and their failures, real or perceived, to do so are duly noted.
The preferred argument of the members of Conservatism, Inc. is that Trump voters have given up on virtue and have made a Faustian bargain that will “cost them their souls.” Given what they view as the steep price to be paid for giving Trump any credit, conservatives like this prefer to judge Trump by their endless checklists—checking off boxes as news comes forth from the White House. A conservative constitutionalist nominated to be on the Supreme Court? Check. A cabinet even more conservative than Reagan’s? Check. They are encouraged by Trump’s actions that seem “conservative” and cast disapproval on those—such as what they term his “protectionism”—that fly in the face of their sensibilities.
Conservatives thus measure all political phenomena by how closely they hew to what are dogmatically considered the immutable core tenets of conservatism. Conservatism truly is, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, their “central idea from which all its minor thoughts radiate.”
Thinking in Slogans and Clichés
Being so highly attuned to all of the things they call “conservative,” movement conservatives often take special note of anyone who does not mouth the catechisms of orthodox conservatism. Seconds after Steve Bannon, the chief strategist to President Trump, spoke at CPAC, John Podhoretz tweeted out the following:
please note the word “conservative” did not pass his lips https://t.co/Y8yeHVGQKp
— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) February 23, 2017
Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, showed no curiosity about what Bannon said concerning nationalism (or patriotism, take your pick) or the rise of a globalist class who cares more about securing the good of hedge fund managers in Dubai than out-of-work coal miners in West Virginia. Podhoretz offered no acknowledgment of Bannon’s argument that we must “deconstruct the administrative state” for the people to reclaim their sovereignty and rule again in their own interests.
Instead, Bannon’s unforgivable sin was that he did not once utter the word “conservative.” Podhoretz’s singular focus on needing to hear repetitions of the slogans and clichés that make up much of modern conservative rhetoric is revealing. He gives words a power akin to when God spoke the world into existence as recounted in the first chapter of Genesis. Even Protagoras would have blushed.
But words apart from political action are just that: mere words.