March 17, 2024

It’s not just in America, but burgeoning all over Europe. And it’s not your father’s “conservatism,” but transmogrified into something unrecognizably darker.

Yet many followers don’t seem bothered by the switcheroo. For them it’s more tribal than ideological. Stick with the “conservative” tribe, no matter where it’s going.

Take Russia. For the better part of a century, conservatives saw Communist, totalitarian Russia as the antithesis of the small government individualist freedom they stood for, and threatening our national security besides. Russia is no longer “communist” but if anything worse. Actually even more totalitarian, repressive, and more actively a military threat.

Yet today’s right sees Putin as no enemy, or even somehow an ally. Casting him as a defender of their traditionalist Christian values. Epitomized by Tucker Carlson’s asinine Putin interview and supermarket documentary about how wonderful and advanced Russia is. Overlooking how impoverished the average Russian actually is — and the brutal repression which, if needed to sustain the “traditional values” these fools babble about, might suggest those values are awry.

Meantime it’s really Trump calling this tune — as if he’s moved by any values at all. Taught by his dad that people are either killers or patsies, and seeing Putin as the ultimate killer. Trump’s role model.

So Putin’s Ukraine atrocity shows his badassness, and to them that’s a good thing. “Strength” bedazzles these people. Likewise it’s Trump’s badassness that, deep down, appeals to his cultists. So they do whatever he says. That’s why they’re blocking Ukraine aid in Congress.

Nationalism is a factor here too — the “America First” trope. The idea that we should stick to our own knitting rather than foreign involvements. As if we’re too poor and weak to do both. (So much for American “strength.”) Many on the right even spout Putin’s nonsense blaming the West for somehow provoking his Ukraine invasion. And never mind that America has a huge self-interest in deterring such violent aggression. But a truculent chest-thumping nationalism is characteristic of these populist anti-globalist movements everywhere.

My old conservatism favored small government to generally keep its nose out of people’s business, maximizing our freedom. Today’s right does hate what it calls “the administrative state,” seen as a vehicle of their left-wing elite globalist bêtes noires. Yet contradictorily, while still fetishizing the word “freedom,” they also want big strong government to enforce their own will on people. Notably, for example, controlling women by limiting their access to pregnancy medical care. How is that “conservative?”

What they really hate is classical liberalism, the humanist philosophy arising out of the Enlightenment, freeing people from the shackles of traditionalist society (and religion), enabling them to better flourish. That’s what “liberal” means outside America, and it’s become a dirty word everywhere, with the left too banging on against “neo-liberalism.” This is why Hungary’s authoritarian poster boy Viktor Orban, a darling of the populist right, proudly speaks of his oxymoronic “illiberal democracy.” (As undemocratic as he can make it.)

Immigration is another right-wing populist bête noir. Thus the “replacement theory” nonsense — positing some conspiracy to swap out regular people for migrants supposedly inferior and more politically pliable. In fact migrants tend to be better people. But they’re from different tribes — reason enough to demonize them. (Plain old racism operates too.)

Immigrants are seen as corrupting and degrading the tribal home (“poisoning our blood”), changing its comfortable familiar parameters. Part of a broad narrative of declinism. Thus Trump’s “American carnage” and “Only I can fix it.”

Again the lure of the strongman. People who feel disempowered see the strongman as compensating for their own sense of weakness. As if they can somehow absorb some of his strength. As if all could be fixed by one person of great wisdom and capability. As if Trump had those attributes. And as if removing democratic accountability serves people better.

The old and familiar, for most of these populists, importantly includes Christian religion. Thus the insistence that America was founded as a “Christian nation.” In fact our founders hated the religious oppressiveness they knew all too well, and aimed to banish it.

Our Supreme Court is undoing their work; applying the legal doctrine, “Christianity always wins.” Going so far in one recent case to literally make up untrue facts to achieve that result (the one where a football coach forced students to pray).

The Economist recently editorialized about the threat posed by this movement of populist “national conservatism.” Cover title: The Right Goes Gaga. But they recognized underlying real grievances: people “see illegal migration as a source of disorder and a drain on the public purse. They worry that their children will grow up to be poorer than they are. They are anxious about losing their jobs to new technology. They believe that institutions such as universities and the press have been captured by hostile, illiberal, left-leaning elites. They see the globalists who have thrived in recent decades as members of a self-serving, arrogant caste.”

The Economist is itself a standard-bearer for classical liberalism, set against both today’s left and right. Both of which need to be opposed, and countered with sensible policies. But squeezed between the other two, true liberalism hasn’t got much traction.

Impeding amelioration of all those mentioned grievances. Much of the West, and America in particular, has fallen into a scleroticized inertia when it comes to any sort of reform or societal change. The inability to deal with immigration policy is one example. Another is the chronic failure to overcome morasses of restrictions stopping desperately needed expansion of housing. Britain suffers this too. (A big rail upgrade project there is such a fiasco that it may actually slow down trains.) A big reason for it all is the intensification of political antagonisms, in what’s been called a “vetocracy” — one segment of society able to block action by others.

Of course the censorious holier-than-thou totalitarian woke left is bad too. But not remotely so threatening, simply because it’s vastly smaller. Meantime the threat from the right might be even bigger were it not tied to a grotesquely depraved con man. However legitimate their grievances might otherwise be, this is no way to help them. Imagine the movement with a leader more palatable to sensible people. Trump’s awfulness may be our salvation.

However — The Daily Show’s Jordan Klepper asked some Republican Nikki Haley supporters who they’d vote for between Trump and Biden. All, former Trump voters, said they were done with him, calling him a bad man, unfit to be president, a threat to democracy and global security. But, agonizing, all but one would still vote for him over Biden. Political insanity is the new pandemic.