Resurrect Reagan

In the wake of Trump, US conservatives must regain the moral high ground

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date that will live in infamy…” So begins Franklin Roosevelt’s speech after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 80 years ago. Twenty years ago came a second such date: the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington of September 11, 2001. This year, a third was added: 6 January, 2021.The storming of the Capitol differs from the other two, in that the blow was dealt, not by foreign foes, but by enemies within.

Yet the tragic fact that those who invaded the temple of democracy believed that they had rallied to “save America” made it all the more of an assault on America itself. True: thousands died at Pearl Harbor and on 9/11; only five died on Capitol Hill. But the magnitude of the crime is not measured solely by its cost in human life. That day, democracy in America was trampled underfoot. This, too, was a date that will live in infamy — all the more so as the man who bore primary responsibility was the President of the United States himself.

When, two weeks after the sack of the Capitol, Donald Trump finally made his departure from the White House, it wasn’t merely his customary gracelessness that has left Americans of a conservative disposition with long faces and sleepless nights. The defeat of the Republicans last November looks like much more than a reverse of 2016. They were trounced, leaving Democrats in control of both Houses of Congress as well as the presidency. Republicans have a mountain to climb to make a comeback in 2024. 

Somehow, American conservatives have to regain that moral high ground

Still, they have done it before. In 1976, Gerald Ford was swept out of office after one abbreviated term by dismay over Vietnam, Watergate and the oil crisis. The Southern Democrat Jimmy Carter, a liberal populist, looked set for eight years, while the Republicans licked their wounds and wondered what would come next.

What came next was Ronald Reagan. At the time he was denounced as an extremist in terms hardly less extravagant than those now calling for Trump to be strung up by his elongated necktie — and yet four years later Reagan entered the White House. That is a transformation devoutly to be wished in these days of dejection and despair on the American centre-right. John Bolton — one of the few survivors of the Trump Administration to emerge from the wreckage with his reputation intact — has argued eloquently that the Republicans could do a great deal worse than to return to Reagan’s sunny message of optimism and sound conservative principles, outlined in his farewell address from the Oval Office in 1989. 

By then dismissed by commentators as well into his anecdotage, the president defiantly told one of his stories: “A small story about a big ship, and a refugee and a sailor. It was back in the early Eighties, at the height of the boat people, and the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat — and crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship, and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up and called out to him. He yelled, ‘Hello, American sailor — hello, Freedom Man.’”

Somehow, American conservatives have to regain that moral high ground, defending and articulating the case for liberty under the law. After Reagan came George H.R. Bush: an old-school liberal Republican who presided over victory in the Cold War and the first Gulf War but was undone by the peace. A recession, a broken promise on taxes and the voters’ desire for a change catapulted Bill Clinton into office.

The Clinton years witnessed the first populist insurgencies against the Republican establishment. In 1993, the conservative Californian politician Celeste Greig popularised the slogan “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) in her campaign against Richard Riordan, the centrist mayor of Los Angeles. It was weaponised by Newt Gingrich, maverick Speaker of the House of Representatives who led the Republicans to victory in the 1994 midterm elections. For the first time in four decades, the Grand Old Party (GOP) got its act together and swept the board, gaining majorities in both House and Senate.

But this “Republican Revolution” proved to be short-lived. The hopes of “movement conservatives” foundered in part on the resilience of the moderate wing of the party, which was able to ensure that one of its own, Senator Bob Dole, gained the nomination in 1996, followed by the scion of a notably pragmatic presidential dynasty, George W. Bush, in 2000.

What really stopped the conservatives’ bandwagon in its tracks, however, was the failure of their strategy of making the personal life of the president into the defining political issue of the 1990s. Though Clinton was more devious than any president since Nixon and more promiscuous than any since John F. Kennedy, this most centrist of Democrats was demonised by Republicans to such an exaggerated extent that a century-old taboo was broken by his impeachment. This quasi-judicial process was inherited by the American colonies from medieval parliamentary practice but preserved by the US Constitution long after it had fallen into disuse in England. Predictably enough, given the requirement of a two-thirds majority in the Senate, the attempt to circumvent ordinary democratic procedures by extraordinary and archaic means was a failure; but it set a precedent that returned two decades later with a vengeance, when Trump became the first president to be impeached twice.

The presidency of George W. Bush began with the Islamist onslaught of September 11, 2001, and was dominated by the “War on Terror”. It gave a sense of purpose to Bush, who was ably if not always wisely piloted through the maelstrom by his Vice President, Dick Cheney, and eloquently supported by his British ally, Tony Blair. Theirs was unquestionably a noble cause. The president’s second inaugural address is a classic statement of what had become and ought to have remained Republican values. Bush used the words “liberty”, “free” and “freedom” no fewer than 49 times. “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate aim of ending tyranny in our world.”

If Democrats became deranged under Bush, and Republicans under Obama, both seemed to lose all proportion with Trump

Bush was much criticised for using words such as “crusade” and “clash of civilisations” to describe his campaigns. But the freedoms for which the Americans and British fought were essentially those of the Western civilisation that had emerged from its biblical and classical origins to become universal. And just as in the Cold War the defence of the West had become the mission of America, so it was again in the War on Terror. 

Yet American victories in these wars have proved to be, if not pyrrhic, then at any rate expensive and inconclusive. And American conservatives have seemingly tired of the crusade for freedom. The Bush era was a mixed blessing for conservative Republicans, not least because it was followed by the most aggressively progressive administration of the postwar era, that of Barack Obama. Much of what has gone awry in the Republican camp during the Trump era can be traced back to the trauma of Obama.

The raucous revolt of the Tea Party was one expression of that trauma; most conservatives retreated into retrenchment, reaction and rage. It did not help that John McCain and Mitt Romney, the challengers in 2008 and 2012 respectively, were on the liberal wing of the party. Conservatives felt disenfranchised under a Democratic administration that re-created the radical chic of FDR and JFK, but with none of their undeniable achievements in domestic or foreign policy. 

And then came Trump. If Democrats had become increasingly deranged under Bush, and Republicans at times under Obama, with the advent of Trump both seemed to lose all sense of proportion. The lunatics had finally taken over the asylum. Just as the economy finally began to deliver better living standards for ordinary Americans, the world was turned upside down. Trump’s last year in office began with pandemic, lurched into moral panic and ended in pandemonium. As the nation looked aghast at the extent of its own polarisation and racially charged violence spilled onto the streets, the president’s utterances and behaviour, hitherto bizarre, began to sound sinister. 

Conservatives have been mugged by unreality and divided by a demagogue

The party that purported to represent law and order, faith and family, prosperity and property suddenly saw life and liberty in jeopardy under a leader who, instead of lowering the temperature, exulted in stoking the flames. The realisation dawned on cooler heads that their Grand Old Party was now held hostage by diehard fanatics who owed allegiance, not to the republic, but to the narcissistic, paranoid, megalomaniac leader of a cult.

Having been confronted with the visceral truth at Trump’s impeachment trial of how close senior statesmen like Mike Pence and Mitt Romney came to being lynched, some Republican senators, even those like their leader Mitch McConnell who saw the impeachment of an ex-president as unconstitutional, are rightly queasy about absolving Trump of responsibility: for his hysteria-inducing segue from “Make America Great Again” to “Save America”; for his “call to arms” to men who were indeed armed and ready to “fight like hell” to “stop the steal”; for goading the mob that had marched on Congress with tweets even as it rampaged through their chambers, corridors and offices. Trump may have his Götterdämmerung, but sober senators had no urge to perish with him.

It is easy to forget just how extraordinary the events of 6 January actually were. American society still has its trigger-happy cops and gangsters, but the institutions of freedom, democracy and the law are revered and have almost always been spared violence. Writing a preface to the twelfth edition of his Democracy in America in the revolutionary year 1848, Alexis de Tocqueville paid tribute to the rule of law across the Atlantic: “While all the nations of Europe were devastated by war or torn by civil discord, only the American people in the entire civilised world remained at peace. Almost the whole of Europe was turned upside down by revolutions; America did not have even a single riot . . .” Tocqueville did not foresee the impending Civil War; apart from that, his insight has held true for a century and a half. Only now, on 6 January, has a precedent been set for political violence of the most dangerous kind: a dagger aimed at the heart of the Republic, wielded by Republicans. 

There remain two powerful schools of thought on the centre-right: the neoconservatives and the classical liberals

There is, as conservatives are discovering no less than other Americans, life after Trump. They have been there before. In the aftermath of Bush, the liberal commentator Sam Tanenhaus published a crepuscular bestseller in 2008 entitled The Death of Conservatism. In 2012, perhaps hoping that Romney would defeat Obama, R. Emmett (“Bob”) Tyrrell fired off a trenchant counterblast, The Death of Liberalism. As Trump’s star neared its zenith in 2018, the Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony wowed American conservatives with The Virtue of Nationalism. Now the cycle may begin again and we may expect a spate of books writing the obituary of American conservatism.

They will all be wrong, because there remain two powerful schools of thought on the centre-right: the neoconservatives and the classical liberals. The former has a focus on the defence of democracy, the latter on the preservation of liberty. Trump was interested in neither, but both will be needed in the future if conservatives are to recover from the débacle he has visited upon their cause. Conservatives have been mugged by unreality and divided by a demagogue. What unites them is Reagan.

Republicans should embrace a new role: as champions of freedom against a Biden administration that may well prove to be as censorious as Trump’s was incendiary. American conservatives have been confronted with the chilling consequences of conformism on their own wilder fringes. Perhaps this will better equip them to resist the conformism of “woke culture”. Having seen how precarious democracy is even in its homeland, perhaps they will once again have the courage to defend it there — and to the ends of the earth.

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