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Reagan is not the answer to Republican woes

In response to Daniel Johnson’s March feature, Henry George argues that a return to Reaganism is not the future of American conservatism

It is perhaps less strange than one might think to be British but to write about American conservatism, given America’s cultural hegemony. What happens in the imperial metropolis affects us in the provinces. In light of this, I believe that Daniel Johnson’s recent feature in The Critic – arguing that the Republican party needs to recapture Reaganism in order to restore its moral character and electoral hopes – is profoundly mistaken. Reaganism is the vestige of a society and its ways that no longer exist. Reagan is the past, not the future of American conservatism.

Mr Johnson begins with the attack on the Capitol by hundreds of riled-up Trump supporters on 6 January 2021. He is right that this was a day of infamy. However, his comparison to Pearl Harbour replicates a threat inflation that plays into the same rhetoric which argues America faces a domestic terror threat on the level of 9/11. The solution to this, argue the same old failed faces of security agencies, is to launch a domestic War on Terror. Never mind the disastrous results of the last one, and never mind the conflation of all Trump supporters or dissidents from ruling orthodoxy with white supremacists.

Just as much as the Jihadists, Bush’s foreign policy assumed the world’s longing to be remade in America’s image

Related to this, Mr Johnson then goes on to argue that George W. Bush embodied the American pursuit of freedom for all. He writes, “The presidency of George W. Bush began with … 11 September 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 … supported by Tony Blair.” The idea that the conduct of this open-ended conflict was wise in anyway is too much to take, what with Iraq in turmoil, Afghanistan a wasteland of anarchic tribal warfare, and Salafi-Jihadism still a deadly international force, even after the fall of the ISIS Caliphate following its rise and reign of barbarity in the ruins of Bush’s war.

Mr Johnson praises Bush’s second inaugural address as “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.” As Bush went on to say, “’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.’” In fact, these values are as far from conservative as one can get. They do not represent right-wing values of prudence, restraint, realism or balance of interests under the reality of anarchic power.

Instead, Bush embodied the fact that American foreign policy under the neoconservative worldview was the millenarian, universalist mirror image of the Jihadists he opposed. Both shared a global vision of the highest good applied to all whether they liked it or not. One based in liberty, progress and reason, the other in piety, hierarchy and submission to a higher power. Just as much as the Jihadists, Bush’s foreign policy assumed the world’s longing to be remade in America’s image.

Mr Johnson’s vision is a license for homogenisation by force

It was for this reason that the Swedish-American philosopher Claes Ryn dubbed the Bush government the new Jacobins. As Ryn argues, this form of millenarian internationalism takes no account of the diversity of civilisations, and their search for the highest ethical and moral good that reveals their unity. The flattening universalism that Mr Johnson claims as the truly conservative vision rooted in a Judeo-Christian legacy, is neither truly Jewish nor Christian. Both faiths and their moral traditions affirm and celebrate universality reached through particularity. Mr Johnson’s vision is a license for homogenisation by force. Edmund Burke called this an “armed doctrine”.

Mr Johnson is correct when he describes Trump as a visceral reaction against left-wing cultural overreach, and in describing Trump as a moral void, who achieved virtually nothing of his agenda once in office. Mr Johnson is also right to say that the obituarists of American conservatism will be wrong in burying American conservatism. But he is wrong in his reasoning when he argues that “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 … both will be needed in the future if conservatives are to recover.”

Mr Johnson seemingly ignores the fact that Trump arose out the conditions created by the neoconservatives abroad and the classical liberals at home. The disastrous wars and the pandering to China; the ruinous trade deals and the mass immigration; the increase of inequality to Latin American levels, the deaths of despair in a landscape scoured of hope for a normal life: all of these are the legacy of an American right in hoc to the ideals Mr Johnson lauds.

Both these ideologies serve as cover for the real power centres in the managerial state, made up of what Michael Lind calls the Overclass and Joel Kotkin calls the Oligarchy and Clerisy: a combination of corporate bureaucrats and government administrators mediated by their cultural and academic enforcers, the top 5-10 per cent of the population. This managerial class in government and business acts in concert to entrench its own power, and to enforce the latest iteration of the managerial worldview, a form of extreme identitarian egalitarianism Wesley Yang calls the Successor Ideology. This is partly what drove Trump’s vote tally to the second highest in American history, among an increasingly working-class and diverse base, meaning he missed the presidency by 66,000 votes across three states.

It’s time the American right let the dead ideas of a dead past rest

These voters have no interest whatsoever in neoconservatism and its democratic crusades, or classical liberalism and its worship of the maximisation of autonomy through the market. As Lind shows through data from pollster Lee Drutman, 40.3 per cent of American voters are what he calls “populist”: culturally conservative but economically centre-left. The neoliberal and libertarian conservatives that constitute the “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” worldview amount to 6.2 per cent of voters. As Lind writes, “The business Republicans, whose preferences Republican politicians promote, on average make $69,711 a year, around $30,000 more than the Republican populists, whose preferences most Republican politicians ignore.” A couple of recent examples: Florida was a Trump landslide, and also voted for a $15 minimum wage. Meanwhile, 65 per cent of conservative voters support proposals for maternity allowance.

The economic conservatism allied to social liberalism that Mr Johnson desires is irrelevant. The increasingly diverse, working class Republican base didn’t vote for the Republican party led by Trump because they love free trade, foreign wars, mass immigration and the hegemonic woke cultural juggernaut that the right fails to oppose. As Musa al-Charbi wrote, both white and non-white Trump voters want lower immigration, law and order increased economic security, fewer foreign adventures, trade that benefits American workers. They want economic and cultural stability that enables families to form in safe communities stable enough for a normal life, with the possibility of a legacy to the future. Trump would’ve won if he hadn’t governed like a neoliberal Republican who was mean online, having used the managerial state to implement his populist promises.

Mr Johnson ends by calling American conservatives to reclaim their role as avatars of freedom, conflating defending democracy at home and abroad. One is left asking: freedom for what? Freedom for massive tax cuts? Corporate monopoly malfeasance covered for, and enabled by, woke hegemony at the economic and political commanding heights? Reaganism and its pathologies begat Trumpism and its pathologies. Maybe in order to resurrect a conservatism that has a chance of resisting the managerial state and implementing a vision rooted in the common good of the common man and woman, it’s time the American right let the dead ideas of a dead past rest.

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