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President Trump addresses U.S. military personnel in Japan, November 5, 2017 (Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
(Photo credit: Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

Disruptive Politics in the Trump Era: Yuval Levin or Victor Davis Hanson?

John Fonte

The crucial question for the American Right today, as it has been for at least 60 years, is: What is the nature of its confrontation with modern liberalism?

Is it a policy argument over how to achieve the common goals of liberal democracy? Are we working to expand liberty, equality, and prosperity for all citizens? Do we share the same principles with American liberals but differ with them over policy and how best to implement those principles? Is it really, as Yuval Levin has said, “a coherent debate between left and right forms of liberalism”?

Or is this conflict a much deeper existential struggle over the very nature of the American “regime” itself—its principles, values, institutions, mores, culture, education, citizenship, and “way of life”? Is it, as Victor Davis Hanson has put it, that we are in a “larger existential war for the soul of America”?

I would argue that Hanson is essentially correct: We are in the middle of a “regime” struggle.

Put another way: We are in an argument over the meaning of “the American way of life,” because the weight of opinion on the progressive Left rejects the classic constitutionally based American regime.

Instead, progressives envision a new way of governing in both politics and culture based on an individual’s race, ethnicity, and gender rather than on our common American citizenship.

Progressives don’t really deny this. Recall President Barack Obama, who in 2008 famously (or infamously) announced his administration would be “fundamentally transforming America.” America, as it actually existed at the time, was something Obama viewed as deeply problematic—permeated with “institutional” racism and sexism.

There can be no doubt that Obama understands the ongoing progressive-liberal campaign against conservatives and traditional America as a “regime struggle” (“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion” and “the arc of history” is trending their way). But somehow, many Americans still want to resist or deny the implications of these words.

The Foundations of Modern Conservatism

Sixty years earlier and across the political spectrum, the founding fathers of modern American conservatism in the mid-1950s at National Review also envisioned, not the give-and-take of bread and butter politics, but an existential conflict over the regime, i.e., over the “American way of life.”

In the premier issue of National Review, William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote that liberals “run just about everything….Radical conservatives in this country [among whose numbers he included himself and the NR editors]…when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by the Liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those on the well-fed Right.”

This sounds familiar.

In response to the “profound crisis of our era” the new magazine would “defend the organic moral order” and stand “athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’” These are not exactly examples of political rhetoric as usual, certainly not in 1955.

One year later, National Review senior editor Frank Meyer charged that “contemporary Liberalism” regarded “all inherited value—theological, philosophical, political—as without intrinsic virtue or authority” and, therefore declared, “Liberals are unfit for the leadership of a free society.”

In those early days at National Review, the adversary was modern Liberalism itself, often spelled with a capital L. At the same time, of course, classical liberalism was part of what was labeled conservative “fusionism” alongside cultural traditionalism and militant anti-Communism.

Willmoore Kendall, another National Review senior editor and Buckley’s mentor at Yale,, declared: “the question ‘Is Liberalism a revolution?’ can have only one answer. Since it seeks a change of regime, the replacement of one regime by another, of a different type altogether, it is, quite simply, revolutionary.” Kendall further asked, “Is the destiny of America the Liberal Revolution or is it the destiny envisaged for it by the Founders of the Republic? Just that.”

James Burnham, National Review’s foreign policy guru and Buckley’s closest advisor, posited that liberal ideology thoroughly undermined not only the American regime, but the entirety of Western civilization itself. He wrote in Suicide of the West, “Liberalism permits Western Civilization to be reconciled to dissolution.” The “principal function of modern liberalism,” Burnham tell us, is to facilitate the suicide of Western civilization. Moreover, this suicide would be rationalized “by the light of the principles of liberalism not as a final defeat, but as a transition to a new and higher order in which Mankind as a whole joins a universal civilization, that has risen above the parochial distinctions, divisions, and discriminations of the past.”

Administrative State and the Cultural Leviathan

In the second decade of the 21st century, the twin pillars of the ongoing progressive-liberal revolution to fundamentally transform the American “regime” are the administrative state and the cultural leviathan. In recent years the foremost observers of “regime conflict” are associated with the “West Coast Straussians,” students of Harry V. Jaffa, and centered in or around the Claremont Review of Books.

The leading theorist of the administrative state, Claremont Institute scholar John Marini, has traced the successful progressive-Left advance through the political and cultural institutions of American life. In the political arena, a powerful administrative state often exercises legislative, executive, and judicial powers in what can only be described as an illegitimate exercise or “post-constitutional” manner. Liberal-dominated regulatory agencies and politicized courts make crucial policy (rather than judicial) decisions while an elected Congress (under both Republican and Democrat control) has lacked the will and confidence to confront these post-Constitutional usurpers. Indeed, at times, they have encouraged it.

In the cultural sphere, Marini notes, we have witnessed a “new kind of civil religion” in which Americans are judged not as equal citizens “but by the moral standing established by their group identity.” Under the all-consuming concept of “diversity,” mainstream liberalism enforces ethnic and gender group rights and political correctness in the major institutions of civil society that the progressives have captured. Liberals under the banner of “diversity” are establishing what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called “ideological-cultural hegemony” in the moral-intellectual realm of society, the sector that Tocqueville called “mores.”

Today the facts on the ground tell us that the progressive Left dominates major institutions of American life: the universities, the mainstream media, the mainline churches, the entertainment industry, and the human resources departments of the Fortune 500. Thus, Harvard, Yale, CNN, the Episcopal Church, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley (all private sector institutions of the often vaunted civil society) are part of a nexus that I will call the “cultural leviathan,” which is allied to the administrative state.

Let us take an empirical look at this cultural leviathan. In October 2016 Econ Journal Watch published a studyof faculty voting registration at forty leading American colleges which revealed an overall Democrat preference over Republicans by 11.5-to-1, among history professors the ratio was 33.5-to-1. In May 2015, the Crimson reported that between 2011 and 2014, (long before the political rise of Donald Trump) 96 percent of political contributions by Harvard professors in the Arts and Sciences were for Democrats. At Harvard Law School, 98 percent of political donations went to Democrats. The Center for Responsive Politics revealed that in 2012 Barack Obama crushed Mitt Romney in Hollywood celebrity fundraising 9-to-1.

In October 2016, Five Thirty Eight noted that, except for Peter Thiel, “nearly all of Silicon Valley’s political dollars are going for Hillary Clinton.” In the fall of 2016, the liberal Center for Public Integrity published a report entitled “Journalists shower Hillary Clinton with campaign cash” revealing that around 96 percent of the political contributions of media professionals went to Clinton.

Not surprisingly then, in May 2017, researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that 93 percent of coverage of President Trump’s first 100 days from CNN and NBC was negative. The New York Times was 87 percent negative, with the Washington Post 83 percent negative, and the Wall Street Journal’s news section 70 percent negative.

Enforcing the Opinion Corridor

The rarely stated, but clear function of the cultural leviathan is to enforce the boundaries of the Overton window, or what the Swedes call the “opinion corridor.” In other words: what is acceptable public discourse, and what isn’t; what is tolerable and intolerable, within the context of political correctness, with the goal of promoting the overarching “diversity” project.

Year after year, the opinion corridor narrows. Larry Summers was forced out as president of Harvard University for angering the forces of the diversity project on campus. Brendan Eich, a major high-tech pioneer and innovator, resigned under pressure as CEO of Mozilla, after it was disclosed that he contributed $1,000 to the pro-traditional marriage campaign in California. James Damore, an engineer at Google, was fired by the Silicon Valley giant after he wrote a reasoned, well documented memo challenging some of the major assumptions of gender and ethnic group preferences. The vestry of Christ Church(Episcopal) in Alexandria, Virginia announced that after 147 years they would remove memorial plaques of their most famous parishioners George Washington and Robert E. Lee. The church vestry told the congregants that a plaque that simply states, “in memory of George Washington”—“make[s] some in our presence feel unsafe.”

I gave three examples (but could have presented 300) of efforts to enforce and/or manipulate the opinion corridor or the Overton window. Every day our history and our culture are under assault.

The California NAACP denounces the National Anthem as “racist,” and another speaker is shouted down on our nation’s campuses. Clearly, George Washington and the national anthem are de-legitimized and denigrated by the cultural leviathan, because America’s past and America’s common culture must be repainted in negative colors, if the progressive future is to be achieved. Decades ago, George Orwell famously reminded us in Nineteen Eighty-Four that “he who controls the past, controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

What Should Be Conserved?

The relentless advance of the administrative state and the cultural leviathan in both the public and private sectors presents a classic historical dilemma for those who call themselves “conservatives.” What should be “conserved” when the major institutions of civil society are anti-conservative? Do conservatives focus on recovering redeemable sectors of the status quo or is a more revolutionary conservatism required? Is it even accurate to call what is needed here “conservatism” or does that terminology only add to our confusion? In America how do “conservatives” restore the Constitution and our culture when doing so would seem to involve tearing down now long established institutions?

In the Spring issue of Modern Age, Yuval Levin asks whether conservatives “won or lost” in the 2016 election and concludes it “might be wise to sustain and cultivate such uncertainty as a way of understanding ourselves and our role in the Trump era.”

Levin describes Trump’s winning political coalition as a “coalition of the alienated” that fostered “disruption.” Trump gave “voice to a growing (and in key respects surely justified) alienation from dominant streams of the culture, economy, and politics in America.” Because of this alienation from the elites running major American institutions, Levin contends, many on the Right “welcome[d] the potential for disruption that [Trump] introduced.”

The concept of alienation is at the center of his essay. “Alienation can sometimes make for a powerful organizing principle for an electoral coalition,” Levin declares. “But it does not make for a natural organizing principle for a governing coalition.” He worries that “the upsurge of this alienation on the right is even more of a challenge to conservatism in particular, because alienation cannot help but make the right less conservative.”

“Conservatives,” Levin notes “incline to be heavily invested in society and its institutions” and even when these institutions are “dominated by the left . . . conservatives by instinct and reflection tend to argue for reclamation and recovery—for building spaces within these institutions more than for rejection and contempt for them.”

At several points, Levin poses a stark contrast between “disruption” and “transformation” (meaning cultural renewal). The former is negative, the latter is positive. Conservatives, he says, should not be “mistaking disruption for transformation.” Finally Levin emphasizes that conservatives should not focus on “programmatic policy objectives, but rather the preconditions for a healthier politics.” Specifically, this means, “A constructive conservative politics in the Trump years must therefore be first and foremost a politics of constitutional restoration.”

Few conservatives would disagree with Levin’s goal of a constitutional restoration. How best to achieve this through “disruption,” cultural “transmission” or some combination of the two is another question.

“We are called to enable a revival, not to mount a total revolution,” Levin says. Yet an important segment of conservative thought from 1950s National Review to today’s Claremont Review of Books envisions both as complementary, not contradictory, revolution (against progressive-liberalism) and revival (of American constitutionalism) or “disruption” and “transmission.”. Some form of disruptive activity (in politics, the academy, the media) against progressive hegemony is necessary at first in order to achieve the renewal that Levin and the rest of us seek.

Historically, no political reform movement of the Left or Right (civil rights, temperance, suffragist, abolitionist, conservative) has ever succeeded without a two pronged “bad cop-good cop” approach, without a radical wing and a mainstream wing working in tandem, at least implicitly, if not explicitly. The American Revolution itself is a classic example. Without the radicalism of Tom Paine and Samuel Adams the moderation of George Washington and John Adams would not likely have succeeded.

While some movement conservatives emphasize a conservative “disposition” others decade after decade have embraced the metaphor of “revolution” as in the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, and the Tea Party uprising of 2010. Lee Edwards of the Heritage Foundation labeled his history of modern American conservatism as “The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America.”

While Yuval Levin asks whether conservatives “won or lost” the 2016 election and suggests that we “cultivate such uncertainty”—progressive-liberals have no doubt that they lost the Presidential race and exhibit no ambiguity about what to do next.

As Victor Davis Hanson has written, “the election of President Donald J Trump…presented a roadblock to an on-going progressive revolution” and “unlike recent Republican presidential nominees,” (he specifically mentions McCain and Romney), Trump “was indifferent to the cultural and political restraints on conservative pushback.”

“Even more ominously,” for progressives, Hanson notes, “Trump found a seam” in the blue wall and “blew it apart,” actually carrying Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa, and winning the election.

The result, Hanson notes is that “We are witnessing a desperate putsch to remove Trump before he can do any more damage to the Obama project….The branches of this insidious coup d’etat are quite unlike anything our generation has ever witnessed.” (all italics added)

So, again, the question remains what should conservatives do in the current situation, in the middle of an all-out attempt by powerful elements in the administrative state-cultural leviathan axis to nullify the 2016 Presidential election?

Remain aloof, cultivate one’s own garden of the little platoons in quietist, and often, ironic fashion; talk mostly of civility and temperament; write carefully tailored “moral equivalence” essays faulting both Trump and his critics in equal measure on issues of the day, such as the NFL national anthem or historical statues controversies; work like some center-right commentators with liberals to form a new political alignment, a “New Center”—or go on the offensive against the progressive left and renew the fighting faith of the founders of modern conservatism and their spiritual heirs: Frank Meyer; Willmoore Kendall; Jim Burnham; Bill Buckley in the first decades of National Review; Harry Jaffa and his students; and Publius Decius Mus?

“Approved Conservatives” of the Past and Present

We should remember that it was not only the leadership of the John Birch Society and Ayn Rand who were “expelled” from the mainstream conservative movement in those early days, but also some faux New York Times style “new conservatives” including Clinton Rossiter and Peter Viereck who condemned the National Review circle for “thought-control nationalism” and described the magazine’s writers as “rootless, counterrevolutionary doctrinaires.”

Clinton Rossiter declared that America was “a progressive country with a Liberal tradition” and “a liberal [political] mind.” The goal of his conservatism was “to sober and strengthen the American liberal tradition, not destroy it.” Peter Viereck proclaimed conservatism as a “centrist philosophy” that was not intrinsically hostile to liberalism. He touted the liberal Democrat Adlai Stevenson and progressive Republican Senator Clifford Case as exemplars of a genuine American conservatism.

Needless to say, NR editors hit back. Frank Meyer mocked the “new conservatives” as unprincipled, focused mostly on “tone” and “mood,” and anxious to be received into “polite society.” He continued, “This is not a problem of tone nor attitude, not a difference between the conservative and the radical temperament; it is a difference of principle.” (italics in the original) In a similar vein, Willmoore Kendall wrote that Viereck and Rossiter explained “how you can be a Conservative and yet agree with Liberals on all not demonstrably unimportant.” In an interview Buckley told historian George Nash that the phrase “new conservative” was “a way in which liberals designated people they thought respectable.” It was a means, Buckley contended, by which liberals separated “approved” conservatives (Viereck, Rossiter) from National Review writers.

Today, history repeats itself, as neither tragedy nor farce (pace Marx), but in an eerily familiar manner. A gaggle of liberal “approved conservatives” essentially play the role that Rossiter and Viereck played sixty years ago. They parrot what National Review called the “Liberal propaganda Line,” whose “fons et origio,” Professor Kendall noted, was the New York Times.

These “approved conservatives” are permitted (actually, enthusiastically welcomed) to use the columns of the New York Times and the Washington Post for two purposes. First, in general, to support a type of conservatism centered on tone and temperament that does nothing to challenge and, on the contrary, everything to reinforce, progressive ideological-cultural hegemony among the chattering classes. However, like the original “approved conservatives,” the contemporary breed, pretends a conservative temperament while hyperventilating in the Times and Post about other conservatives (and, of course, the president.) Second, and most importantly, these writers help promote the foremost immediate goal of American Liberalism—the removal of Donald J. Trump from the Presidency of the United States.

On the contemporary conservative continuum Yuval Levin stands between the Never Trump “approved conservatives” and Trump-friendly right of center intellectuals at the Claremont Institute; among social conservatives; immigration hawks; defense specialists; and the editors and writers of American Greatness. Levin emphasizes Burkean gradualism with a genuine restrained style. Unlike, the hysterical, gratuitous, and sanctimonious language of Never Trump New York Times-Washington Post “approved conservatives” (Max Boot, Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin, and Bret Stephens come to mind), Levin’s critiques actually are sober, reasoned, and worth answering.

Are we in a crisis or not?

Besides his unease over the welcome of “disruption” in the Trump era by many on the American Right, Levin suggests the fear in 2016 of a Hillary Clinton presidency was overwrought. He downplays both the power and the animosity of the Progressive project (exercised by the cultural leviathan and the administrativestate) towards traditional America, noting that some conservatives assign “to Progressives much more malice (and competence) than is warranted and credits them with far more than they have actually achieved and it sells our society short.” Further, he argues that it is a mistake to believe that we are facing a unique crisis today, just as it was a mistake for conservatives in previous generations (in 1933 or 1955 or 1980) to believe that they faced a unique crisis.

The hope for conservatives, Levin tells us, is “generational.” The endurance of an unchanging human nature means it is possible to win the next generation, or at least thoughtful elements within it, to a sober conservatism. Levin, of course, is right to emphasize the centrality of winning the young for the revival and renewal of the American way of life. But this crucial task of promoting conservatism among both the young (who are often attracted to an insurgent mindset rather than a conservative disposition) and the not so young, has become more difficult for a variety of reasons.

One reason would be the changing demographics resulting from massive, continuous low-skilled immigration which is combined with an anti-assimilation “multicultural” approach to integrating newcomers into American life. Another reason would be the almost complete leftist conquest of American universities that occurred the past few decades as the patriotic Arthur Schlesinger-style liberals and the few remaining conservatives have retired or died out, replaced by tenured radicals.

What could be successful is a new form of “bad cop-good cop” disruptive-transformative conservativism. By “bad cop” I do not mean unsophisticated analysis, but a sharper, more polemical style (James Burnham’s Suicide of the West would be a case in point.) On immigration policy, for example, conservatives have moved after years on the defensive to an offensive strategy, including an array of what I will call “bad cop” discourse (a new emphasis on how liberal controlled “sanctuary” jurisdictions and lax diversity visa policies threaten American lives with reference to specific cases, e.g., Kate Steinle and Sayfullo (Sword of Allah) Saipov respectively, have helped change the shape of the immigration debate.

A combination of bad and good cop discourse has helped to dislodge modern liberalism from the moral high ground on the immigration question. The commanding heights of the debate are now contested space. Put in non-metaphorical terms, progressive-liberals and Republican “wets” who place their highest priority on securing amnesty for the so-called “dreamers” (many now in their thirties) are forced to deal with immigration hawk arguments on ending chain migration; implementing mandatory electronic verification identification for all employment in America; and abolishing the senseless “diversity visa lottery.”

Today Trump-friendly conservatives are openly and consciously seeking to dismantle the post-constitutional administrative state. In a powerful Wall Street Journal essay my Hudson colleague (and former AEI President and Reagan administration regulatory expert) Christopher DeMuth explains that the Trump administration with a phalanx of de-regulation stalwarts (Scott Gottlieb, Scott Pruitt, Ajit Pai, Ryan Zinke, Betsy DeVos, Elaine Chao, Neomi Rao) is in the process of making “the administrative state less stultifying and more constitutional.’” At the Federalist Society’s national convention, the White House counsel, Don McGahn called for preventing “the unconstitutional transfer of legislative authority to the administrative state.”

For a little over a century, the administrative state has expanded massively and exponentially as generation after generation of conservatives fought the growth of this unconstitutional “fourth branch of government.” Were those earlier conservatives mistaken (as Yuval Levin would have us believe) to think they were in some unique “crisis” in their own time? Were earlier conservatives overreacting to the power grabs of Woodrow Wilson and FDR in portraying their historical period as one of “crisis”? Was Ronald Reagan crying wolf in 1980 when he envisioned a “crisis” as he sought to overturn the malaise and stagnation of the 1970s? I think not.

What has happened is that the “regime” conflict which has been with us since the early 20th century progressive era has witnessed (particularly after the eight Obama years) the massive expansion of a powerful post-constitutional administrative state that is now simply become too big and too dangerous to ignore.

So what is the nature of modern progressive-liberalism and what should be the conservative response in the Trump era? Are we involved in politics as usual or a “regime” struggle? Levin says our political divisions are a family argument between two forms of liberalism: progressive liberalism and conservative liberalism. For the Trump era, he suggests a strategy of cautious ambiguity towards the administration, while focusing on the promotion of the “revival of intermediary institutions of society” and a recognition of twenty-first century public policy by “allowing solutions to rise from the bottom up.” Our conservative project, Levin says, “must ultimately be understood as a civic labor of love not a political fight to the death.”

Hanson proposes a very different response to the Progressive Project and the Trump administration. As noted earlier, Hanson declared that we are in a “larger existential war for the soul of America.” Further, he states, “warts and all, the Trump presidency on all fronts is all that now stands in the way of what was started in 2009” (Obama’s “fundamental transformation of the United States of America.”)

“The Marquess of Queensberry world of John McCain and Mitt Romney,” Hanson tells us, will not halt the march of the Progressive Left, a form of disruption is required. “Either Trump will restore economic growth, national security, the melting pot, legality, and individual liberty or he will fail and we will go the way of Europe,” Hanson writes. “For now, there is no one else in the opposition standing in the way of radical progressivism.”

What is the proper role of “disruption” in the conservative strategy? Does the conservative project embrace the vision of Yuval Levin or Victor Davis Hanson? In the months ahead, conservatives will be making their choice. I have made mine.

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