Anyone who hasn't seen the recent writings of one Publius Decius Mus should stop reading right now and click here and here and here. You will find a powerful indictment of the conservative political movement of the last thirty years, written by someone who adheres to conservative principles (or perhaps we should say “dispositions”).
After perusing his arguments, if you want to understand why Decius has drawn so much attention, being hailed by Peggy Noonan, Roger Kimball, and other independent commentators, you should turn your eye to one of Decius's critics. When you read what they say about him, you can see why what he says about them has found a ready audience.
Here is one attack that came out last week in the Washington Post. It is by Michael Gerson, a member of George W. Bush's White House and now a frequent contributor to television news shows and periodicals. A neoconservative champion of globalization—claiming that it has “taken about a billion people out of extreme poverty around the world”—Gerson naturally opposes the candidacy of Donald Trump. In fact, he regards Trump as a narcissistic racist.
Decius, by contrast, is a strong supporter of Trump. To be more accurate, he is a supporter of Trumpism, the features of which include economic nationalism and controlled borders. In one essay, Decius compared the coming election to Flight 93, stating that American politics and culture are on the verge of destruction. If Hillary Clinton wins in November, the American tradition of classic liberalism, religious freedom, and civic virtue is over. Done.
Gerson's op-ed is a response to this argument. Gerson attributes to Decius “a despairing contempt for our country” (the phrase is Yuval Levin's, quoted by Gerson). To be so critical of America is to indulge in nostalgia. Here is Gerson’s refutation:
As a conservative, I am not one to deny the challenges of modern, liberal societies—the fragility of families, the brittleness of institutions, the economic struggles that result from globalization, the pulverization of community in some sad and dangerous places. But I am a traditionalist with a healthy respect for the achievements of modernity, because I can imagine myself in the position of a woman, a gay person or a minority 50 years ago.
Note the turn from a conservative view of family breakdown and the decay of civic associations to a plea about identity. To criticize social and economic trends is fine, Gerson seems to say, but what about the people who in the past suffered from what tradition wrought until modernity came along? Think about them.
The term for this rhetoric isn't conservatism or neoconservatism or patriotism or traditionalism. It is sentimentality. I don't mean sentimentality of the soft kind, the Frank Capra vision of things. I mean a darker brand, the kind that works like this: Identify a victim, declare your empathy with him, and impute guilt to another party. In this case, we have the usual innocents and culprits. Gerson brings them up here so casually and briefly because the drama of victimhood has been laid out so clearly for him by our progressivist artists, writers, academics, and journalists. The dramatis personae are clear and simple. Women, gays, people of color on one side, white men on the other. Gerson makes it explicit at the end of that paragraph, when he characterizes Decius's despair as “the nostalgia of conservative white men.” All the moral weights and measures are in place, and Gerson proves his sensitivities to his fellow Post intellectuals as eagerly as any junior scholar hoping for a job in a humanities department does in the interview.
That Gerson resorts to this progressive cliche, which I have seen pulled out of people's pockets a thousand times before at conferences, in committee meetings, and in news commentaries, shows just how empty his intellectual accounts are. And once you give in to the blandishments of accusatory sentimentality—which lets you denounce others seemingly without malice, you see, because you are only defending les miserables—it is easy to set Decius et al. in a cage of dishonor. Gerson ends his opinion by casting Decius's work as consisting of hyperbole and insult and (inevitably, we must by now expect) racism.
Gerson calls Decius’s attitudes “prejudice,” the condition of “a certain kind of right-wing nationalist.” Isn't it fun for a conservative, for once, to be able to talk like this! Isn't it great that conservatives can play identity politics, too?
For decades, conservatives have renounced the codes of political correctness—but Gerson won't go along with that, either. He has a final compliment for Donald Trump: “He has revealed motives that used to be hidden by ‘political correctness.’” The sneerquotes around political correctness are the most important part of that sentence. Gerson does what thousands on the Left have done when a conservative, libertarian, or classic liberal objected to PC quibbles and speech codes. He chortles at them. In other words, political correctness doesn't really exist. It's a fabrication of anxious and threatened white men. Gerson believes that there is a better term for those restraints that white men tag as PC: “human decency.”
That is where we end. White, male, straight Americans who are sensitive to the plight of women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and immigrants are decent. People who believe in America First are indecent.
If I hadn't read this in the Washington Post, I would have thought that it was written by one of the academic contributors to The Nation who believes that conservatives are, indeed, a civic scourge. As Decius puts it in rebutting Gerson: “If this is ‘conservative’ then it should be well beyond obvious that conservatism is dead.”
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.