Why Not Go All the Way?

Is Trumpism a monstrous reality-show perversion of true conservatism? Or has Trumpism merely exposed the true racism and anti-intellectualism lurking in the heart of American conservative thinking? Historian Seth Cotlar raised these questions again in a recent Twitter thread. Can Never-Trump conservatives like David Frum take bitter solace in the notion that Trumpism has trumped true conservatism? Or must all conservatives recognize that Trump is nothing more than their movement’s Smerdyakov? The back-and-forth highlights a fundamental truth about conservatism—and political punditry in general—that doesn’t get enough attention.cotlar tweet

Let’s start at the beginning: Professor Cotlar draws attention to the fact that conservative thinkers did not suddenly in 2016 start to mouth muddle-headed and shamelessly demagogic notions. As Cotlar shows, back in the 1990s Newt Gingrich was fond of taking obviously ridiculous positions for political gain. And Cotlar mentions the longer history. Back in the 1950s, Cotlar notes, conservatives were making similar Trumpish noises.

All true and fair, IMHO. Not only for conservatives, but for progressives as well. Not only since the 1950s, but throughout the twentieth century, conservatives and progressives both struggled to define themselves. Conservatives and progressives both wondered how to draw meaningful boundaries around their movements. Was it “progressive” to support Stalin’s purges? Was it “conservative” to indulge in feverish conspiracy theories about the Warren Court?

Indeed, instead of ever thinking about “true” conservatives (or progressives) fighting against “pretenders” or “RINOs,” we need to recognize the obvious historic fact that there IS no such thing as a single, real conservatism (or progressivism).

All we have ever had is a cacophony of contenders for the label. At some points in history, say in the mid-1950s or mid-1990s, conservatives might have rallied around a particularly charismatic or compelling vision of what they wanted conservatism to look like. In the end, however, the history of conservatism is only a history of a battle to claim the mantle of “true” conservatism in the face of the many contenders.

Consider just a couple of examples from the twentieth century. In the 1920s, for example, the revived Ku Klux Klan made a serious play to represent mainstream conservative thinking. As I argue in my book about educational conservatism, national leader Hiram Evans hoped to use the mainstream issue of public education to transform the reputation of the Klan. Yes, the group was racist, xenophobic, and bigoted. And yes, plenty of Americans felt uncomfortable with the Klan’s reputation for vigilante violence and secret ritual. In spite of that reputation, Imperial Wizard Evans hoped—with good reason—that he could reshape the Klan’s reputation as the bastion of “true” conservatism.

Zoll, Progressive Education Increases Delinquency

Is this “real” conservatism?

In the 1950s, too, conservatives battled for the right to be considered the “real” conservatives. Time and time again, radicals such as Allen Zoll warned residents of Pasadena, California that left-wing conspirators planned to brainwash children in public schools. As Zoll wrote in one widely circulated pamphlet,

We had better stop smiling. There IS a conspiracy.

To non-conservative journalists, Zoll’s hysterical, bigoted rhetoric captured the tone of American conservatism. They assumed that Zoll’s claims to be a conservative spokesman should be taken at face value. So much so that they were often surprised to meet different types of conservative thinkers. For instance, one of the conservative leaders of the 1950s school controversy in Pasadena was Louise Padelford. Padelford was no less strident than Zoll when it came to combatting progressive trends in education. Her tone was worlds removed, however. As one journalist wrote in surprise when he met her, Padelford had

clear blue eyes that look out at the world with wide-open frankness; her ear is keen, her wit quick, and her smile enchanting.

The journalist’s surprise might seem silly to anyone familiar with the true complexity of American politics. There’s no reason why a conservative can’t have a quick wit and an enchanting smile. At the time, though, to one journalist at least, to be “conservative” meant to be Zollish and trollish.

Time and again, conservatives throughout the twentieth century battled to claim the title of the “real” conservatives. Was it mild-mannered but strident Ivy-League PhD Louise Padelford? Or was it rabble-rousing pamphleteer Allen Zoll?

As Professor Cotlar points out, it has always been both. Not just since the 1990s, but throughout the twentieth century. And if we want to make sense of the tension between self-proclaimed Never-Trump conservatives and foolhardy Trumpish demagogues, we need to go all the way.

Namely, we need to recognize that there has never been—NEVER—a single true conservative movement. Not in the offices of the National Review. Not in the hard drive of David Frum.

Conservatism, like all keywords, has always only been a prize up for contention.

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