In a July 4 article in the New York Times, conservative icon Roger Scruton lamented “What Trump Doesn’t Get About Conservatism.” Scruton argues that Trump largely bypasses intellectual arguments about conservatism and principle when defending partially conservative policies. For Scruton, conservatism is not one “universal” doctrine, but a variety of particular traditions. It involves supporting specific people in specific places, who wish to conserve their particular traditions of being in the world. But, Scruton argues, the only way to successfully achieve this political goal is for politicians to “reform in order to conserve.” This means enabling sufficient prosperity to ensure individuals are capable of upholding their traditions. He argues that conservatives have long understood the virtues of free market capitalism in enabling the prosperity necessary to preserve the values inherent to other traditional spheres of social endeavor:
Conservative thinkers have on the whole praised the free market, but they do not think that market values are the only values there are. Their primary concern is with the aspects of society in which markets have little or no part to play: education, culture, religion, marriage, and the family. Such spheres of social endeavor arise not through buying and selling but through cherishing what cannot be bought and sold: things like love, loyalty, art, and knowledge, which are not means to an end but ends in themselves.
Scruton criticizes Trump’s protectionist policies and sense of victimization for engendering a “cultural pessimism” symptomatic of a broader decline in Anglo-American culture and Western civilization more generally. The solution to this, so Scruton claims elsewhere, is a return to classically conservative values, such as support for the free market, and concern with spheres of social endeavor affiliated with traditionalism.
Scruton’s work fits nicely alongside that of other conservatives who have recognized Trumpism as antithetical to genuine conservatism. They include Patrick Deneen—for whom Trumpism indicates a crisis of faith in American conservatism—Bill Kristol, and many others in the so-called Never Trump movement. For these figures, Trump and Trumpism represent a turning away from a conservatism sincerely concerned with preserving tradition and promoting the prosperity of the entire nation. Consequently, all traditionalist conservatives should push for the swift end of Trumpism.
I agree with many of these commentators that Trumpism is an aberration from traditionalist conservatism in many respects. I also share their belief that Trump’s manifold vulgarities, his dissolution of the boundaries between truth and falsehood, and the reckless myopia of his policies are dangerous and need to be stopped. But I think that many of these conservative commentators demonstrate a nostalgia for a traditionalist conservatism which is largely spent as a political force. While iterations of it may continue to exist—and even obtain power sporadically—traditionalist conservatism has been rendered outdated by economic, social, and, especially, technological transformations. To the extent that conservatism survives as a political force, it will increasingly be a hyper-real postmodern conservatism.
What Is Conservatism?
In the modern Anglo-American world, most political conservatives, such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Stephen Harper, and David Cameron, adopt an “ordered liberty” approach to social mores, and combine this with a neoliberal faith in capitalist markets, as the guarantors of socio-economic prosperity. This has led some commentators to write as though this were the only conceivable form of conservatism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Conservatism is a complex political ideology with many different intellectual iterations. There is the Catholic traditionalism and communitarianism of Patrick Deneen and Alasdair Macintyre; the natural law conservatism of Leo Strauss, Harry Jaffa, and John Finnis; democratic conservatism, with representatives such as Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia, who grounded their conservatism in a belief that the “people” tend to dislike drastic change; the tradition of liberal “ordered liberty,” associated with Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk; the freedom-loving neo-liberalism of Hayek and Friedman; the extreme irrationalism of Joseph De Maistre; the tempered pragmatism of Michael Oakshott; and—in its darker iterations—the virulent nationalism and totalitarianism of Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger. And many others.
These iterations of conservative thought both vary and overlap widely in their philosophical arguments and substantive claims. Each has had an impact on politically conservative movements across the Western world. This ideological variety may seem intellectually overwhelming. But Scruton is right: it is underwritten by a core belief, shared by almost all conservatives, that political power should be exercised to reform parts of society, in order to conserve whatever traditions one can. Or, as Michael Oakshott puts it:
To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.
And, I would add, to be conservative is to use political power to conserve the familiar and the tried.
When luminaries such as Scruton, Deneen, and Kristol criticize Trump for failing to live up to this basic conservative expectation, they are correct. The presumption underpinning this conservative critique of Trump is that, if he were to just vanish, we could return to the traditionalist conservatism of old. I disagree. The postmodern culture which has developed operates at such a hyper-real level and transforms society with such speed and efficiency that it renders traditionalist conservatism increasingly outdated, as a concrete political ideology and approach. As a result, old political ideologies are giving way to new postmodern iterations. Traditionalist conservatism is mutating into postmodern conservatism.
What Is Postmodern Culture?
Postmodernism is frequently invoked as the bogeyman of the right. Often mislabeled “cultural Marxism,” postmodernism is perhaps best understood in two interrelated ways. First, as a skeptical philosophical position, articulated in the work of such thinkers as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, who developed complex theories on why it was unlikely that reason could ever lead us to absolute certainty about the way the world is and should be. Their arguments were often brilliant, though not entirely novel, given that there is a long intellectual history in the West of being skeptical of truth, or arguing that power is the basis of knowledge. I am not primarily interested in unpacking their specific philosophical arguments here.
The second—and more interesting—way to understand postmodernism is as an epoch in human history. Or as a culture. Postmodern culture is characterized by many different features. At an economic level, it involves increasing global interconnectedness. Globalization brings the world together economically, facilitating the rapid—even instantaneous—transportation of goods from different cultures and traditions into alien environments. It also upsets traditional labor markets and industry, as the free movement of capital across the globe dissolves ancient, local ways of producing and selling goods. These are replaced by vast, global, interconnected webs of production, distribution, and consumption. Much of this is driven by the internationalization of labor, as economic firms and laborers both become migratory, in their search for ever greater opportunities. Underpinning much of this is what liberal economist Joseph Schumpeter calls the “creative destruction” of traditional values. To sell new commodities, economic firms create and market new value systems, and, in so doing, tear down the old. Even religion, as Patrick Deneen points out, can itself become an object of market dissemination and commodification for profit in one place, while being simultaneously undermined elsewhere.
These economic changes are underpinned by hitherto unknown technological transformations. Gutenberg’s revolution has only just begun. Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and Twitter, have transformed the capacity of billions to communicate with great speed and efficiency. But, more importantly, they have also transformed the way in which we communicate. As Marshall McLuhan put it, the “medium is the message.” These new mediums speed up discourse, while flattening it. While a literary culture involving books enables deep consideration of complex ideas, digital culture disseminates information much faster, but flattens its substantive content into bite-sized rhetoric or ironic cynicism. The consequence has been a movement towards one-dimensional communication, coupled with entertainment technologies which increasingly allow us to “amuse ourselves to death,” in Neil Postman’s unforgettable phrase. Radio and television were the forerunners of postmodern culture, compressing complex topics down into ever shorter bursts of informational overload, competing for listeners and viewers in an increasingly media-saturated culture. Now, with the emergence of the internet, YouTube, blogs, and fake online universities, we have access to more information—both true and false—than ever before. One of the negative consequences of these developments has been a competition for attention which ups the rhetorical ante, while downplaying substance. As a result, we have seen a strange increase in hyper-partisanship and mean-spiritedness in many postmodern media. This, in turn, has an impact on politics, as liberal concerns about the greater good give way to a competition for attention and one-upmanship, resulting in a political culture of “ownage,” which more closely resembles a wrestling match presided over by the Donald than a traditional democratic polity organized by “ordered liberty” and communitarian resemblances.
The End of Traditional Conservatism
The paradox of postmodern culture is that, as information flattens and communication becomes more one-dimensional, economic interconnectedness and technological transformation speed up. As Paul Virillio puts it, postmodern culture is a culture of speed. This renders traditionalist conservatism increasingly untenable as a political ideology. The flattening of discourse, combined with the availability of so many forms of entertainment and spectacle, eradicates the necessary conditions for creating a consistent culture, in depth, over an extended period of time. Economic “creative destruction” eradicates traditionalist barriers to the creation of new values, when these can be used to market new commodities. Even religion itself has become a marketable product, which can, in turn, become an object of competition in the so-called “culture war.” These trends in postmodern culture expose the limitations of conservative traditionalism. Roger Scruton decries the emergence of Trump and Trumpism as symptomatic of the decline of culture, while never sufficiently interrogating the forces—including capitalist markets and the creative destruction of values—that have helped bring about this decline.
The end of conservatism doesn’t mean the end of reactionary ideologies. Trump and Trumpism embody what I have elsewhere called ‘postmodern conservatism’: a form of identity politics that emerges as a reaction against postmodern culture, while remaining very much its product. It mobilizes the anxieties produced by constant economic and technological transformations, often using hyper-real media, such as the internet and hyper-partisan news agencies, to rally political attention and stoke resentment. It then directs these energies against the perceived enemies who are allegedly responsible for these undesirable transformations: often alleged foreigners, and their allies in the thoroughly modernist literary cultures of academia and traditional print media. Postmodern conservatism uses the presence of these foes to justify seizing state power and cracking down on change. However, the solutions offered and the tactics deployed by postmodern conservatism are invariably symptomatic of postmodern culture. As such, they can only exacerbate those initial anxieties, leading to a vicious cycle of ever increasing partisanship and reactionary paranoia.
It is uncertain whether postmodern conservatism will become the conservatism of the twenty-first century, or whether new, preferable variants will emerge. But, as the social forces underpinning postmodern culture pick up speed, the traditionalist conservatism mourned by Scruton, Deneen, and others has likely met its end. It is unclear whether this is a good thing.