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Defending Conservatism—From the Right
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Defending Conservatism—From the Right

Opportunists and pyromaniacs are rejecting the ideals we once took as givens.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Sen. Lindsey Graham at the Faith and Freedom Road to Majority conference on June 24, 2023. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Hey, 

I’m on a train to New York, getting a very late start to the G-File. So I’m going to write this less like a newsletter—or even a “news”letter—and more like just a letter. I’m going to “open my kimono” as Hunter Biden likes to say, and divulge where my head is at these days. 

You might have noticed that I’ve been on a bit of a philosophical kick of late. There’s a reason for that. 

As I’ve said many times, during the Trump years I’ve never felt more politically homeless or more ideologically grounded. I think a lot of people, particularly people who feel the same way, understand what I mean intuitively. But I’ve found a lot of people don’t. Let me explain for a moment. I feel like I’ve been freed from a level of partisanship I never fully appreciated in myself when I thought conservatism and Republican politics were more in sync and their interests more aligned. I’ve lost the sense of obligation or compulsion I once felt to defend Republican positions. I was never a hackish water-carrier for the GOP (opinions differ!) but I confess that sometimes I was too quick to assume that if progressives or Democrats angrily insisted that Republicans were wrong, there’s probably something right about what Republicans were doing. Or, conversely, that if Republicans were angry about something Democrats were doing I should defend that anger. 

Donald Trump just makes it so easy to give eleventy billion examples of this. Even if I loved Trump, I’d think the effort to “expunge” his impeachments is at best childish. I think the House’s January 6 committee wasn’t organized optimally and had other flaws, but 95 percent of the GOP criticisms left me cold. The Mar-a-Lago raid was wholly legal and justified. 

But I differ from Republicans on policy arguments that are only indirectly about Trump, too. For example, I think the problem with Joe Biden’s support for Ukraine is that it’s been too piecemeal and reactive, and the GOP talk about “blank checks” is mostly nonsense. 

Think of it this way: Why on earth should I give, say, Lindsey Graham the benefit of the doubt? I could pick Republican senators I disagree with more often and more intensely—J.D. Vance, Josh Hawley, Tommy Tuberville, to name a few—but that’s sort of my point. Graham is very good at sounding smart and truthful, and sometimes he actually is. But he can also sound that way when he’s saying dumb and untruthful things. At any given moment, depending on his political needs, he can be statesmanlike or wildly partisan or an astounding Trump suck-up to a degree that only proctological terminology can capture the extent of it. And, to make things worse, his positions change as the moment suits. That may be fine for an elected official of the Republican Party these days—he does have a very good sense of what he has to do to get elected—but why should I care about that?  

I don’t want to speak for my colleagues at The Dispatch, but I think this general worldview captures a big chunk of what we’re trying to do. Say what you will about Kevin Williamson, Nick Catoggio, Steve Hayes, Scott Lincicome, Sarah Isgur, David Drucker, and the rest of our team, but they’re not water-carriers for any party. I’m not trying to cast us as the journalistic equivalent of the Untouchables (everyone knows, I hope, how much I still love and respect my friends at National Review). But as a right-of-center institution founded in the Trump era when conservative criticism of Trump was treated as everything from tactically misguided to treasonous, we just have a different set of foundational and psychological commitments than most other comparable institutions. When you burn bridges you think less about how things are going at home.

Anyway, I don’t want to make this ad for The Dispatch.

As ideologically grounded as I think I am, I find that the intellectual churn on the right is forcing me—and a lot of people—to revisit ideas and concepts that were once givens on (most of) the right. If you had told me 10 years ago that in 2023 a lot of self-declared conservatives would be attacking the free market, constitutional originalism, limited government, internationalism, Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and the idea that character matters—not to mention broader philosophical underpinnings of the founding—I would have been very skeptical. But that’s precisely where we are. 

I have an enormous amount of muscle memory when it comes to defending such concepts against assaults from the left. But the calving of big chunks of the right from the ice sheet of conservative dogma is new in my lifetime. 

The last time we saw anything remotely like this was during the Pat Buchanan moment in the early 1990s. But even then, the standard conservative response to Buchanan’s protectionism and populist-tribal “conservatism of the heart” was to point out that operationally it was simply right-wing progressivism. And that usually did the trick. 

For instance, Buchanan would often invoke FDR’s line (usually without attribution): “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” You could often brush back that stuff simply by pointing out that he was, in effect, a pro-life New Dealer. Now, there are self-styled conservatives who take such a description as a compliment (and assume that having a problem with New Deal style statism makes you a “libertarian”). 

And, I should point out, Buchananism’s fondness for New Deal statism ended at the water’s edge. Say what you will about the New Dealers, they wanted to win World War II without reservation. Pat had reservations, at least in retrospect. 

It’s funny, I wrote Suicide of the West in an effort to convince progressives of good will that liberal democratic capitalism was the best system imaginable for their stated priorities. What is politics for? What is the government for? Ask most people of the left and you’ll get an assortment of responses: improving the health, wealth or education of the common man, protecting the rights of minorities, protecting the environment, etc. Suffice to say I think liberal democratic capitalism is the best system possible—over the long term—for these priorities. I don’t think I had huge success in convincing large numbers of people who didn’t already agree—but I tried, in part because I thought I should model what was increasingly lacking on the right: persuasion instead of performance. 

The reason I bring this up, though, is that just as I was working on making that good faith argument to good faith progressive readers, a whole bunch of people on the right started rejecting liberal democratic capitalism—in whole or in part. Some just don’t like the liberalism but are okay with the democracy and capitalism. Some think the democracy part is negotiable but we should keep some of the other stuff. Some hate all three and think we’d be happier as serfs. It’s a hodgepodge. 

It’s also mostly absurd. And, sometimes, depressing.  

I think some questions should simply be settled. Close the books, lock the door, and worry about other things. Liberal democratic capitalism—broadly speaking—is one of them. Obviously, it’s an open question about where to circumscribe the free market. But on the issue of whether the free market is better at generating prosperity, that is a settled question for me. So are all sorts of liberal commitments—fair trials, individual rights (including property rights), freedom of religion, etc.—I think we’d be better off if these weren’t topics for serious debate in sort of the same way serious people don’t debate whether murder or genocide are wrong. And I certainly think these should be settled questions among conservatives. But they’re not. 

It really is amazing to witness the damage Trump did to the right. It’s not that defending Trump requires defending serfdom or the imposition of a confessional state. It’s that the project of defending Trump required so many people to tear down so many of the philosophical and theological support beams of conservatism, the structural collapses created openings for opportunists who really don’t care about Trump at all—or conservatism—to make their own little forts out of the rubble. The Littlefingers understand: Chaos is a ladder. 

So now, many on the right think we should be revisiting whether the Enlightenment or the Founding were mistakes. They question whether the “procedural” elements of the Constitution deserve respect from the right. Some think it’s fine to cast doubt and anger on the electoral process or even celebrate the violation of the peaceful transfer of power. Or that the rightwing economic planners can do what the leftwing ones never could. 

Just last night there was a story about a young New Right guy who apparently thinks “the Jewish Question” is still a thing that needs to be addressed. I resent that I feel the need to explain to people that even raising “the Jewish Question” presupposes that there’s something to be done about the Jews: “When we get in power, what will our answer to the ‘JQ’ be?”   

This whole line of thought is so grotesque—no matter how playfully or trollishly entertained—it represents a cancerous rot on the right (as do many of the defenses of this poor misunderstood lad betrayed by his former MAGA compadres). 

Anyway, it’s this new push—or putsch—on the right that has me wanting to revisit, relearn, or repeat some of the most basic tenets of conservative, liberal and Western thought. Or just my own thought. So when you send me an angry email asking why I wrote about, I dunno, the Peace of Westphalia instead of the controversy of the day at MSNBC or Fox, I’ll refer you to this note.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.