It was the slam heard around the world, as North Carolina’s own, Congressman Patrick McHenry of the 10th Congressional District, brought his gavel down in frustration. His friend and mentor, now-former Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California, was just ousted, as the vast majority of Republicans were unable to hold off a mutiny of eight, led by Florida’s Matt Gaetz, who teamed up with the Democrat caucus.
But this event was just a very small window into the chaos within the conservative movement in general. It’s unclear what is holding all the various factions together, and increasingly, it seems like nothing is.
“Fusionism” — pioneered by the editors of National Review and later wielded for electoral success by Ronald Reagan — was American conservative orthodoxy from the 1950s until very recently. It was a fusion of three factions, whose causes became the three legs of the conservative stool.
The first leg is free-market economics. With the failure of the authoritarian command economies of fascism and communism, it was becoming clear that growth and prosperity came through the freedom to invent, invest, create, and buy. History has born this out.
The second leg is a strong foreign policy. In the 1950s and 60s, there was also concern with fascism and communism as evil expansionist forces. “Peace through strength” was common sense for those living during the Cold War and in the aftermath of World War II.
And the last leg of the stool is social conservativism. A lot was changing in the mid 20th century regarding family, faith, and morals. Today (considering the state of schools, crime, family, and other matters), social conservatives would largely say their concerns have been vindicated.
But if American conservatism has sat firmly on this three-legged stool for a half a century, it’s seat has become pretty precarious, as all three legs of the stool are more than a bit wobbly. Does the stool need some repair, slight adjustments, or even a complete redesign? Different factions in modern conservativism are currently at war over the answer.
Two of my colleagues at the John Locke Foundation recently signed a pledge supporting the Freedom Conservatives’ more traditional understanding over the National Conservatives’ more populist, isolationist, and protectionist vision.
We hear today that, instead of free markets, a real conservative should be for protectionist policies, like tariffs and subsidies.
We hear too that, in a full-scale invasion of a European ally by a major geopolitical foe, we should not even send military aid, let alone put boots on the ground in response. The idea of “foreign wars” at all, for almost any reason, has become a non-starter.
We also hear that pro-life laws are not a major goal but a liability and an embarrassment.
If not the three traditional legs, then how do these loud new voices propose we define and inspire the movement? The only obvious answer appears to be a willingness to fight the left with no mercy. But being united against a common enemy is not enough.
Mud dwellers on the left frequently mock the deaths of their political enemies, like Herman Cain, Antonin Scalia, and Rush Limbaugh. Many conservatives want to think of themselves as being among the grownups, those who value human life, the rule of law, and Christian charity. But if this distinction between left and right existed, major populist conservative figures have been doing their best to eliminate it. I’ll share only examples from this week so I don’t run out of space.
Popular right-wing personality Mike Cernovich, and a horde of other conservatives on social media, mocked the death of a poet in New York City as he and his girlfriend walked home from a wedding. The video of the man being stabbed to death was gleefully watched and shared countless times, as if it were a comedy sketch, because he was an outspoken left-wing activist. (I don’t recommend you click on it.)
Coincidentally, a very similar incident happened in Philadelphia, this time of a left-wing journalist, and it was treated in an identical fashion. “America First” champion Jack Posobiec mockingly shared an old tweet of the victim’s, where he said crime in Philly isn’t that bad. If you want to lose faith in humanity, read through the responses, where many can hardly contain their happiness at a political enemy being brutally murdered.
This callous attitude goes right to top. At a speech this week, former President Donald Trump mocked Nancy Pelosi’s husband, who had his skull bashed in by a mentally ill intruder. The man — a believer in Q-Anon and other fringe conspiracy theories who wanted to kidnap the former speaker — is on home surveillance smashing a window behind the house and climbing in, according to the DOJ’s indictment.
Paul Pelosi needed surgery for his life-threatening skull fracture and wounds to his arms after being struck with a hammer. He took many weeks to recover. Trump joked about how Nancy is against a border wall but her own wall didn’t protect her husband. If Melania’s head had been smashed in by an Antifa supporter, I would hope former President Obama wouldn’t use it as a punch line. We shouldn’t have to play any kind of “switch the sides” game to realize how despicable that is, though.
What should we make of a conservative movement that holds to none of the three legs of conservatism and that celebrates physical harm coming to political rivals? Unless we want to be forever rolling around in the mud with the worst of the other side, conservatives need much more to elevate us from the floor than a willingness to fight dirty.
We need an affirmative vision. If not the three-legged fusionist stool, then what? Maybe there’s an argument for less intervention in foreign wars or a tweak or two to cultural norms, but true conservatism changes tradition with a scalpel not a chainsaw. If we’re not firmly planted in timeless truths, our seat will collapse underneath us, and we’ll fall to the ground, maybe further.