The GOP was never the party of Edmund Burke, but for a long time it was the party for Burkeans: It was a political home to those who believe in the principles of prudence, moderation, and skepticism that Burke has come to represent.
That is no longer so. Many American conservatives—filled with zeal and anger, obsessed with loyalty and purity—increasingly resemble the Jacobins that Burke feared. They crave radical action and condemn dissent. They obsess over a growing list of perceived enemies and hunt doggedly for traitors in their midst.
The American Right has become a reactionary force. Its guiding light is Burke’s defiant intellectual cousin, the arch-Catholic Joseph de Maistre, who believed that the answer to Jacobinism was, in effect, more Jacobinism. This shift from Burke to Maistre has been abrupt, drastic, and thorough. The result is bizarre: Revered conservative thinkers like Roger Scruton now seem obsolete to the conservative movement. It is also dangerous. Consider Robespierre. Consider his victims.
What do Burke and Maistre have to do with 21st-century American politics? Plenty. Most of each man’s insights and subtleties are, to be sure, now largely forgotten. Yet both of them, in their distinct responses to the French Revolution, captured the archetypal ways in which conservatives have responded to fast-changing modernity ever since. Burke hoped to slow and manage the disruptions. Maistre raged against these efforts.
To Burke, it was inevitable that the Tennis Court Oath would lead to the drownings at Nantes. He conceded that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” But “it is with infinite caution,” he warned, “that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society.” The revolutionaries tried to remake society from scratch; the result was as Burke had predicted. The Jacobins wanted unity; they got terror.
To Maistre, the revolution was basically divine retribution for the West’s first steps toward liberalism. Maistre saw obedience to authority as everything. A nation that questions God and king, he insisted, “should not be surprised if she is brought back to her mission by terrible means.” He thought that only violence could cure deviance and impiety. “When the human soul has lost its strength through laziness, incredulity, and the gangrenous vices that follow an excess of civilization,” he wrote, “it can be retempered only in blood.” Indeed, he thought, the real “fruits of human nature—the arts, sciences, great enterprises, lofty conceptions, manly virtues—are due especially to the state of war.”
A stylized, simplified Burkean attitude has been an integral part of American conservatism ever since Russell Kirk celebrated Burke’s ideas in his published dissertation, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (1953). Maistre has never had such a champion in this country; and, until recently, his outlook could be found only at the fringes of American politics. Yet “what passes for ‘conservatism’ now,” David Brooks has noted, is “nearly the opposite” of Burkean conservatism. Instead, what “passes for the worldview of ‘the right’” is “a sort of mental brutalism.” Mental brutalism is the métier of Maistre.
“Your troglodyte physiognomy is your divine punishment.” This statement may look like a playground taunt from an odd, precocious fifth grader. It is in fact a go-to Twitter insult from a rising right-wing pundit who depicts himself as an online warrior (“New Year’s resolution: to crush my enemies”). He smears his perceived opponents (and various bystanders) as weak and effeminate “bugmen” with “mutant genes.”
Is this brand of political posturing lamentable? Of course. But it is also nothing new. James Callender called John Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” American politics has never been a civilized business. The sheer coarseness of some right-wing discourse is not itself of overriding concern.
What’s alarming is the rise, spread, and acceptance of a rhetoric of Jacobinism, in which society is rotten, foes are everywhere, and the situation is dire; in which the need for drastic action is urgent, the cause of the righteous is certain, and the hesitancy of doubters is evil.
Republican Senate candidates speak of a ruling “regime.” Sitting Republican Senators declare that this regime “hates America.” The “regime” is not only wicked and malicious but decadent, deranged, conspiratorial, corrupt, almost reptilian. As a popular speaker at a recent convention for “national conservatives” explained, the heart of the regime is
a totalitarian cult of billionaires and bureaucrats, of privilege perpetuated by bullying, empowered by the most sophisticated surveillance and communications technologies in history, and limited only by the scruples of people who arrest rape victims’ fathers, declare math to be white supremacist, finance ethnic cleansing in western China, and who partied, a mile high, on Jeffrey Epstein’s Lolita Express.
Not to be outdone, the founder of the right-wing social media website Gab, Andrew Torba, declared that Covid-19 was “created and leaked by the Globalist American Empire to steal the 2020 election, facilitate the largest transfer of wealth and power in human history, and usher in totalitarian global communism.”
To what lengths would one not go to resist such a twisted and nefarious system? For that matter, what decent person would not oppose that system? Surely “the regime” would have fallen already if only the people’s will were allowed to prevail.
What stands in the way? According to the immensely popular right-wing radio host Dan Bongino, Donald Trump failed to “drain the swamp” not because he was unfocused and ignorant but because he was “backstabbed” by disloyal staffers. Michael Anton, author of the notorious “Flight 93” manifesto, has claimed that conservative intellectuals like Rich Lowry, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Jonah Goldberg were “fat useless grifters” who “pretend” to oppose the Left but in fact “sell out” their country.
In this telling, it is not incompetence, let alone simple political reality, that makes right-wing populism ineffective. It is the compromisers, the quislings, the wusses, the “RINOs,” and the “losers,” the Laodiceans of the center-right. The real “patriots,” therefore, must devote great energies to sussing out, attacking, and shunning the impure.
A Jacobin movement needs its sans-culottes. In mid-2019, American Greatness, a leading website of the new Right, published a piece titled, “Don’t Celebrate Bastille Day.” Why, the article asked, “would the French—or anyone else, for that matter—celebrate this infamous date?” It is a “canard,” after all, that the Bastille was a “loathsome dungeon full of innocent political prisoners.” In late 2021, however, the same outlet released a piece called, “Of Reichstags and Bastilles,” a meditation of sorts on the meaning of the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The essay teases with the idea of “celebrating the events of that day as our Storming of the Bastille; a day where a symbol of the degeneration of our ruling class into total corruption and tyranny was challenged, and the elites were shown just what happens when millions of freedom-loving citizens finally grow sick and tired of a boot perpetually stomping on their necks.” En avant, citoyens.
At one level, the political spectrum is simply a register of how far, how fast, and by what means people are willing to depart from the status quo. The Burkean stands at one end; various prophets, fanatics, and maniacs at the other. What Maistre really wanted, Edmund Fawcett quipped, was to “seize back the guillotine from unworthy hands.” “Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau,” claimed Bertrand Russell. The radical might hail from the top or the bottom, the left or the right. In most cases, though, the core idea is the same: to dismantle existing structures, wipe away pluralism, and build, impose, or uncover a utopian unity.
Some revolutionary movements wither away; others graduate to violence. Some obtain power, and some don’t. But sooner or later, each such movement confronts the stubborn fact of disunity. That, often, is when things get truly ugly. Scruton explored this dynamic in his 2010 book The Uses of Pessimism. Utopians, Scruton explained, long to “retreat from the complexities of the great society to the primordial simplicity of the undifferentiated tribe.” That is why they sometimes revel in myths of prelapsarian bliss—of a carefree state of nature or a golden age of antiquity. Regardless, all of them envision a future without conflict, in which “everything is ordered according to a single will, which is the will of society as a whole—the ‘general will’ of Rousseau.” But that future is a delusion; it remains “always out of reach.” In the modern world, dissent will out.
When, Scruton went on, the utopians’ plans are “in danger of refutation” (being impossible, they always are), they develop a “resentment of those who are comfortable with the ordinary world of human compromise.” There follows a desire to take “revenge against reality.” Next comes a search for scapegoats: Their vision thwarted, utopians must “find, in the real world, the cabal or conspiracy that is preventing” the plan’s “realization.” The “critic is recast as the enemy within.” Eventually, utopians come to “see all opposition to their schemes as a sign” that the critic is an “enemy of the people.” Indeed, “one function of the utopian ideology” is to tell an elaborate story about the target group, showing it to be “less than human, unjustly succeeding and intrinsically worthy of punishment.”
When Scruton died in 2020, the obituaries described him as a great conservative. In discussing utopians a mere twelve years ago, that great conservative surely must not have been thinking of the modern Republican Party—whose 2012 presidential candidate, it should be remembered, was Mitt Romney.
Yet here we are. The Right longs for an imaginary, uncorrupted past, the “real America” of the 1950s or perhaps even a colonial America with speech restrictions and Sabbath laws. Prominent right-wing intellectuals are proudly “post-liberal,” if not actually “integralist.” Prominent right-wing politicians say things like, “It’s time to defeat our enemies.”
At the heart of it all is a desire to sweep the Left from the field—to end the argument and begin promoting a “common good,” one that defines half the country out of existence. Since its goal is always out of reach, the Right has taken to resenting moderates and realists (“fat useless grifters”), scapegoating (“backstabbed”), and telling elaborate stories about the despicable other (“totalitarian cult”). Scruton is no longer a conservative standard-bearer. Preposterous to record, he now reads like an opponent of the Right.
“Roger was nothing if not a Burkean,” Princeton Professor Robert George has observed. No surprise, therefore, that Scruton’s fundamental values no longer jibe with those of the current GOP, which is drifting the way of Maistre. “All social order depends upon the executioner,” Maistre asserted; “he is the terror of human society and the tie that holds it together.” Granted, the rhetoric of execution is not yet commonplace among right-wing leaders; but the rhetoric of battle is everywhere to be found.
Take Bongino, who supplies his listeners with what journalist Evan Osnos has described as an IV drip of political rage. The primary themes of Bongino’s show are existential conflict and cultural combat. “If January 6 made anything clear,” Osnos wrote, “it was that some number of Americans will eventually abandon a distinction between rhetorical battle and the real thing. Bongino’s business thrives in that borderland.” As the Jacobins of the right jockey for position—Which “patriot” is the most radical? The purest? The one beside whom all others shall be deemed RINOs?—new extremes become harder to stake out. At some point, veneration of violence, in the style of Maistre, becomes the natural next step.
Will violent rhetoric trigger a proliferation of political violence? Qui vivra verra: They who live shall see.
As Lincoln said in his Springfield Farewell Address, there are reasons to confidently hope that all will yet be well. But commentators don’t book many media appearances or sell many books by reminding people how often trends revert to the mean. Movements rise and fall for all kinds of reasons—and sometimes, seemingly, for no reason at all. The age of the angry might be followed by the age of the exhausted middle. Or perhaps the shift will make obvious sense: a loss of enthusiasm the moment average people are called upon to make real, material sacrifices for “the cause.” Talk is cheap; destruction and disorder are expensive.
And who would be less willing to suffer hardship than the lawyers, writers, and intellectuals leading the charge for conservative Jacobinism? For all the new Right’s talk about “grifters” in Washington, D.C., the hottest grift in town is the new Right itself. The activist Charlie Kirk, who was asked at an event last year when conservatives would get to “use the guns” and “kill these people,” hesitated. He didn’t denounce violence per se; he just counseled that the time was not quite right for it.
For a successful salesman like Kirk, the time for violence will always be just over the horizon.
It would be nice to stop there; but after Lincoln left Springfield, we know what happened next. When extremists who are not in on the grift decide that it’s time to “use the guns,” neither Kirk, Bongino, nor anyone else will be able to recage the tiger. The Jacobins will reap the whirlwind, as Jacobins do. It’s hardly unreasonable to assume that dehumanizing speech, repeated often enough, will at length give rise to dehumanizing conduct. There is a similar but simpler principle: tit for tat. The more the Right plays with the idea of burning the world down to destroy its enemies, the more legitimate that idea becomes on the left.
This is not to say that the Left is doing its part to head off catastrophe. In thrall to identity politics, tolerant of the riots that suit them, and addicted to passing “transformative,” albeit unpopular, legislation, the original anti-Burkeans appear utterly uninterested in adopting the political caution that the Right has discarded. Woke corporations, ideologically non-diverse universities, and the mainstream media are trucking in the soil from which the Right’s paranoia grows. What is worse, the Democratic Party is making little effort to keep the militant Right out of power. The data on this point are clear: The party is not offering a vision that independents and disaffected conservatives see as a sober alternative to the Republicans.
“The whole earth, perpetually steeped in blood,” Maistre wrote, “is nothing but a vast altar, upon which all that is living must be sacrificed without end, without measure, without pause, until the consummation of things, until evil is extinct, until the death of death.” It is up to each of us to prove him wrong.
Corbin K. Barthold is internet policy counsel at TechFreedom.
Image by unknown author from Gallica Digital Library and available under the digital ID btv1b6950750j Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=529857
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