The years of late high school through early adulthood were a time of intellectual ferment for me. I majored in political science, read copiously, and became enthralled with conservatism. William F. Buckley became my mentor and authority on all things true. I subscribed to and religiously devoured National Review, watched Firing Line, and became active in the Young Americans for Freedom
Besides WFB, I ate up other conservative writers: Edmund Burke, Russel Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, James Burnham among them. As I matured, my journey coursed to a more liberal outlook on life and in political action. But along the way, I never lost appreciation and respect for those halcyon days, complex thinkers, and essentialism of intellectual conservatism.
Thus, it’s dismaying to witness that rich culture in shambles. What is being passed off as conservatism today is anything but. Undoubtedly, WFB would be looking down his patrician nose at Donald Trump and his legions of acolytes and sycophants, polemically eviscerating him and them.
In my August 24th column, I quoted “Chairman Bill.” Nearing death, he hadn’t lost his intellectual acuity and seemed clairvoyant about the danger that lay ahead, which has come to past.
“Look for the narcissist,” wrote Buckley. “The most obvious target in today’s lineup is, of course, Donald Trump. When he looks at a glass, he is mesmerized by its reflection. If Donald Trump were shaped a little differently, he would compete for Miss America. But whatever the depths of self-enchantment, the demagogue has to say something.
“So what does Trump say? That he is a successful businessman and that that is what America needs in the Oval Office. There is some plausibility in this, though not much. The greatest deeds of American Presidents — midwifing the new republic; freeing the slaves; harnessing the energies and vision needed to win the Cold War — had little to do with a bottom line.”
Today’s conservatism is being crassly defined primarily through money, that “bottom line.” No mention of a pre-ordained moral order, family structure, limited power, or a robust national defense.
Conservatism, Kirk insisted, is not an ideology, a basis for political action, but an ethos, a philosophy that encompasses one’s worldview. He delineated what he called the Ten Principles of Conservatism, which includes concepts such as that pre-ordained moral order, a priori truth, and prudence.
For the tenth principle, Kirk writes, “The thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.
“The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.”
To this erstwhile conservative and now unrequited liberal, that is a point upon which we agree. A healthy society is dependent upon a balance between the forces of stasis and change. Progressives/liberals are requisite to shatter crystalline societal constructs when they become atrophied or calcified. Conservatives to “stand athwart history and yell, ‘Stop!’” as Buckley expressed it at the launching of National Review in 1955.
But the beauty of both authentic conservatism and vibrant liberalism is both understand man is more than a one-dimensional, economic creature. Economic man is an Ayn Rand creation. John Galt and all that simplistic rot something Friedrich Nietzsche anticipated and rejected.
Buckley and his intellectual brethren read Rand out of the conservative movement. They found her works—Atlas Shrugged, Fountainhead, and The Virtue of Selfishness—and objectivism, her so-called philosophy upon which political libertarianism is based, repulsive, intellectually and morally deficient, and contrary to authentic conservatism.
It’s vogue now for new age conservatives to condemn what they call “paleo conservatism,” which they associate with the establishment. That’s fine, but one wishes they would admit their man who is set to take the reins of power is no conservative.
Just ask Chairman Bill.