John Fonte, writing in American Greatness, sees the crucial question for the American Right as this: What is the nature of its confrontation with modern liberalism? Is it, “a coherent debate between left and right forms of liberalism” to use the words of Yuval Levin? Or is it, a much deeper struggle over the very nature of the American “regime” itself — its principles, values, institutions, mores, culture, education, citizenship, and “way of life”? In other words, are we in an “existential war for the soul of America”, as Victor Davis Hanson says?
I think it’s the latter (and I don’t read Yuval Levin’s writings as denying that the direction of contemporary progressivism is a regime-level challenge to America’s future). Every year, it becomes increasingly clear to me that we are in a deep struggle with liberalism over the nature of the American regime and way of life.
It also becomes increasingly clear that this is how liberals see it. After a year of bitter and at times hysterical “resistance” to the president elected by the American people, and to his conservative policies, I don’t think liberals can deny this, and I doubt they want to.
To agree with Hanson, Fonte argues, is to accept that “some form of disruptive activity (in politics, the academy, the media) against progressive hegemony is necessary.” But it does not mean exclusive reliance on such activity. As Fonte explains:
Historically, no political reform movement of the Left or Right (civil rights, temperance, suffragist, abolitionist, conservative) has ever succeeded without a two pronged “bad cop-good cop” approach, without a radical wing and a mainstream wing working in tandem, at least implicitly, if not explicitly.
The American Revolution itself is a classic example. Without the radicalism of Tom Paine and Samuel Adams the moderation of George Washington and John Adams would not likely have succeeded.
It’s difficult to be a “good cop” when faced with opponents engaged in an all-out, well-coordinated, deeply cynical attempt to nullify the 2016 Presidential election. In these circumstances, Fonte suggests that it won’t do to:
[R]emain aloof, cultivate one’s own garden of the little platoons in quietist, and often, ironic fashion; talk mostly of civility and temperament; write carefully tailored “moral equivalence” essays faulting both Trump and his critics in equal measure on issues of the day, such as the NFL national anthem or historical statues controversies. . . .
And it certainly won’t do to “work like some center-right commentators with liberals to form a new political alignment, a ‘New Center.’”
Instead, we should:
[G]o on the offensive against the progressive left and renew the fighting faith of the founders of modern conservatism and their spiritual heirs: Frank Meyer; Willmoore Kendall; Jim Burnham; Bill Buckley in the first decades of National Review; Harry Jaffa and his students; and Publius Decius Mus.
But does this entail a full embrace of Trumpism? Hanson thinks so. He states:
Warts and all, the Trump presidency on all fronts is all that now stands in the way of what was started in 2009” [Obama’s “fundamental transformation of the United States of America”].
Either Trump will restore economic growth, national security, the melting pot, legality, and individual liberty or he will fail and we will go the way of Europe. For now, there is no one else in the opposition standing in the way of radical progressivism.
Fonte seems to agree.
I don’t. The fact of the deep struggle over the very nature of the American “regime” — its principles, values, institutions, mores, culture, education, citizenship, and “way of life” — reinforces for me the primacy of our principles, values, institutions, mores, culture, etc. Like all other personages and policies, President Trump must be measured against these core components of our way of life, and his efficacy in defending them.
UPDATE: I have modified this post to present what I think is a more accurate statement of Yuval Levin’s position than that which appeared in the original version of my post.