Wednesday, May 31, 2017

America's Undeclared Civil Wars

Is America in a state of undeclared civil war? Maybe more than one?

An article from The New Republic suggests that Trump's conservative backers see the president as their commander in chief in an undeclared civil war pitting them not just against liberals and America's liberal tradition but also against moderate conservatives - George Will, David Frum and those of their ilk.

The Trump wars are still raging among conservative intellectuals. Indeed, the divide between Never Trump writers and broader pro-Trump conservatives remains as wide now as it was during last year’s elections. In National Review on Tuesday, syndicated columnist Dennis Prager argued that this battle isn’t over the president himself, but competing visions of America. Whereas pro-Trump conservatives “believe that America is engaged in a civil war, with the survival of America as we know it at stake,” anti-Trump conservatives have a less Manichean view of politics.

“While they strongly differ with the Left, they do not regard the left–right battle as an existential battle for preserving our nation,” he wrote. “On the other hand, I, and other conservative Trump supporters, do. That is why, after vigorously opposing Trump’s candidacy during the Republican primaries, I vigorously supported him once he won the nomination. I believed then, as I do now, that America was doomed if a Democrat had been elected president.” Prager returned to the military analogy at the end of his essay, calling on anti-Trump conservatives to do their duty and fall in line behind the commander-in-chief:

"They can join the fight. They can accept an imperfect reality and acknowledge that we are in a civil war, and that Trump, with all his flaws, is our general. If this general is going to win, he needs the best fighters. But too many of them, some of the best minds of the conservative movement, are AWOL. I beg them: Please report for duty."

The great conservative English thinker Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) expounded on the dangers of thinking of political activity as analogous to military life. While war might be necessary, it is a centralizing activity that is inimical to conservatism as Oakeshott understood it.

“War has accustomed the subjects of modern governments to the experience of having their wealth, their property, their occupations, and their activities managed by those in authority,” Oakeshott explained in posthumously published lectures. “It has reinforced all those other circumstances from which the single, independent, centralized powerful government of modern states have sprung. It has been a generator of ‘equality’ more important than any other—the equality of the besieged.” In another set of lectures, he said that the analogy of military leadership “has little or nothing to offer to subjects engaged in enterprises of their own choosing and who are disposed to want to choose their opinions and beliefs for themselves and to change them when they feel inclined to do so.” In Oakeshottian terms, conservatives who see politics as a war led by generals (be it Trump or anyone else) have already lost because conservative virtues of privacy and individualism can’t exist in wartime.

In many ways, Trump-era conservatives are closer to Oakeshott’s German rival, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), who believed it was delusional to hope for a respite from political warfare, either domestically or in foreign relations. The “friend-enemy distinction,” for which he’s famous, asserts that politics is inherently combative, everyone an ally or foe. “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy,” he wrote in The Concept of the Political (1927). “Only the actual participants can correctly recognize, understand, and judge the concrete situation and settle the extreme case of conflict.”

Prager struck a Schmittean note in calling for conservatives to follow Trump into battle, as did Townhall columnist Kurt Schlicter in a Monday tweet declaring war on liberals:

"Why did I (since Cruz dropped out) and still do support President Trump?

Because fuck liberals.
We win, they lose.
Nothing else matters.
🗡️— Kurt Schlichter (@KurtSchlichter) May 29, 2017"

In his response to Prager, Atlantic writer David Frum flipped the wartime metaphor by noting that conservatives have very good reasons to worry about Trump’s Russia policy. Frum tweeted that he did not believe America was facing a civil war. “Meanwhile I fear that those who *do* believe this false claim about their own country are failing to defend America against a foreign threat,” Frum added. “It’s the sin that enabled Vichy: hating your domestic political opponents so much that you collaborate with the foreign invader.” By Frum’s account, pro-Trump conservatives are so consumed by hatred for their domestic foes that they are willing to turn a blind eye to a hostile intervention in an American election by a foreign power.

But perhaps Russia’s role goes even deeper than Frum suggests. During the Cold War, right-wing anti-liberalism was slightly tempered by the need for a bipartisan foreign policy. Soviet communism was a useful enemy, bringing together political opponents in the U.S. Once that threat vanished, conservative ire turned inwards, fueling the ever more partisan politics we’ve seen since the 1990s. This analysis vindicates Schmitt as the truest exponent of right-wing thinking. The right always needs a foe to destroy, and if it isn’t Russia in the international arena, it’ll be liberals at home. War is the constant, the only question being, “Who is the enemy?”

Weimar anyone?


Toby said...

Mound, I think Colin Woodard has an important insight. "Which of the 11 American nations do you live in?"

If you look at the included map and read the descriptions it is easy to understand why coastal British Columbians have more in common with their northern and southern neighbours than with Albertans. More to the point, BCers and Albertans are on different planets. Curiously, the common denominator of all those groups (particularly in the US) may be military service.

Maybe Woodard has explained why you (and I) see more than one civil war happening. The cultural map looks like the Balkans with meaningless state and national boundaries.

The Mound of Sound said...

Thanks for the link, Toby. I've seen that idea before, perhaps even from Woodward. His idea of how decades of social mobility operated to bring us together in like-minded groups, region by region, rather than in some culturally and politically amorphous mass would seem to have some merit.

John B. said...

What the hell is this thing that people who profess to be conservative keep referring to as the "left"?

By what Mr. Prager has to say you'd think that the rubes that gave Trump his margin of victory actually knew what they were voting for. Somebody should tell him that that's not how it's done.

It'll look good on him if he waits too long to check the balance in his moral bank account and finds out that he's shared his PIN with the wrong guy.

Anonymous said...

Mound, are you taking talking points from Frum these days?
That Frum? That neocon embodiment? Wow...

The Mound of Sound said...

Um, no, A..non. At the risk of making you appear something of an idiot, there's this thing at the top of the post called a "link." It's in blue. If you click on it you'll be taken to the source article of this post. That would be The New Republic. The article is written by their senior editor, Jeet Heer. Heer is decidedly not David Frum although as both have four letter last names I can understand your confusion.