Which was the most tragic celebrity casualty of 2016? Was it George Michael, the most gifted queer since William Shakespeare? Or Princess Leia, the last teenaged sex symbol not to hail from the Walt Disney Company? Or was it Leonard Cohen, the celebrated founder of that whole ‘Jewish Buddhist’ thing? Over here in the good old US of A, conservatives are still mourning two of our finest ladies: Phyllis Schlafly and Nancy Reagan.
Some, though, are also mourning the death of Reaganism. Rich Lowry, editor of the arch-Reaganite National Review, says the rise of Donald Trump proves that Reagan’s mystique is fading fast. ‘The Reagan references stir the hearts of the old faithful (like me),’ Mr Lowry writes; ‘But with every passing year, they become a little less relevant to everyone else. Reagan left office 27 years ago. About a third of Americans weren’t alive when Reagan was president. [e.g. Yours truly.] Someone just old enough to cast his first vote for Reagan in 1980 is 54 years old today.’ These invocations were so reliable in keeping the base whipped up that the intellectual defenders of Reaganism got lazy and quailed in Trump’s wake.
The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher took it even further. ‘Trump didn’t kill Reaganism,’ he quipped; ‘He just was the first Republican presidential candidate to notice it was already dead.’ Hostility to government in all its forms, Mr Dreher notes, has been on the decline among Republican voters since at least 2005. Quoting from yet another article – from the Weekly Standard – the emerging Republican base ‘tend to be hostile to expanding free trade, Social Security reform, and guest-worker proposals’. Again, this was in 2005. And yet Trump, the mildest of protectionists, caught the Reaganites flat-footed.
I’ve been saying for ages that Reagan would be an anti-Reaganite if he were alive today. Like all true conservatives, he would’ve been appalled by the thought of his ideals hardening into an ideology. Conservatism is, after all, the very antidote to ideology. It arose in the late 18th century to temper France’s revolutionary enthusiasm and re-awoke 200 years later to stand against the Bolsheviks’ dystopian machinations. Which is why there’s something more authentically conservative in Trump’s pragmatic protectionism than the market fundamentalism of his Reaganite critics. Edmund Burke called government ‘a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants,’ such as ‘a sufficient restraint upon their passions.’ Russell Kirk, too, warned ‘thinking folk of conservative views ought to reject the embrace of… political zealots… who instruct us that “the test of the market” is the whole political economy and of morals.’
And it’s why the so-called populist revolt he led may well in fact be a revolt of common sense against neoliberal dogmatism. Ordinary people – like the classical conservatives – recognize that welfarism can stunt growth and cause dependency, which is sloth masquerading as compassion. But they’re also glad for a little strong-arming if it means giving hard-working, serious-minded men and women the ability to provide for themselves. And that’s exactly what Trump is doing. The mere threat of his bully pulpit is enough to send employers scurrying to give Americans good, steady work. 1,000 jobs from Carrier. 3,000 from OneWeb. 5,000 from Sprint. 50,000 pledged by SoftBank. 700 from Ford. Is this relevant to Australia? Maybe. I’m sure you’ve all read Tony Abbott’s recent article in the Australian titled ‘New centre-of-right [sic] party will only hold back conservative politics’. It’s a passionate plea for ‘the Liberal National coalition which, as Howard repeatedly declared, is the custodian in this country of both the liberalism of John Stuart Mill and the conservatism of Edmund Burke.’ Sound familiar? Mr Abbott invokes Howard thrice in the piece, showing that doctrinaire Howardism may well be as bankrupt in Australia as doctrinaire Reaganism is in the States. If the personality cult of Australia’s greatest PM is the only thing holding the Coalition together, it’s already as good as dead.
Of course, there are notable differences between the situations in the US and Oz. Sir Tones never names his target explicitly but, as Niki Savva says when she pulls up to the urinal, it’s hard to miss. Despite styling himself as the Aussie Trump, Cory Bernardi is a staunch anti-protectionist. And yet, if he is mulling over a split, he’s entirely right to question whether an alliance between conservatives and small-‘L’ liberals remains viable. If it does, conservatives (including Mr Abbott) deserve a better justification than ‘Howard says’ – especially after the events of the last two years. He’s right, of course, to note that ‘divisions on the conservative side only help Labor.’ But Coalition moderates aren’t ‘the conservative side’, as Mr Abbott’s successor has made abundantly clear. If conservatives continue obediently feeding votes to their moderate bosses for little or nothing in return, Mill would be quite right: stupid persons must generally be conservative.
Anyway, 30 December was my birthday, which I share with two other certified bastards: Hideki Tojo and Tiger Woods. By my count I drank five Manhattans, two Mai Tais, a bottle of Maker’s Mark, and half a bottle of Brugal. Which means I spent the last day of 2016 in my boxers and smoking jacket, binge-watching The Simpsons and trying to hold down watery tea. I hope you good people celebrated with a bit more éclat. Here’s to the New Year, ladies and gents. May it be more deplorable than the last.
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