In his novel The Prime Minister, the fifth in the Palliser series, Anthony Trollope has Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, enunciate his political credo. The Duke explains to Phineas Finn, who recently defended him in the House of Commons from the charge that he tried to purchase a seat for one of his supporters, that the belief that “political virtue is all on one side is both mischievous and absurd. We allow ourselves to talk in that way because indignation, scorn, and sometimes, I fear, vituperation, are the fuel with which the necessary heat of debate is maintained.” Finn responds, “There are some men who are very fond of poking the fire.”
Just so. Over the past several decades, there are too many men, and a few women, in the Republican Party who have become enamored of poking the fire, whenever and wherever possible. The embers of dispute and rancor and vitriol that they have stirred up threaten to become an inferno that leaves nothing but a denuded political landscape behind. But at a moment when the West faces its greatest peril in the form of a revanchist Russia, it is high time to lay down the pokers, reinstall the fire grate and cock an attentive ear to Planty Pal’s musings, at once sagacious and melancholy, about the divide between liberalism and conservatism.
Indeed, the West has received a tremendous jolt back into reality as Vladimir Vladimirovich ravages Ukraine, seeking to create his very own personal evil empire across swathes of Europe. He may not have intended it, but in giving any sentient person a good case of the collywobbles, comrade Putin has revived the alliance between Europe and America, and thank goodness for that.
Far too many conservatives have become besotted with Putinism or Orbanism or whatever other “ism” is supposed to result in a hazy national conservatism, as though some chimerical nostalgia for the Romanov or Habsburg dynasties is just the ticket for America. The resemblance with the political pilgrims of yesteryear who saw the future in the Soviet Union or some other squalid dictatorship masquerading as a socialist paradise is hard to gainsay. Today’s chuckleheads — can there be any other word for them? — heard what they wanted to hear and saw what they wanted to see in the East.
If conservatives want to regain their mojo, they should start by forgetting the Hungarian rhapsody. It’s time to go West. Posthaste. The right stuff has been there all along.
Jacob Heilbrunn is the editor of the National Interest and a Spectator columnist. This article is one excerpt from “Fight for the right,” a symposium on the future of American conservatism. Read the full series here.
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