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How the Conservative Elite Gambled and Won
The conventional wisdom is that the emergence of Trump and the brief Republican civil war that followed was supposed to be end-times for the conservative movement as it had existed since the 1950s. It seemed clear that the old fusionist coalition that brought together social conservatives and libertarians was giving way to something else that was more radical in some respect—particularly on immigration—but perhaps also more moderate in others: less hostile to Medicare, Social Security, and maybe even more flexible on abortion. Obviously, this story needs revision in a number of ways. The conservative movement, far from cracking up, seems like the one big winner of the Trump era.
First of all, Trump never represented any kind of coherent set of policy preferences, but was rather leading a reactionary mass movement directed against a conservative elite that had lost legitimacy with their constituency because of what were seen as half-measures and betrayals. The goal was bringing the “strong” leader to power over the “cucked” old G.O.P. leadership. He represented a mythical return to a previous America and a wholesale attack on immigrants and ungrateful minorities that had been lurking in the wings of Republican performances but had not yet fully asserted itself. From the start, he attracted and unified all the splintered groups of the extreme right. Finally, here was their man. He was an interloper and, at least initially, a vehicle for plebiscitary rage against the Republicans and the whole establishment. All of this this is why I thought it was fair to bring historical fascism into the analysis of the Trump phenomenon, a view I think has been somewhat vindicated with the revelations about January 6 as some kind of shambolic version of the March on Rome.
The other thing that reminded of fascism was the eventual cooperation and assistance of conservative elites in Trump’s rise. As Robert Paxton has pointed out, in both of the classical instances of fascism, the fascist movements required the help of conservative elites with waning popular support, who felt they needed and could make use of the muscle and mass support of the fascist movements. The sudden switch from constant denunciation to support by the G.O.P. brass after the primaries brought this to mind. In the European cases, the conservatives belief that they could control these political upstarts was overly optimistic; they could not really ride the tiger of fascism: they were dragged along and, in many cases, eaten up. (It’s worth noting that the conservatives who had survived and assisted in the minoritarian power grabs of the fascist parties shifted after the war to stern warnings about the dangers of populism: the problem had been too much democracy all along.) I feared that the conservative elite in the United States were repeating a historical mistake in opening the doors for Trump. Turns out they were much craftier than I gave them credit for at the time.
During the “fascism debate” about the nature of Trump and Trumpism, one counter-argument focused on the relative weakness of Trump’s presidency while the real power of the Right was housed in the old counter-majoritarian institutions of the courts and the Senate. So, the Right was not really fascist at all, as it was not really relying on mass mobilization: it was doing what it always did and remained deeply conservative in its preferred tools and methods. The right-wing capture of the Supreme Court and the devastating blows its inflicted in the past few weeks certainly partially vindicates this view. The long-term conservative strategy of institutional capture seems much more likely to create permanent change than the evanescent enthusiasms of Trumpland. But one still has to take into account the fact of January 6 and the insistence on the “stolen election” myth. Even if you downplay it to the level of farce, it does represent what a significant portion of Trump’s followers wanted to see happen and still believe in.
Here’s what I believe squares all of this: the conservative elite made essentially the same bet as those did in Europe when faced with Hitler and Mussolini, except for our conservatives its paying off. This is in so small part because Trump was not Hitler or Mussolini: he lacked the tightly-organized party structure that was ready to step in and replace key sections of the state, organs of effective propaganda, and direct control over paramilitaries to constantly terrorize their opponents, etc. All in all, he was a pretty weak and ineffective fascist, more akin to the failed fascisms that dotted Europe in the interwar period, and were smothered by more conventional authoritarian conservatives, episodes that have been forgotten at our peril. The conservatives were able to use this premature and disorganized version of fascism as a battering ram—they got their Court, their most coveted goal—and now may be in the process of deftly leaving it to the side. They prefer to stifle democracy the old fashioned way: not through dramatic coups, but in the courts and on the state level. We often note the cowardliness of Republicans in the face of Trump, but we should also note their political daring and flexibility: they have been really willing to play with fire.
The superficially pragmatic but naturally misguided Democratic strategy of offering redemption narratives to conservatives who denounce and defect from Trump as the January 6 hearings unfold unwittingly conspires with the conservative elite who pulled off this caper. If Trump’s popularity collapses, they can just declare themselves horrified, unaware of the extent of the criminality, chastened, ready to cooperate for a new era of American comity, etc. They will exit the Trump era with almost everything they wanted, failed repeal of Obamacare notwithstanding. But the fact of the matter is that there is almost no remaining figure in the G.O.P. or conservative movement that did not play some role in bringing Trump to power, either through direct support or in the production of cynical anti-anti-Trump propaganda that weakened opposition to him. They all greased the wheels and should not be allowed to get off easy.
The conservative gamble with Trump seems to have paid off in the short term, but I still think they’ve still unleashed forces they can’t really control. They might think that their gradual approach and political wiles have been vindicated in the eyes of their voters, who will now choose a more conventional figure like Ron DeSantis, and maybe they are right, but there is still clearly an appetite for something else: something more confrontational, more violent, and more than willing to violate the law and the constitution. If they think they can reap a political profit or hang on to power, they will go along again, believing they can plop down in the driver’s seat once more. But how many times they can pull off this trick? And what will be the cost even if they can?