I have never been enthusiastic about Donald Trump, though I have praised him when I believed he did good things. But I could never be a Never Trumper because the GOP establishment opposed to Trump had failed so decisively, and was utterly uninterested in learning from its failures, that they did not deserve support. If you have forgotten why, take a look at this January 2016 Tucker Carlson essay in Politico — “Donald Trump Is Shocking, Vulgar — And Right” — for a refresher course.
Two things I read today online from a couple of Never Trump leading lights reminded me once again about how useless that crowd is. Jonathan V. Last of the Bulwark, like so many of the clueless NT Republicans, he loses his mind when confronted by Viktor Orban. Last is scandalized that there are cafes in Budapest named after Sir Roger Scruton, and right-wing Americans in Budapest liking Orban. He calls Gladden Pappin and me “fascists.” You can immediately discount anything that someone like that says after he drops the f-word. Here in Hungary, one of the Orban government’s most articulate and popular critics, academic Peter Kreko, said from the stage at an ideas festival last summer that Western people who insist on calling Orban’s government “fascist” are being absurd. There’s lots to dislike about the Orban government, said Kreko, but it’s not fascist.
People like Last who throw that smear around say far more about themselves than about those they accuse of Mussolini fetishism. Anyway, Last is depressed by this piece by a man who hates that the evil Hungarians have embraced Roger Scruton. He writes as if the Hungarians stole Scruton. In fact, Roger’s widow Sophie donated some of Roger’s artifacts to the cafes, and no less a figure than Prime Minister Orban went to Roger’s memorial service, unannounced, without security or fanfare. He went because he loved and admired Roger Scruton.
In that piece, whose author, Alan Elrod, is an adjunct at Arkansas State University–Beebe, writes:
The far right—and what are the likes of Dreher and Pappin if not far right—has itself gone global.
Ah, there we go: if they’re not “fascist,” then they’re “far right”. This gives the game away. They have no idea what they mean by “far right,” except “to the Right of Bill Kristol, David Frum, and Joe Scarborough.” Pappin is, I think, a Catholic integralist, while I am more of an old-school Christian Democrat, back when Christian Democratic parties were Christian. “Far right,” though, used to be a term reserved for skinheads and neo-Nazis. Now the Left uses it for conservatives who are not part of the controlled opposition, and the Right uses it for conservatives they hate for abandoning the neocon Narrative. The reason I texted Tucker Carlson in the early summer of 2021 and suggested that he come have a look at Hungary is because I was struck hard by the differences between actual existing Hungary, and Hungary as presented by the US media and institutional Washington. During campaign season here, various Western journalists parachuted into town to sniff around for the stink of fascism. It’s hard to find in a country whose actual far-right party had formally joined the left-led anti-Orban opposition, so they had to bring what they could.
Adjunct Prof. Elrod says further:
The Scruton café is a salon for the Americans who have come to Hungary to study the Orbán œuvre, the ones who imagine themselves to be partaking in a new version of turn-of-the-century Vienna.
Where is he getting this? It’s all projection. Dude didn’t even leave Beebe, but he knows this about Budapest? I’m a right wing American who has come to Hungary, but if there’s a salon at any of the Scruton cafes, nobody’s told me about it. I know exactly four right-wing Americans in Budapest, and except for the one who is one of my bosses, we barely ever see each other. Shoot, I wish there were a salon at a Scruton cafe or somewhere else, but it seems that fumes from the chicken-processing plant must have gotten to Prof. Elrod, who is projecting his pitiful fantasy of the kind of life we’re living here onto a blank screen of ignorance. How does he know that any of us imagine ourselves partaking in a Habsburg-era fantasy? Morons, these people.
I can’t speak for Gladden, of course, but I’m over here primarily because I’m very interested in the kind of conservatism in power in Hungary, and in learning lessons that might be applied to approving our condition in the US. When I was back in America recently, a number of conservative academics I met asked me about Hungary. They sense — correctly — that the story about Hungary told by our media and the Bulwark types within the Regime is wildly distorted. I encouraged them to come see for themselves. Hungary is not utopia, but it’s an amazingly well run country, one from which the US could learn.
Side note: Americans who don’t know anything about Hungary assume that so many younger Hungarian adults leave for elsewhere in the EU because they hate Viktor Orban. They may or may not hate Orban, but the main reason they leave is that wages in Hungary are very low compared to other EU countries; if young Hungarians have good foreign language skills, they can make far more money abroad. Yesterday on a train, I talked with a young Hungarian wife and mother, who is in the working class. She is not an Orban fan, but she confirmed that that’s the main reason people of her generation go abroad: salaries. I know that interferes with the Bulwark narrative about Hungary, but it happens to be true. Furthermore, as low as the wages are today, the average Hungarian is better off economically after twelve years of Orban governance than they were before. Again: come and see for yourself what Hungary is like.
In any case, if Jonathan V. Last thinks Viktor Orban is a fascist now, then he should order his publisher to remove this epigraph from future editions of his 2014 book What To Expect When No One’s Expecting, which is about population collapse:
Wouldn’t want to be fascist-adjacent, would we?
And then there’s David French’s Dispatch newsletter, condemning us conservatives who purportedly “hate America” and are engaged in “the demolition of the American spirit.” (He forgot to say, “unpatriotic conservatives”). I’ve seen this before, both in the neocon attempt to demonize conservative opposition to the Iraq War, and in circle-the-wagons Catholics who wanted to silence strong criticism of the institutional Church in the scandal. For example, Jody Bottum, then a prominent figure at First Things and The Weekly Standard, once publicly accused me of criticizing the Church for the sake of winning friends and influencing people in the Church-hating media. This is how a certain kind of institutionalist Catholic rolled until the evidence that the Church was sick and lousy with pederasts and the bishops who covered up for them became impossible to sneer away. I’ve never been one of those right-wingers who jumps on David French, in part because we’re friends, and in part because even though I don’t often agree with him, his critique is valuable. I hate the way the Left shuts down dissident voices on its side, and I hate it when our side does it too. So I don’t join the David French pile-ons. Besides, I’m not really a Trump guy, so the pro-and-Never-Trump polemics between them don’t really interest me.
But French is very wrong here. He cites me in a parade of horrible right-wingers who focus too much on American decline. And:
Oh boy, where do we even begin?
The word “government” is doing a hell of a lot of lifting there. French’s is a feeble legalistic argument, one that entirely ignores the reality of culture. It is true that the state will not suppress your free speech, and for the First Amendment, let us give thanks. But that’s entirely beside the point. When you live in a culture in which free speech is feared and loathed within leading institutions, and you can lose your job (e.g., James Damore, Donald McNeil Jr.) for exercising that free speech in a way that offends thin-skinned lefties, or find your career ruined, your business destroyed, or yourself made into a pariah because you say and believe things that are perfectly mainstream — well, you can be forgiven for not being as sanguine as David French on the First Amendment’s power. When Dr. Silvester Krcmery, an underground church activist in Communist Czechoslovakia, was put on trial for his religious activism in the early 1950s, the Communist judges told him that religious freedom was enshrined in the constitution of the people’s republic. Krcmery reminded them that the freedom to go to church is not the same thing as religious freedom. A few years back, Hillary Clinton used the same cramped definition of religious freedom. If you are only free to go to church, synagogue, or mosque on holy days, and that is the extent of your religious liberty, then you are scarcely free.
I could be wrong, but I’m betting that David French did not read my book Live Not By Lies, which advances the argument that classical liberalism has been hollowed out, and that a new kind of totalitarianism is arising, one that inhabits its institutions and even uses its language, but that is in fact illiberal, trending towards totalitarian. I make actual arguments, bolstered by facts. There’s no way you can read that book and conclude that all is well with our liberal democracy. Specifically, I point out how easy it is for illiberalism to flourish within liberalism. For example, Amazon.com is entirely within its rights to refuse to sell whatever kinds of books it wants to avoid. It cancelled Ryan T. Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally, which is its right. But Amazon is so powerful within the publishing industry that its decision not to sell books that internal Amazon activists decry as “anti-trans” means that it will be unlikely that those books will be published in America. This one very powerful company has a stranglehold over discourse carried out in books. The state is not forbidding Ryan Anderson to write whatever he wants to. The state is not forbidding any publisher to publish Ryan Anderson’s books on transgenderism. But the effect is likely to be that few trans-critical books are likely to be published going forward, because publishers can’t take a chance that the book retailer who controls between 70 and 80 percent of the retail book market will blacklist their book.
This is where we are today in our country. The President of the United States granted an audience to a pervy flibbertigibbet, a skinny dude who is trying to be the Mary Tyler Moore of Gen Z, and said in that audience that no one should have the right to stop the sexual mutilation of mentally-distressed minors:
The sheer decadence of this! Every day, it’s something new. Every day, the woke-ruled system finds some new way to screw whites and Asians, for the sake of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Every day, crime gets worse, and nothing gets done. Deaths by despair are on the rise. We are failing to produce the next generation — a worldwide problem, yes, but an existential one, as Jonathan Last well knows. All of this is happening within a liberal order that David French insists is synonymous with the American nation. It’s not! It is possible to love your country but hate what’s happening to it. The prophet yells at his countrymen because he loves his country and wants it to be better, not because he hates it. Over here in Europe, it crushes me to talk to old people — it happened again to me in Slovakia over the weekend — who want to know what happened to America. They used to love and admire us, and now they take us as the main source of decadence. David French ought to spend some time talking to these old people, men and women who love and respect Ronald Reagan, but who see America now as more of a threat than an ally. If you saw the way the US State Department behaved over here, and American NGOs, and American corporations, you would understand why the American “brand” is in trouble with a lot of conservative Europeans.
Hungary, for example, is not a religiously observant country. But it has a strong sense of traditional family values. There are very liberal Hungarians who are 100 percent on board with wokeness, but in my experience, Hungarians — even generally liberal ones — really struggle to understand the point of deconstructing the family for the sake of liberating the sexually confused individuals in society. Same-sex civil partnerships are legal in Hungary, but most people want to protect the concept of marriage, sensibly enough. Something I always notice when I leave Budapest to go back to the US or to western European capitals is the fact that the Hungarian capital is a place where gay people exist, and are visible (you can see same-sex couples holding hands, and rainbow flags, in Budapest), whereas the US and western Europe are places where genderqueerness has become a public religion, from which there is neither dissent nor escape. Hungarians see that as decadent — and they’re right to. Hungarian conservatives actually want to conserve the model of the traditional family — and unlike American conservative lawmakers and policy makers, they are willing to take measures to do it.
“Don’t let the new revolutionaries demolish the American spirit,” says David French. Oh? We now live in a country where you can literally have your entire professional life destroyed in a heartbeat for expressing “unacceptable” views that, surprise!, are always on the Right. You can say any crackpot racist thing you want to if you are a BIPOC, and you will not only not be punished, you might even be lauded and professionally advanced for it. But say something that is a million miles from crackpot, but expressing a right-of-center take on racial politics, and you risk everything. The First Amendment is not going to save your job. We aren’t talking criminal statements, but basic mainstream conservative ideas that are now disqualifying to anyone wishing to work in middle class institutions or professions.
Donald Trump is not the answer to all this. But he was a better attempt than the Controlled Opposition represented by Last and French. I don’t think Gladden Pappin, or Yoram Hazony, or me, or anybody else yet has a clear, effective, and popular alternative to all this. But at least we are all asking the right questions, and trying to work on a way to renew our country and revive it out of its cultural exhaustion.
Over the weekend, Ross Douthat had a good thinkpiece about classical liberalism and contemporary America. He writes:
This means that there is time and space for liberal democracy’s renewal. But liberalism cannot easily renew itself, because despite what certain of its detractors and some of its champions insist, it isn’t really a political-moral-theological system in full; rather, it’s a deliberately thinned-out structure designed to manage pluralism, which depends on constant infusions from other sources, preliberal or nonliberal, to generate meaning and energy and purpose. There are moments of transition and turmoil when liberalism appears to stand alone, and liberals sometimes confuse these moments for an aspirational norm. But nobody except Hugh Hefner, Gordon Gekko and a few devotees of the old A.C.L.U. can bear to live for very long under conditions of pure liberalism. Instead, the norm for successful societies and would-be society builders is liberalism-plus: liberalism plus nationalism (as in 19th-century Europe or Ukraine today), liberalism plus intense ethnic homogeneity (the Scandinavian model, now showing signs of strain), liberalism plus mainline Protestantism (the old American tradition), liberalism plus therapeutic spirituality (the mode of American culture since the 1970s), liberalism plus social justice progressivism (the mode of today’s cultural left), etc., etc. Something must be added, some ghost needs to inhabit the machine, or else society begins to resemble the portraits painted by liberalism’s enemies — a realm of atomized, unhappy consumers, creatures of self-interest whose time horizons for those interests are always a month rather than a decade, Lockean individuals moving in a miserable herd.
This creates a curious problem for defenders of the liberal order facing off against their challengers and critics. Liberal democracy obviously has a lot to fear from illiberal and postliberal forces: In the near term, they are potential agents of crisis and disruption; in the long run they might replace the liberal order, as it once replaced the ancien regime. But the liberal order also cannot live without the forms of regeneration, solidarity, creativity and — above all — metaphysical hope that a postliberal impulse reaches for and that liberalism alone struggles to supply. So the liberal needs to be able to look even at forces that seem most threatening, whether the Trumpist right, the illiberal left or something else, and recognize in them impulses and desires and demands that require satisfaction, not just denunciation. And someone who is not fully a liberal, someone loyal to the Constitution but not really to Locke or John Stuart Mill, but who also doubts the rival paths on offer and would prefer not to plunge the liberal-democratic world into revolutionary chaos, has to live with a balancing act: Rooting for the best of postliberalism to help our society escape its decadence, while being realistic about what’s actually possible and resisting illiberal forces that threaten only chaos, or some Americanization of the authoritarianisms already on offer elsewhere in the world.
This is good. We are finding that liberalism (classical liberalism) is unlikely to survive without some outside source of legitimacy in which to ground it. It used to be the Biblical tradition in American life. It no longer is. The successor ideology of wokeness provides elites with a sense of purpose and structure, but it also requires them to persecute those who don’t share it. In Live Not By Lies, I talk about wokeness as a pseudo-religion, one that endeavors to provide a sense of moral meaning, purpose, and solidarity to post-Christian people. And I’ve got news for French: the real danger to liberal democracy is not coming from the Trumpy Right, despite its problems, but from the woke left in charge of every American institution. These people no longer believe in liberal democracy. The political scientist Eric Kaufmann found:
Survey data from my new Manhattan Institute report, “The Politics of the Culture Wars in Contemporary America,” show the scale of the challenge. While the American public leans two-to-one in favor of cultural liberalism, a majority of Americans under 30 incline toward cultural socialism. For instance, while 65 percent of Americans over 55 oppose Google’s decision to fire James Damore for having questioned the firm’s training on gender equity, those under 30 support the firing by a 59–41 margin. Similar gaps separate young and old people on similar instances of cancel culture, such as the oustings of Gina Carano (an actor fired from Star Wars for social media posts) and Brendan Eich (the former CEO of Mozilla forced out in 2014 for opposing gay marriage in 2008). Only part of this disparity stems from the fact that young people lean left: centrist young people, for instance, support Google over Damore by a 61–39 margin, while centrists over 55 support Damore over Google 58–42.
On the use of critical race theory in school, a similar divide emerges. Eight in ten people over age 55 oppose teaching schoolchildren that the United States was founded on racism and remains systemically racist, or that the country and their homes were built on stolen land. A slight majority of young people support teaching these notions. While opposition to critical race theory in schools can take an illiberal form, compulsory CRT violates two key liberal principles: first, that pupils in a classroom or employees in a diversity training session should not be forced to agree with ideas they don’t believe in; and second, that people should not be treated differently because of their race. Recent attempts by state governments to limit whites’ access to Covid-19 medication are another manifestation of this tendency.
Another front in the culture war is censorship of speech, usually justified on grounds that such speech would inflict psychological harm on minorities and that power should be redistributed to “marginalized groups.” Activists pushing for such censorship organize online flash mobs and pressure campaigns, wielding accusations of racism, homophobia, or transphobia to ruin a person’s reputation and have them fired from their position. The problem is especially acute in higher education: the number of academics targeted for cancellation has exploded in recent years.
Young people are especially afraid of cancel culture. Forty-five percent of employees under 30 worry about losing their jobs because “someone misunderstands something you have said or done, takes it out of context, or posts something from your past online.” Just 29 percent of those over 55 have the same worry.
This fear, however, doesn’t appear to lead young people to oppose cancel culture. Most millennials and members of Generation Z are not cultural liberals too scared to say what they truly believe. Instead, many privilege cultural equality over freedom. By a 48–27 margin, respondents under 30 agree that “My fear of losing my job or reputation due to something I said or posted online is a justified price to pay to protect historically disadvantaged groups.” Those over 50, by contrast, disagree by a 51–17 margin. Younger age brackets are both more fearful of cancel culture and more supportive of it than are older age groups.
How, exactly, is the Zombie Reaganism of French and Last meeting this challenge? There is hard evidence that liberal democracy will not survive the next generations coming to power. The First Amendment means what our judges say it means. Back in 2014, the pseudonymous Ivy League law professor “Kingsfield” told me that in his professional milieu, not only does he never meet religiously observant people, but the people he lives and works with don’t even know religiously observant people. Religion is simply not a factor in their class and society. But these people are training the future federal judges of America. Prof. Kingsfield told me that people who don’t have a sense of why religious liberty is important are unlikely to vote to uphold religious liberty. You can already see that in the way leading Democrats frame “religious liberty” as freedom to worship, but only that (like the Communists of old, in fact). Look:
In a speech not long before she launched her 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton made a stunning declaration of war on religious Americans. Speaking to the 2015 Women in the World Summit, Clinton declared that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.”
Religious beliefs have to be changed? This is perhaps the most radical statement against religious liberty ever uttered by someone seeking the presidency.
Postliberal people, wherever they fall on the spectrum, understand that the liberal order is teetering, and that the kind of people who consider everyone to the right of David Frum a “deplorable,” are in control of the system, and are using it to screw the rest of us. Calling us “fascists,” “unpatriotic conservatives,” and what have you, doesn’t change this.
Note well that these are the very same people who got us into the disastrous long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who never admitted wrongdoing, even error in judgment. In fact, David French, who served in that war, was as recently as 2019 defending the attack on Iraq. Today these people within the Regime are leading us to World War III with Russia. Here is Gen. Petraeus, an unofficial spokesman for the bipartisan pro-war party in Washington, floating a trial balloon of a NATO invasion of Ukraine to fight Russian troops head on:
The US Army brought in a CBS News reporter to witness the 101st Airborne engaged in military exercises on the Romania-Ukraine border. From that report:
The “Screaming Eagles” commanders told CBS News repeatedly that they are always “ready to fight tonight,” and while they’re there to defend NATO territory, if the fighting escalates or there’s any attack on NATO, they’re fully prepared to cross the border into Ukraine.
If the fighting escalates. Are you prepared for the United States to go to war with nuclear-armed Russia, for the sake of Ukraine? Do you trust the same national security establishment that blundered us into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to make it work out this time — when we would be up against an enemy who has nuclear weapons, and the capacity to carry out massive sabotage of the infrastructure we need to run our economy? Do you see where these people are leading our country? We can’t even have a debate about it! In Slovakia this past weekend, I talked to conservatives who said that in their NATO country, anybody who questions the wisdom of current NATO strategy, or who asks out loud if Washington has some responsibility related to the Russian invasion (which everybody deplores!), is shouted down by the media as a Putin stooge. I’m telling you, people in Europe are facing a devastating winter ahead. Speaking about it over the weekend, I heard a prediction from a Swiss banker who works in the energy field, saying he anticipates rioting in the streets by the end of winter, when masses of people cannot afford to pay their heating bills. This is not a joke over here. People here are about to pay a price far, far greater than any American will pay this winter. Nobody supports Russia’s invasion, but the war is a much more complicated thing than what happens on the front lines. Continuing this war is going to impoverish and destabilize Europeans. This is a reality. One gets the feeling that the neocon types in Washington and elsewhere throughout the US establishment don’t give a damn, so wedded are they to their theories about how the world ought to work.
Prime Minister Orban has been calling for some time for a ceasefire and peace negotiations. He sees this war as a disaster for all sides, and is behaving like a statesman, not an ideologue. Of course he’s nothing but a fascist, according to the warmonger know-it-all conservatives of Washington, so what does he know…?
These warmongers are going to end up allowing the Left to destroy whatever remains of traditional culture in America. Meanwhile, here’s a transcript of a recent AEI podcast in which we Hungary enthusiasts are denounced as traitors. Excerpts:
Marc Thiessen: What the hell is going on is there is a strain of conservatism that has embraced the politics of Viktor Orban, who is the prime minister of Hungary. And Matt Continetti had a great column in the Wall Street Journal about how the American Right is starting to speak with a Hungarian accent. Viktor Orban is a conservative nationalist leader of Hungary. He was recently invited to speak at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas. And not only that, CPAC actually went and had a CPAC Budapest where they sort of embraced Orbanism in its entirety.
And this is a strain on the Right that is sort of perplexing to me, concerning to me, because I think there’s parts of it that are more concerning than others. But particularly what’s concerning is that Viktor Orban, who many on the Right are embracing, is possibly in Western Europe, the number one ally of Vladimir Putin, who he’s been a longtime ally of Putin, he’s pushing for a stop to the aid to Ukraine. And he’s a fellow traveler with this KGB agent who’s running Russia and turning it into a fascist new Soviet Union. And I just find it perplexing that American conservatives would embrace someone who embraces Putin in this way.
Danielle Pletka: I think for a lot of us, for a lot of us who are conservative and for whom American conservatism really… Freedom, democracy, using our God-given rights and privileges to stand up for the God-given rights and privileges of others. Those are the kinds of things that I love.
Got it? If you are in any way a critic of US policy towards Ukraine, then you are a Putin lapdog. Don’t you see what they’re doing? It’s Unpatriotic Conservatives 2022! And the idea that American conservatism requires us to become imperialists for “democracy” worldwide — good Lord, have these people learned nothing from the idiotic wars of this century?!
Marc Thiessen: I am neutral on some of what Orbán stands for because it’s a different situation and a different continent with different political pressures, but the Putinism is the thing that I don’t understand. What I don’t understand anybody on the right in America embracing in any way because what we’re doing in Ukraine is fundamentally Reaganesque. It’s the Reagan doctrine. It’s almost the same exact timing.
After the Vietnam War, nobody wanted to go and fight wars in other countries to defend our interests. We decided to find freedom fighters around the world who were willing to fight themselves. We gave them weapons and training and intelligence and they went and fought our enemies for us. This was the great innovation of Ronald Reagan that won the Cold War. Here we have a KGB agent, Dick Chaney said, “Well, I look into Putin’s soul and I see three letters, KGB.”
Danielle Pletka: Versus a child of Holocaust survivors, exactly. It couldn’t be more clear.
Marc Thiessen: We’re doing exactly what Ronald Reagan did, which is arm the good guys to fight the KGB agent. How could anybody on the right not be in favor of that?
Because the real world is not a cartoon planet, that’s why! Russia is led by a nasty dictator, but Russia also has a legitimate national security interest in Ukraine’s alignment with the West. And because Russia has nuclear weapons, and a formidable economic weapon — energy — that it’s using to immensely powerful effect against European countries right now. And these two neocons are sitting in their comfortable sinecures at AEI, a Washington think tank, spinning out 1980s fantasies of how the world works. Meanwhile, Viktor Orban and all the other European leaders are faced with the collapse of their economies, the immiseration of their people in cold and hunger, and maybe even the collapse of their governmental systems. You think Dany Pletka and Marc Thiessen give a rat’s ass about these people? No — they’re just abstractions worthy of denunciation as blood-and-soil fascists because they dissent from the American line on Ukraine.
Y’all, we have been here before. We were here in 2002. How did it work out for us, listening to these people, and letting them demonize their opponents? Think! The conservative project as defined by these institutional elites has failed overall — but they can’t admit it. They just want us to keep doing the same thing, and hoping that it will work out this time. They are going to end up driving us all deeper into the ground, then bouncing the rubble.