We Need to Stop Calling Far-Right Extremists ‘Conservatives’

Want proof a stopped clock is right twice a day? On Thursday, the right-wing outlet The Federalist published what could only be described as a manifesto aimed at fellow travelers, arguing that “We Need to Stop Calling Ourselves Conservatives.”As a conservative, I believe the author, John Daniel Davidson, got it 1srcsrc percent correct: It is

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Want proof a stopped clock is right twice a day? On Thursday, the right-wing outlet The Federalist published what could only be described as a manifesto aimed at fellow travelers, arguing that “We Need to Stop Calling Ourselves Conservatives.”

As a conservative, I believe the author, John Daniel Davidson, got it 1srcsrc percent correct: It is time for right-wing nationalists to stop besmirching our good name!

Those of us who remain consistent conservatives are no longer in sync with right-wingers or GOP faithful—because they changed. By insisting on calling this new MAGA movement “conservative,” we (the media, the activists, the politicians) are rendering words useless. To be sure, political movements—like the English language, itself—evolve over time. But calling Trumpist radicals “conservative” is tantamount to saying the word “literally” means “figuratively.”

Davidson deserves credit for calling bullshit on that bait-and-switch game, and he is keen on the change, primarily (he says) because “the conservative project has largely failed.”

Again, in a sense, he is correct. No conservative nation would elect a vulgarian like Donald Trump. Obviously, something went terribly wrong. Case closed.

Still, I can’t help but think that this apocalyptic surrender is dramatically overwrought. Thanks largely to conservatives, America won the Cold War against the Soviets. What is more, after a 5src-year struggle, conservative pro-life activists and the conservative legal establishment overturned Roe v. Wade (admittedly with Donald Trump’s help). It’s also worth asking: What would America have looked like if conservatives hadn’t been there to push back on radical ideas? A lot worse, I suspect.

America is the greatest country in the world, and we are living during a time of relative peace and prosperity. From a personal standpoint, I go to whatever church I want, vote (or not) for whomever I want, publicly criticize the president, send my kids to whatever school I am willing to pay for (thanks school choice), and am essentially left alone. Heck, I can even own a gun if I want. What’s not to love?

Sure, there are problems. But how many of our perceived problems are merely the result of seeing crazy stuff on Twitter? True, it has always been the case that some weird shit is happening out there somewhere, but I have created a life that largely filters that out (and you can, too). It’s the American dream!

Complaining about modern America feels slightly privileged—kind of like a Yankees fan lamenting that it’s been over a decade since their last World Series win. I mean, come on.

To the degree that anything has changed, Davidson (I think correctly) concedes that “technological change so swift and powerful it fundamentally reordered society, swept tradition aside, and unleashed a moral relativism that rendered the conservative project obsolete.”

If you long for some Middle Ages utopia (just don’t die of the plague), then technology is a major source of dislocation. There’s a reason Russell Kirk called the automobile the “mechanical Jacobin.” But change is inevitable, and civilization needs conservatives (here I am specifically referring to people who want to conserve traditional culture) to help manage this change.

But change happens. The automobile changed us. The birth control pill changed us. God knows Twitter changed us. Smart governments must find ways to adapt to technology, just as wise families and individuals must find ways to simultaneously use innovations and mitigate their downsides. This is a constant struggle, but it beats the alternative.

Is it fair though to blame conservatives for losing the culture if technology is the main driver of change? First, technology often cuts both ways. The same gun that can be used to kill can also be used to protect. Some technologies (such as ultrasound photos) have had a conservative, or at least, a pro-life impact. Nobody calls it a “fetus” when they post a picture of their unborn baby on Facebook or Instagram (or the fridge).

Second, the idea that we can completely resist technology, as the Luddites tried to do, seems silly and impossible. What if we succeed in tamping down on innovation, only to see China own the future (and possibly us)? Perhaps they want that kind of conservative future.

Now, you might ask, what does this revolution entail? According to Davidson, “if conservatives want to save the country they are going to have to rebuild and in a sense re-found [America], and that means getting used to the idea of wielding power, not despising it.” He goes on to add that “wielding government power will mean a dramatic expansion of the criminal code.” Again, this sounds more like the Jacobins than Reagan (even if he did lead a political “revolution”).

What if the other side wins, and they get to impose their will on us?

Davidson believes today’s right-wingers should “stop thinking of themselves as conservatives (much less as Republicans) and start thinking of themselves as radicals, restorationists, and counterrevolutionaries.”

Again, I couldn’t agree more.

The father of modern conservatism was arguably Edmund Burke, who famously opposed the French Revolution. Today’s right-wingers have much more in common with Robespierre than they do with Burke. There is a long tradition of this sort of worldview, but, by definition, it is the exact opposite of conservative.

Davidson is merely arguing for truth in advertising.

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