Ross Douthat: What the Right’s Intellectuals Did Wrong –

[T]oday, three generations after Buckley and Burnham, the academy and the mass media are arguably more hostile to conservative ideas than ever, and the courts and the bureaucracy are trending in a similar direction.

Reflecting on this harsh reality has confirmed some conservatives in their belief that the managerial order is inherently left wing, and that the goal of a conservative politics should be to sweep the managerial class away entirely. This is part of the appeal of Trump to a small cohort within the right’s intelligentsia, who imagine that his strongman approach can unweave the administrative state and strip the overclass of all its powers.

This idea strikes me as fatuous and fantastical at once. But is there an alternative? Continetti’s essay hints at one: to make intellectual conservatism a more elite-focused project, to seek “a conservative tinged Establishment capable of permeating the managerial society and gradually directing it in a prudential, reflective, virtuous manner respectful of both freedom and tradition.”

This path seems considerably more appealing (and more republican) than the dream of a Trump-led Thermidor. But is it any more plausible? To begin anew, at such steep disadvantages, what amounts to missionary work?

Or, as another alternative, conservative elites might simply try to build a more intellectually serious populism out of the Trumpian wreckage and wait for a less toxic backlash against liberal overreach to ride back into power. But can the populist right actually be de-Hannitized, de-Trumpified, rendered 100 percent Breitbart-free? Or would building on populism once again just repeat the process that led conservatism to its present end?

4 comments on “Ross Douthat: What the Right’s Intellectuals Did Wrong –

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  1. “More Intellectually serious populism” suggests a measure of the same elite whittling of acceptable opinion that populism classically reacts against. The conflict of American Conservatism between nods towards majoritarian cultural protectionism & praise of (ideologically defined…) Common Folks on one hand, versus defense of social & economic hierarchy to the extent of assumption that elites are essential to civilization itself on the other — it regenerates even in attempts to somehow destroy it. That snake will never go hungry off its own tail.

    In a way, the weird neo-monarchist type fringe of the fringe of alt-right has a point: if you like hierarchy so much, rulers might as well have crowns. Normal conservative thought continues this “let’s have hierarchy & tight social rules but call it liberty” dance instead.

    • What would your anarchism be other than an “intellectually more serious,” or at least intellectualized, type of anti-elitism or, in the way you and possibly Douthat are using the term, “populism”? As for the “regeneration” of the “elite,” unless you’re going to put judgment, selection, comparative logic to death, then an elite according to whatever value “hierarchy” you embrace, including the one that places non-elitism and non-hierarchical thinking at the implicit top, you cannot escape it. Makes me think of the line of Nietzche’s that an English professor of mine in ancient times was fond of repeating, to the effect that it’s clear we all still believe in God, because we all still believe in grammar.

      In any event, Douthat is interested in a more concrete problem here, I think. Continetti’s proposal (quite a transformation coming from a man who announced the Free Beacon as a project of “combat journalism”) seems to conceive of conservatism as an ethos unattached to any particular political program or standpoint.

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