When William F. Buckley Jr., having assembled an impressive team of right-of-centre men of letters such as his eccentric Yale mentor Willmoore Kendall, ex-Trotskyist Machiavellian Cold War analyst James Burnham, and Austrian Catholic royalist aristocrat Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, launched his journal National Review in 1955, he declared in its statement of purpose that it “stands athwart history, yelling Stop”. Many, impressed by Buckley’s rhetoric but not by the magazine’s subsequent performance, especially since it has reversed itself on many of the positions it took in the 1950s and 1960s, have suggested that this should read “stands athwart history, yelling ‘slow down’”. Personally, I think that Buckley was somewhat misguided from the beginning and that a nobler purpose would have been to “stand athwart history, yelling ‘turn this sucker around, its heading in the wrong direction.’”
National Review quickly became the flagship publication of the intellectual wing of the American conservative movement which at the time was a loose, “big tent”, coalition of disparate groups and individuals united by their common foes: welfare socialism, International Communism at home and abroad, and the forces of social, moral, cultural, and civilization decay that had begun to manifest themselves in such forms as the sexual revolution and feminism. Many of the elements of this movement were actually liberals in the older, nineteenth century sense of the term, such as the economists of the Chicago and Austrian schools respectively, Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises. Others were conservative in the traditional sense of the term, including the aforementioned Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn and the other Catholic monarchists who had fled the Nazi and Communist occupations of Europe. There were also American born traditionalists who combined elements of traditional conservatism and classical liberalism. In the eighteenth century, the classical liberal or Whig statesman, Edmund Burke, had borrowed the arguments of the Tories, or classical conservatives, for tradition, order, and prescriptive institutions such as the British monarchy and established church, to defend these against the kind of fanaticism that had spawned the violence and destruction of the French Revolution. Russell Kirk, an American disciple of Burke’s, adapted these arguments into a defence of the liberal, republican, institutions of his own country, the United States.
Realizing that a movement needs to be united around something positive rather than merely a common set of enemies, National Review promoted an idea called fusionism, developed by one of its original editorial staff Frank S. Meyer as a synthesis of classical conservatism and classical liberalism that would defend tradition and freedom at the same time. At this point, lest anyone think that the title of my website is a nod to this idea, I should say that I chose “Throne, Altar, Liberty” as a title to advance a different idea – the idea that it is the traditional institutions of monarchy and established religion which provide the necessary foundation and context for personal freedom and that therefore it is and always has been the Tory, the champion of these institutions, who is the true friend of freedom and that he does not need to borrow from the vain philosophies of John Locke and J. S. Mill in order to be such.
Initially, National Review took bold and daring stands against the progressive liberal consensus that the rest of the media was trying to build on a number of hot button issues. It stood up for the Southern states when everyone else was seeking to pillory them, refused to jump on the Martin Luther King Jr. bandwagon, challenged the wisdom and justice of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, defended scientists and academics who did not doctor the facts about matters such as IQ to conform to the neo-Lysenkoism that had become official dogma, and poured contempt on international efforts to bully Rhodesia and Southern Africa into accepting black majoritarian rule. Over the years however, it seems to have toned down its rhetoric, watered down its message, and even reversed its position on a number of issues. On a number of occasions it has jettisoned writers and editors over controversial positions they have taken – examples include Joe Sobran on Israel and the Middle East in the early 1990s and Peter Brimelow and John O’Sullivan on mass Third World immigration in the late 1990s.
Sometimes the magazine supports a candidate in the primaries for an American presidential election – Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan as examples – and sometimes it does not. This year it has chosen to go the route of waging a campaign of opposition against a candidate, the candidate in question being Donald Trump. Last week it posted to its website an official statement from the magazine’s editors entitled “Against Trump”, giving reasons why they feel that conservatives should not support the Donald, as well as a symposium of several conservative figures, who for one reason or another are not in favour of Donald Trump.
Now, as a patriotic Canadian and a firm royalist who does not approve of republics and presidents, I do not, of course, have a proverbial dog in the fight that is the American presidential election. I do confess, however, to having greatly enjoyed watching from up north as Donald Trump has enraged the feminists, open borders liberals, anti-racists, and all the other more-enlightened-than-thou, politically correct, killjoys who are the bane of post-modern existence. Perhaps it is because of this that I am inclined to see National Review’s anti-Trump campaign as yet another example of the magazine’s lamentable decline from the cutting edge challenger of the progressive zeitgeist that it once was.
The editors’ argument against Trump could be summarized in the complaint that he is a populist rather than a conservative. This is true in itself, and the distinction is an important one, but it does not follow from this that conservatives ought not to support Trump. Conservatism seeks to preserve, protect, and pass on the valuable institutions and traditions that have been passed on from the past, whereas populism seeks to mobilize and harness discontent on the part of the populace with the powers that be. It is difficult to reconcile these two projects, and historically the conservative has wisely viewed populism with suspicion because of the great destructive potential of the forces it wishes to unleash. Nevertheless, the reconciliation of the protection of heritage with the giving voice to popular outrage is not impossible, and National Review need look no further than their late former publisher, William Rusher, for a man who successfully combined traditionalism and populist activism. Up here, the last decent man to serve as Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, was another example. He was on the one hand a prairie populist, who spoke out on behalf of rural, small town and farming, communities and regions against the arrogance of the money and business interests in central Canada and on the other hand a Tory firmly committed to Canada and her traditional institutions, such as Parliament and the monarchy. Indeed, when a powerful elite makes itself the enemy of the traditions and institutions the conservative cherishes, he is forced into the position where he must join forces to some extent with populism.
Interestingly, the editors of National Review themselves provide, albeit unintentionally, evidence that this is in fact the present situation. They refer, in one paragraph, to the “permanent things”, an expression from T. S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society that Russell Kirk had borrowed to indicate the things which the conservative cherishes and guards. As examples of the permanent things they give “constitutional government, marriage and the right to life.” Leaving aside the fact that in recent years National Review has often seemed to treat these things as expendable rather than permanent, having posted less than a year ago a screed arguing for capitulation to liberalism on a major point touching the second of them, is there any serious doubt that the predominate elites in the United States and the rest of the Western world have aligned themselves against marriage and the right to life?
Now to the preceding argument it may be objected that Donald Trump is not campaigning on a pro-life, pro-marriage platform but on a nativist, anti-immigration, platform. This is true, but in answer to this objection I would respond, first of all, by observing that it is the same elites who have set themselves against marriage and the right to life who are the ones who believe in a world without borders, in exporting jobs to the Third World and importing workers from the Third World, and who cannot stand the thought of closing the borders to any group of people even if doing so is an eminently sensible and obvious thing to do from the perspective of national security. Secondly, I would argue that immigration is obviously another matter on which conservatives should join forces with populism.
As recently as one hundred years ago, there was broad agreement across the political spectrum that it was countries who let immigrants in rather than deciding after the fact what to do with immigrants who let themselves in and however many immigrants a country let in to meet her needs at the time immigration should not fundamentally change the character of the country. A little over half a century ago, when liberals across the Western world began to push for more relaxed immigration policies, they still gave lip service to the old consensus, arguing that their policies would not drastically change the character of their countries, while conservatives, most notably those who were the farthest thing from populist rabble-rousers such as classical scholar-turned-High Tory statesman Enoch Powell in the UK and award-winning Catholic legitimist novelist Jean Raspail in France, argued that it would, and that it should not be allowed to happen. Now that liberal immigration is so changing the character of our countries that it is too obvious to pretend that it is not taking place, the new liberal line of argument is “so what, you are a racist if you have a problem with it.”
That conservatives, of all people, should be opposed to policies that are radically changing the character of our countries, is something of which the present editors of National Review are clearly aware. They therefore do not argue for an outright open-borders position but instead complain that Donald Trump’s proposals are unworkable, his position irresponsible, and his rhetoric vulgar. Whether his proposals would work or not are a matter for discussion and debate, although I think the arguments that they would not are incredibly weak.
The question that remains is do the editors of National Review, agree in substance with the old consensus that it is countries who will decide who they let in, that they will decide according to their own needs, and however many they decide they will not allow the fundamental character of their countries to be changed by immigration, and merely object to the vulgarity of Donald Trump’s populist style? Or is it rather that they disagree with the old consensus, and are really open-borders, one-world, liberals who are using Trump’s vulgar style as a pretext in a desperate campaign against the first man in decades who seems capable of shattering the new, liberal, consensus?
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