Stanford students are drummed into believing that conservatism is a movement of racists, sexists, xenophobes, intolerants, homophobes, and bigots. A deeper dive into the movement, however, yields context and perspective that not only enriches the mind but the soul as well.
The party out of the White House typically reflects on what ideas it should discard and what ideas may carry the vanquished back into the halls of power. This is happening with frantic intensity on the American Left. Will the party fully embrace socialism? Will the party acquiesce to infanticide? Is the opposition to Nicolas Maduro’s government in Venezuela a right-wing conspiracy? All as yet unanswered. However, what we observe today on the American Right, in which the party of the President is also undergoing critical self-reflection, is far less common. Two recent books enter this conversation, from radically different approaches.
The objective of Tucker Carlson’s Ship of Fools is to contextualize this conversation on the Right by introducing a new conservative populism. Embodied most of all by the Trump rebellion in the 2016 GOP primary, this conservative populism questions the logic of the neo-conservative domination of the GOP’s ruling class. In an economic sense, neo-conservatism, evidenced by George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” is indiscernible from corporatist liberalism. Carlson, the primetime anchor of Fox News, understands the 2016 election as the political moment when both party establishments converged into a single, gluttonous whole, only to be flanked by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders’ populism.
For Carlson, the political establishment’s acceptance of the synthesis of market capitalism and progressive social values can be described as “the most destructive combination in economic history.” Carlson does not spend the book describing a formulaic economic policy direction that Trump can adopt. Instead, he launches into a critique of modern liberalism that focuses on the weaknesses inherent to multiculturalism, mass immigration, and the erasing of gender differences. He mentions environmentalism as well, describing it as a movement that “has very little to do with improving the natural world” and is merely a self-congratulatory excuse for elites to feel good about “helping the world.” Carlson concludes with a call for the elites of the United States to set aside their snobbery and solipsism in order to “attend to the population” lest democracy is lost.
Ship of Fools is short on footnotes, which is something that cannot be said of Roger Scruton’s Conservatism, a book of similar length but of infinitely greater reach. Scruton’s goal is to compress the history of the philosophy of conservative thinking into 150 pages. It is an admirable achievement and stands as the greater contribution to the conservative canon. Scruton, a conservative academic described by Niall Ferguson as the greatest Englishman alive, brings together an array of great books in describing the historical role of conservatism as a nestled critique of liberalism. While necessarily symbiotic with liberalism, conservatism defends the only “social context” in which “Liberalism makes sense.” Thus, the formulations of human freedom as described by classical liberal thinkers like Locke only makes sense in the context of a conservative grounding.
Scruton describes with particular depth the role of Edmund Burke. Scruton traces the Burkean idea of the social contract between the generations to modern conservative understandings of the central role of traditional values. Conservatism also touches on the American fusion of libertarianism to conservatism and the rearguard fighting that the American conservative movement has waged in the face of overwhelming odds in the academy and media. He concludes with a call for conservatism to be the bulwark against the political Islamism spreading westward from the Middle East. Importantly, nothing is mentioned of the Trump populist moment.
Both books are worth reading merely for the fact that they convey two different takes on conservatism circa 2018. One is reflective and the other is rebellious. For a Stanford student who wants to dip into the debate over the future of American conservatism, both of these well-written short takes hold immense value.