One of the signature stereotypes of present-day political controversy is the privileged and coddled Social Justice Warrior, usually resident on a university campus, who lives to take offense at the unfairness of life. Unlike hardworking, uncomplaining, and morally grounded Real Americans, the Social Justice Warrior is a petulant whiner whose troublemaking has brought us cringe-worthy notions like trigger warnings, safe spaces, and cultural appropriation. Not for nothing are they dubbed “snowflakes:” each one unique (in his or her own mind), and oh, so fragile.
With that in mind, a segment on NPR’s “All Things Considered” left me practically convulsed with laughter. It featured a series of what might generously be called conservative opinion leaders bellyaching about how, despite controlling all three branches of the federal government and the majority of state governments, the right isn’t sufficiently esteemed by the broader American culture. Like the late Rodney Dangerfield, they just don’t get no respect.
"Like the late Rodney Dangerfield, [bellyaching conservative opinion leaders] just don’t get no respect."
John Hawkins, the founder of Right Wing News, catalogues the daily horrors that he and his fellow conservatives must suffer: "He turns on a TV show where he's insulted, and then he's like, 'well, maybe I'll just unwind and watch an awards show'—the Oscars or something—where he gets trashed all day long. He goes to Twitter and he's got some you know guy calling him in a-hole . . . this is sort of like a pervasive all-out attack if you're a conservative. And it's an all the time sort of thing."
Oh, the humanity!
Kurt Schlichter, a blogger at Townhall.com, continues in this self-pitying vein: "We want to be treated with respect, and we will not tolerate anything less which is just unacceptable for this to continue. I'm tired of Hollywood spitting on us. I am tired of academia spitting on us. I'm tired of the news media spitting on us."
Dammit, I am a man!
At first sight, it is passing strange that the shock troops of the conservative movement should be so wiltingly sensitive. The whole gestalt of conservatism is closely bound up with its adherents’ self-image as rugged individualists, proud of their autonomy and contemptuous of the horde of other-directed, Nanny State-worshipping collectivist slackers that liberalism has bred.
At times, this conceit reaches Nietzschean proportions, such we see when we consider how many conservatives extol the wooden, interminable prose of Ayn Rand. They are fans of her otherwise unreadable books because of her simple, sophomoric message: If you are reading this book, you are like its protagonist, Howard Roark; you are innately superior to the bovine herd of mass men, and you must be indifferent to their wheedling and importuning.
Yet here these would-be Übermenschen are, simpering that they don’t get the respect they feel they are entitled to by right, as if the U.S. Constitution required it. What explains this seeming dichotomy in the conservative personality?
A thousand conservatives, from Edmund Burke to the lamentable Jonah Goldberg, have defined their creed as simply the natural order of things. Conservatism is a recipe for the way man is meant to live, handed down from mist-shrouded immemorial time in the manner of a tablet of immutable commandments. The mindset that gives rise to this belief naturally proceeds to the conviction that their political views, aesthetic tastes, and foibles are part of the very fabric of culture, and that practices deviating from them are wrong, unnatural, and deeply offensive.
The right spends a lot of its time defending Western Civilization (typically capitalized to signal its importance) from all manner of imagined attacks. Goldberg’s latest polemic, Suicide of the West (a title cribbed from the obsessive cold warrior James Burnham’s 1965 book), has a theme that may be summarized as “everything great has become lousy; liberals are to blame!” The pose of Horatius at the bridge battling the barbarian hordes has deep emotional appeal to many conservatives.
Yet ever since the French Revolution, conservatism has been at odds with nearly all the major trends within Western Civilization that have emerged from the Enlightenment, trends that, for all their halting reforms and backsliding, have made it unique compared to other historical civilizations: science and empiricism, legal equality, human rights and the emancipation of women, abolition of torture, free intellectual inquiry, and the general attitude that life’s conditions ought to be made humane to the extent practicable. Conservatives, by contrast, are staunch defenders of the West – but only if you throw out the last 250 years of positive developments, including, apparently, vaccines and modern sanitation. The more religiously inclined date the suicide of the West to 500 years ago, when the Reformation began.
As I have argued elsewhere, Joseph de Maistre, a 19th century diplomat from the Duchy of Savoy and fierce opponent of liberalism, embodied the essential points of the conservative mind, then as now, and at a deeper cultural level than taxes, spending, and other mundane issues. He was no mere defender of the status quo against change; rather, he advocated a revolutionary reaction to wrench society from the permissive and confused present and hurl it into an imagined past where authority, order, and piety would reign supreme, eternal, and changeless. To the degree this attitude reflects Western Civilization, it is closer to Torquemada’s vision than Voltaire’s.
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It is this circumstance of representing an archaic backwater of the Western tradition rather than its main stream that explains the present-day conservative and his endless complaints about “the culture.” He is not really at home in the present, and his supposed conservatism is always at war with his instinct to rebel against the status quo. Since creating a utopia based on a mythical past model is not a feasible political project, conservatives necessarily display a peevishness that occasionally breaks into a paranoid belief that the world dares to be against them.
As the Austrian writer Robert Musil warned, “a man cannot be angry at his own time without suffering some damage,” and conservatives, venting about how the dominant culture disrespects them, display their permanently aggrieved, adversarial stance towards the system they believe is persecuting them. It is not enough that they dominate government, have their own 24/7 propaganda network (Fox, of course), the largest corporate chain of TV stations in the country (Sinclair), and utterly control talk radio; nothing less than complete social hegemony can still their nagging fear that someone, somewhere, is laughing at them. Only when NASCAR, Chuck Norris, and Lee Greenwood become the sole thinkable expression of American “culture” will their insecurity be assuaged.
The conservative responds either with maudlin self-pity, or with a combative and transgressive point-scoring. Beginning with William F. Buckley, Jr.’s bad-boy performance art at Yale in the early 1950s, through P.J. O’Rourke in the 1980s and culminating in the obscene antics of Milos Yiannapoulos, much of postwar American conservatism has consisted of flipping off the bourgeoisie – paradoxically, in a supposed defense of the dignity of the Western tradition. This mocking, countercultural stance validates conservatives as fearless truth-tellers, but it is clearly at variance with their pose as champions of order, stability, and a reliable dividend for shareholders.
We have seen this contradiction play out in political as well as cultural venues. From Newt Gingrich’s speakership, during which he renamed the House committees (aping the manner in which Communist despotisms in Eastern Europe renamed streets and even whole cities once they seized power), through the feather-brained ambition of George W. Bush to demolish and reorder the Greater Middle East according to the fever dream of right-wing think tanks, to the Tea Party’s mania to drive the country into sovereign default, conservatism has been more about tearing down than building. In the case of Donald Trump’s “streamlining” of agencies like the State Department and the EPA, the impulse is nothing more than spite-filled vandalism. So much for their reverent attitude towards tradition.
This sharp divergence between a stated ideal and actual behavior is readily observable in conservatives’ near-religious adoration of the incumbent president. As required by the ground rules of the culture war, conservatives always make heavy weather of “traditional role models.” The ideal masculine archetype is the strong, taciturn, self-reliant man who overcomes life’s vicissitudes with stoicism and inner fortitude. Slow to anger but decisive in action, this heroic archetype detests braggadocio and lets his deeds do the talking. Within the obvious constraints of outdated gender stereotypes, he is unfailingly chivalrous to and protective of women.
Think of Gary Cooper—alone, facing insurmountable odds, afraid of near-certain death, but determined to fight for decency and never back down—in High Noon.
A vigorous cottage industry has established itself among conservatives in order to rhapsodize over this character type. Bill Bennett, Charles Murray, and Harvey Mansfield are among the legion of conservative pseudo-intellectuals who have used this model to condemn the failings of contemporary society; inevitably, it is liberalism’s fault that the model is no longer emulated and we now live amid perpetually adolescent girly-men. There seems to be a greater conservative demand for this sort of analysis than can be supplied from domestic sources: a newly popular import is the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, whose stern admonitions to man up are laced with the inevitable Bible verses and platitudes against political correctness. There must be alarming amount of gender panic among these folks.
With that in mind, consider the 45th president of the United States, whose popularity among conservatives is such that they may soon nominate him for the next available vacancy in the Trinity. Trump is not only a walking negation of every single feature I have mentioned, his character coincides perfectly with the old-fashioned, harshly negative sexist stereotype of the bitchy, hysterical woman. From his preening vanity about his looks to his vicious, catty tongue, Trump is a compilation of every alleged unbearable shrewish trait that misogynists have zealously catalogued for millennia.
Petty, boastful, full of spite and petulance, yet deeply insecure and always craving praise and attention, this pathological cry-baby is the personification of the neurotic diva that Bette Davis made into a bankable formula in dozens of melodramas. Yet here we are, living with someone whose finger rests on the nuclear button, who might have convincingly played the lead role in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? or Jezebel. As Charles Pierce has hilariously pointed out, Trump’s letter to Kim Jong-un apparently ditching the summit had the effect of a Mean Girl saying, you can't break up with me, I broke up with you! (as of this writing, we still don’t know whether the summit is definitely on or off – it is, after all, a diva’s prerogative to change her mind).
It is impossible to imagine Gary Cooper, or Randolph Scott, or Jimmy Stewart, or any other of the paragons of mid-20th century manhood, the period when Trump was young, taking inordinate time and effort to engineer their hair into a gravity-defying bouffant that could have been the work of Jacqueline Kennedy’s hairstylist, or rounding their lips in a pouty moue as their characteristic expression, or reacting hysterically to every imagined setback in a voice that is half an octave too shrill.
"Conservatism in its present form is a funhouse-mirror exaggeration of many of the pathologies that have built up in the United States under the rubric of American Exceptionalism."
Oddly, the mainstream media, which are assumed to be relentlessly adversarial towards Trump, have never commented on the blatantly epicene qualities of the president, even as they fight a losing struggle to document his avalanche of lies and boasts. History is full of ironies, and in banishing the detested Hillary Clinton, the dread termagant of a thousand conservative nightmares, Republicans installed the first female president – or at least a grotesque, negative caricature of one. Conservatives, however much they pontificate about salvaging traditional gender behaviors from the cesspool of degenerate American culture, profess to regard him as a role model and exemplar of the manly man!
It is impossible to reconcile Trump’s androgynous persona with the camouflage fatigue-wearing, gun-fetishizing, tough-guy culture that pervades conservatism, just as it is pointless to try to explain a foul-mouthed, libertine conman as the earthly messiah of the politically conservative evangelicals who constitute the largest single voting bloc in the GOP. The impulse springs from the same behavioral deformation that is responsible for conservatism’s allegedly self-actualizing (but cosplaying) Randian supermen, who in real life wail that they are not getting the respect that they demand we bestow upon them as their birthright.
No doubt there is a fair quotient of hypocrisy and opportunism at work. But the contradictions are too stark and too deeply embedded to ascribe them all to mere conscious calculation. Conservatism in its present form is a funhouse-mirror exaggeration of many of the pathologies that have built up in the United States under the rubric of American Exceptionalism. That national myth may yet lead our country to destruction under Donald John Trump, American Exceptionalism’s most vociferous proponent, and the man who best embodies the schizophrenic wish-dreams of contemporary American conservatism.