Laura Field’s recent critical response to my earlier post concerning the Claremont Institute helpfully clarifies the argument of my initial post. Laura focuses her critique on the message of the Claremont Institute. For instance, she writes: “They posit an existential struggle between their own world and a liberal opposition that they think wants to destroy America. They say things like “multiculturalism” is about destroying the family.” She is critical of their “closed-minded” thinking and their defense of what they think counts as “the American way of life.” It is that message that she doesn’t think has changed since their earlier articulations of it in the context of the Trump election. Although I would still suggest that the message has become more clear, I would agree with her that it hasn’t substantially changed. But, unlike what I take to be Laura’s position, I didn’t want the message to change substantially. As I said in my initial post: “Healthy politics depends on a viable and responsible presentation of both sides of the argument. The liberal conception of progress needs to be tempered by the conservative argument for preservation and restoration.” I suppose I’m more sympathetic than Laura to the conservative worries about “multiculturalism” and protecting the “American way of life.” Although I think their notion of extreme multiculturalism and the reality of American multiculturalism dramatically different, I still think it worth worrying about any ideology that might pose a fundamental threat to the underlying the nature of our regime. I am enough of a conservative that I’m comfortable with some “closed-mindedness” if it’s in the service of the great goodness of the American experiment.
But it is precisely that conservatism that makes me reject the radical rhetoric of the Claremont Institute beginning with Michael Anton’s Flight 93 essay. It was, to be blunt, absolutely ridiculous to say that either the election of 2016 or the election of 2020 would decide the fate of the ideals of America, if not of Western Civilization itself. In that 2016 essay, Anton claimed that if Clinton won “death is certain” and that “a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto.” By contrast, “With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.” Sounds like an election between two radicals actively vying for the soul of America? Nope, this was an election between a life-time reality TV star looking for his next gig and a Democratic party apparatchik. And again in 2020, we heard about the stakes. Claremont’s Chairman of the Board Thomas Klingenstein believed it as important as the election of 1860! Radicals this time? Nope, same reality TV-star, now failed President, and perhaps the only person who could have been more of an apparatchik than Clinton!
My problem with the Claremont message prior to Milikh’s statement centers not on its content but on its doomsday rhetoric. Not only is it obviously untrue to most sensible people, it is also obviously dangerous. If the fate of Western civilization itself hangs in the balance, then the January 6th failed coup wasn’t even close to sufficient. Where were the guns and the bombs?! Where was their courage?! The passengers on Flight 93 had real courage! But, Trump and his supporters didn’t care enough about the fate of Western civilization to send Flight 93 to the ground?! (For what it’s worth, is that how the metaphor works? I’ve never actually understood it? Everyone knew they were going to die on that flight. They had no delusions that charging the cockpit would allow them to fly the plane to safety; they were trying to crash the plane into the woods. They just sacrificed themselves for the greater good of the nation. Is that what we were doing by electing Trump?)
Doomsday rhetoric is fundamentally radical, the very opposite of conservative. Rather than trying to conserve the American tradition over and against the radical threat of multiculturalism, Flight 93, or the election of Trump, blows up that tradition to “save” it? How can we be sure that something better emerges especially because it’s being led by a cartoonish man whose only principle is his own self-aggrandizement? Why would this be the conservative solution? To hell with free and fair elections! Forget about the rule of law! Forget about preserving the dignity of the Presidency, one of the truly great inventions of Western civilization! We have Civilization to save!!!
Milikh’s message might still make Laura uncomfortable but, to the extent that it is political rather than doomsday-ish, I think it a very important advancement. Our democracy depends on an intelligible conservatism that isn’t flirting every four years with rhetoric about the death of all civilization.