When it’s not Trumpism that threatens to overwhelm whatever’s left of the Republican Party and American conservatism in general, it’s just plain old-fashioned doom and gloom. The mourning period for the late, great but over-lamented William F. Buckley seems endless. But now it’s time to say goodbye to all that, put away the mourning coat and widow’s weeds, and return to life. Mr. Buckley’s cherished memory, however fond we may be of it, still casts a pall over his party, not to say the whole right side of American politics and culture.
It’s time to move on. But conservatives seem stuck in an age that has passed us by and can’t seem to get out of our post-Buckley rut, which is good news only for the kind of gleeful gliberals who are riding high these days astride the Democratic Party and propose to ride even higher. For instead of letting loose with a battle cry of freedom, many of us seem reluctant to raise our voices above a whisper. Maybe because we’re too busy bemoaning our fate.
Just take a glance at “The Coming Conservative Dark Age” in the current issue of Commentary magazine, which used to be a beacon of light but now can echo only the darkest fears about the future, if any, of the conservative movement, which now has seemed to stop moving entirely.
Part of the reason for this immobility is that great leaders don’t just shape history. They can freeze it in their own much adored image, reducing it to an endless repetition of what has been without allowing their followers to consider what might yet be.
Such a leader of thought and style, in Commentary’s words, was William F. Buckley with “his wit, his intelligence, his charisma and his panache.” How long has it been since anyone used the word panache in connection with a conservative leader? Ages. You might as well describe old Jeremiah as happy-go-lucky. They didn’t call his prophecies jeremiads for nothing in his biblical times.
Buckley’s death at 82 in 2008 deprived not only American conservatives but all Americans of something else: his authority. And we need it now more than ever. Few things would be more welcome on the American scene whether right, left or center than a good, thorough culling – a ruthless purge of positively Stalinist dimensions.
To quote Commentary’s back-of-the-book piece on the state of the American Media-ocracy: “By exiling anti-Semites, Birchers and anti-American reactionaries from its pages, (Buckley’s National Review) determined which conservative arguments were legitimate and which were not. ... And Buckley did more than exorcise demons. He welcomed converts. When a group of anti-Communist liberals began to drift from the Democratic Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Buckley and company lowered the drawbridge and welcomed the neoconservatives to the castle. ‘Come on in,’ National Review editorialized, ‘the water’s fine.’ ”
In short, Buckley was a gatekeeper of ideas. But now not only is the gatekeeper gone, but the gates, the ideas and everything else. In their place the political barbarians are not just in the streets but everywhere – as far as the eye can see. It is all just a political wasteland littered with the remains of what used to be a lively, flourishing, argumentative culture.
Of course Buckley and company were elitists. There can be no society without an elite to lead, criticize and generally guide it if it is to remain a society instead of a madhouse. But now the mob is everywhere. And as always its noisome presence is but the precursor to oppression, persecution and tyranny in general.
Once upon a time there were creatures called moderate or Eisenhower Republicans, a breed that did more than just repeat the Trumpian delusions of their time. They came, they saw, they conquered the ideological fixations of their age and marched on to victory.
But look around now. Not an Eisenhower in sight – that is, someone the American people would follow whose good sense beckoned them on to victory, usually by a landslide. Think of Ike’s mile-wild grin, the way he exuded cheer and good will. We liked Ike and so did the whole country, if with the exception of a few intellectual snobs who didn’t know any better and didn’t care to learn. Eggheads they were dubbed, and just as easily shattered.
For now all is in crazy-quilt abeyance as the country waits for sanity to return. So it has been since ancient times and so it will be again if the ancients had it right about history’s being cyclical. And once again the mob needs to be dispelled, not welcomed. And the best way to do that is to find a way up from politics.
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.