Somewhere the late conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly is smiling about the results of our most recent presidential election. It would not be simply because her last book, The Conservative Case for Trump, which urged her doubting fellow conservatives to vote for Trump because he was the successor to the mantle of Ronald Reagan, proved effective, in a way, and her preferred candidate won. But more importantly, because Trump’s triumph proved two more considerable theoretical concerns of hers that she expressed in the book, A Choice Not an Echo, that made her famous in conservative movement circles more than 50 years ago.
The first was that polling is “a subtle propaganda machine to sell Republicans on the false propositions that the GOP cannot win unless it 1) continues the New Deal foreign policy and 2) names candidates who will appeal to left-leaning Democrats and liberals.”
The polling was so inaccurate in this election, widely favoring the Democratic candidate, who, from a strategic standpoint in the battleground states, lost decisively, as to give some substance to Shlafly’s idea that polling, at least in this instance, is partisanship futilely disguising itself as science. In short, Schlafly, based on this election, had every right to believe that polling is, to use a favorite word of disapproval in the academy, a pseudoscience.
Schlafly’s view suggested strongly that no conservative candidate was ever going to be acceptable to the mainstream liberal opinion, which dominates much of the media and popular culture of this country, so it is quixotic, fatuous for Republicans to court it. Trump chose to court its enmity.
The second was that Republicans would never be more than a minority party as long as they continued to believe in “me tooism,” or the idea that their presidential candidates could not be too strikingly different or oppositional to their Democratic opponents. She likened elections to the adversarial process in court: truth nor justice would prevail if the opposing lawyers agreed on the key points of the case and disagreed only on relatively minor questions, or the defendant, as a rule, always conceded to the plaintiff or the prosecutor. Trump’s victory validated her view of elections as uncompromising confrontations of diametrically opposed difference. On issues of immigration, healthcare, and foreign policy, Trump aggressively and radically, even crudely, disagreed with Hillary Clinton. Schlafly’s view suggested strongly that no conservative candidate was ever going to be acceptable to the mainstream liberal opinion, which dominates much of the media and popular culture of this country, so it is quixotic, fatuous for Republicans to court it. Trump chose to court its enmity.
He campaigned at times like a debased, out of control version of cranky Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964, mixed with a kind of celebrity hubris that Arnold Schwarzenegger brought to his successful 2003 gubernatorial bid but this performance, manic but calculating, struck his followers as having a kind of embattled honesty or authenticity about it. Trump was also funnier, more humorous, both intentionally and unintentionally, than Clinton. This permitted Trump to hide his dishonesty better than Clinton, scripted and polished, who never came across as authentic even to most of her supporters. This alienation Clinton generated was an unanticipated problem for a woman who consistently topped American polls as the most admired woman in the world. Her campaign could never quite solve this disjuncture of an admired woman who was deeply disliked.
Trump was more likable to the people who wanted to like him because he was the non-conformist, the rebel, whereas Clinton as the establishment candidate was less likable to the people who wanted to like her because they, too, wanted a rebel. This is why, in the end, to find a rebel vein in her candidacy, they and Clinton herself, promoted the obvious fact that, if elected, she would be the first woman president. The results of the election showed that significant portions of the voting public, after electing the first black president eight years ago, were a bit fatigued by the notion of voting for barrier-breaking firsts, once more with feeling, as it were.
Trump’s slash-and-burn march to the White House, one of the most stunning accomplishments in the annals of American politics no matter how loathsome the man may be to so many, managed, as CNN commentator Brooke Baldwin and others have pointed out, to end the dynastic claims of two powerful political families: The Republican Bushes and the Democrat Clintons. In this sense, what some people miss seeing who insist that Trump is nothing more a racist, misogynist boor is that his insurgency represents a larger complaint many disaffected, unaffiliated whites have about the ruling political elite of both parties and the particular pressure groups that have, in turn, become their pets, attack dogs, and allies, which, to me, seems a bit different than when disaffected white Democrats shifted to Reagan in the 1980 campaign.
The conservative’s dilemma is that the assertion of nationalism by white Americans strike many Americans who are not white as an assertion of white nationalism, a special proposition that they rightly fear and despise, having been victims of it.
Schlafly admired Trump’s abashed cry for America First, the cry of the nationalist in a world being consumed by the globalist sensibilities of many governing elites. To push back against globalist concerns is understandable, even if it may be wrongheaded, if only because “place” in this world, no matter how fictive, is something still worth fighting for. But in the United States, nationalism encounters its own history as a racialized, restrictive concept: Whose nation? And For What Purpose?
The conservative’s dilemma is that the assertion of nationalism by white Americans strike many Americans who are not white as an assertion of white nationalism, a special proposition that they rightly fear and despise, having been victims of it. But the conservative feel that whites qua whites ought to have and be able to express political interests; otherwise liberalism, as James Burnham argued in Death of the West, is just a form of the gradual suicide of European-descended people. But the slow death of the West, by suicide or other means, is precisely what many Americans, including many liberal and leftist whites, may want to rid the world finally of what they see as the perniciousness of whiteness. Of course, many whites do not hold that whiteness is something that needs to be defanged as a self-interest or eliminated as an impulse: This is the battle, about our fate as an exceptionalist nation, that is being fought in our most recent election. And it will remain a passionate, nay bitter, one for many years to come.