One hundred years ago this week, the founder of modern American conservatism was born into poverty in Plymouth, Mich. Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind,” published in 1953, laid the foundations of a modern conservative movement that dominated the second half of the American Century. But 65 years later, Kirk’s classic work reads instead as a damning indictment against the very movement he helped launch.
The central thesis of Kirk’s philosophy was that “the conservative abhors all forms of ideology” and subscribes to principles “arrived at by convention and compromise” instead of “fanatic ideological dogmata.” Six decades of Republican overreach and corrosive causes have instead led to the rise of Donald Trump and a foreign policy run by John Bolton, an economy guided by Larry Kudlow and a legal team led by conspiracy theorist Joseph DiGenova.
Bolton’s elevation to the position of national security adviser is a fitting coda for a movement whose adherents spent decades throwing themselves on an endless array of ideological barricades while vilifying opponents whose responses to Soviet Russia or Islamic fundamentalism were deemed insufficiently harsh. Bolton’s selection will not disappoint these same GOP militants whom Kirk battled until his death in 1994. Trump’s third national security adviser in 14 months has called for the preemptive bombing of North Korea and Iran, while defending his role in the worst U.S. foreign policy disaster since Vietnam. Of the United States’ military misadventure in Iraq, Bolton pleads innocence on all counts while shamelessly calling Barack Obama’s 2011 decision to bring U.S. troops home “the worst decision” made in that debacle.
In the forward to the seventh edition of “The Conservative Mind,” Kirk predicted with precision the rise of political players such as Bolton and Trump and foresaw a time when the United States would “fall into the hands of merciless ideologues or squalid oligarchs.” He also repeated Swedish philosopher Tage Lindbom’s warning of the bleak harvest coming from a “secularized generation for which material existence is everything and spiritual life is nothing.”
This was the predictable outcome of my Republican Party aligning its interests with the most cynical political operators of our time. The Atwaters, Manaforts, Gingriches and Roves leveraged a weaponized media culture that reduced politics to a secularized religion and consolidated political power and material wealth in the hands of its richest donors.
Yes, the Soviet Union is in the dustbin of history, Osama bin Laden is dead and ISIS is — at least temporarily — on its heels. But the inner chaos Kirk warned of so many years ago runs rampant in a country dominated by the bloated presence of a man who embraces dictators, vilifies the free press, corrupts religious leaders, absolves white supremacists, degrades women and continues a life’s work defined by little more than the amoral pursuit of material wealth.
Remarkably, order could be pulled from this culturally calamitous crisis if just two GOP senators had the moral courage to deprive Donald Trump of a ruling majority until he agreed to bring to heel his most destructive instincts. But even after a week of high-profile firings, attacks on Robert S. Mueller III and perplexing plaudits for Vladimir Putin, ideology continues to best idealism while American conservatism becomes even more detached from its philosophical foundations and fails yet again to confront the greatest challenges of our times.