The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A new conservative manifesto sounds a lot like fascism

Former president Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on Oct. 9, 2021. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Donald Trump’s annexation of the Republican Party is less a manifestation of Trump’s strength than a demonstration of the GOP’s division. The former president exploited the dissatisfaction of the party’s isolationist wing at precisely the moment that the dominant neoconservatives lost their mojo in the sands of Iraq.

Now, one wing of the warring party has drafted a manifesto, trying to graft an actual philosophy onto Trump’s raging id. But before we get to that, some context.

By definition, two-party systems force strange bedfellows to share a bunk; this is how Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) come to be tugging on the same blanket. Across the aisle, no union has been more contentious for Republicans than the attempt to unify nationalists, who would build walls around the United States, with internationalists who would spread freedom around the world.

The end of the Cold War was rough on the globalists. The GOP shattered in the first post-Cold War election, in 1992, when the ultimate internationalist George H.W. Bush saw economic nationalists defect to billionaire Ross Perot, while cultural nationalists joined a revolt led by Patrick J. Buchanan. Though Team Global reasserted itself in the early 2000s under former president George W. Bush and John McCain, policing the world turned out to be trickier, and less popular, than they anticipated.

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In 2016, Trump blended enough of Perot’s anti-free-trade rhetoric with enough of Buchanan’s “America First” rhetoric to knock off the next Bush in line — former Florida governor Jeb Bush. So exultant were the isolationists to win a nomination after so many decades that they cheerfully overlooked the obvious fact that Trump didn’t believe in anything other than himself.

Enter the new manifesto — titled “National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles” — a rather slapdash document published by the Edmund Burke Foundation, a policy shop that borrows the name, though not the temperament, of the 18th-century father of conservatism.

The statement glorifies a particular concept of nationhood. Nations are not, according to its authors, a form of political organization with strengths and limitations, successful in some places and dysfunctional in others. Nations are “the only genuine alternative to universalist ideologies now seeking to impose a homogenizing, locality-destroying imperium over the entire globe.”

If nations are to save us from the imperium, one would expect them to operate differently from the nations of today. But read a little deeper into the statement and you discover that nothing really new is proposed on the international front. The statement makes clear that not all nations are “capable of self-government.” And it allows “capable” nations to make trade treaties and defensive alliances.

So what are the allied nations to do about failing states? The statement suggests that the great problem of the world is that well-functioning nations have insufficient sovereignty. But the real trouble arises from malfunctioning nations — those that implode (by collapsing within) or explode (by expanding aggressively).

Self-governing nations, acting in defensive alliances to advance their own interests, will naturally seek to minimize the risks of implosion and explosion. Which is exactly the thought process that NATO and its allies have followed through the more than 70-year reign of the internationalists.

“National Conservatism,” as defined by the statement, doesn’t call for much change in facing the rather conspiratorial-sounding imperium. Rather, after the throat-clearing about globalism, the statement turns to its real concerns: the internal operation of nations.

“Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private,” the authors declare. In regions of a nation where the moral vision is corrupted by “immorality … national government must intervene energetically to restore order.”

Policies around family, immigration, race and education will be analyzed through this same prism — the national interest as defined by “Christianity and its moral vision.” Deviations (presumably “immoral”) will no doubt be corrected by that same energetic national government.

It is tempting to point out that this supposedly new statement — with its faceless conspiracy of the globalist imperium, its exaltation of a cultural coherence that never existed, and its casual licensing of government power to enforce conformity — has an awful lot in common with fascism.

But it is perhaps more useful to note that self-named National Conservatives are building their house on sand, as the Bible might put it. There are as many views of the Christian mission on Earth as there are readings of the U.S. Constitution. The idea that a more overtly Christian nation would be a more harmonious nation — or even a more peaceful nation — has zero support from the bloody and contentious history of the past 2,000 years.

Tolerance, open-mindedness and compromise, on the other hand, have an impressive track record on those too-rare occasions when people give them a chance.