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Why Conservative Intellectuals Are Pledging Loyalty to General Trump

They believe liberalism is an enemy that must be destroyed at all costs.

U.S. Navy / Getty Images

The Trump wars are still raging among conservative intellectuals. Indeed, the divide between Never Trump writers and broader pro-Trump conservatives remains as wide now as it was during last year’s elections. In National Review on Tuesday, syndicated columnist Dennis Prager argued that this battle isn’t over the president himself, but competing visions of America. Whereas pro-Trump conservatives “believe that America is engaged in a civil war, with the survival of America as we know it at stake,” anti-Trump conservatives have a less Manichean view of politics.

While they strongly differ with the Left, they do not regard the left–right battle as an existential battle for preserving our nation,” he wrote. “On the other hand, I, and other conservative Trump supporters, do. That is why, after vigorously opposing Trump’s candidacy during the Republican primaries, I vigorously supported him once he won the nomination. I believed then, as I do now, that America was doomed if a Democrat had been elected president.” Prager returned to the military analogy at the end of his essay, calling on anti-Trump conservatives to do their duty and fall in line behind the commander-in-chief:

They can join the fight. They can accept an imperfect reality and acknowledge that we are in a civil war, and that Trump, with all his flaws, is our general. If this general is going to win, he needs the best fighters. But too many of them, some of the best minds of the conservative movement, are AWOL. I beg them: Please report for duty.

In democracies, political leaders don’t normally exercise the kind of power given to generals in command of troops. While military leaders are to be obeyed, presidents have to rely on the tools of politics (argument and persuasion, coalition-building and compromise) to achieve their goals. Objecting to Prager, National Review senior editor Jonah Goldberg rightly noted, “Donald Trump is literally no one’s general, because the president isn’t a general. Even figuratively, the idea that conservatives should operate like loyal troops to a political leader is fraught with intellectual, philosophical, and historical problems.”

Goldberg skirts over what these “problems” are, so it’s necessary to fill in the gaps. Prager’s argument is inconsistent with certain strands of conservative thought, but not all. And for those who subscribe first and foremost to anti-liberalism, the question is less about who will lead them into battle than whom they’re battling against.

The great conservative English thinker Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) expounded on the dangers of thinking of political activity as analogous to military life. While war might be necessary, it is a centralizing activity that is inimical to conservatism as Oakeshott understood it.

“War has accustomed the subjects of modern governments to the experience of having their wealth, their property, their occupations, and their activities managed by those in authority,” Oakeshott explained in posthumously published lectures. “It has reinforced all those other circumstances from which the single, independent, centralized powerful government of modern states have sprung. It has been a generator of ‘equality’ more important than any otherthe equality of the besieged.” In another set of lectures, he said that the analogy of military leadership “has little or nothing to offer to subjects engaged in enterprises of their own choosing and who are disposed to want to choose their opinions and beliefs for themselves and to change them when they feel inclined to do so.” In Oakeshottian terms, conservatives who see politics as a war led by generals (be it Trump or anyone else) have already lost because conservative virtues of privacy and individualism can’t exist in wartime.

Oakeshott’s quaint, gentlemanly Toryism is just one form of conservatism, of course. In many ways, Trump-era conservatives are closer to Oakeshott’s German rival, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), who believed it was delusional to hope for a respite from political warfare, either domestically or in foreign relations. The “friend-enemy distinction,” for which he’s famous, asserts that politics is inherently combative, everyone an ally or foe. “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy,” he wrote in The Concept of the Political (1927). “Only the actual participants can correctly recognize, understand, and judge the concrete situation and settle the extreme case of conflict.”

Prager struck a Schmittean note in calling for conservatives to follow Trump into battle, as did Townhall columnist Kurt Schlicter in a Monday tweet declaring war on liberals:

Trump, then, is justified with the argument that politics is war, and that liberals are not just folks with a different political opinion, but an enemy to be destroyed. Such anti-liberalism brought Trump to power, but now the partisan need to defend Trump helps bolster anti-liberalism, not to mention anti–Never Trumpism. After all, if your animating mission in life isn’t to destroy liberalism, you might start asking questions about Trump’s competence and worry about the manifest disarray of his administration.

Schmitt’s view of politics as conflict-ridden lends itself to authoritarianism. The Nazi-era philosopher, as University of Exeter lecturer David Lewis explained, sought to “redefine democracy” as “not a contest between different political parties, but the creation of an almost mystical connection between the leader and the masses.” Some see that connection between Trump and his supporters. “Trump supporters, it seems to me, are more disposed to prize authoritarian traits like loyalty and hierarchy,” The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis wrote on Wednesday. “For these Trump apologists, the analogies never end. He is our general.” Meanwhile, he added, “Conservatives who are viscerally turned off by the Trump cult of personality prize things like the rule of law and balance of powers. Part of what this means is that the idea of a ruling class repels us. We believe the maxim that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and we instead celebrate the system and institutions that check the accumulation of power.”

Those conservatives who flinch from supporting Trump come from differing strands of conservatism, ranging from paleoconservatives to libertarians to neo-conservatives. But what unites them is that they don’t believe liberalism is so overwhelming a menace that conservatives have to rally behind a president as unfit as Trump. “Now we’re just being asked to pretend that Trump is a good president when he’s obviously an incompetent one,” Ross Douthat tweeted in response to Prager’s article. “No thanks.” Douthat rightly noted that Prager’s attempt to create a wartime spirit echoes the famous pre-election essay “The Flight 93 Election,” which justified Trump as an emergency candidate for desperate times. “But it just can’t be the Flight 93 election every minute of every day of every year of his presidential term,” Douthat objected.

In his response to Prager, Atlantic writer David Frum flipped the wartime metaphor by noting that conservatives have very good reasons to worry about Trump’s Russia policy. Frum tweeted that he did not believe America was facing a civil war. “Meanwhile I fear that those who *do* believe this false claim about their own country are failing to defend America against a foreign threat,” Frum added. “It’s the sin that enabled Vichy: hating your domestic political opponents so much that you collaborate with the foreign invader.” By Frum’s account, pro-Trump conservatives are so consumed by hatred for their domestic foes that they are willing to turn a blind eye to a hostile intervention in an American election by a foreign power.

But perhaps Russia’s role goes even deeper than Frum suggests. During the Cold War, right-wing anti-liberalism was slightly tempered by the need for a bipartisan foreign policy. Soviet communism was a useful enemy, bringing together political opponents in the U.S. Once that threat vanished, conservative ire turned inwards, fueling the ever more partisan politics we’ve seen since the 1990s. This analysis vindicates Schmitt as the truest exponent of right-wing thinking. The right always needs a foe to destroy, and if it isn’t Russia in the international arena, it’ll be liberals at home. War is the constant, the only question being, “Who is the enemy?”