The phenomenal essay The Flight 93 Election has been making the rounds on social media and caused a bit of a stir amongst our nation’s ever-fretting pundit class. Written by Publius Decius Mus of the now defunct Journal of American Greatness, the piece is a devastating evisceration of Never Trump conservatism. Its most notable features, however, aren’t the eloquent rhetorical sledgehammers it lays down on its opponents, but rather its implicit reactionary insinuations.
Decius makes two especially salient points in the essay. The first is that conservatism in America serves as little more than a kind of controlled opposition for the inexorable march of liberalism. That conservatives have become (always were?) tomato cans to be smashed by liberals every election cycle as they push the national conversation ever leftward. As Decius puts it:
If you’re among the subspecies conservative intellectual or politician, you’ve accepted—perhaps not consciously, but unmistakably—your status on the roster of the Washington Generals of American politics. Your job is to show up and lose, but you are a necessary part of the show and you do get paid. To the extent that you are ever on the winning side of anything, it’s as sophists who help the Davoisie oligarchy rationalize open borders, lower wages, outsourcing, de-industrialization, trade giveaways, and endless, pointless, winless war.
This illustration of conservative impotency sets up his second and most troubling point. Decius points out that:
To simultaneously hold conservative cultural, economic, and political beliefs—to insist that our liberal—left present reality and future direction is incompatible with human nature and must undermine society—and yet also believe that things can go on more or less the way they are going, ideally but not necessarily with some conservative tinkering here and there, is logically impossible.
This is the essay’s main thesis: that things simply cannot go on as they have. That the embattled conservative tradition in the U.S., or rather what little remains of it, needs a radical change, a high risk, high reward political Hail Mary pass. For Decius and his JAG colleagues, Trump is that Hail Mary pass, the last best hope for restoring the Republic.
The only problem with Decius’ radical and brilliant analysis isn’t that its assessment of the situation is incorrect, but that its prescriptions aren’t nearly radical enough.
Decius, like many conservatives, seeks a restoration of an earlier American Republic free of liberalism and its associated pathologies. But in reality, this goal is self contradictory, as the liberalism Decius so rightly decries has been written into the DNA of the Republic he so loves from its very genesis.
The putrid corpse flowers of degeneracy now blooming grew from seeds planted by the Founders themselves and their treasured “self-evident” truths, “truths” which were fictions from the start. To deny this at such a late hour, in hopes of salvaging some lost Arcadia, is to practice self-deception. But, for American conservatives, self-deception is a tradition, and ironically may be the sole tradition likely to survive the triumph of the liberalism they claim to oppose.
A few years ago, a humorous story emerged from China; a credulous man bought what he believed were two puppies from a merchant in Vietnam. At first, all went well, and he bathed and groomed his new puppies daily. It was only once his new pets started displaying very undoglike behavior, namely by killing his pet chickens and displaying voracious appetites, that he begin to suspect something might be amiss. It turned out he had actually adopted two bear cubs, who had started to wreak havoc, now that they were approaching their natural sizes.
You couldn’t dream up a more apt metaphor for that of the modern conservative’s relationship with the liberal tradition. The conservative has convinced himself that there is actually no conflict between his values and those of the classical liberal tradition he so admires.
This is what separates him from the reactionary.
This illusion of harmonization is made possible by the belief that liberalism’s internal logic has no necessity to it—that it isn’t bound to follow its own premises to their logical conclusions. For example: believing that suffrage would remain limited to a select group, even though it would naturally be in the interest of certain factions in a democratic society to seek to expand it. Or that introducing the concept of universal rights wouldn’t eventually entail “liberation” to spread them throughout the world, and to impose them upon peoples and cultures for which they are intrinsically incompatible. It the belief that your cub needn’t ever grow into a bear.
While obviously naïve, from a sentimental perspective it’s completely understandable. After all, bear cubs are adorable creatures (almost doglike!), and it’s easy to see how one could get attached and wish they could stay small bundles of fur forever. This is essentially the conservative’s plan for saving his liberal Republic: convince himself that if only this or that policy were adopted, if only this or that historical event had turned out differently, somehow his beloved liberal society could have retained its youthful virtue. Perhaps if he just fed his bear a little less, it would naturally shrink down to a manageable size. Or maybe he could teach it table manners so it could eventually sit at the table with his dinner guests; granted, it may never master the art of small talk or remember to use its salad fork, but one can’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
Ever since the end of the Second World War, conservatives have attempted to play this game, to try and make peace and learn to coexist with the 400-pound bear sitting in their dining room. Even the Vatican thought it was time to leave behind its traditionally reactionary ways and join the modern world. Reformers like John Courtney Murray presented elaborate arguments for how Western liberalism was compatible with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church after all, and this line of thinking led to such disasters as the second Vatican Council.
Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of First Things magazine, was a thoroughgoing Murrayite Catholic. A dyed in the wool conservative, Neuhaus fervently believed liberalism (or at least his particular understanding of it) represented the pinnacle of Christian society and presented the best model for human flourishing yet available.
Neuhaus’s theological and political views are thoroughly engaging and deserve an essay (or several) of their own. Neuhaus’s view of liberalism, however (like that of most Conservatives), always had a certain air of esoterism to it. The pretension was always that, though it may seem to the uninitiated that the essence of liberalism is antithetical to traditional notions (both Christian and Pagan) of the good life which consist in the pursuit of virtue, in Neuhaus’s reading these versions are actually false liberalisms. The progressive fanatics at The Nation and New Yorker, though quite literate and intelligent, actually misunderstand the true meaning of liberalism, which just so happened to dovetail perfectly with Neuhaus’s own religious and political outlook.
It turns out that brilliant radicals like Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson had misunderstood what the liberal Republic they themselves had founded was really all about. That former Trotskyites like Christopher Hitchens (who wrote admiringly about both men) were mistaken in their assessment of America as the ideal vessel with which to spread global liberal revolution.
The conservative defenders of liberalism have always possessed an impressive acumen for this kind of self-deception—hence why reading the brilliant Stanley Fish’s 1996 essay Why We Can’t All Just Get Along, which is a dismantling of Neuhaus in the pages of his own magazine, serves as such a delightful treat. The gist of Fish’s long, but well worth reading dialogue with Neuhaus, is that the narrative that liberalism tells itself, namely that it is a system of enlightened governance neutral in regards to matters of faith and concerns itself only with neutral “reason” is, in fact, a falsehood (this condensed version of Fish’s argument is almost criminally simplistic but necessary here for the sake of brevity). Liberalism, much like Neuhaus’s Christianity, operates upon a priori principles which are themselves only deductible through an act of faith. Thus, liberalism is itself a kind of religion based upon certain divine revelations, revelations which its acolytes refer to as “self-evident truths.”
Thus, liberalism is not a neutral system in comparison to, say, traditional Christian civilization, but rather a competing one which seeks to displace it, a system whose starting premises are not only just as much acts of faith as Christian ones are, but acts of faith which are, like all revealed religions, irreconcilable to all others. This is why the earnest conservative or traditionalist attempts to play according to liberalism’s own rules are doomed to failure. As Fish points out:
If you persuade liberalism that its dismissive marginalizing of religious discourse is a violation of its own chief principle, all you will gain is the right to sit down at liberalism’s table where before you were denied an invitation; but it will still be liberalism’s table that you are sitting at, and the etiquette of the conversation will still be hers. That is, someone will now turn and ask, “Well, what does religion have to say about this question?” And when, as often will be the case, religion’s answer is doctrinaire (what else could it be?), the moderator (a title deeply revealing) will nod politely and turn to someone who is presumed to be more reasonable. To put the matter baldly, a person of religious conviction should not want to enter the marketplace of ideas but to shut it down, at least insofar as it presumes to determine matters that he believes have been determined by God and faith. The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch.
This insight is brilliant, but at the same time, much like the perception that your pet “dog” is actually a bear, is also in hindsight obvious. In his essay, Decius comes extremely close to this very same realization when he states:
The deck is stacked overwhelmingly against us. I will mention but three ways. First, the opinion-making elements—the universities and the media above all—are wholly corrupt and wholly opposed to everything we want, and increasingly even to our existence. (What else are the wars on “cis-genderism”—formerly known as “nature”—and on the supposed “white privilege” of broke hillbillies really about?) If it hadn’t been abundantly clear for the last 50 years, the campaign of 2015-2016 must surely have made it evident to even the meanest capacities that the intelligentsia—including all the organs through which it broadcasts its propaganda—is overwhelmingly partisan and biased.
This is a similar to Fish’s own insight that, at the end of the day, it is liberalism’s table you are sitting at and its rules you are playing by. The conservative may win a few hands at liberalism’s blackjack table (he might even experience a hot streak or two!), but when all’s said and done, the ancient wisdom of the Vegas gambler will ring true: the house always wins.
Decius and his fellow travelers see this and correctly view Trump as the start of a solution to the problem of liberal hegemony, but they do so for the wrong reasons. The great service Trump would do for our liberal Republic would not be to restore it to a previous stage, as Decius wishes, but rather to begin the process of its dissolution and usher in the coming age of Caesarism.
For regardless of whether Trump wins or loses in November, the age of the American Republic is coming to an end. The task now is not a restoration of liberalism but rather, as Fish advised, to seek to rout it from the field entirely—to reject its premises and replace those premises with our own. This is the only real way to deal with liberalism. The only other option that remains is surrender and the acceptance of your fate as an ideological helot. Whether Decius and his fellow travelers like it or not, the age of the Caesars is now upon us.
The only question that remains is which Caesar it will be.