The evolution of intra-party division in politics



Opinion writer Kevin Wiggins analyzes the changes he has noticed within the Republican Party.


In December 2019, the last intellectual bastion of never-Trump resistance was closed for good. Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard had been a redoubt of neo-conservative thought since 1995. With the collapse of the Standard, conservative pundits such as George Will, Ben Shapiro, Rod Dreher, and David French hesitantly observed the loosening ties that have bound the post-Goldwater consensus. This slack is in part caused by a new movement calling itself “National Conservatism.” Centered around the magazine First Things and accompanying online community of mostly Catholic and Orthodox Jewish intellectuals – winter has come to the American right.

Yet, seemingly few across both sides of the aisle are unaware of the conflict which is currently ripping apart the American right.

In February 2019, First Things published a “manifesto of sorts.” The authors decried that “there is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016.” On May 29, the first shot of the war was fired by essayist Sohrab Ahmari in a polemic entitled “Against David French-ism”. Ahmari writes that while it is hard to attack someone as “nice” as French, it “is in part that earnest and insistently polite quality of his that I find unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives.” The basic thesis of the piece is that conservatives need to reject “small-L” liberalism and reject all those who would cling to it.

Not only does this result in the annihilation of the right’s own intellectual diversity (an aspect many conservatives boast about), but it runs in the face of the philosophic tradition the American right has inherited going back to Edmund Burke. For these intellectuals, gone are the Burkean appeals to polity, individualism, and liberal toleration of the other. What ‘National Conservatives’ do believe however, is better understood by what they reject. On July 16, Yoram Harzony, the organizer of the National Conservatism Conference, declared “independence from neoconservatism! From neoliberalism! From libertarianism! From what they call ‘classical liberalism!’” The movement is decidedly pro-natalist, anti-immigrant, isolationist, pro-government, traditionalist, and above all else “Nationalist.”

In his keynote titled “Big Business Hates Your Family,” Tucker Carlson lambasted corporate elites for not protecting “American” jobs. His answer to a changing America —the use of government for the creation of public order. While Carlson’s tamber isn’t without precedent in American life, its explicit nature is striking. In a move from July that bewildered classical conservatives, he praised Elizabeth Warren’s “Plan for Economic Patriotism.”  This move prompted economist Yaron Brook to declare that the “only differences in American politics are in social issues.” Regarding “National Conservatism,” he may be right.

In the past conservatives at least paid lip service to small government. Many held true to this principle unto death, but the new conflict arises from the “politeness” of “French-ists.” Politeness, in essence, is the principle of liberal coexistence. In principle (not always practice), the approach of David French-ists has always been peaceful, non-interventionist coexistence with other communities.

This maxim is the cornerstone of liberal societies, and it is at test. An example of this is the different approaches conservative intellectuals take approaching the culture war. In a podcast published by First Things, Ahmari details his discomfort living next to a drag bar. If his tactics are logically carried through, it would reject choice, tolerance, and individualism. Ironically, “National Conservatives” reject the tradition they purport to honor.

This August, I attended a speech held by Republican Bill Weld. In attempting to primary the president, Weld has become anathema to many on the right. For Trumpists, he is a menace hiding deep in the womb of the Trojan horse.

For others, he is Odysseus, a man in whose genius could be won a pyric victory out of the birth of tragedy. However, the current conflict may show more of the state of American politics, than just the state of the right. In one week, the GOP suffered 7 retirements from the house, most notable among them being Rep. Bill Hurd (Tx).

One talking head even called Hurd “Trump’s lone black face in the House.” Yet, what they missed was the makeup of the full swath of GOP retirees – all bear libertarian or moderate stripes. As the calcification of intellectual diversity on the right quickens, perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of the death of liberalism. Trump is no Alexander, but he may be the force which has slashed apart the gordian knot of American Liberalism.