The American Conservative
Fusionism & The Conservative Future
By ROD DREHER • May 30, 2017, 2:20 PM
Writing in the conservative journal Modern Age, Samuel Goldman counsels fellow conservatives to move with extreme caution in the Age of Trump:
Conservatism does have to adapt if it is to survive the Age of Trump. But a conservatism that panders to populist fantasies and embraces the morality of professional wrestling is not worth saving. One place to start rebuilding amid the ruins is a return to the blueprint developed by political theorist Frank Meyer as the modern conservative movement was first taking shape. “Fusionism” is part of the conservative past. But it may also be the future.
Fusionism, as you probably know, is the concept that united the libertarian Right and the traditionalist Right in the 1950s. It found a way to accommodate the small-government/pro-market beliefs of libertarians with the concern for virtue and social order among traditionalists. Ronald Reagan was the ultimate fusionist conservative candidate.
Goldman delivers a good basic explanation of fusionism (which readers new to the term will recognize as mainstream American conservatism of the last half-century), and contrasts it to Trumpian populism. He notes fusionism’s failures, and concedes that however crude Trumpism may be, it didn’t come from nowhere. Yet he believes that Trumpian populism does not provide any kind of solution to the problems fusionism has failed to resolve. Excerpt:
[T]he insufficiency of one solution does not necessarily mean that a better one is available. The midcentury industrial workplace really did provide a stable and dignified life, especially for men who took pride in their mastery of things rather than facility with numbers or words. Unfortunately, we have no idea how to bring it back.
We also have no idea how to restore a “thick” national identity without employing unacceptably coercive means. It is easy to forget that the common culture of fond memory was made possible by policies that included the legal suppression of America’s largest immigrant culture (the German-speaking Midwest) during the First World War, and mass conscription and a virtual takeover of the economy and media during World War II. The comfortable sense of belonging many Americans enjoyed half a century ago was also buttressed by the formal and informal exclusion of black people from the mainstream of American life. These were bad measures that no one seriously proposes to revive.
I think Goldman has hit on the very serious dilemma facing conservatives now. The old way of doing things — fusionism — has failed to address deep structural problems in American life. Populism, though, proposes solutions that are arguably unjust and unworkable. Giving the state more power does not bother traditionalists as much as it does libertarians, but only because traditionalists don’t mind using the state to achieve virtuous ends. But trads (like me) have to confront the fact that we are a post-Christian democratic nation, and that concentrating power in the hands of the state will in most cases be used against us.
Read Goldman’s entire essay. He contends that conservatives should abandon the idea that we will ever have a polity as unified as we once did, and that a reformed fusionism — reformed in light of the failures of the fusionist status quo that gave rise to Trumpist populism — still gives us the best principled hope for realizing conservative ends in this environment.
I guess I agree with this by default, if only because I see no prospect that Trumpism, for which I have a certain sympathy, can work. Even if Trump were to seek to empower and to encourage virtue — that’s okay, I can wait for you to stop laughing — the plain fact is that we are now too fissiparous a society even to agree on what virtue is. What fusionism works out to in practice, it seems to me, is business interests using traditionalists (chiefly Christian conservatives) as useful idiots to get what they want out of government. Do you see the Republican Party standing up for traditional values and virtues in the face of the LGBT juggernaut within corporate America? Of course not. And the truth is, traditional values on matters of sex and sexuality are increasingly unpopular. We really are a post-Christian nation.
That said, it still makes sense for trads to work within the Republican Party. If the GOP is not promoting our interests, at least it is not outright hostile to them, as the Democrats are. The long-term trend in our country, however, is running against traditionalist Christians. We cannot expect GOP politicians in a democracy to stand up for values that a diminishing number of American share. And we cannot expect politics to solve, or even adequately address, the core crises of American culture and society. We are much more likely to get the breathing space to work on our own localist solutions if Republicans (either populist or fusionist) are in power, but that’s about all we can hope for.
Despite what you’ve heard from some quarters, the Benedict Option does not call on Christians to abandon political involvement. Rather, it calls for Christians to re-prioritize their concerns. For too long, too many conservative Christians have acted as if the most important thing we can do for the country is to vote Republicans into office. Meanwhile, our churches have rotted from within. Massive numbers of Millennials are drifting away from the church, and those who stay are, like most of the older generations, really Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. As Robert Louis Wilken said back in 2004:
At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic.
This is not surrender. It is a strategy for facing our post-Christian reality. It is not a call for Christians to abandon politics entirely — I don’t believe we can or should do that — but it is a call to understand the nature of the times, and to commit our attention and our resources to building up the life of the church in truly countercultural ways. We cannot expect as much from Republican politicians or politics itself as many of us wish to think that we can. Continuing to respond as if we were in normal times in this regard amounts to a fruitless shoring up of the declining imperium, when what is most needed — not exclusively needed, but most needed — is what we have neglected among ourselves for far too long: building up the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic.
In his most recent column, Dennis Prager (who is Jewish) criticizes Trump-opposing conservatives:
I have concluded that there are a few reasons that explain conservatives who were Never-Trumpers during the election, and who remain anti-Trump today.
The first and, by far, the greatest reason is this: They do not believe that America is engaged in a civil war, with the survival of America as we know it at stake.
While they strongly differ with the left, they do not regard the left-right battle as an existential battle for preserving our nation. On the other hand, I, and other conservative Trump supporters, do.
Well, I wasn’t one of the Never-Trumpers, and I do believe that we are indeed engaged in a great battle in this country. The difference between Prager and me has to do with the nature of the war. The idea that Donald Trump is in charge of the forces of righteousness is farcical. And the idea that the line between the forces of good and evil in this war is drawn between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, is delusional.
Prager also makes the shopworn “Georgetown cocktail party” criticisms, accusing Never-Trumpers of being too prissy and self-involved to embrace Trump:
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.
What, exactly, is Donald Trump fighting for? And why is the righteousness of that cause so overwhelmingly clear that it requires conservatives to abandon their principles for the sake of winning power? This is not clear at all to me. The Trump phenomenon is, to me, a sign that we traditionalist conservatives have already lost the war. The Benedict Option is the most important form of resistance open to us.
As I have written here, a conservative Evangelical friend who doesn’t like Trump told me that his crowd has gone all-in for him because “they don’t have a Plan B” — meaning that they have no idea what to do if they lose power. They don’t realize that they — that we — have already lost power, and if we keep telling ourselves that we can win it back, we will continue to neglect the most important work we can and should be doing right now.
We are not engaged in a battle to “preserve the nation”. We are engaged in a battle to save the church. It is entirely possible that we could preserve the nation, whatever that means, but lose the church. Both are important to me, but I know which one matters more.
UPDATE: Patrick Deneen has an essay about conservatism in the Age of Trump in the same issue. Excerpts:
In the roughly half century of political ascendancy of American conservatism, little was recognizably conserved. The economic landscape of America was remade not only by a series of free trade agreements that accelerated globalization and economic integration but also by internal policies, both federal and local, that favored large corporations over small business. The rise of big-box stores was coincident with the postwar creation of suburbia and settlement patterns that found Americans increasingly living often at vast distances from work, school, church, and commerce. Findings by social scientists, most prominently Robert Putnam, demonstrated a consistent and substantial decline in the associational life of Americans and the rise of forms of what Tocqueville predicted would be the dominant democratic ethic of individualism. Every religious tradition, with the notable exception of Mormonism, saw extensive losses in adherents, especially pronounced among the millennial generation whose commitments to “none” began approaching the 50 percent mark. Schooling increasingly emphasized both sensitivity and utilitarian skills, rejecting traditional efforts to steward history and perpetuate a culture. Universities, in turn, became dominated by left-wing identitarians and a bloated corporate administrative class that together eviscerated distinctive cultural and religious institutional traditions in a deracinated commitment to vague social justice and job preparation. The media became saturated with explicit sexuality, incessant sarcasm, and default mockery of traditionalist beliefs. Pornography went mainstream. Demonstrations of bathetic patriotism became obligatory at every public event even though a tiny minority of Americans would ever be directly affected by the inconveniences of military service. In nearly every aspect of American life, little worth conserving was conserved.
American conservatism was ultimately a failure because it advanced a liberalism that has now been visibly revealed to be fundamentally destructive of the fabric of lives of a wide swath of countrymen, particularly those who are in many respects by design the “losers” in the liberal order. The rejection of American conservatism was most fundamentally a rejection of American liberalism, and Trump was the carrier of anxieties not over the course of the Republican and Democratic parties but the American order itself. Yet, far from ensuring the rise of a new and more credible conservatism, the rise of Trump may signal that no conservatism arising from the morass of contemporary American anticulture is viable. [Emphasis mine. — RD]
If nothing else, the exceedingly narrow victory of Donald Trump may be understood as the last gasp of a dying conservatism that has been destroyed by American liberalism. That “instinctive understanding of inherent limits” may be the animating attraction to a vision of Trump’s promises for a nation with a border and a common culture; a foreign policy largely defensive instead of a de facto empire; a capital drained of cronies and riggers; and the liberty to call things as they really are, including men, women, and children. Yet protection of this instinct was given to a man with no apparent conservative values or vision, less a sign of hope than desperation. Conservatism may have a future in America, but it will arise most likely from families and intentional communities that live as a counterculture to self-immolating American liberalism, and not as something that will be created in a political laboratory by the educated or from the wreckage of a Flight 93 administration in Washington, D.C.
Yes. This. Shore up the imperium if you like, but understand that in doing so you are conserving very little that matters, or should matter, to socially conservative religious traditionalists.
Posted in Christianity, Culture, Culture war, Decline and Fall, Benedict Option, Weimar America, All Things Trump. Tagged traditionalists, libertarians, Samuel Goldman, fusionism, Donald Trump, Dennis Prager.
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7 Responses to Fusionism & The Conservative Future
May 30, 2017 at 2:31 pm
I honestly think fusionism is as serious a mistake as populism is. Fusionism brought the libertarian vandals into the heart of conservatism, with their distaste for traditional morality and religion. It has had a disastrous impact on the conservative political movement, full stop. The conservatives should abandon the libertarians and let them swim on their own. Yes, it means neither would win politically on a NATIONAL level, but it’s likely that even a “united” conservative/libertarian coalition still will struggle nationally anyway.
Overall, the political situation is not winnable, in any meaningful sense, from the perspective of a social/religious conservative. Noone is on our side. So I don’t really care that much about what happens to “conservatism”, per se, because it certainly doesn’t have our backs. But if I were a tactician for “conservatism”, I’d dump the libertarians once and for all.
May 30, 2017 at 2:38 pm
For the life of me I will never understand this hatred of Trump. He said he’d appoint conservatives to the SCOTUS and he did. He said he would begin to dismantle excessive regulations and he has. He said he’d appoint conservatives to prominent positions and he has.
He said he would attack abortion and his appointees have done so. He has done so himself as well.
He is trying to keep us out of wars in the Middle East and he is not backing down from building a wall, though who knows what it will look like, on the Southern border.
He has authorized the building of the pipeline in the Dakota’s.
What conservative could be against this?
As far as his sordid past—-well, it is what it is. Does anyone believe Obama’s past is substantially any better? I don’t.
If Trump ultimately fails, and he may, the biggest loser will be the Republican Party for being shown to be the hypocrites I’ve discovered them to be.
Rod, I love your blog but I will never understand, though I have read pretty much every post, why there is such a dislike of Trump.
PS I called every state except Wisconsin in the last election.
Caleb Bernacchio says:
May 30, 2017 at 2:44 pm
“That said, it still makes sense for trads to work within the Republican Party. If the GOP is not promoting our interests, at least it is not outright hostile to them, as the Democrats are. The long-term trend in our country, however, is running against traditionalist Christians. We cannot expect GOP politicians in a democracy to stand up for values that a diminishing number of American share. And we cannot expect politics to solve, or even adequately address, the core crises of American culture and society. We are much more likely to get the breathing space to work on our own localist solutions if Republicans (either populist or fusionist) are in power, but that’s about all we can hope for.”
I think you overlook the real issue here and thus grossly underestimate the conflict facing conservatives, in a way that is not unrelated to my criticisms of the BenOp. While you might be right about the relative indifference of the GOP when compared with the hostility of the Democrats what this analysis overlooks is just how harmful the neoliberal program initiated under Reagan and championed by the Republicans was to the American communities where traditional morality was nurtured. So there is in reality an equally asymmetric relationship between the Democrats and the GOP when it comes to neoliberalism, with the former acquiescing in what was championed by the latter and has now become the only game in town. Again, if MacIntyre is correct traditional morality needs precisely the types of communities where good work, flourishing local organizations, and relationships with neighbors are commonplace. Because of this, traditional conservatives are faced with something like a tragedy: support candidates who vehemently and militantly reject all of your ideals or vote for the friendly and sympathetic conservative who will give your job and community to the highest bidder.
In this situation why can’t a case be made for conservatives to work out a space within a coalition of supporters of Bernie Sanders, articulating clearly where there is common ground and where there are differences that must be respected?
May 30, 2017 at 2:45 pm
I think I’m a bit closer to abandoning all hope in the American imperium then you are Rod. If traditional Christians as a bloc are to remain engaged in the political arena, I think we need to put distance between ourselves and the Trumpistas, the Establishment GOP and the Democrats. Our votes and support ought to be earned rather than assumed. But I am more and more convinced that whatever hope we as traditional Christians have is to be the Church and change the culture by changing the allegiance toward the Kingdom, one person at a time. I’m still wrestling, after reading Benedict Option three times on how beyond myself I can get those around me to begin ‘building’ monasteries of the heart and mind in our neighborhoods, churches, and communities.
Lord Captain Cecil Harvey says:
May 30, 2017 at 3:07 pm
Rod, I don’t understand why you can’t see that we’ve already lost the cultural civil war. Badly lost. What’s left is negotiating the terms under which we conservatives will live under.
There is absolutely no political solution. Not stressing this enough is my biggest criticism of the Benedict Option. We *should* withdraw from the political arena, because we have zero hope there.
Our only options are those involving community and spirituality. Forming strong bonds, prayer, fasting, etc. — all things you recommend. We *should* be running for the hills — at least those of us with families. We should live good lives, and opportunistically look to convert others whenever we can, especially those of us that can still work in the world (we’ve got maybe 10 years left where traditionalists can work in corporate America). Every able-bodied Christian man should learn to shoot a rifle, because it will come to that if we live uncompromising lives.
But engaging in politics is a complete waste of time. It will accomplish nothing. If the majority of this country, both left and right, think Trump is conservative, what do they think of us?
May 30, 2017 at 3:28 pm
I agree with this piece overall. Trump is clearly not one of us, as his well-documented support for transgenderism shows.
But I’m very skeptical about the desirability of any sort of return to fusionism, because fusionism is, as you write, fundamentally about “business interests using traditionalists (chiefly Christian conservatives) as useful idiots to get what they want out of government.”
For a coalition to be worthwhile, the parties to it need to have some fundamental values in common. For instance, in Francoist Spain, the regime was buttressed by four main forces: Falangists, Carlists, constitutional monarchists, and members of Opus Dei. There were many ideological differences between these groups, far too many to be summarized here. But they nonetheless had one value in common: a profound Catholic faith and a commitment to preserving Spain’s Catholic heritage and character. One can easily imagine why these groups were willing to tolerate each other’s idiosyncrasies for the sake of the greater good.
What do libertarians and traditionalist conservatives have in common, exactly?
What do we “get” out of a coalition with libertarians? Do libertarians ever have our back in the culture wars?
NO. As you’ve written about many times, free market types consistently align with big business interests against the interests of traditionalists.
Do libertarians and traditionalists even have a common enemy? I, for one, don’t see why I should regard the Democratic Party as any more of an enemy than… libertarians.
In contrast, many Trump supporters share with traditionalists an appreciation for traditional Christian culture and values (see, for instance, Pat Buchanan, or many of the pro-Trump commenters here on this blog).
In terms of economic and environmental regulation, the Trump movement is not as interventionist as I would like, and even seems aligned with the fusionists on getting rid of regulations and pulling out of the Paris climate accord. But at least Trump is in favor of protectionism, has killed TPP, and has signaled his intent to withdraw from NAFTA. It’s a start, and in any rate far better than the fusionist Republican vision.
So, given the choice between a fusionist GOP and a populist GOP, I’ll take the latter.
May 30, 2017 at 3:30 pm
I always chuckle a little bit when I hear people talk about Trumpism as if it’s some sort of coherent political philosophy. Rod writes two things:
“I see no prospect that Trumpism, for which I have a certain sympathy, can work”
“What, exactly, is Donald Trump fighting for? And why is the righteousness of that cause so overwhelmingly clear that it requires conservatives to abandon their principles for the sake of winning power?”
I suppose I agree with both statements, but I only believe in the first because of the second. Since Trump isn’t really fighting for anything, of course Trumpism (whatever that means) can’t work. One thing we do know is that globalism can’t work…at least not for the lower middle and working classes, so it’s hard to tell Trump supporters to toe the historic fusionist globalist line. Could somebody come up with a COHERENT political philosophy that includes most modern conservative ideas along with things like limited free trade, restricted immigration and limited foreign military involvement? I’m not sure, but I don’t think it would be necessarily more flawed that globalism.
I would suggest that Trumpism really comes down to “not the mainstream left”. That’s why it’s not coherent, and that’s why it can’t work. But that’s why folks like Prager accept it despite my guess that he knows there’s no there there. When your religion is politics, you’ll accept “not the devil” even when the other option is incoherent.
From my Christian world view, there’s no hope in Trump, and there’s very little hope in secular politics at all. I think I may be more cynical about politics than Rod. That said, while I didn’t vote for Trump, I find it easy to vote for Republicans knowing that the Dems pretty much hate my guts and see me as a deplorable.