The Long March Back

A prudent, controlled burn of the GOP’s dead weight would be wiser than an unmitigated act of arson.


Remember the whole “burn it down” debate?

Last summer it divided the anti-Trump right. (I’m not going to use “NeverTrump” because it’s become a useless and often stupid label.) One side said the whole GOP was complicit in the damage wrought by Trump and that therefore the whole thing needed to be purged with cleansing fire. The other side said that while the anger was understandable, the remedy was too severe, costly, or (more relevant) not actually possible.

The latter basically described my position at the time. It would be one thing if it were possible to tear the GOP down to the studs and replace it with a party of our choosing, but since it’s not possible it’s a silly thing to debate.

It’s a bit analogous to regime change.

In principle, I have zero problem with forcibly removing evil regimes and installing democratic, or at least decent, regimes in places like China or North Korea. If you could persuade me that we could overthrow the Chinese Communist Party and replace it with, say, the government in Taiwan, at a cost of $58, I’d say “Do it.” All your principled objections about the evils of imposing “Western values” on other countries would be wasted on me. Heck, move the decimal point on the monetary cost a bunch of places rightward, and I’d still say “Go for it.” But since any such effort would lead to a horrible (probably nuclear) confrontation, I have to remain in favor of such regime change in principle but against it in practice.

I should also say: The fact that the whole “burn it down” thing began with that self-styled Sun Tzu, Steve Schmidt, should have been the first sign this was a frivolous argument. “The analogy would be in the same way that fire purifies the forest, it needs to be burned to the ground and fundamentally repudiated,” Schmidt said. “Every one of them should be voted out of office, with the exception of Mitt Romney.”

At the time, Schmidt, one of the principal members of the Lincoln Project, was telling his fan base that the Lincoln Project could pull off just such a feat—so send your dollars now. Now Schmidt is a Democrat, and not just in name only. No word on whether any of his donors have developed infections from all the cider in their ears.

More to the point: Schmidt’s influence in the GOP now is undetectable on even the most advanced electron microscopes.

A controlled burn?

Things look very different than they did in July and August, when literally dozens of people were deeply invested in this debate. The president lost, and the senators the arsonists wanted to throw on the pyre won. More importantly, the president of the United States is trying to figure out a way to steal the presidency from Joe Biden and the voters who elected him. It is a selfish, unpatriotic act of seditious villainy.

And while there is precious little courage being shown by elected Republicans in response, most are not really on board. Even Gov. Brian Kemp has refused to do the president’s bidding in Georgia. You can fault him for his Trump sycophancy—past and present—but he has rightly drawn an important line and he should be recognized for doing so.

Some politicians are still lending rhetorical aid and comfort to Trump’s attempted coup, and for that they should be ashamed—and shamed by others in addition. Indeed, I would very much like it if they paid a steep political price for it in the future. But that will take time.

The best place to start, however, isn’t with Ron Johnson, Rand Paul, or Josh Hawley. Their participation in this farce, as bad as it is, is mostly embarrassing and performative nonsense.

The best place to start is with the people who are actually participating, not performatively, but purposefully. I’m talking about people like Michael Flynn, Sidney Powell, Lin Wood, Kelli Ward, and anyone else who is telling the president to do whatever it takes to hold onto power. As far as I am concerned, they are not simply traitors to conservative principles—they’re traitors, full stop. If you tell the president to declare martial law to steal power, you are participating in a crime; whether criminal charges can be filed is a different matter. At minimum, these people should not be honored or celebrated. They should not be invited on right-wing TV or radio shows as courageous truth-tellers and patriots. They should be treated like dangerous crackpots who besmirch conservatism by their mere association with it. That would send a powerful signal to ambitious youngins looking to translate controversy into influence.

As for the elected officials still determined to play this dangerous game on January 6, ideally they would be stripped of committee assignments, and the party would look for suitable primary challengers for them. That will be hard, because the people participating in this Electoral College heist probably have the support of many primary voters. But as I keep saying, the GOP has a vested interest in the legitimacy of elections and the Constitution the same way the Yankees have an investment in the legitimacy of professional baseball. They also have a political investment in the survival of the Electoral College, and even though the January 6 effort will fail, they are already doing grave harm to its viability. If the GOP is going to be a serious party, it must behave seriously.

This is a much more modest alternative to burning it all down, and yet, let’s be honest: If attempted—a big if—it would largely fail in the short term. The whack jobs will still be invited on cable and radio shout-shows, in part because many of them are hosted by other whack jobs or by cynics who monetize them. Perverse Trump nostalgia will spread to the point that some will even say, “We should have listened.”

And what of the conservative movement? I’m not exactly optimistic—largely for reasons laid out by Matt Continetti here. But optimism and hope are not synonyms.

Among conservative intellectuals, a standard explanation for the left’s capture of the commanding heights of the culture is that they successfully conducted the “long march through the institutions.” (The phrase comes from the German radical Rudi Dutschke, but the idea comes from Gramsci.) Taken literally—as some on the right do—it can lead to all sorts of paranoid thinking. Taken loosely, the claim has significant explanatory power. The left infiltrated and then took over everything from the universities to Hollywood, and once established, they changed the rules to keep out ideological competition.

This is why I’ve been arguing for 25 years that conservatives should stop obsessing about creating new institutions and instead do more to take back, or at least claw out space within, existing ones. Five more Hillsdales might be a good thing, but five more tenured conservatives at Harvard would be better. Just as there’s no such thing as a new old friend, there’s no such thing as a new old institution. Places like Harvard have cultural power precisely because they have established authority beyond the conservative ghetto. Robbie George’s haven at Princeton is among the most valuable redoubts in all of conservatism. The point of the conservative movement isn’t to enrich self-declared leaders of the conservative movement—it’s to move the country in a conservative direction. That means persuading people who disagree, not coddling people who already agree. Writing off the most powerful institutions to the opposition is a recipe for permanent ghettoization, and ultimately, permanent defeat. 

That said, having our own institutions is important, in part because they act like medieval monasteries keeping our ideas alive. The remarkable thing about the last four years is how little marching was required to flip conservative institutions into citadels of Trumpism. I have elaborate theories about why this happened, but the crucial reason amounts to an addiction to a donor and customer base that blurs the lines between political infotainment and political philosophy. 

What is required in the years or decades to come is for traditional conservatives, classical liberals, fusionists, et al. to reclaim or refortify these institutions. In some cases I think that will be very easy, and they will revert to form on their own account. Everything from institutional muscle memory, the need to repair old divides, and growing exhaustion with Trumpist hysteria will hasten regression to the mean. Other institutions will take more work, in part because the Trumpian remnant will still be a source of funding and fame. And some may simply be lost for good. But you won’t know until you make the effort and have the arguments. 

Conservatives had their own march through at least one institution: the Republican party. That effort didn’t succeed overnight. It required work, arguments, persuasion, or simply politics. That effort was both horizontal and vertical. Voters had to be converted by leaders and leaders had to be converted by voters.

The asymmetric advantage of the Trumpists isn’t in their numbers or their arguments, but in their will to assert their beliefs without apology. You can admire that or roll your eyes, but there’s a lesson there. Things that can be bent in one direction by external pressure can be bent in the opposite direction with greater countervailing pressure. The same goes for people, including politicians (and pundits). Hawley, Rubio, Cruz, and others are maneuvering in response to the demands of the market. Change the market signals, and the politicians will follow.

I still think the silent majority of right-of-center Americans aren’t all-in for Trumpism. But their comparative silence on meaningful issues distorts the political market in favor of those who actually believe that the majority of conservative Americans, and actually Americans in general, are supportive of the full suite of Trumpian madness. That mirage needs to be dispelled, and the only way to do that is to change the incentive structure on the right.

Trump is helping in a counterintuitive way by attempting a disgraceful putsch that turns off most people, including most conservatives. Show is often more powerful than tell, or as Edmund Burke said, example is the school of mankind. And the example Trump has shown us since he lost the election is doing more to reveal his true nature than anything we anti-Trump conservatives have told you for the last four years.

Still, some things have to be believed to be seen, and that means we have to help people see the truth in front of them. Speaking honestly—and without fear or apology—about what he is trying to do and about the people helping him are essential first steps (baby steps) in what I hope will be the conservative march back.