In recent years, the Right has fractured into many small enclaves, each with their own views about the problems America faces and the policy responses required. What seems new to the rising generation is in fact part of a long and often neglected intellectual tradition of tension and debate. Over the summer, I (Kelly Hanlon) had the chance to reread George H. Nash’s monumental work, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, along with one of our summer interns, James De Marcellus, a rising senior majoring in foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. This interview is the culmination of our summer discussions and a chance to ask Dr. Nash about both the history and the future of conservatism.
Kelly Hanlon/James De Marcellus: While many believe that the American conservative movement is more fractured now than in the past, your book outlines the substantial tensions between different factions on the Right after World War II, as well as the way that fusionism united those disparate fronts. How would you describe fusionism historically to a contemporary audience?
George H. Nash: I should begin by saying that the subject of my book is the conservative intellectual movement in America since 1945. The book is not primarily focused on political figures during that period, like Senator Taft, Senator Goldwater, or Ronald Reagan, but more on the intellectuals, the scholars, the publicists, the journalists, the foundation people to some extent. The people who created what I call an intellectual movement with political aspirations and ramifications. And I think one of the most important things to remember, when considering the history of American conservatism since the Second World War, is that it is not and has never been univocal. It has never been a monolith. It has evolved into a coalition of different elements that had different origins and trajectories, but which came together in the 1950s, partly under the leadership of William F. Buckley Jr. and his magazine National Review, which became the flagship journal for conservatism for a couple of generations and is still important today. It acted as a kind of command center for those who were trying to devise strategies for advancing conservative principles and conservative political philosophy and social policy. There has never been a period when all has been serenity and suddenly we woke up and found Donald Trump on the front stage. There have been many moments of conflict and contention and efforts at definition.
What does it mean to be a conservative? What does it mean to be a conservative in America? These were recurrent questions. In fact, there were several components of what we think of, broadly speaking, as the modern American Right or conservatism. [I trace these intellectual strains] in my book but in summary form they are as follows:
The first grouping was the classical liberals, or as we tend to say today, the libertarians, who were in revolt, as all these elements were, against what they saw as a threat from the Left. In the case of the libertarians, the danger that they perceived was from the advance of New Deal-style liberalism and the massive growth of the welfare state, or what we might today even call the administrative state. They were defending free markets, capitalism, and private property, against what they saw as this peril from the Left.
Simultaneously and concurrently, a rather separate grouping of conservative intellectuals emerged who became known as the traditionalists. People like Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Peter Viereck, and Robert Nisbet were among the early luminaries. Their argument was that liberalism was a disintegrative force in Western society in the 20th century. It was dissolving the social, moral, and religious substrate and foundations of Western civilization, thereby creating a vacuum in which people were searching for meaning and finding it in totalitarian ideologies on the far Left and Right such as Nazism, fascism, and communism. The traditionalists were concerned with bolstering the spiritual and intellectual defenses of the West, including what we now call the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Third, there developed in the same decade or so after World War II a group of people, the Cold Warriors, some of them ex-radicals and even ex-Communists, who were opposed to what they saw as the greatest force for evil in the modern world: Communism, and what Reagan called “the evil empire.” The Soviet Union, headquartered in Moscow, was to them the center of a worldwide network of implacable revolutionaries seeking to overthrow freedom, tradition, and the democratic regimes of the West.
These three groups coalesced around National Review, but they were not all in the same communities of discourse. They were people who came from different backgrounds and read different books, but suddenly found themselves in league against a perceived enemy on the Left. To them, it appeared that the Left—whether socialists, progressives, liberals, or communists—was collectively a threat to what they held dear. And in the case of Communism, they could all agree on resisting it because Communism was a threat to both religious faith and to libertarian values. Anti-communism was something that nearly everyone on the Right could share. And this became a crucial cement for an otherwise disparate group of people who did not have the same intellectual backgrounds and systems of thought.
Quite early on, it became necessary to bring these groups together in an enterprise that entailed more than just sloganeering, or complaining about the drift of the times, or standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” as Buckley famously put it in the opening issue of National Review. They had to ask themselves, “What do we believe?”
What do conservatives wish to conserve? Now, they were being called “conservative” by the late 1950s because of the success in 1953 of Russell Kirk’s magnum opus, The Conservative Mind. That volume really pinned a label on this rather nebulous constellation of people. And it also undermined the liberal sense of superiority: the notion that only liberalism was an intelligent person’s point of view. [The term conservative] provided gravitas and a sense of identity to many people on the Right who had hitherto called themselves classical liberals and individualists.
KH/JDM: One might ask, then, what does it mean to be conservative?
GHN: Some libertarians argued that the purpose of government and the purpose for being active in politics was to create the conditions for the liberty of free people. This meant leaving people alone, as much as possible, and that government should provide the basis for freedom. But what you did, as an individual, with your freedom was your own business.
Now, the traditionalists more or less agreed with the disposition toward freedom, especially free markets and private property, as opposed to Communist collectivism. But they also desired what they called “ordered freedom.” In other words, freedom that had a direction, a goal, and at least some conditioning. This objective was exemplified in the word virtue. Traditionalists wanted people to lead lives that were not simply free from restraint by the government, but were oriented toward the pursuit of virtue, which they of course equated with traditional Judeo-Christian teachings.
A highly contentious debate broke out on the Right in the late 1950s and 1960s as to what the purposes of government and politics should be. It became known as the freedom versus virtue debate. And at its center was an unusual individual, Frank Meyer, a former Communist, who became a libertarian, and literally on his deathbed became a Roman Catholic. Meyer, a senior editor of National Review, attempted to develop, or, as he believed, to discern the actual conservative consensus. Some of his critics argued that he was creating a “fusionism” or fusing of these seemingly incompatible concerns of traditionalists who wanted a society that was virtuous and libertarians who wanted a society that was free.
KH/JDM: Historically speaking, did you find that a particular strain of conservative thought emerged victorious?
GHN: No, I don’t think so. But what became victorious, at least on paper, and in the parlance of the time, was this de facto fusionist consensus, which held that conservatives had several things that they stood for, and that they must not become fanatically ideological, pursuing one to the exclusion of the others. Fusionism was a kind of a framework, then, for political action. Under the banner of fusionism, the conservative movement became an alliance, but always with some critics on the edges.
KH/JDM: Two newer impulses on the right are populism or Trumpism and post-liberalism as articulated by figures like Patrick Deneen and Sohrab Ahmari in essays like “Against the Dead Consensus.” What movements in intellectual conservatism do you see as prefiguring these newer strains of thought?
GHN: Populism is not new, but I think there is something that can be pointed to intellectually as prefiguring the populism of Trump. And it is very specific: the phenomenon of Patrick Buchanan and H. Ross Perot in the 1990s. Both ran for president twice, in 1992 and 1996. Perot was famous for attacking the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and advocating a kind of protectionist trade policy. Buchanan had that in mind also, but he expressed quite colorfully a kind of militant traditionalism that was somewhat marginal on the Right. It became a little more prominent in the late 1980s and 90s with the emergence of what became called “paleoconservatism.” Buchanan and other paleoconservatives attacked what they called the “neoconservatives.” The neoconservatives were former left-of-center liberals and socialists who had been moving over to the Right in the 1970s and 80s. In the view of the paleocons, the neocons were taking over the conservative movement and redirecting it in ways that they considered antithetical to true conservatism.
Pat Buchanan popularized the term “America first” in 1992. The paleocons were very much concerned that unrestricted immigration, particularly from third-world countries, would ultimately undermine America’s Eurocentric culture because the new immigrants would not have the same historical memory and value system as the European immigrants from earlier times. The paleocons also accused the neocons of being Wilsonian idealists and being too willing to involve the United States in wars in faraway places.
Paleoconservatism, then, was a tendency that came into existence in the late eighties and nineties. But it was a relatively small one, a defiant dissent from the mainstream, Buckleyite Right. Then, in 2002, Patrick Buchanan and others founded the American Conservative magazine around the time of the great debate over whether the United States should intervene in the Middle East to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq. This issue deeply divided the conservative movement. From then on, the paleocons had a voice not only in Buchanan, but in his magazine.
Now if you look at what Donald Trump was saying in 2016, it’s very striking how much it lines up with the paleoconservative themes that Buchanan and others were articulating since the 1990s over trade policy, immigration policy, and foreign wars. If there is an intellectual backdrop to the Trumpian populism of the current time, I would point to that.
KH/JDM: Do you see postliberal thought as an intractable obstacle to conservative unity or as a potential component of a new consensus on the Right?
GHN: It is certainly an obstacle. For most American conservatives, classical liberalism is a fundamental component of the fusionist alliance system. And, some would say that the founding fathers themselves were classical liberals. My own view as a historian is that the founding period in the United States was the product of many influences, including the founders’ knowledge of ancient history and the classics. Most of the founders were also orthodox Christians. I think it would be an oversimplification to single out one of a number of factors that contributed to their worldview. But, certainly one of these was their conviction that government is something that has to be tamed and used carefully. As a result, they instituted a Madisonian structure of checks and balances as a way of preventing government from tyrannizing the people, even though it has to be strong enough, Madison said, to create and sustain basic order.
For postliberals to say that they’re postliberal raises the question, “which liberalism are they post?” Many would say, of course, that they are opposed to progressivism as we call it now, and social democracy, which in the United States often gets called liberalism. But some of them are also saying—and this brings us to those on the Right who argue that liberalism was philosophically flawed and has been ever since its inception—that liberalism was a fatal flaw in the founding itself. So, I have to ask: if the problem is that deep, where do conservatives go if they say they’re conserving the founding? If America’s political foundation is as defective as some allege it to be, upon what basis can American conservatives unite?
JDM: One of my favorite quotes from the book was your citation of Peter Viereck’s observation that, “What worries the conservative is not so much the liberal as his grandson. The liberal himself is a benign and beamish soul, as well-behaved as you could wish, for he is still living on the moral capital accumulated by past conservatives[.]” But then (as you comment in the book, Dr. Nash), “comes the relativist second generation, and then the nihilistic third.” This seems consistent with what we’ve seen in America’s universities, churches, media outlets, and civil associations. My (James De Marcellus’s) own construction follows: the relativist 1940s and 1950s, the nihilist 1960s and 1970s, the renewed relativism of the 1990s and 2000s, and then what one might describe as the dogmatist 2010s and 2020s. What challenges have American universities faced over the past few decades, and what might be some possible remedies?
GHN: One thing that I think has to be done is to appeal to those middle-aged professors who were brought up in an earlier period, the old-school liberals, if you will. And there is a need to reach out to them to try to at least establish an environment on campus that is accepting of people who disagree with one another. And that needs to be worked on.
But I’ve been trying to think about what more could be done. One suggestion I would like to offer is that conservatives ought to figure out ways of holding conservative film festivals on campuses. And I would nominate as one of the prime candidates for a film to be shown the documentary Morning Sun, produced in 2002 on the Chinese cultural revolution under Mao Zedong. The film describes how Mao Zedong in the 1960s mobilized the Red Guards, teenagers, and college-aged people to be the shock troops to intimidate the professors and other so-called bourgeois elements in society to re-radicalize Chinese society. It is a powerful movie. It shows what college students were doing then and I believe it would make today’s students think. In China, the students were being indoctrinated, going out, putting people in the stocks and spitting on them. And, as the film details, some of those same teenagers, now middle-aged, became disillusioned and regretted what they did as teenage fanatics.
I would also say, and this is more an altar call than a recommendation, that conservatives should avoid what I call soundbite sloganeering. This kind of language, this militarization of discourse, us versus them, secession, civil war, all this language we’ve been hearing more and more in the Trump years is very divisive and unhelpful. If students could avoid some of that, they might get further. Along the same lines, you might recall Eric Hoffer’s words. He said, “Facts are counter-revolutionary.” Facts. So if you’re a conservative student conversing with other students, have some facts, don’t just rely on slogans and soundbites. If you have some facts, you might open some eyes, but do it in a way that is inquiring rather than aggressively confrontational.
KH: Are there other sorts of unifying agents in the broad conservative movement or on the Right now? As I (Kelly Hanlon) think about the conservative movement as I’ve known it in my lifetime, what helps unify us today as conservatives, or as people on the Right, whatever that definition might now be or mean?
GHN: If you use the framework that I developed in my book, I think clearly the question of communist China is something that concerns nearly everyone on the Right. This may, in a sense, fill the gap left by the demise of Cold War anti-communism and the demise of the Soviet Union. China is now in league with Russia, North Korea, and Iran, an alliance on the Eurasian continent. I don’t have any idea how this will turn out, or whether it’ll turn violent, but certainly it seems that the Chinese Communists have a very expansionary view of themselves. There are signs of Chinese imperialism (e.g., Taiwan, Borneo, and the Solomon Islands), which seems to be running up against America’s own perception of national interest.
I would frame it this way, Kelly. It seems to me that conservatives should ask themselves this question: “What do conservatives want?” I would give a thumbnail answer to the question as follows. It seems to me that if you ask most conservatives what they want, they would say: “We want to be free. We want to be able to live lives, and have our families live lives, that are decent and well-ordered and virtuous. And we want to be safe from external and internal threats.” The latter being defined currently as crime and social disorder.
If you think about it, these desires—freedom, virtue, and safety—were the underlying impulses of the libertarian, traditionalist, and national security elements of the “fusionist” conservative movement during the Cold War era. And, it seems to me that when you look at it this way, you will recognize that these yearnings persist on the Right to this day. In other words, there is at least a little fusionism in all of us. I’m not speaking of fusionism as a formula now, but as an ecumenical disposition, recognizing that each component of this multi-pronged phenomenon has some contribution to make to the conservative cause. I believe conservatives would do well to cultivate this disposition.
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