The Alcove

The Demise of the Conservative Intellectual

Attacking educated “elites” is red meat for conservative politicians. But for intellectuals to go down that same road is a grave danger to our democratic discourse.

By Kevin Mattson

Tagged conservatism

Two recent pieces published in The Baffler prompt the question: Has the conservative movement gotten to the point of self-destruction? Take, first off, John Ganz’s piece on The New Criterion and the recent writing of its editor Roger Kimball. Ganz begins by recounting how he, a left-liberal, it would seem, took on a secret liking for The New Criterion back in the day (it began publication in 1982). The magazine was once a place that published what he believed to be “pretty stylish prose” and developed a certain “wit targeted at academic jargon.” It upheld a faith in high culture—both for its sophistication and historical rootedness—concerning itself with the impact the New Left and the 1960s had on academe, especially in undermining the intellectual rigor of the Great Books tradition and even appreciation of classical artwork. In upholding “high culture,” Kimball seemed to stand on principle rather than politics. You see, there’s a fear certain intellectual left-liberals share with their cultural conservative peers, as Ganz suggests: It’s difficult to deny that there’s been a coarsening of our culture over the years, a dumbing down of popular culture, and a tendency toward anti-intellectualism.

Yet Ganz goes on to describe Kimball’s intellectual descent as he shifted from being a supposedly “highbrow” critic to a celebrant of populism and Donald Trump. That may seem like quite an evolution, but then again maybe it’s not. Ganz instead sees a great deal of continuity in the worldview that buttresses Kimball’s thinking through the years.

To exemplify this, Ganz describes a literary analogy Kimball uses in much of his writing: “A damsel (America) is locked in a dark castle, which was once a glorious palace in years gone by.”  But now “liberal elites, the bureaucracy, academia” have sapped “her vitality,” turning her “weak and infirm” due to a dastardly belief system in “left-wing ideology, political correctness, egalitarianism.” Using this metaphorical trope, Kimball continued to describe citizens as having turned into weaklings who secretly long for a return to national greatness. This view of decline and decadence, so core to the conservative intellectual tradition, is prone to eventual faith in a strong, authoritarian leader. And thus, Donald Trump becomes, for Kimball, the only one ready to rescue the country from its demise. As Ganz points out, in the summer of 2017, Kimball “published a piece” for a blog called American Greatness entitled “‘Donald Trump as Pericles’ comparing Trump’s speech in Warsaw to the famous funeral oration in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War.” Trump finds praise from Kimball because, like Pericles, he possesses a “frank and manly self-confidence.”

The trajectory of this particular “intellectual” tells us a great deal about the state of the wider conservative intellectual movement today. The window dressing may remain the same: Kimball doesn’t make direct reference to contemporary presidencies in America, but cloaks his arguments through high-minded references to the classics, that sort of conceit of highbrow pretension that once marked a great deal of conservative thought (consider Allan Bloom’s tendency to use Plato to buttress his arguments about what was wrong in American academe or the whole “Straussian” school of thought he was a part of). Yet Kimball winds up highlighting, as Ganz rightfully points out, that “Trumpism represent[s] conservatism at its essential core, a kind of return to its roots in monarchism,” fitting of eighteenth century Western European conservatism (Edmund Burke and other critics of the French Revolution). But here’s another intellectual curve ball: This “monarchism” is now being  nurtured by a populist faith—a combined belief in the supposed goodness of the masses, led by the sort of paternalistic authoritarian leader that conservative intellectuals can get behind.

Meanwhile, as Ned Resnikoff highlights in another article in The Baffler, Steve Bannon has gained the weighty moniker of “thought leader.” This, too, tells us something important about the state of the conservative intellectual movement. How has Bannon, more aptly described as a political strategist with a background in gaming and movies, become somebody who anyone serious would truly consider an “intellectual”? Well, because publications like The Washington Post and Politico have been arguing that he “reads a lot of books,” which supposedly includes Thucydides (there you have it again). Bannon,  in other words, is supposedly “well-read,” and apparently that’s enough for some. Resnikoff sees a real danger in this: “When journalists treat men like Bannon as if they are serious thinkers, they lend undeserved public legitimacy to a racist, conspiratorial, anti-democratic ideology.” They also lower the intellectual bar by making a “thought leader” out of someone who offers little more than ungrounded and impulsive, yet dangerous, arguments.

Resnikoff also adds to his list of recent conservative “intellectuals” Milo Yiannopoulos, who “can’t convincingly feign blinding genius” the way Bannon craftily does, and so “relies more on bad-boy insouciance.” But he too has been seen as a “thought leader,” until recently giving talks at whatever college campus wasn’t afraid of the ensuing chaos. He also secured interviews with members of the so-called “mainstream media,” including his controversial interview with Bill Maher. And, lest we forget something pending as of now, he has been contracted with Simon and Schuster to write and publish that thing that has always defined an intellectual life—a book.  Or at least, he almost has.

But there’s a point here at which I would part with Resnikoff and Ganz (though I remain in agreement with the main arguments they put forward). They are certainly right in exposing how “thought leaders” on the right have translated “white supremacist ideas” into a more palatable mix. But my concern goes beyond the issue of sanitizing white nationalism. I want to note rather the broader effects that conservative “thought leaders” have had on our public culture in general.

Consider how things have proceeded in recent months with Yiannopoulos’s book contract. It’s now a matter for the courts, with Simon & Schuster arguing that they can’t publish the book in the form that Yiannopoulos has submitted it. Yiannopoulos, in turn, is suing the publisher for breach of contract. What the court documents have revealed from the book, during this whole affair are, however, very telling. Simon & Schuster have released their editor’s notes, which called the book “superficial and nonsubstantive.” The editor’s report is full of passages like: “delete irrelevant and superfluous ethnic joke” in reference to “a line about ‘informing cab drivers that curry is not a deodorant.’” Or, “Don’t start chapter with accusation that feminists = fat. It destroys any seriousness of purpose.” In other words, Yiannopoulos is incapable of writing anything coherent that doesn’t involve slurs and ill-founded personal opinions and prejudice. Again, Conservative pundits today are more about shouting from rooftops rather than working within the “high culture” of the western intellectual tradition. Yiannopoulos has lowered the intellectual bar even further than most.

Today, conservative intellectuals or thought leaders (or whatever you want to call writers and journalists and bloggers of this variety) no longer think. They no longer argue or pursue the playfulness of ideas as the intellectual vocation allows (for a fine argument about what makes an intellectual, see Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life). Back in the 1940s, the literary (and liberal) critic Lionel Trilling described conservative thinking as little more than “irritable mental gestures.” He would likely consider the very concept of the “conservative intellectual” today a full-fledged oxymoron. Thinking is out; prejudiced assertions sans proof are in. Of course, as Trump’s presidency shows, this sort of thing can win you political campaigns. Attacking educated “elites” is red meat for conservative politicians.

But for intellectuals to go down that same road is a grave danger to our general public culture, and dare we say—as would the Kimball of old—“civilization.” Our public dialogue is threatened by the likes of Twitter thinking—more short spasms than developed reasoning. Conservative intellectuals have always struggled with their own tendency to instinctively distrust their own kind— i.e. other intellectuals, what the historian Christopher Lasch once labeled the “anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals.” Yet right now, they seem they seem to have moved beyond self-hate and toward willful self-sabotage. Their ideas have lost all intellectual rigor and warrant no respect. In killing off their own thinking, they kill off the possibility of democratic discourse, where thinkers with different principles can debate but engage in a productive conversation about our contemporary political situation. By turning the exchange of ideas into warfare and angry brawls, conservative “thought leaders” are killing off the very principle of democratic debate.

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Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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