Presidential Address To the H.L. Mencken Club, Nov. 4, 2016, Paul Gottfried

The topic we’re addressing this year is the future of the Right. A proper treatment of this theme requires that we examine both the current Right and what the Right was in the past. For those who belong to the Western or post-Western present, this task may be especially hard. We are still witnessing the Left’s hour of victory in most contemporary Western societies and the prevalence of a particular Left that suits an administered mass democracy, one that prides itself on planned diversity and a global cultural identity. The ruling classes place a premium on a certain form of equality, which they seek to impose on others. It stresses not so much economic redistribution as the elevation to an honored place of those who in the past would have been considered strange and even off-putting. We are now urged, and sometimes forced, to celebrate what past Western societies would have found distasteful, e.g., the transgendered, or women wrapped up in Burkas. At the same time we’re expected to spurn what until recently were the settled historical traditions and sensibilities of Western peoples.

 Those who enforce the new morality warn us against straying from their path. Those who do are decried as fascists, which is a code word for Nazi and by extension, Nazi genocide. Never mind the Devil in the details! Hitler’s Final Solution was not about opposing mandatory transgendered restrooms in public buildings or not forcing merchants with moral objections to cater gay weddings!  Anyone who bothers to look must notice how widespread is the practice of linking opposition to what the Left wants to Hitlerian tyranny. One would have thought that a truer description for such opposition is “democracy,” before that term was seized and denatured by our ruling class.  They, no less than the now antiquated Communist Left, have made democracy synonymous with being jerked around by social engineers.  

 Here we are speaking about a domination that in Western countries, thanks to immigration, state controlled education, bureaucratic coercion and manipulated popular culture, can now increasingly claim electoral majorities. Unlike the Nazis and Bolsheviks when they took power, the Cultural Marxists (pardon the use of this term, but none other fits as well) rule with something approaching majority support. This exemplifies Tocqueville’s notion of soft dictatorship, although such control could become harsher if left unchecked.

What exists as a beleaguered Right is for the most part defensive. Many in this room are invested in this battle; and if I tried to name all of you, I’d be guilty of omissions. Our struggle against what John Derbyshire calls the “liars, weasels and commissars,” who have left us “united by disgust,” or against what Peter Brimelow condemns as the “hysterical partisanship of the MSM” has been largely an effort to hold the Left at bay. This effort has been characterized by mockery, which has become a permanent feature of the Altright. In a recent interview in US News and World Report, the tech editor of Breitbart and an upfront homosexual Milo Yiannopoulos went after the PC commissars. According to Yiannopoulos, the “incessant and pathetic whining of the feminists about everything from gender pronouns to this on-line harassment craze” has led to social madness. Milo holds no brief for the “cult of equality” and with those “who struggle with any suggestion that social behavior may be genetically determined.” Scientists now hide their heads in the sand when anyone suggests that there may be something inborn that causes one group to excel in sports and another in mathematics. Yiannopoulos insists that we have to combat the thought police before they reduce all white males to blithering idiots.

Recently I was struck by a commentary of Bob Weissberg, which was posted on American Thinker, which went after the Republican Party establishment for its warped sense of conscience. Bob pilloried an establishment that drools over black race hustlers, while exhibiting scorn for the white working class. This masterpiece of derision may have been occasioned by a notorious screed in National Review by its would-be daring editor Kevin Williamson. A Millennial Conservative, as he fancies himself, Williamson flails away at poor white Americans while never failing to make excuses for politically correct minorities. According to Bob, this double standard indicates the imaginary moral worth of a now superfluous elite.  

Others on the defensive Right attack the Christophobia of the anti-Christian media. These “information providers” often work in sync with the Obama administration, which insults traditional Western religion while purposely ignoring the Muslim character of Muslim terrorism. Hillary Clinton’s recent remarks to, among others, LGBT donors that half of Donald Trump’s supporters are a “basket of deplorables” aroused concern on the defensive Right. Pat Buchanan grimly observed that Trump’s candidacy may be the last opportunity for Hillary’s “deplorables” to save their country from the mind-snatching Left.  

The “Right” to which I’m referring has little to do with what Peter Brimelow (not I) first referred to as “conservatism, inc.” Typical responses to leftist outrages in NRO, WSJ, and Weekly Standard illustrate what literary critics would call “immanentist” criticism. They are generated by those who share many of the cultural and social assumptions of those they criticize. The establishment conservative immanentist critic thinks highly of George Will’s concept of “civility.” This mode of conduct is applicable when moderate conservatives engage in conversation their fellow- Fox-All-Stars who are situated on the official Left. But the same rules don’t apply when the establishment expresses contempt for a more genuine Right.

 Conservatism, inc. has found a champion in the university-hopping Ben Shapiro, who welcomes being booed by leftist students on his carefully staged university visits. This young star of the media conservative galaxy pleads against PC excesses, but demands no less urgently the removal of Confederate names from public places while railing against Donald Trump as a neo-Nazi.  Shapiro and his buds complain that popular culture and academic faculties have betrayed the Left’s past achievements, such as passing and enforcing anti-discrimination laws. The Left, I would gather from listening to Shapiro, is excessively zealous in pursuing onetime noble objectives; because of its recent excesses, leftists are now seen as behaving in Shapiro’s words “like fascists.”

 Conservatism, inc. understates government involvement in cultural changes. If government bureaucrats get out of hand, we’re supposed to regard this as a minor functional disturbance in the greatest “liberal democracy” of all times. Indeed we should be focused on bringing our current model of government to the rest of humanity, and particularly to those who resist. If some slight tinkering is necessary at home, as I’ve learned from Fox-news, we should be looking to the presidency of George W. Bush for responsible “conservative” management. And for those who want to go back further in time, we have the “Reagan conservative revolution.” This for conservatism, inc. is the gold standard of truly conservative government. (As someone who lived through this alleged transformation as an adviser to the Reagan-administration, I still haven’t figured out what was “revolutionary” about it.  My most vivid impression of this event was watching the self-described conservatives who arrived in Washington looking for public service jobs in order to make the government go way.)

Once we’ve dismissed this faux Right, however, the question then becomes what are the prospects for an authentic American Right. Naturally I mean an Alternative Right that is not purely defensive. It is one that stands in bold contrast to the multicultural Left and to its talking partners in conservatism, inc. But there are certain truths that have to be told. A Right that hopes to amount to something on the historical stage, must be able to attract a mass following. It must also be able to appeal to rooted traditions-- and not look like a position paper thrown together by an ad hoc committee while dining on Domino Pizza.

 One criterion for defining the Right that has been ascribed to me is rejecting equality as the highest human value. That side of the political spectrum views inequality not only as the natural human condition but according to the Right’s older incarnations, as a desirable, stabilizing condition. As the English journalist Peregrine Worsthorne correctly argues in The Case for Aristocracy, a traditional class structure provides social coherence and historical continuity. A self-assertive Right goes beyond a purely cautionary posture, e.g., warning against the modern state’s inroads into our constitutional liberty. The Right through most of its history affirmed class, gender, national and other human distinctions. It considered hierarchy, or at least human differences, to be essential to a sound social order.

These are not popular ideas. The political and cultural energy in Western societies has been moving in the opposite direction for a very long time. If Donald Trump wins the presidency in a few days, not much will likely change in terms of reversing this direction. We’d still be dealing with elites, no matter what the upshot of the election; and we still wouldn’t be living in a classless society. In contemporary America we have extraordinary elites that never before have been seen in human affairs. They are committed to the destruction of traditional ways of life, such as socially recognized gender distinctions, and they favor flooding us with Third World migrants and affirmative action directives. If Trump does become president, he will have won at least partly by playing the other side’s hand. For example, he scolded the other party as racist and sexist, called for putting Rosa Parks on a ten-dollar bill, promised to provide government fundsfor women taking maternity leave from their jobs, and modified his initial plan to deport illegal residents. And like Hillary, Trump is surrounded by neocon advisors, albeit those of an older generation, and not the ones who counsel his Democratic opponent.

Not that I’m blaming Trump for taking these stands. If I were running for president, I would have acted similarly, if I wanted to win. And even where Trump has seemed “extreme” to the media and party establishments, he is walking in the footsteps of the moderate Left of twenty years ago.  Trump began his campaign by taking a signature position on immigration, but it was not original: Bill and Hillary Clinton had more or less embraced it in the 1990s. Let’s remember that dealing sternly with illegals was something Bill had proposed in his State of the Union address in 1996. The Clintons also gave us the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, a piece of legislation that today would lead to hyperventilating at the offices of the SPLC.

Some arrangements once favored on the right have not turned out the way they were supposed to. In 1597 James VI of Scotland (soon to become James I of England) objected to a proposed merger of the Church of England with Scotland’s more egalitarian Calvinist confession, with the words “no bishop, no king.” Although that maxim made perfectly good sense in James’s monarchical age, can we really say that churches with consecrated hierarchies have not been as prone as other churches to radical ideas? Let’s compare today’s Anglican and Episcopal churches to American Fundamentalist and Evangelical congregations, with their democratic organizations. Hierarchies in religion and politics preserve inherited ways of life only when those at the top have an interest in doing so. Conservatives in the nineteenth century were perpetually defending unwritten constitutions against written ones, which were then associated with the French Revolution. Now, however, I would prefer the American Bill of Rights to England’s unwritten constitution in order to be protected against a leftist government, to whatever extent our Bill of Rights operates according to its original sense. Although I fully understand why conservatives believed differently at an earlier time, our historical situation has changed.  And so has the situation in which the Right once understandably opposed extending the franchise to the working class. In today’s Western countries it is the native, white working class, certainly not wealthy professionals, who are the backbone of whatever is identifiably anti-globalist and anti-immigration.

This brings me to my final point. Unlike traditional conservatism, which was a nineteenth-century movement rooted in an idealized vision of what was still the remembered past, the Right operates today without an existing vision of order. It is not an extension of the monarchical principles famously embodied by the Austro-Hungarian Emperor who died one hundred years ago in the midst of the Great War. Franz Josef, a selfless traditionalist and protector of his multinational empire, might not have recognized what we in this room identify as the Right.  The modern Right’s worldview developed after classical conservatism had ceased to be socially relevant, as an attempt to check the Left while offering a counter-vision that would appeal to a mass base.

 Latin fascism, as I have argued elsewhere, was one such attempt to fashion a Right, and although it showed creative genius and resourceful eclecticism, it ended in failure and even disaster.  This Right developed when Europeans after the First World War tried to create an alternative to the Left that looked revolutionary. But even this experimental pastiche had historical foundations. Both Italian and Spanish fascists could assume certain advantages that do not apply to the present American Right. They lived within historic nations that exhibited shared religious traditions and a shared ethnic identity. Those trying to build an American Right do not have these advantages at their disposal.

Outside of some isolated examples, our country has to look hard for a “conservative tradition.” With due respect to those who are looking for one, I can’t resist referring to a recent commentary by a disciple of Russel Kirk arguing that Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater were deeply moved by Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. There is to my knowledge no evidence that the late Arizona senator ever read Burke (or much of anything else); and from what I remember of his speeches, one of Reagan’s favorite thinkers was the international democratic revolutionary Tom Paine. As is widely known, Burke detested Paine and declaimed against him in the Reflections.

Another closed path for the Right may be trying to build a movement based on the American Constitution.  Those who wish to appeal to that document against social engineering and bureaucratic centralization have their work cut out. They cannot for the most part undo how that document has already been stretched to suit progressive social agendas; perhaps the most they can achieve is limiting any further “straying of the Constitution.” But even that may be hard to do. As Angelo Codevilla observes in his commentary “After the Republic” published in Claremont Review:

 What goes by the name “constitutional law” has been eclipsing the U.S. Constitution for a long time. When the 1964 Civil Rights Act substituted a wholly open-ended mandate to oppose “discrimination” for any and all fundamental rights, it became the little law that ate the Constitution.

Codevilla notes that the mere citing of constitutional texts in arguing against the government’s overreach may cause people’s eyes to glaze over. The reasons are not simply that the public has become disaccustomed to constitutional government and that the populace wants politicians to give them more stuff. A fuller explanation would take into account Carl Schmitt’s observation that the legality of a regime depends ultimately on its legitimacy. This remains true in our time and place. The reason the Supreme Court can successfully twist the Fourteenth Amendment to impose the legalization of gay marriage on every state and to block any attempt to supersede its will is that the public has been taught to believe that the Court is doing what is just and sensitive.

 It makes no difference for most of the public if federal courts devise their own “living Constitution,” providing they act in conformity with those who exercise authority such as the media, public educators, and the entertainment industry.   A list of those who exercise that authority in our increasingly rootless society might include Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, Christiane Amanpour, Oprah, Michelle Obama and Dr. Phil. These may be the contemporary equivalents of such older models of authority as the Emperor Justinian, Pope Innocent III, and George Washington.

In any case the attempt to move from a defensive Right to a more positive one is fraught with difficulty. Such a project will not likely bear fruit until other conditions are met. Working toward such change should be distinguished from merely exploiting an electoral grievance, say illegal immigration in the current presidential race. Something “big” would have to take place in order for a force that is not merely an extension of the Left to move beyond its present marginalization.

And (oh yes) there’s still the problem of putting together a Right conceptually and programmatically without a plausible appeal to ethnic or cultural continuity. In France Marine Le Pen and her followers can appeal to a national consciousness which for des Francais de souche goes back more than a thousand years. The Polish and Hungarian Rights make similar appeals; and even the Alternative für Deutschland in a country that has been radically reeducated by its conquerors, can celebrate Germany’s illustrious and millennial, non-Nazi past.

 Jews, Greeks and Italians still exalt ancient commonwealths that gave birth to their peoples thousands of years ago. But there is no unified majority ethnic consciousness in the US, and certainly not among white Americans. The American Right invokes the “historic American nation” but it is hard for most Americans to imagine themselves in any America but the present one. To be sure, there are exceptions to this generalization, for example, clusters of Southerners descended from Confederate veterans who glory in their ancestry. But their number is diminishing and one may have noticed the tepid, sporadic response of Southern whites when Confederate symbols were removed from their public buildings and when the names of Confederate heroes were replaced by those of Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman. Reverence for the past and rightist identity go together, which may lead us to another reason that it’s hard to build an American Right. Those groups that once represented a historic American nation with roots in the past no longer value their past. Indeed they expend great energy trying to undo it and apologize for their ancestors’ role in creating a society they repudiate. Evidence of this trend is amply present in the Episcopal Church or (for those who have the stomach to notice) in George H.W. Bush and his progeny who’ve made a fetish of “reaching out.”

Beside hierarchy, the Right values particularity, which it opposes to globalism. But here too the Right has been dealt a bad hand. In America nationalism has become a propositional concept linked to a universal creed of equality. What those on the Right have to do in order to reclaim the nationalist label is state first what they don’t mean. They have to explain that they’re not using “nationalism” in the way conservatism, inc. does. The Right means something different by that term, but when its members elaborate on what that difference is, they often lose their listeners or elicit the impression that they’re trying to revive the Third Reich.

I’m listing these obstacles not because I wish to discourage the efforts of those representing the real Right. Rather I am pointing out the roadblocks that will have to be surmounted before their march can move effectively forward. There is of course value in a defensive Right even if that Right is mostly kept out of centers of power. Victories, however modest, can be incremental. This year the Right was successful in helping to make immigration a key electoral issue. An entity called Altright has emerged whose existence unsettles the left-liberal and neocon establishments. The next step in moving toward a Right that is not purely defensive would be to construct a program based on what is possible in the near term. This must be pursued in a sober fashion while resisting the impulse to grandstand or shock. A rightist program that has any chance of succeeding must also be adapted to the American present.  It cannot be an attempt to reprise the ideas of the interwar European Right, which have limited purchase, outside of certain websites.

One course that the Right might pursue to its advantage is working toward radically decentralized government. It is foolish to believe that an authentic Right could gain control of the federal government or win a majority of votes in a national election, particularly if HRC emerges triumphant from the presidential race. A more realistic goal may be working toward “safe spaces” that are free from intimidation by federal and state snooping agencies. Likeminded people could gravitate toward what eventually became semi-autonomous regions with shared core convictions. The achievement of this goal is certainly not possible in the near term but it does provide a practical objective toward which an authentic Right could aspire. Leftist inquisitors are on to something when they identify “right-wing extremists” (and for them everyone to the right of Hillary belongs to that group) as decentralists. They fully grasp that the only means by which an active Right can thrive is in localities and communities, in a political system that allows for the distribution of power.  

Clearly this is not the preferred model for most European nationalists but then their situation is different from ours. We in the US are faced (to speak in a non-celebratory fashion) by greater diversity than any found in most European countries. It is however possible that even here managerial tyranny with its thought police has only a limited life span. Our apparatus of power with its media and academic priesthood and supportive cultural industry may begin to crack under the impact of internal contradictions.  Let’s not abandon the hope that the clients of this system will eventually fall out among themselves. Those who do the manipulating may lose some of their unified control, and possibilities may then present themselves that will benefit the Right.

For those who are looking for another silver lining in this narrative, I would call attention to the mobilization of the working class here and in Europe as part of a rightist counteroffensive. One could not have predicted this development as late as the 1960s, when the working class was still solidly allied to social democratic, socialist or in some cases communist parties. But even then while workers demanded income redistribution and government-provided economic benefits, they clung generally to their guns and religion, as candidate Obama complained in 2008. Later as the Left became identified with mass immigration, antinationalism, feminism and LGBT, the working class gravitated toward the non-establishment Right, which protested fluid immigration and the glorification of alien lifestyles. These changes may ultimately strengthen the authentic Right, which has its own differences with Wall Street and multinationals. A Right that is not on the take from what Trump styles “global corporate interests,” is in a position to make common cause with working class constituents.  Only future events will tell whether the Right can use this prospective alliance to challenge our political and cultural elites. How it deals with its gifts and perennial difficulties may determine what kind of future lies before it.