By Chris Trotter*
Munich, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, was an uncomfortable place for conservatives. The Wittelsbach dynasty, along with the Hohenzollerns had fled before the red gale raging from the east. Bavaria lost its monarch, and, for a brief period, its head.
Ultimately, Kurt Eisner’s Bavarian Socialist Republic, and the even more revolutionary Bavarian Soviet Republic, proved no match for the “freikorps” of demobbed right-wing soldiery that brought them down. Nevertheless, that bitter revolutionary winter of 1918-19 engendered among the upper classes an enduring psychosis of fear and dread. How, and by whom, they demanded, could the restive socialist masses be tamed?
The answer came from one of those demobbed right-wing soldiers. A former corporal turned military informant, Adolf Hitler, argued that the seemingly irresistible ideology of socialism could only be contained by attaching it to the even more powerful ideology of nationalism. It was to forefront the importance of this new hybrid ideology that he re-named the German Workers Party, a tiny group he had been sent to spy on, only to join and take over, the National Socialist German Workers Party. This political mouthful was shortened by Hitler’s contemporaries to the much more manageable “Nazi Party”.
Some familiarity with the origins and political purpose of “National Socialism” should make “National Conservatism” a lot easier to understand. Grasping the term’s meaning is important. The first “National Conservative” conference, organised by the US-based Edmund Burke Foundation, was held earlier this month in Washington DC. The gathering featured a number of figures prominent on the American Right – including New Zealand’s billionaire “citizen”, Peter Thiel.
If the motivation for placing “National” in front of “Conservative” is in any way akin to the motives for putting the same word in front of “Socialism”, it would suggest that the forces of conservatism in the United States, like the forces of socialism in Germany 100 years ago, are similarly out of control and engendering toxic levels of fear and dread in the American upper classes.
These fears are readily understood. The rise of Donald Trump has fundamentally deranged the Republican Party. Like the promoters of Brexit in the United Kingdom, Trump long ago grasped the crucial truth that actual conservatives, as opposed to the professional right-wing politicians and campaign operatives accustomed to managing them, constitute a volatile and potentially highly disruptive political force.
Trump understands that many of the hopes and aspirations of the conservative masses are every bit as unsettling as those traditionally associated with the Left. For the best part of fifty years, the Republican Party has made an art form out of exacerbating and exploiting the patriotic and religious feelings of ordinary blue-collar Americans. Over the same period, however, Republican grandees have worked tirelessly to steer their aggrieved working-class supporters away from the economic policies that have done so much to undermine their security. Keeping the issues of off-shoring, free trade, deindustrialisation and globalisation off the table used to be a priority for all serious Republican candidates – until Trump.
The enormous power inherent in these forbidden topics was made evident to Trump in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, by right-wing iconoclast (and former House Speaker) Newt Gingrich, whose supporters harnessed them in an unsuccessful attempt to derail the campaign of Mitt Romney. It cannot have escaped Trump’s attention how much these anti-Romney attack ads felt and sounded like the politics of the old New Deal Democratic Party.
Conservatives, it seemed, could be class warriors, too. Protectionism and the government intervention to support “American Made” products: policies ruled out of contention by both the Republican and Democratic elites: could win an openly populist candidate votes – lots of votes.
National Conservatism represents an attempt to accommodate Trump’s expanded repertoire of acceptable economic issues within a political platform that continues to defend the interests of the Republican Party’s principal funders. Protecting American industries from “unfair” foreign competition, and using the resources of the American state to keep the USA at the cutting-edge of technological change, are key components of the National Conservatives’ policy push.
Less concrete, but potentially much more problematic, is the National Conservatives’ call for “social cohesion”. Paradoxically, this call for an enhanced degree of national unity is a direct consequence of Trump’s deliberate fostering of national division.
The President knows that in politics nothing matters more than picking a side and sticking to it. Trump’s key demographic is white Americans without college degrees. They elected him and he has never stopped thanking them for it. He knows that these folk mostly tend to define themselves by what they are not. It’s why the President is so ready to define the USA negatively. America is not Black. America is not Hispanic. America is not Muslim. America is not Liberal. America is not convinced that Climate Change is real.
If National Conservatism opts to define social cohesion is these exclusionary terms, then it will find itself confronting some pretty major political and constitutional hurdles. With so many Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and Liberals in the American electorate, any attempt to redefine American identity so narrowly and negatively could only be accomplished by adopting the same authoritarian and deeply racist policies as those deployed by America’s World War I president, Woodrow Wilson, (whose second term coincided with Hitler’s invention of National Socialism.)
If, however, National Conservatism seizes upon the traditional metaphor of the American Melting Pot, and devotes itself to promoting the unifying power of the American Dream, then National Conservatism has a real chance to smooth-off the sharper edges of Trumpism, reset the Republican Party’s political agenda, and keep the Democratic Party off-balance.
The United States’ most outspoken National Conservative politician, Missouri Senator, Josh Hawley, spelled out the new movement’s message in the Washington conference’s keynote address:
“The great divide of our time is not between Trump supporters and Trump opponents, or between suburban voters and rural ones, or between Red America and Blue America. No, the great divide of our time is between the political agenda of the leadership elite and the great and broad middle of our society. And to answer the discontent of our time, we must end that divide. We must forge a new consensus.”
Now, that’s not quite the same as the message delivered by Simon Bridges’, leader of New Zealand’s free-floating and unattached to any “-ism” National Party, who on Saturday told the voters of New Zealand that: “The New Zealand National Party’s bottom line – is you.”
But it’s close.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com. He writes a fortnightly column for interest.co.nz.