The Desertion of the Intellectuals?


Some 80 years ago, the American historian, Crane Brinton, wrote The Anatomy of Revolution in which he sought to plot the stages of popular revolts. In fact, he attempted to identify the pattern of the French Revolution (1789), and add comments about Britain’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ (1688), the American Revolution (1776) and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (1917). Brinton paid particular attention to the breakdown in the old order, the ‘ancien régime’.  One question occupied his thoughts: What were the elements within the old order that caused it to lose its legitimacy to a point when even members of the ruling elite lost belief in their own right to rule?  While he certainly paid close attention to the countries’ economic problems, Brinton  also stressed the intellectual supports holding up the old order, i.e. the basis for its legitimacy.

Numerically ‘intellectuals’ represent a tiny minority of any country’s national population. But writers, philosophers, journalists, and scientists – so-called ‘ideas people’ – play a crucial role in legitimizing the existing political order. When they withdraw their support for the prevailing system, as did the writers of the 18th century Enlightenment from the French monarchy and the religious idea of the ‘Divine Right’ that undergirded it, the regime became susceptible to challenges, peaceful or otherwise. The rule of the Romanovs in early 20th century Russia provides another example.

I’m not suggesting that Donald Trump’s White House bears much similarity to Louis XVI and his court at Versailles. Nor am I suggesting American democracy is on the brink of collapse at the hands of armed insurgents. Peasants wearing muddy boots appear unlikely to invade the president’s haven resort at Mar-a-Lago, for instance. What I do think we are witnessing is the defection of many conservative intellectuals from the political movement that has come to dominate Republican Party politics over the last several decades. Let me provide some examples.  Names that come to mind immediately are those of George Will, David Brooks, William Krystol, and Bret Stephens. All four of these writers produce newspaper columns and frequently serve as television commentators. They have served as long-time and thoughtful defenders of conservative ideas about the direction of American public life. Their work appears on a regular basis in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The National Review.  The latter was founded by the late William Buckley Jr. in the 1950s to serve as the flagship of the new conservative movement.  Krystol, the son of a key figure in the neo-conservative movement of the 1960s, was the long-time editor of the now defunct Weekly Standard, a journal committed to the expression of conservative opinions.

What all four of these conservative writers have in common is their hostility to the Trump administration and to the president’s personal style. Not only do they regard the current administration as haphazard and chaotic but they see Trump himself as feckless, disorganized and narcissistic. They seem to perceive Trump much in the way members of the British aristocracy regarded newly wealthy businessmen in the 19th century – with a certain disdain. The fact that Trump incessantly brags and boasts about his accomplishments and apparently refuses to read anything longer than a paragraph doesn’t help matters. Nor does the fact that the president has managed to alienate the Republican Party’s foreign policy establishment as represented, for example, by former defense secretary, James Mattis, and Bush administration secretary of state, Colin Powell.

We are therefore witnessing the defection of conservative intellectuals from the right-wing populist movement Trump has come to embody. We may legitimately ask therefore: What does this departure portend for American conservatism?  Is there an end in sight to its role in the country’s political discourse? And, are we witnessing the same kind of departure of the intellectuals Brinton saw as an indicator that the old order was about to crumble all those years ago?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be ‘no’.  We are witnessing the displacement of George Will and his more traditional conservative acolytes by a new cast of ‘near right’ news analysts. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, the most widely watched cable television news channel in the U.S., has furthered the careers of Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter. Fox has supplied a mass audience for right-wing news analysts who enthusiastically support Trump and his administration. In fact, by all accounts Trump himself spends hours each day watching Fox News and often phones Sean Hannity to receive the latter’s advice. If we add Steve Bannon (an admirer of the late neo-fascist philosopher Julio Cesare Evola), the former Trump advisor, and Breitbart News to the mix we see the appearance of a completely new coterie of right-wing intellectuals.

What distinguishes the new from the old – now displaced – conservative intellectuals? The old cast of characters’ appeal has been to a college-educated and relatively sophisticated audience, ‘country-club’ Republicans and middle-of-the-road Democrats. By contrast, this newly emergent group of right-wing advocates – supportive of president Trump – developed a rapport with the less-educated segment of the American electorate. Precisely the same part of the public that voted Trump into office – and seem likely to re-elect him in 2020. This new insurgency therefore provides the foundations for Trump’s perpetual revolution of media and state affairs – and his campaign – going forwards; bringing about Crane Brinton’s thesis of a popular revolt against elites and eventually a new order to replace it.

Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Foundation Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Nevada. His profile can be found here:

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