I became a conservative because I believed the conservative values I grew up with were the best way to bring about human flourishing for the most Americans. I still do. But in recent years it has become clear that significant parts of the conservative movement no longer share this belief (if they ever did). There is a palpable sense that not only are our values incapable of persuading a majority of Americans to support Republican politicians at the ballot box, but that the whole project of liberal democracy is doomed.
What had been (in the days of Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp) an optimistic philosophy has metastasized. We are left with a right wing that is animated by despair, desperation, and an inevitable belief in American decline. We have been hearing this sort of clamoring since 2016, culminating with the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6. But there was always the hope it would dissipate if or when Donald Trump left the White House.
But sadly, Trump’s exit has done little to quell the incipient thirst for authoritarianism from many on the right. Indeed, the fever seems to be getting worse.
One such example comes to us from The American Mind, a publication of the once-mainstream conservative Claremont Institute. In a recent piece that garnered some buzz, senior fellow Glenn Ellmers argues that “most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” His level of despair can be felt when he writes that, “Practically speaking, there is almost nothing left to conserve” and concludes that we should “give up on the idea that ‘conservatives’ have anything useful to say. Accept the fact that what we need is a counter-revolution.” Oh yeah, he also takes a shot at Joe Biden’s Inaugural poet, saying, “If you are a zombie or a human rodent who wants a shadow-life of timid conformity, then put away this essay and go memorize the poetry of Amanda Gorman.”
Human rodent? Sick stuff. But possibly less dangerous than my other example, which is Jesse Kelly’s comments days ago on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
“I’ve said this before and I’m telling you, I’m worried that I’m right: The right is going to pick a fascist within 10 to 20… years because they’re not going to be the only ones on the outs,” Kelly said. “There’s 60, 70 million of us. We’re not a tiny minority, and if we’re going to be all treated like criminals and all subject to every single law, while antifa Black Lives Matter guys go free and Hunter Biden goes free, then the right’s going to take drastic measures.”
Kelly wasn’t lying when he said he’s said this before. “The inevitable counter to communism is fascism,” he tweeted in February. “We will see a monster rise on the Right in response to the Left’s violence and censorship. It will be awful. But it is coming. I promise you that.” Left unsaid are the illusions to Weimar Germany and the Weimarization of America. In the 1930s, many Germans were willing to give Hitler a try because they greatly feared Communism, saw their predicament as a binary choice, and chose (what they thought would be) the lesser of two evils. Kelly seems to be warning us that America (which is quite different from the Weimar Republic) is headed toward a similar fate.
Now, responsible conservatives do sometimes warn the left against pursuing radical ideas about identity politics, cancel culture, street violence, iconoclasm, etc., but our warnings are more sincere and less grandiose. If you’ve seen the “This is how you get Trump” tweets, you’re familiar with the genre.
Kelly’s playbook is much different. When he says “the right is going to pick a fascist,” you have to wonder if that’s a warning or a threat. And when he says he’s “worried,” you have to wonder if he’s just concern trolling, or if he’s actually laying the groundwork for the ultimate “SEE WHAT YOU MADE ME DO” excuse.
Carlson concluded the segment by saying, “That’s so well put and you’re absolutely right. We are moving toward actual extremism because they’re undermining the system that kept extremism at bay. I don’t think we can say that enough. I’m so glad that you just said it. Jesse Kelly, thank you.”
Just as Donald Trump recently told Laura Ingraham that the Capitol insurrectionists are now being “persecuted,” these comments feed the right’s victim mentality, making a wild jump from the complaint that one privileged, but troubled, politician’s son might have gotten away with something illegal to the view that American fascism is inevitable and (maybe even) excusable.
As was the case with the “Flight-93 election” (also published by Claremont), the justification requires accepting the premise that things are so doomed that rushing the cockpit is your only alternative. From where I sit, that is a fantastical and dark premise that only works if people like Kelly constantly stoke pessimism and hopelessness.
Like Ellmers’ piece in The American Mind, this flies in the face of the conservatism I grew up with. In his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan said: “I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.” He went on to encourage us to “renew our determination, our courage, and our strength. And let us renew our faith and our hope.” Conversely, Kelly does seem to believe in a fate that will fall on us (and he won’t use his platform to bring Americans together or try to stop it). His fatalism is the opposite of faith and hope. (Then again, Reagan also once said that “if fascism ever comes to America, it will come in the name of liberalism.”)
Instead of serving as a warning to conservatives and progressives to come together as a nation and avoid this fate, Kelly’s confident prediction seems more likely to serve as a self-fulling prophecy: he is introducing us to a foreign concept (the fascist leader in America) and then creating a permission structure to support it. He’s not doing this on some fringe media outlet either. He’s spouting his views on a mainstream conservative network—on what happens to be the most-watched cable news channel in the nation.
The real danger isn’t in a much-buzzed about column in The American Mind or in Jesse Kelly’s radical musings on some random March night in 2021. The real danger is the assumption that American democracy is doomed, and the nascent normalization on the right of the inevitability of a fascist leader emerging. This normalization feels like a harbinger of things to come.