Communitarianism, Not Nationalism

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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A couple months back, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote about “the online movement known as ‘neoreaction,’” of which, he noted, “in its highbrow form offers a monarchist critique of egalitarianism and mass democracy, and in its popular form is mostly racist pro-Trump Twitter accounts and anti-P.C. provocateurs.”

It’s funny that Douthat mentioned the “monarchist” angle, because, exactly two years ago, I penned a piece for The Week, titled: “Why are U.S. conservatives so obsessed with monarchies?”

This was long before the rise of Donald Trump—and the concomitant popularity of the “neoreactionary” movement.

In that column, I theorized that “Conservatives may be especially susceptible to the cult of machismo. And perhaps this has something to do with the admiration held by some on the Right for Vladimir Putin?”

Today, this looks eerily prescient, but—at the time—no less a keen observer than Jonah Goldberg scoffed at it, asking: “What country is Matt Lewis looking at?”

Sadly, it was Donald Trump’s America. We just didn’t know it yet.

The one thing we all agree on is that the “monarchist” trend is a small “highbrow” form of a larger strain on the Right. The much larger (and arguably, more disturbing) form is what might be better called the “Alt-Right.”

Along those lines, I want to call to your attention a very good piece penned by Tyler Cowen on the topic of neo-reaction. Cowen does not subscribe to their ideology (and he correctly notes their anti-Christian and Darwinian worldview), but he does do a very good job of demonstrating how their concerns with modern America overlap that of more mainstream conservative traditionalists.

Conservatism might be defined as preserving those good things about western civilization, but what does that mean? The devil’s in the details. But we should all be concerned about preserving the institutions of western civilization (such as the rule of law)—and this necessarily entails pushing back on political correctness run amok (it stifles the free expression necessary for liberal democracy to flourish), making sure that immigrants are fully assimilated (we should have a diverse population, but a single culture), and rejecting social engineering designed to bring about the redistribution of wealth.

It has been widely noted that nationalist movements (of the sort Trump has sparked) arise during times of economic and cultural upheaval, where people feel disconnected from tradition and community. Likewise, it has been often said that, although conservatives should reject the racist or xenophobic elements present among some Trump supporters, we should also not ignore the sincere concerns held by many working-class Americans—as evidenced by Trump’s rise.

To be sure, there are fringe elements on the far Right who do not want, nor deserve, any sort of rapprochement. But there is still some hope that the majority of Trump voters might coexist in a political party with mainstream conservatives. As Pat Buchanan warned at the 1992 convention,

My friends, these people are our people. They don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but they come from the same schoolyards and the same playgrounds and towns as we came from. They share our beliefs and our convictions, our hopes and our dreams. These are the conservatives of the heart. They are our people. And we need to reconnect with them. We need to let them know we know how bad they’re hurting. They don’t expect miracles of us, but they need to know we care.

The trouble is that the obvious policies that could be co-opted from Trump (protectionism, overly restrictive immigration policies, and a refusal to address entitlement reform) are either a heavy lift or a deal breaker.

These policies generally suggest the problem is largely economic, and partially based on racism. Money matters, but I reject the materialistic notion that it is the primary driving force here. And concerns about immigration (to the degree we’re seeing them) is more likely a symptom than a cause; I suspect something even deeper is afoot.

As I hinted at above (and expounded on in a recent blog post) humans crave meaning and a connection with others. It’s not a coincidence that Donald Trump tends to perform better where people feel disconnected from their community and from traditions of the past. Many Americans live in a sterile milieu. They drive to work and back without talking to a neighbor. They spend their time playing video games (or surfing the net), rather than sitting on the front porch. They do not regularly attend church or coach Little League.

As Yuval Levin talks about in “The Fractured Republic” (listen to our podcast here) these “in-between” things bring us joy and contentment. But they’ve been crowded out by big government and mass media on one hand, and radical individualism, on the other.

What I am suggesting is that the long-term solution to co-opting Trump-ism is not to pander to populists or nativists, but rather, to think in terms of communitarianism. It might sound naive to say, but we have a nation of lonely and depressed people on our hands.

It’s hard to imagine a quick or comprehensive fix to this problem. Indeed, one supposes that any “comprehensive” policy solution would be a foolish conceit. Yes, some of this would magically disappear if the economy were to pick up speed. But there’s more to it than that. Culture is upstream from politics, and it’s also more complex. If conservatives want to find ways to tamp down on the anger and frustration that has given rise to Trump in the first place, our fractured culture is a good place to start.

Matt K. Lewis