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The Runback: The Good Guys Lost
Some of us have been ringing alarm bells about the state of conservatism for a long time
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The Monday Thought
There has been a lot of chatter recently about the state of conservatism in the United States.
Now, conservatism in the United States has always been different than most places in the world. Traditional American conservatism has been about small government, low taxes, and the free market. Not so much in most places. Even Canadian conservatism, except for a few folks, has called for more government intervention than American conservatism.
But there was always an element of it in American conservatism in its soft-underbelly.
I don’t usually like to reference The Bulwark because there are too many self-professed conservatives there who don’t realize they’ve become Democrats. However, Shay Khatiri wrote an excellent piece asking what went wrong with conservatism. And there’s one answer that sticks out:
Someone—I’ve heard that it was Irving Kristol—once said that there were two paths to conservatism: being anti-state and being anti-left.
As modern conservatism was being created, the left and the state were, for all intents and purposes, the same. Conservatives wanted small government. Liberals wanted to expand government in pursuit of their vision for America.
Many of conservatism’s popularizers chose to be anti-left, making the case that liberalism was a threat to the interests of Americans—and thus that conservatives were the guardians of those interests.
The real money quote, however, is this.
However well versed the popularizers might have been in conservative arguments, they were ultimately not adherents of any specific conservative ideology. They were beholden to the passions of the masses. That was their business model—not just at Fox News and on talk radio, but among various culture-war organizations that knew profit was to be found in heat, not light.
The bottom line of this is the fact that the “popularizers” as Khatiri call them, led the rank and file of the conservative movement away from actual conservative policies and toward just an anti-left mentality. While there is certainly an ideological basis in being opposed to socialism and progressivism, there is no ideological basis in being “anti-left”. While it makes for great talking points, the entire concept of being “anti-left” is an amorphous, meaningless statement.
It was that these popularizers that led the movement astray that led the movement to embraced Donald Trump. Trump, as I pointed out in 2015, was a proponent of abortion, more gun control, higher taxes, and a Canadian-style single-payer health care system and a huge donor to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats. But he talked in a way that the anti-left loved and that’s why he became the nominee and ultimately a very statist President.
Trump, of course, took the GOP and what still calls itself conservatism away from actual conservatism.
Now, Donald Trump is not to blame for this. Trump did what Trump always does, found out what was marketable, marketed himself, and was successful at that. His administration, as expected, was a train wreck.
But you will note in my 2015 piece that I grossly miscalculated the electorate. I point blank said: “Trump has practically no chance of being the Republican nominee, much less being President.” I guess I gave the voters more credit for being ideological conservative at a time that the preponderance of them were just anti-left.
I’ve always said that you can’t win if you’re always against something and not for something. Trump was always against Hillary and against Biden. He managed to win one of those, but not the second. National Republicans were for Trump and against Biden specifically and the left generally and no ideological case is really made beyond that.
Maybe that is now changing.
Author J.D. Vance, a once Never Trumper who is now born again as a major Trump fluffer uncorked this gem recently:
Appearing on Fox News Channel’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” both Vance and the program’s host wondered aloud why the United States allows organizations like the Ford Foundation to exist as tax-exempt 501(c)3 nonprofits. Vance insisted that the Ford Foundation, and groups like it, “pretend to be charities,” which allows them to avoid paying corporate taxes. Vance went on to criticize American progressives for failing to target their own allies with political retribution.
“We’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars in ill-gotten, accumulated wealth,” Vance declared. “Why are we allowing the companies, the foundations that are destroying this country to receive tax preferences? Why don't we seize the assets of the Ford Foundation, tax their assets, and give it to the people who've had their lives destroyed by their radical open borders agenda?” Vance, who accused the institutions he wants to liquidate of being “the ultimate institutions of identity politics,” then rattled off a series of communities that should be the select beneficiaries of the largesse he would expropriate and redistribute.
So, to recap, J.D. Vance, one of the chief champions of modern populism, wants to seize the assets of private organizations and redistribute them to specific interest groups.
If I hadn’t seen the video myself I would have assumed Alexandria Ocasio Cortez said this instead of somebody masquerading as a Republican.
Noah Rothman for MSNBC continues with this blistering critique:
If Vance is indicative of a more coherent populist nationalism than the lifestyle brand Donald Trump promoted as president, he and his voters could represent the vanguard of a more familiar sort of “conservatism.” It was the “conservatism” to which politicians on the right were predisposed a half century ago.
This “conservatism,” embraced by President Richard Nixon, pushed price and wage controls that sacrificed economic dynamism in the pursuit of petty domestic popularity. It was championed by the likes of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, whose “middle way” conceded that the ideological fight over state control of the levers of the economy was all but over, and his side had lost, only to secure some scraps of political power.
If Vance is the vanguard of the new national Republicanism, the ideological war is over. And the good guys, however many of us are left, lost.
Next week, I’ll continue by addressing how this scenario might end.