There’s a powerful moment at the start of Anne Applebaum’s recent essay in The Atlantic. She’s recalling a party she threw on Dec. 31, 1999, at her home in Poland. Many of the hundred-odd guests were Polish, but others flew in from around the world for a weekend together, to greet the new millennium.
Most of the guests were conservatives — which in those days meant being anti-Communist and pro-market, but also believing in international alliances like NATO. The party was a great success, lasted all night and continued into brunch the following day. Everybody felt a part of the same team.
“Nearly two decades later,” Applebaum writes, “I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party.” She estimates that half the people at that party are no longer on speaking terms with the other half. . . . The same kinds of rifts have opened up among conservatives around the world, in Britain, Italy, Germany and the U.S.
Some conservatives stayed on the political trajectory they were on in 1999. Others embraced populist nativism. They wandered into territory that is xenophobic, anti-Semitic, authoritarian. Still others were driven leftward by the reactionary revival.- David Brooks, writing an Op-Ed column in the New York Times.
Brooks argues that deprived of a anti-communist moral cause that left the movement less spiritual, and that there are large ranks of people left disillusioned with meritocracy because they failed to thrive in it. For these disillusioned conservative, he reasons, you
get a return of blood-and-soil nationalism. The losers in the meritocratic competition, the permanent outsiders, seize on ethnic nationalism to give themselves a sense of belonging, to explain their failures, to rally the masses and to upend the meritocracy. In office, what the populist nationalists do is this: They replace the idea of excellence with the idea of “patriotism.” Loyalty to the tribe is more important than professional competence.
Until you find some new moral purpose and start to value competence and integrity again, he argues the movement's future is bleak.
It is hard to deny that xenophobic populist nationalism is a global phenomena that has reached a particular extreme in recent years in the political world in the U.S. But, his estimate that have of conservatives have resisted this tendency and strayed the course seems optimistic, even though it closely matches Hillary Rodham Clinton's observation on the campaign trail that about half of Trump's supporters are "deplorables."
If you look at the polling data on a variety of questions, however, which tend to show a solid 35% base of support for Trump's worst tendencies (a larger share of older white men, a smaller share of white women and the young whites, and almost no people of color), this seems to be far more than half of the pre-existing conservative base. Indeed, it seems more like 75% to 90% of the political right. The conservative movement may have lost half of its elite, but among "ordinary folks" the shift to xenophobic anti-intellectual white nationalism seems to be almost total.
It is also hard to imagine circumstances that could bring these folks back to valuing competence and integrity, or finding a shared purpose that is actually moral. A movement may emerge in the political landscape that accomplishes these things, but visions of it are currently too far beyond the horizon to imagine.