The senator from Florida, more than any other new right aspirant, offers a grand vision of America’s place in the world.
Anno Domini 1955, fresh out of service in the infant CIA (where his supervisor and only contact had been a little-known middle manager named Everette Howard Hunt), William F. Buckley Jr., Nutmegger heir to an oil fortune, set up a magazine that he hoped might launch a new conservative movement. He admitted that the startup project might seem to have little purpose for existing:
The launching of a conservative weekly journal of opinion in a country widely assumed to be a bastion of conservatism at first glance looks like a work of supererogation, rather like publishing a royalist weekly within the walls of Buckingham Palace. It is not that, of course; if National Review is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.
Somewhat unexpectedly, that final line became a rallying cry, a romantic motto for the kind of right-winger given to endless and erroneous pontification about “the long defeat.” It gave the postwar conservative movement—an unholy union between traditionalists whose guru was Russell Kirk and weird Ayn Randian market nihilists: men who wore capes and women who wore pants—a great commission to do nothing loudly.
The results have been disastrous and copiously documented. The decade of history that followed gave us Griswold v. Connecticut, and the next one gave us Roe v. Wade. These judicial abominations coincided not just with a universal Sexual Revolution but with a radical redefinition of the role of the federal government, a disastrous war in Vietnam, and the rapid collapse of both the American family and civil society. The Ronald Reagan interlude—which stand-athwarters point to as the high point of their movement—saw divorce normalized, abortion advanced, and the ideology of the weird market nihilists served over the interests of American workers and families. The George W. Bush administration—which stand-athwarters look back on, nostalgically, as the last time they touched power—gave us two more failed imperial adventures and a brutal devastation of the middle class the likes of which our country had not seen in 80 years.
It was, in retrospect, a birdbrained strategy.
Last summer, The American Conservative produced a symposium on the state of the movement after half a century standing athwart history. Many of the contributors were less than optimistic, perhaps none less so than David Azerrad:
What is conservatism in America today? It’s hundreds of millions of dollars a year spent fiddling while Rome burns. It’s ideas with little to no consequence. It’s getting trampled all over by History, but while yelling Stop!
Conservatism is the seven cheers for capitalism and the deafening silence on demographic change, feminism, and corporate malfeasance. It’s the same tired cast of speakers blathering about limited government almost a century after the New Deal. It’s the platitudinous Reagan quotes and the worn-out Buckley anecdotes. It’s the mindless optimism and the childish exhortations—if something can’t go on forever, it won’t!
This is an accurate survey of the landscape as a whole, but it is not a universal rule. (Nobody who believed it was would devote his career to the advancement of conservatism in the public square—or, for that matter, work for a publication called The American Conservative.) There are glimmers of hope to be found—some of them in unexpected places.
This Wednesday, Senator Marco Rubio delivered the inaugural Henry Clay Lecture in Political Economy for American Compass, a fairly young conservative organization devoted to “restoring an economic consensus that emphasizes the importance of family, community, and industry to the nation’s liberty and prosperity.”
Much of the content of Wednesday’s lecture—the demand to reorient political economy around human reality and toward the common good; the need to adjust American economic strategy in light of Chinese ascendance—retreads territory that Rubio has covered amply in recent years.
Of particular interest in this latest talk, though, is the continued emergence of Rubio’s own apparent theory of the conservative’s proper approach to history. In the simplest terms: Take the reins.
Rubio’s analysis of the current moment is sober, but not unfamiliar to those who have been paying attention: “The post-Cold War world is fading from view, and we are being rapidly pulled towards a new era in human history.” We find ourselves subject to “an economy where wealth is being generated in a way that is divorced completely from the well-being of a people or the security of a country.” Our situation, domestically and globally, is only worsened by elites’ dogmatic neoliberalism, their obstinate refusal to face reality, their “misguided belief that is rooted in the once popular theory that the end of the Cold War signaled the ‘end of history.’”
Our adversaries have not suffered from such delusions:
The Chinese Communist Party never wasted any time believing that the “end of history” had arrived. They saw and see history as thousands years of greatness interrupted by a century of shame and humiliation at the hands of the West. And they viewed it as their destiny to become the world’s preeminent power at America’s expense. For a time they chose to “hide their capacity” and “bide their time.” But by 2008 they felt strong enough to no longer pretend.
Rubio—ironically, much like China’s grand strategists—acknowledges that what the 21st century requires is not an immediate and reflexive conservatism (in the sense of defending the status quo), but a robust and ambitious activism to rebuild the kind of social-economic order that invites and deserves defense.
Interestingly, Rubio considers our moment—and thus its needs—to parallel that of the young republic:
We live in a country and in a world that is much different than the one Henry Clay knew. And yet, ironically, a new American Century is in many ways not unlike the vision laid out by Henry Clay almost two hundred years ago.
An America that does not depend on any other nation for its prosperity.
And an America with the industrial capacity to tackle any challenges that come our way.
It is hard not to get swept up in the enthusiasm of a politician who promises to pursue once again the strategy that made America great. Yet for all the world-historical grandeur of his vision (and his own evident ambition), the Floridian stops short of Carlylist Great Man theory:
The course of history is generally determined not by individual and dramatic decisions, but by the cumulative effect of incremental choices that people, nations, and governments make over time. However, there are singular moments whose impact are felt for decades and generations.
This is undoubtedly one of those moments, but reviving the legacy of Henry Clay “will not be the work of one person or one party. To succeed, it must be the work of an entire generation and cross the entire political spectrum. It must become our new consensus.”
Nonetheless, the work of an entire generation, the construction of a new consensus, needs a leader. Many are skeptical that it could be Rubio. He came up us a darling of the GOP establishment and a protege of its neoconservative kingmakers. Many worry that his 2019 pivot to the politics of the common good is a shallow ploy, or that his ambitious antagonism to the CCP is merely a new outlet for the neocon impulse. I cannot dismiss these fears out of hand. But I will proffer the hope that that impulse can be redirected towards more noble ends and more prudent means, and that it can in turn redirect the nation’s course accordingly.
To stop history is a fool’s errand, and not even a tragically noble one; it is the performative mission of the impotent right that brought us to where we are. To guide history, to make it, is both more practical and more difficult—and infinitely more dignified. There will always be those who realize this, and the great mistake of the American right thus far has been to guarantee that none of them are on our side.