How the conservative movement and the rise of the hard right created Donald Trump

Author Edmund Fawcett on how the "hard right" — and the conflict within conservatism — led to the Trump calamity

Published October 24, 2020 12:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Signs are increasing that Donald Trump is headed toward the devastating electoral loss that experts expected four years ago. But even if they're right this time, what does that tell us about what's ahead? And what if they're wrong yet again? Either way, Trumpism won't be going away on its own, nor will any of the other illiberal eruptions across the West and around the world, which have left conservatives as bewildered as anybody else. 

With Election Day looming, you probably don't have time for a 500-page book to help make sense of how we got here. But when it comes to making sense of things afterward, when there's time for deeper reflection, Edmund Fawcett's new book, "Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition," plays a vital, invaluable role. This new book is a follow-up to Fawcett's 2014 book, "Liberalism: The Life of an Idea," and the contrast in the subtitles is telling. Fawcett is a British political journalist who spent 30 years at the Economist, including stints as chief correspondent in Washington, Paris and Berlin and as the magazine's European and literary editor.

The idea of liberalism he describes as "a search for an ethically acceptable order of human progress among civic equals without recourse to undue power." But fights, by their very nature, are a much messier matter, and all too often involve "undue power." Indeed, there's not just one fight involved within the conservative tradition, but a seemingly endless number. Still, there's one overarching battle between hardcore resisters of liberal modernity — those Fawcett calls the "hard right" — and those seeking accommodation, whom he calls "liberal conservatives." 

Dealing with both politics and ideas in four countries — the U.S., Britain, Germany and France — Fawcett traces the story through four phases, from an initial period of "frontal resistance to liberal modernity" in the 19th century to the period since 1980 when the success of liberal conservatism, symbolized by the rise of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher opened the door to the rise of the hard right, including the election of a certain American president. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your book is titled "Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition" But as you lay it out, it's actually a multitude of fights, both internal and external. Let's start with the external fights against the modern world itself — the world of market and the Industrial Revolution — and the forces of liberalism and democracy. What was at stake in those fights?

What is it that conservatism is against, as it were? What did it think it was resisting in liberal modernity? That's a prime question. What conservatives reckon they're resisting has changed as modern liberal life has changed. So let's start with history. There's no conservatism before the early 19th century. It's essentially a political movement of old, established elites who were used to ruling and are now confronting an utterly new, unimagined condition of society, dominated by modern capitalism and great social fluidity, great social mobility and growing discredit of elites.

At the same time, very soon, pressures arise not just for liberal demands — freedom for citizens, economic liberty and cultural freedom from old kinds of tutorial government and moral interference — not just that, but conservatives very quickly (as do liberals) face demands from democracy that those liberal promises of modern life be extended to everybody, whoever they are. So that's the 19th-century challenge that conservatives faced. They're all different in different countries, each has its own particular history, but that is a common thread.

In the 20th century, and now, that contest has changed. Conservatives at the end of the 19th century and early in the 20th century learned how to dominate this new condition of society. They were the defenders of property, defenders of the social order. What did that mean from, say, 1900 to 1950? That meant, above all, defending the capitalist order, putting food in the shops and wages in the pockets. But capitalism is this fantastic engine of great social change, turning everything upside down. So in our lifetime, conservatives have always faced two ways: They've been resisters of liberal modernity, of innovation, of moral change, but on the other hand they've been the great defenders of its driver, namely capitalist innovation. So this is a tension inside conservatism that runs right through it, and I think explains a great deal of where conservatives are today, fighting against each other.

The internal fights can be divided into three kinds that overlap or interpenetrate: There's the broadest fight between hard-right resisters and accommodators, narrow fights among specific factions at any one time, and medium-scope fights over how to define what conservatism is, how to order things. The resister/accommodator divide can be symbolized by the twin figures of Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke, each of them anti-modern, anti-Enlightenment and anti-rationalist, but in very different ways. How can we best understand them as illuminating the conservative tradition, at least in its origins and its primordial outlook?

If we could take the third sort first: In talking about all these things I think there is politics first, political decisions. Those always involve the government, voters and parties. To understand conservatism, you need to keep your eye on that. But at the same time, there are what you could call the thinkers of conservatism, people who pore over these rather subtle questions and ask "What is conservatism? Who is the true conservative?" Burke and Maistre were that second kind of person. 

Take Burke as a good example. Burke actually was more or less ignored during the 19th century by most people calling themselves political conservatives. He was rediscovered, indeed sort of invented, at the end of the 19th century as a philosopher of conservatism, for a political movement that, successful though it was, didn't really have a philosophy. Indeed, the best it could do, if asked, was, "Well, we don't believe in ideas." One of the reasons conservatives have been able to say that — "We don't believe in ideas. We don't need a philosophy" — is that either they were the upper classes or they were the descendants of the upper classes, people whose job was to rule by their nature. They were used to ruling. They weren't used to having to explain why they should rule, or what they were ruling for.

So it took quite a long time to figure out that they needed political ideas, political philosophy, something called conservatism. And indeed Burke was a very, very late invention. There's an 1886 "History of Toryism" which barely mentions Burke. As for Maistre, he was much too crazy and outrageous. He was a brilliant writer, but he was much too angry in his opposition to modern life to make him a good intellectual flag-bearer for conservatives in democratic times.  

To finish up on the topic of who is and who is not a conservative, it shows itself very strongly in the United States, where you have three strong traditions since the middle of the last century. You have the kind of modern Burkeans, people like Russell Kirk, who dug up his ghost and tried to reinvent him in an American context. That has always been rather a kind of hothouse conservatism that doesn't really fit into modern American life. And the other two were the economic liberals — the people who want the market and business to do whatever they want, on the theory that would make things work out best — and then there's a much more sort of moral thread, with the neoconservatives who were interested in the texture of social life, and I suppose you could throw in there the religious right with their moral concerns. So those were three or four very strong threads in American Intellectual conservatism, And they're still there. 

Your book traces the history of conservatism across two centuries, divided into four periods, in the U.K., France, Germany and the U.S. The first you describe as "frontal resistance to liberal modernity," from 1830 to 1880, with chapters titled "A Right Without Authority," dealing with politics and "Turning Reason Against Liberalism," dealing with ideas. How do these two relate to one another? 

The first is the political movement as I described it, of old elites, established powers, who suddenly find themselves under challenge from new contestants. You saw it in the United States with Whigs and Democrats, you saw that in Britain with Tories and Liberals, you saw it in Germany and France. The intellectual counterpart of that struggle was, on one side, people like Burke and Maistre, who said, as it were, "Tradition, belief, unreason, these will be the flags with which we will go forward into the future."

On the other hand, there were conservatives who I mention in the chapter you just described who said, "Not at all. We have to use reason, we have to use the lessons of the Enlightenment in a conservative and orderly cause." These were people like James Madison, an American example, and Friedrich Gentz, a German. You have here this opening conflict within conservative thought between the traditionalists and the romantics, on the one hand, and the rationalists on the other. 

You write: "In the 1830s, the right's primary choice was either to resist or to compromise with liberal modernity. By the 1880s, it faced the further question of how far to accept democratic modernity." How did these two choices differ, in terms of what was at stake? What options existed, and how did the right respond?

Good question!  Liberalism and democracy need to be distinguished. Liberalism, as it were, lays out the feast. Democracy draws up the guest list. Liberalism promises people — it doesn't always deliver, but it promises people a number of good things: protections from arbitrary power, social progress, civil rights. It promises many freedoms. Democracy is quite different. Democracy promises those things to everybody, whoever they are. And there's a big difference. You can have a club of very equal people, where there's no ranking, where everybody respects everybody else. But the club itself can be extremely exclusive. It sounds almost banal to stress the difference, but that is vital to understanding liberal democracy. Historically, by the end of the 19th century, both conservatives and liberals were facing a demand that the liberal promises of modern life be extended to every last person. When you think about this, that promise wasn't even delivered on paper until the middle of the 20th century, and in many respects is still not delivered successfully to everybody. 

So, the second period you describe as "adaptation, compromise and catastrophe," that's from 1880 to 1945. In what sense was there adaptation and compromise? What are some illustrative examples?

If you take the period as a whole, and look at the main conservative parties in Europe and the United States over that period, all of them, broadly speaking, accepted a degree of the welfare state, accepted a degree of big government. They accepted the New Deal in the United States, and in Europe they accepted the welfare state. They accepted, in other words, a very tempered capitalism in which government played a large role in propping up capitalism when it got into trouble and propping up people when they got into trouble, with social safety nets and so on. That broad consensus, hard-fought and very spotty, was by and large the consensus that mainstream conservatives accepted by the middle of the 20th century. That was so with Eisenhower, with Nixon and even to a limited degree with Reagan. 

So what do you mean by "catastrophe"? 

In any story of the political right, one can't escape the disaster of the rise of fascism and Nazism. I'm not suggesting that conservatism was directly to blame for these things. That would be wrong. But the conservative classes found themselves in 1945, for a variety of reasons, at a zero point from which they had to reinvent themselves.

That leads right into the third period you describe as "political command and intellectual recovery," from the end of World War II to 1980. How did conservatism recover during that period?

In the 1945 to 1980 period on the right, in a funny way, politics stopped driving intellectuals and intellectuals came to drive politics. It's a fascinating period, intellectually, for the right in the United States. There were a number of intriguing thinkers. They were ignored at the time, but they were working away quietly for what became the Reagan revolution, both in terms of economic policy and, to a larger extent, in terms of social and ethical questions. They were broadly derided or ignored, but they came into their own in the 1980s, and they've been in the saddle ever since. 

How did that compare with what was happening elsewhere? 

There was a similar revival elsewhere, but it was slower, and it wasn't so well paid for. In the United States, there were many big philanthropic donors, right-wing think tanks that supported particular intellectuals like Richard Weaver or Friedrich Hayek. It was a big, very well executed campaign of intellectual renewal. It was less organized in Europe, but it existed there as well.

The fourth period you describe as "the contest for supremacy between liberal conservatism and the hard right," starting in 1980. Say a bit more about these two terms, both what they mean generally, and specifically in this time period. 

It's difficult when writing about politics, for one has to be given at least five seconds to get the canoe into the water. All these labels are very slippery, particularly the labels "liberal conservatism" — that sounds like a contradiction in terms — and the term "hard right," which many conservatives particularly dislike because they feel it's a slander or a slur. But let's say  "liberal conservatism," with all those provisos, is a good label for the kind of conservatism I was describing earlier, the kind of mainstream conservatism running from Eisenhower to Nixon and even to a certain extent some of the Reagan years.

That's an OK label for the kind of mainstream conservatism that I was describing, by and large, in government. However much they turned up the gas on the campaign trail, Eisenhower, Nixon and even Reagan were within a recognizable band. It was particularly liberal in economic matters, for the free market, very business-friendly, but also liberal to an extent in the social and ethical sense. Nixon wasn't a great moral or ethical campaigner. Reagan, I don't think, believed it himself personally. He threw bones to the moral right, but it wasn't his thing.  

So that's liberal conservatism. It has a counterpart in Europe. The hard right, I think, is a different thing. It's what liberal conservatives are in retreat from. If you look at the present Republican Party, I would call that a hard-right party. 

What is the hard right? Well, it combines two elements. It's a strange combination, on the one hand, of ultra-marketeers, who would let business do what it chooses and will do what business wants, but on the other hand of politicians speaking loudly for the forgotten man, for disaffected voters in the name of the people. The hard right is curiously for global free markets and at the same time one-nation populist. You see this odd combination across Europe and in the United States. Although there are local differences, that's the hard right. 

Conservatives get quite upset when you say, "You conservatives have a fight on your hand between the liberal strain of conservatism and the hard right." Why? Because, particularly in Europe, in France and Germany, the hard right is associated with old neofascist parties but it is by no means any longer limited to those. Indeed, it's gone way beyond them. The National Rally, as it's now called in France, and the Alternative for Germany have both the elements I've mentioned: rowdy popular elements and a free-market elite element. One of the leaders of the German hard right worked, I think, for Goldman Sachs. That gives you an idea of the hard right as an elite and popular combination. 

You see the same in the United States with the Republican Party. Partly because of his outsized personality, people have over-focused on Trump as if somehow he invented the hard right. He didn't at all. The hard right invented him. You could say the same thing about Boris Johnson, the Brexiteer in Britain. He didn't invent Brexit or UKIP [the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party] or the new Tory party. It chose him. 

Here in America, Trump is presented as a figure who came out of nowhere. You show that he's part of a hard right that's been growing for decades, before gaining ground with his election and Brexit happening close together. How specifically would you explain him as a part of the hard right? What characteristics does he share that would make him a part of it? If you'd like, perhaps say something about how today's hard right echoes characteristics that have been there in the past.

In a way, he's a kind of gifted improviser. I don't think he has or has ever had a lot of aims or principles. In that, he rather resembles Boris Johnson in our country — gifted campaigners with a fantastic sort of canny popular touch. If you look for a consistency of aim or opinion, it's very hard to find. If you wanted a word for Trump, I think it would be opportunist. He saw a moment to move into politics, and he succeeded very well. But, the party he took over had been moving to the hard right for a long time without him. 

One of the figures to whom the American hard right at the moment owes an enormous amount is Pat Buchanan. He was writing the kind of lines that Trump delivers back in the 1970s. If "Trump" were a movie, Trump would be the star, but Pat Buchanan would get the screenwriting credit. 

To answer the other part of your question, the hard right does have historical precedent. There has always been in conservatism, as it has adapted, as it has become more liberal and mainstream, as it has appealed to more and more democratic voters — democratic with a small D — there's always been a resistant fringe of those who say, "We're compromising too much." 

There's a quick caution needed here in that when talking about the hard right, it's very easy to be misheard and have people say, "Ah! Fawcett's out of his mind, the hard right isn't fascist." I'm not saying for a moment that the hard right is fascist. There are many, many ways in which a conservative can become less liberal or less democratic without becoming fascist. Fascism in the 1920s and '30s was something specific. It came out of a particular historical context in Europe, after a disastrous war in which Germany was defeated. History doesn't repeat in that way. Fascism is not the right parallel.  

Nor indeed is populism quite the right label for the hard right. Populism in the American context meant something quite specific, it was a movement flanking progressivism at the end of the 19th century. It had wide working-class and farm support. Populism as it's kicked around nowadays is a very loose idea. In fact, populism in connection with the hard right is  an elite phenomenon. The hard right is not the people fighting the elite. The hard right in the United States and Europe is one elite, namely the hard right, a very conservative elite, fighting another, a more liberal elite. Hence the subtitle of my book: "The Fight for a Tradition."

I guess you would say that's true in other countries as well?

Yes. As for early hard-right politicians, you have Pat Buchanan. In Britain, there was a politician who may not be known to Americans, but is very well-known in Britain, Enoch Powell. He was a Tory politician, a ferociously clever person who ran himself out of politics in the 1960s by racialist outbursts which discredited him. His contribution to Tory politics is a bit like Pat Buchanan's contribution to Republicanism in the United States. Powell's contribution was, first, anti-European — get Britain out of the European Union — and nationalistic, to go it alone and not count on foreign friends, not even on the United States. Secondly, it was hyper-liberal in the economic sense. This strange cocktail, you see, was present in Enoch Powell — that same cocktail that I earlier described as hard right. 

In opposition to that, you talk several times about successful conservative leaders. In one place you say "Like [Benjamin] Disraeli, or Margaret Thatcher, Churchill seemed to resolve in one capacious personality the [Conservative] party's inner conflicts." There are several other places where you make comments like that about how successful political leaders of conservatism resolved tensions that, once they passed from the scene, seemed to spill out all over the place. Could you say something about the importance of such figures? I'd also like to ask about Reagan as one such figure, because after him came the unraveling, as you mentioned before. 

Reagan belongs in that category of conservative politician. It includes Thatcher and Angela Merkel today, the chancellor of Germany. They managed to keep their parties together, although like every successful party, each has a tremendous internal dynamic and conflict. In order to keep your party together, you have to give something to each side, and arguably both Reagan and Thatcher gave much too much to the market liberals, those who say "Markets will solve everything; government is always the problem." We're still living, I think, both in Europe and the United States, with the limitations of that policy. You can say that they gave too much in terms of the cost to society. However, in party terms, they were quite successful in keeping their parties together. The split in conservatism, the rise of the hard right and the rout of the old liberal Republicans, didn't begin until after Reagan and Thatcher were gone.

So what problems opened the door to the hard right after Reagan and Thatcher?

There were three levels. There was a historic internal change in society and economy, connected with the collapse of old industries, the collapse of unions. If you look back to our society and economy in the 1960s and '70s, out of which Reagan and Thatcher came, it's almost unrecognizable. So that's one thing, a huge, huge change. Second, the end of the Cold War, in 1989 and 1990. That was a convenient, if dangerous, framework for thinking about the world and other countries. That's now gone. Those two changes together — huge social and economic change inside, great global change outside — have meant that an old framework of ideas in which conservative politicians argued with each other is gone, and needs replacing. Good as they were at keeping their parties together, neither Thatcher nor Reagan handed on any kind of replacement. 

Into that vacuum has come the hard right. It's not a program, it's not a long-term solution to anything. It's actually intellectually incoherent. It promises global free markets on the one hand, and a kind of self-reliant, protective nation on the other. It doesn't add up. However, it's politically extremely appealing. 

In your coda you discuss the choices facing conservatives. But in your preface, you write that your book "is written in comradely spirit with a question for the left: if we're so smart, how come we're not in charge?" 

I hope we will die on the left, but I sometimes think also we will die of the left. 

I don't expect a quick answer, because then why write the book? But I wonder if you might have a tentative answer to offer, that points to a direction for further discussion and inquiry? 

What is the answer to the question, if the left is honest with itself? The answer is that we may have the answers, we may be the virtuous ones, but we have never, in 200 years, persuaded a majority of our fellow citizens that we are the way to go. That seems to me too deep a pattern for there not to be lessons drawn from that. What is the lesson? In essence, a boring, dull and unpopular lesson on the left: That is that we have to cooperate with liberal-minded right-wing people at the center of politics if we want to get into government and govern, as opposed to being the party of criticism or a movement of protest, however necessary and legitimate. 

To throw in a further thought, the condition of the left is part of a larger explanation of the political hole that we're in. It's not just that on the right, a hard right is dominant at present, and liberal conservatives are dispirited and in retreat. On the left, there isn't a really persuasive, strong and responsible alternative.

That said, contingency plays a part of the mess we're in politically. Think of the three times the 21st century arrived: First 9/11, a horrendous event for which it would take decades for the consequences to work themselves out. Then the 2003 Iraq war, necessary or not, which broke the liberal Republicans and broke the center-minded Labour Party in Britain. And third, the crash of 2008, which more or less finished the idea that markets look after themselves. You had these three hammer-blows which were, in their way, contingencies. Neither party, neither the left or the right, has really digested any of that.

Finally, what's most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?

"Is the fight on the right going to go on after Nov. 3?" And do you know what the answer is?

From reading your book?

Not only. We are thinking in parallel here. I liked the piece you wrote, "It's not just about Trump." I completely agree. Of the fight on the right, you could say, "It's not even about Trump." So my answer to the question you didn't ask is, yes, the fight on the right will go on.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of the introduction to this interview conflated some ideas within liberalism with conservatism. This story has been corrected. 

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

MORE FROM Paul Rosenberg