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As you may have heard, conservative commentators Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity aren’t getting along with each other at the moment. Over the past few days, the two men have used their respective soapboxes to trade well-mannered – but cutting – pot-shots, all the more surprising for the fact the two were once close personal and ideological friends.
At the root of this newfound animosity lies the 2016 election and specifically the nomination and candidacy of Donald J. Trump,
Hannity, an employee of the Fox News Network, has thrown his lot behind Donald Trump’s presidential bid with great enthusiasm, becoming over time the most reliably pro-Trump voice on the mainstream media.
Glenn Beck, a former employee of the Fox News Network, has, by stark contrast, reacted to Trump’s nomination with damp-eyed despair and tremulous unease. On his popular ‘Blaze’ media network, Beck has repeatedly refused to endorse the businessman (despite considerable pressure from his subscribers) and argued passionately and consistently that Trump represents a grave threat to American stability and democracy, perhaps even greater than that posed by Hillary Clinton herself.
This disagreement between Beck and Hannity (and by extension between Beck and Trump) represents in microcosm a much larger philosophical cleavage in the American conservative movement.
As must be clear to even the most casual political observer, Donald Trump is not a ‘conservative’ of the traditional American style – or at least not of the modern American style. True, he supports a strong military and emphasises patriotism and law and order, but he also opposes (or treats with suspicion) the growth of economic globalism and the concept and ideology of American foreign policy. True, he celebrates the record of past Republican greats like Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln, but he also trashes the record of recent Republican leaders like George W. Bush.
Trump is not a tribal Republican, or a tribal conservative. With his notion of ‘America First’, he is a self-conscious throwback to the old, pre-World War 2 American right-wing; the school of thought which argued that America is, for all its greatness, a country like any other country; that America is exceptional, but not so exceptional that it is duty-bound to make itself representative of the variety of the world.
Trump is also a much less religiously-minded candidate than recent conservative leaders. Though professedly a Christian, he does not make frequent references to his faith and nor does he frame his policies with religious language or support them with religious explanation.
Most importantly of all, Trump would appear to agree with the Old Right idea that America has an original and organic culture, distinct from and superior to those of other Western countries, which must be protected from the transformative effects of mass immigration.
Glenn Beck represents a very different breed of reactionary, as opposed to Trump’s way of thinking as can be imagined. A self-described constitutionalist and religious fundamentalist, Beck elevates only the most abstract and intangible aspects of America, prioritising concepts like faith, freedom and flag over real-world issues like demographics, economics and jobs. Beck adheres to and celebrates a philosophical-spiritual conception of America, while Trump bases his patriotism more-or-less in reality.
The United States has always been in some ways an experiment. Numerous eminent figures, from Thomas Paine and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Ronald Reagan and Christopher Hitchens, have discussed America as a concept and ideology as well as a flesh and blood nation. This is quite unique, globally considered. Nobody discusses (seriously at least) the idea of Austria, the concept of Algeria, or the meaning of Burkina Faso. America is different. It can be (and often is) thrown into the abstract.
America is ‘freedom’. America is an ‘experiment in self-government by the people’. America is the ‘material form of the constitution – and thus of the enlightenment which produced it’. And so on. These lofty philosophical conceptions of America have dominated its politics for centuries.
As an article on the right-wing website RedState put it: “The United States is a unique animal. Not only is it a country, but it’s also an idea. People around the world don’t just dream of coming to America, they dream of becoming Americans. Many have and continue to risk their lives to do so. It’s one thing to risk your life escaping the Soviet Union, Communist China or even Communist Cuba. Those people were or are running from something, trying to go anywhere else. It’s another thing altogether to risk one’s life to come to a place… And that place is more often than not, America…America is somewhat unique in the history of mankind – or at least in the last 2,000 years. People may dream of moving to Paris for the romance and the food, but they don’t dream of becoming a Frenchman… One almost has to go back to the Roman Empire to find something similar to the idea of America. There, outsiders not only dreamed of living in Rome, they also dreamed of becoming Roman… and could do so. The idea of becoming a Roman citizen actually meant something beyond just living in the Empire or being subject to its laws.”
Trump represents, perhaps more than anything else, a dramatic deviation from this way of thinking.
Trump sharpens America, with everything he says, into something tangible and worldly. He considers America with reference to how it has been and can be, as opposed to how it might be on some ethereal, philosophical plane of thought. He is a realist – and like all realists he is inevitably accused by his opponents of being ‘crude’ and ‘simplistic’. America, for Trump, is not an academic thesis. It is a community of living, breathing human beings. Those who (like this blogger) possess a degree in politics and economics dislike this idea precisely because it isn’t something you need a degree in politics and economics to understand.
As the reader will recall, during the primary contest for the Republican nomination, Trump’s only real rival was Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a man who had been, prior to Trump’s lightning ascendency, the favoured choice of the party’s grassroots. Cruz represents, even more than Beck, a patriot of America at its most intangible. His political rallies during the primary season were hardly political rallies at all. They were more like Baptist conventions or prayer meetings. Cruz talked about salvation and virtue more than he talked about tax and immigration. He referenced the aspirations of the constitution more than he referenced the aspirations of the voters themselves. He spoke almost exclusively about America as idea. And the voters were fine with that, but only until Trump offered something more down-to-earth.
The US constitution that Cruz and Beck so adore is a fine set of principles. Let there be no confusion about that. It is not, however, a piece of holy script which should, in every case, over-rule the lessons of empirical reality. It is also unhealthy (and rather sinister) to experience or suggest an emotional response to it. Glenn Beck has been known to cry when talking of the constitution. He has spoken favourably of writers like W. Cleo Skousen, a Mormon fundamentalist who implied in his bestselling work ‘The 5000 Year Leap’ that the constitution was a perfect, divinely authored document, almost as infallible as the Bible itself. This is fanatical thinking. It is madness. And it is no wonder in this sense that Beck backed Cruz, with all his lip-trembling devotion to America as sentiment, as philosophy, as spiritual idea.
Trump, like Samuel Huntingdon before him, understands that America is not an abstraction, unresponsive to changes in worldly reality, but a material something, as vulnerable to worldly forces as any other material something. Unlike the idea of America, the reality of America will not necessarily be the same thing if the people are replaced over time by mass immigration. As Herder proposed, a nation’s culture is the product of its people, not the other way around. The changing situation on the ground in America matters immensely as to what is to become of America.
Slowly but surely, and despite a long tradition of supposing otherwise, Americans are coming to regard their country as something real, substantial, mortal and delicate. Even if Trump goes on to lose in November, that genie will not easily be forced back into the bottle.