A silver lining

Advancing conservative anti-intellectualism has an upside!

There has been some talk recently about the rightwing Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley’s use of the word “cosmopolitan” to denounce liberals (and impure conservatives) at a recent National Conservatism Conference. Quite apart from the word’s connection with “rootless cosmopolitan,” one of the many Nazi cognomens for Jews, as used by Hawley it implied contempt for the idea that Americans might endeavor at all beyond purely national interests — even in pursuit of individual business success and certainly in terms of moral or intellectual exploration. Some quotes:

The cosmopolitan agenda has driven both left and right. The left champions multiculturalism and degrades our common identity. The right celebrates hyper-globalization and promises that the market will make everything right in the end, eventually…

This class lives in the United States, but they identify as citizens of the world. They run businesses or oversee universities here, but their primary loyalty is to the global community, and they subscribe to a set of values held by similar elites in other places... The importance of global integration and the danger of national loyalties; the priority of social change over tradition, career over community and achievement and merit and progress.

This fits pretty well with the Fortress America creed of Trump’s ethnic nationalist allies like Stephen Miller (who has used “cosmopolitan” as a slur himself); and I can see it being further mainstreamed by White Working Class Whisperers such as Salena Zito and J.D. Vance, whose shtick after all relies on the idea that Trump won because his hammy bluster was a rap in the mouth of the elites. They might have to start by explaining that they don’t mean the women’s magazine or the drink that lady on Sex & The City likes, but once they make it clear to their readers that cosmopolitan means something foreign and fancy, like those novels their nephew who dyes his hair likes to carry around, they’ll get as much of the idea as is electorally necessary.

I’m so old I remember when it wasn’t bad form for a conservative to be cosmopolitan (“having wide international sophistication... composed of persons, constituents, or elements from all or many parts of the world,” per Webster’s), so long as he explained what made his cosmopolitanism better than the liberal kind.

In 2009 rightwing front group America’s Future Foundation lauded Christopher Caldwell as a “cosmopolitan conservative” — not a “garden-variety cosmopolitan” with “an unthinking preference for all things foreign or global, born of the desire to fancy oneself a morally superior citizen of the world” — SJWs avant la lettre! — but rather one that “evinces a deep appreciation of the particular, competing goods honored and cultivated on the two sides of the Atlantic…” By this they apparently meant that Caldwell was widely read — Houellebecq as well as Tariq Ramadan! — and wished to share the American idea of “universalism” with Europe, which was great because, the Foundation added (poignantly, considering what has happened since), “for European societies to become more successful at assimilating immigrants, they will have to become more like America.”

In 2011 R.R. Reno at First Things posited a conservative cosmopolitanism which was superior to the liberal variety because while “liberal elites tend toward parochial narrowness... conservative elites often manifest a cosmopolitan capacity to engage and appreciate, and even to be changed by, a variety of viewpoints.” There was also a Cosmopolitan Conservative blog run by Republican factotum Adrienne Royer — though, considering she seems to have turned into a Social Media conspiracy theorist these days, I doubt she’d reclaim the title.

But in the Trump years “cosmopolitan” has become a swear word among the brethren. At The Federalist, for example, Michael Doran shame-facedly admits the label fits him because, though a social conservative, he has “degrees from Stanford and Princeton universities, spend many weeks of every year abroad, and live and work in uber-liberal Washington DC, which I love.” (Sidebar: Hawley has degrees from Stanford and Yale.) But Doran abhors himself and repents: his people have “mistaken their outsized visibility in the media for indispensability to the conservative cause” and cosmo cons are the true “reactionaries” because they have turned against Trump and thus proven they “have lost touch with the electorate,” or at least that 46.1% of it that voted for him. Maybe now Doran won’t have to go through a struggle session!

To me the most interesting thing about Hawley’s shtick is its naked anti-intellectualism. He may be complaining about actions that benefit parties other than his constituents (which of course must mean his constituents cannot benefit, since economic growth is a zero-sum game), but the clear implication is that the root of this evil is foreign thinking (“the danger of national loyalties; the priority of social change over tradition, career over community”), and that any ideas that come from anywhere except the Rotary or your Bible study group should be considered dangerous.

Such thinking, or rather anti-thinking, is not new to conservatism, but it seems to have accelerated under Trump and should have a lasting impact on what we are accustomed to call the conservative movement. I think back to Jonah Goldberg’s constant insistence that, contrary to what liberals said, conservatives were the ones who had serious intellectual credentials (“Just look at the conservative blogosphere. There's all sorts of stuff about Burke, Hayek, von Mises, Oakeshott...”). I don’t think such yak ever moved a single vote, but it may have convinced rightwing gazillionaires to keep ponying up to support conservative magazines and websites that couldn’t support themselves with advertising or subscriptions — after all, weren’t they necessary for fighting a war of ideas, and thus worthy of subsidy? As the message spreads that conservatism is about reducing exposure to ideas rather than increasing it, some of these rich guys may ask: Why am I paying for all these ten-dollar words? At that point they might just shut down National Review and such like, and simply hire red-hat gangs to rampage through towns howling Trump’s name and firing guns in the air. It’ll be the end of the Republic, but at least its destroyers won’t be putting on airs anymore.