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Why the Right Still Needs Russell Kirk
This essay appears in the Summer 2018 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
When I bought The Conservative Mind in 1994, I thought it was probably a book about how bad President Bill Clinton and the Democrats were—because that’s what I thought conservatism was.
I was nineteen, a high school graduate with no intention of attending university, and thought “conservative” simply meant whatever Rush Limbaugh had talked about that day. I had no idea who Russell Kirk was and bought the book randomly at a Barnes and Noble because it had “conservative” in the title and endorsements by Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley on the jacket.
Yet no other book or author had more of an impact on my early intellectual development. It opened me to a conservatism of substance—of tradition, inheritance, even transcendence—that inflamed my young mind far more than welfare reform or flat-tax proposals. The Conservative Mind would lead me to Kirk’s other work and served as my introduction to figures like Richard Weaver, T. S. Eliot, and Mel Bradford as well.
Kirk showed me intellectual conservatism for the first time, and much of it was over my head. If Kirk enjoyed citing George Gissing’s observation that politics was the preoccupation of the half- or quarter-educated, I was probably operating at a level of about one percent, though even that might be giving South Carolina’s public schools too much credit.
A lifelong Charlestonian, I had moved from South Carolina to Boston the year before to pursue a music career. Because of the cultural distance, living there made me more self-conscious about being Southern than I had ever been up to that point. My twangy accent sometimes made me feel like an outsider or even an amusement to the natives. This is where Kirk—Michigan’s Sage of Mecosta and a professed “Northern Agrarian”—perhaps resonated most.
Like many modern Southerners, I didn’t think there was much to be proud of in my region’s past, at least in a broad political or philosophical sense. Sure, we could boast that we produced some of America’s most prominent Founding Fathers in Virginians George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. But stereotypical “Southern pride” was always a more complicated affair: usually rooted in romanticizing the Civil War, it meant too many different things to different people, much of it unconsciously harmful, or at least insensitive to the plight of African Americans.
But here was Kirk telling me not only that there was much more to conservatism than talk radio and the Republican Party but also that there was a distinctly Southern tradition, whatever its baggage. Kirk did not ignore or gloss over slavery or segregation when describing what constituted Southern conservatism, which he described, using the language of the 1950s, as “rooted in four impulses: a half-indolent distaste for alteration; a determination to preserve an agricultural society; a love of local rights; and a sensitivity about the negro question—the ‘peculiar institution’ before the Civil War, the color-line thereafter.” Kirk’s Southern conservatism ran through John Randolph of Roanoke (the too-often-overlooked nineteenth-century reactionary in the Burkean mold who, notably, would free his slaves in his will) to the Southern Agrarians of the early twentieth century, whom Kirk saw as resisting bureaucratic, industrial modernity—“the iron new order”—in favor of the old world.
Kirk’s preference for practical reform over radical change was conservatism at its most basic: conserving the best or most integral traditions and institutions of a community, nation, or civilization even in the face of unavoidable evolution or correcting injustice. So while sympathizing in many ways with the antebellum South, Kirk viewed Abraham Lincoln as a conservative reformer, not a radical Republican or tyrant as so many Confederate apologists would characterize him (including me, for a time).
If my partisan political interests had led me to Kirk, his conservatism also dovetailed with new developments in U.S. politics in the mid-1990s. My newfound fascination with Kirk coincided with Pat Buchanan’s meteoric 1996 Republican presidential primary campaign. In that election, Buchanan adorned the covers of Time, Newsweek, and other major outlets, and he won the New Hampshire primary. The “Buchanan Brigades” were a popular movement within the Republican Party, but they were also largely in opposition to it on many fronts.
Buchanan, like Kirk, was deeply critical of U.S. foreign policy. (Conservatives could oppose war? Rush Limbaugh never told me that.) He also preached a “conservatism of the heart” that favored Main Street over Wall Street and Washington, D.C. Buchanan’s conservatism might have been populist in style, but in substance it was similar to the anti-populist Kirk’s preference for local community over Leviathan. I was not surprised to learn later that Kirk was the Michigan chair for Buchanan’s 1992 primary challenge to President George H. W. Bush.
The discovery of Kirk and Buchanan simultaneously turned what I once thought was “conservative” on its head. Both men challenged the current GOP and a decadent popular culture, harking back to an earlier conservative tradition largely forgotten or dismissed by so many contemporary politicians and pundits who spoke in conservatism’s name. It was an enduring conservatism rooted firmly in the American founding and the greater West.
“Is it necessary for men at this time of day to make a declaration of the principles of the Republican party?” Kirk’s hero, John Randolph, wrote in 1813. “What are they? Love of peace, hatred of offensive war, jealousy of the state governments toward the general government; a dread of standing armies; a loathing of public debt, taxes, and excises; tenderness for the liberty of the citizen; jealousy, Argus-eyed jealousy, of the patronage of the President.”
“Such principles are not altogether outmoded,” Kirk wrote in 1986 of Randolph’s observations. “Yet quite beyond yesteryear’s or today’s political controversies, what Randolph of Roanoke gives us is a high example of political courage and candor, never obsolete.”
These were timeless principles and qualities, Kirk deduced. And they were sentiments that would outlast Bill Clinton’s presidency and any other, I deduced. The partisanship of the moment was not exactly a permanent thing. Kirk had shown me a tradition of thought more salient than endless right-wing hyperbole. This was conservatism.
* * *
I thought about Russell Kirk more during the 2016 presidential election than I had since my early twenties. Not that Kirkian thought and influence had ever strayed far from my mind. For most of the prior decade, I had been closely aligned in a very public way with the Ron Paul “liberty movement,” which had propelled libertarianism to greater heights than it had ever before enjoyed in American politics.
In my work as a pundit, both in print and on talk radio—where I strived to be more thoughtful, like Kirk, rather than merely bombastic, like, well, everyone else in talk radio—I promoted and defended Congressman Paul’s libertarian agenda during his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, most particularly his battle within the GOP against the neoconservatives, who after 9/11 had been elevated to foreign-policy dominance in the George W. Bush administration.
I would eventually work for Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign and later for his son Senator Rand Paul. What I liked about their particular brand of libertarianism, in its conservative and Republican contexts, was that it sought in a broad sense to rescue the principles of America’s Founding Fathers. It was a practical—not utopian or radical—philosophy of basic liberty, free markets, and a more humble foreign policy. However surprisingly, this tradition shared ancestors with conservatism stretching all the way back through Kirk to Senator Robert Taft (to whose political principles Kirk would devote one of his books) and to Randolph of Roanoke.
While Kirk was always stridently opposed to libertarians (“chirping sectaries,” he famously called them) and to libertarianism as a school of thought, it is hard not to imagine him having sympathy for Ron Paul in his tense war with the neocons, and with his son Rand Paul, who arguably is today’s most Taft-like member of the U.S. Senate, particularly on foreign affairs. Kirk was perhaps as opposed to populism as he was to libertarianism, yet he found common cause with Pat Buchanan’s “peasants with pitchforks.”
Moreover, I believed that if libertarianism was to make a positive contribution to American politics and culture, it would need a Kirkian balance. Its success might require a rootedness not typically associated with various strains of libertarianism in the United States.
While many in the liberty movement over the past decade, like earlier libertarians, were obsessed with trying to prove who among them was the most radical (thereby alienating the average person), the policy proposals of the Pauls were about preventing the state from overrunning society. Theirs was not a philosophy of hedonism loosened from traditional cultural mores and values, but a brand of Old Right–tinged libertarianism in many ways indistinguishable from basic traditionalist conservatism.
But while many libertarians and antiwar conservatives, whose numbers had grown since the Iraq War, pinned their hopes on Rand Paul in the 2016 presidential election, he and every other contender—including Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton—would eventually be swallowed whole by the populist phenomenon of Donald Trump.
It is hard to imagine Kirk embracing Trump the man. If one had to concoct a person who was temperamentally, intellectually, and morally the opposite of Kirk, the current president might be exactly that. As for Trump’s policies, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Kirk praise peace talks between the Koreas or tax reform, while balking at air strikes on Syria or exorbitant budgets. Kirk, who believed conservatism wasn’t an ideology but the rejection of ideology, would most likely have found as much opportunity for reform as occasion for dismay under the seemingly nonideological President Trump.
But what brought Kirk to mind so prominently many times since Trump’s rise has been less about the president himself than the visceral reactions to him: too much of the left and the right in the U.S. have lurched toward their most extreme collectivist forms over the past two years.
The left has simultaneously portrayed Trump as a buffoon whose incompetence will destroy the country and somehow also as a methodical fascist dictator hell-bent on carrying out a white supremacist agenda. Progressives have regularly and viciously caricatured Trump supporters—the millions of mostly middle-class Americans who cast their votes for him—as being as monstrously racist and authoritarian, in leftist eyes, as the president.
Partly in response to Trump, many mainstream Democrats have begun to embrace a more explicit socialism, while progressive activists have become increasingly illiberal, even rejecting free speech in favor of a hardened identity politics. No less a progressive than former Democratic vice president Joe Biden chastised the left in October 2017 for not doing enough to protect the First Amendment.
Kirkian conservatism obviously rejects the collectivism of the left, and Kirk was one of the most prominent thinkers on the right at the height of the Cold War, the crescendo of socialism’s maiden go-round. It is a given that Kirk would have firmly opposed an increasingly extreme left that continues to become more radical under Trump.
But Kirk would have also opposed today’s radical right. If the left’s current extremism is Trump-inspired, an alternative to the conservative mainstream that arose during the 2016 election—the self-labeled “alt-right”—agreed with progressives that Trump had unleashed dark ideas and forces into the mainstream, whether intentionally (as the left believed) or unintentionally (as the alt-right nonetheless celebrated).
If Trump was elected in part as a voter reaction to the extremes of the left, the alt-right sought to take that anti-liberal sentiment to the extremes of white nationalism, under the guise of defending a perverted notion of “the West.”
Yes, Kirk was opposed to much of what the mainstream conservative movement and Republican Party had come to be in his later years—this was in large part what attracted me to him at nineteen. Yes, Kirk represented a deeper cultural conservatism than most of what passes for that label today. Yes, Pat Buchanan’s immigration and trade views largely dovetail with those of the Trump administration, which finds so much favor with the alt-right.
But the “West” of the alt-right is not the cultural patrimony Kirk spent most of his life defending and promoting, with Christianity at its center. The white nationalists who made national headlines marching in Charlottesville in August 2017 to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee weren’t interested in any genuine Western traditions, Southern or otherwise. They weren’t even interested in Lee.
They were only interested in defending a symbol perceived as offensive by many nonwhites. The alt-right “protesters” didn’t seek reform, cultural preservation, or anything bordering on traditionalist conservatism. They wanted race war. And their actions led to a woman’s death. The alt-right seeks revolution, not cultural preservation. They are, in spirit and practice, every bit the levelers Kirk opposed his entire career.
* * *
The alt-right—which thankfully appears to be diminished after Charlottesville—is primarily composed of young men about the age I was when I discovered The Conservative Mind nearly a quarter century ago. At forty-four today, I can look back and see some wrong turns I made by not understanding conservatism properly, or worse, by not balancing anti-leftist politics with the Christian humanism that was always at the center of Kirk’s thought.
A young person attracted to the alt-right today might feel culturally or politically isolated, as I did. He might begin down that path by being dissatisfied with much of what the mainstream right represents, or even by being confused about what constitutes “conservatism,” as I was. But he would find in Kirk something on the right more substantive and therefore attractive, like I did.
This was a man who vehemently opposed Japanese internment during World War II (he “despised Franklin Roosevelt for his mistreatment of ethnic and religious minorities at home and abroad,” observes Kirk biographer Bradley J. Birzer); who along with his wife, Annette, welcomed so many refugees into their home (Birzer: “Kirk’s daughters never quite knew who might be at breakfast on any given morning: there might be any number of persons from Ethiopia, Vietnam, or Eastern Europe”); and who detested how the U.S. government had treated Native Americans throughout history (Birzer: “The federal government had stolen Indian children from their parents to reeducate them in schools in the eastern part of the United States. Sadly, such an American tradition of theft of property and destruction of families had its roots as far back as Andrew Jackson’s presidency. All of it horrified Kirk, who had no time for prejudices dealing with the accidents of birth”). A man like this does not remotely square with today’s anti-minority, anti-immigrant, anti-Christian, and anti-human alt-right.
Kirk is needed on the right more than ever. The young men who are susceptible to the alt-right, whatever might be left of it, could use a healthy dose—more like an antidote—of Kirk’s basic compassion and respect for human diversity. Donald Trump could stand to benefit from Kirk’s Stoicism. Libertarians could learn from Kirk’s emphasis on culture. Neoconservatives would benefit from Kirk’s rejection of aggressive universalism and militarism (here, too, he offers an antidote). The Republican establishment might better comprehend what led to Trump by acknowledging its own inability to satisfy its base, a never-ending battle over putting conservatism into practice that Kirk soldiered in from his time in the Barry Goldwater campaign to his support for Pat Buchanan.
Kirk’s legacy and influence easily outlasted Bill Clinton’s presidency, resistance to which I thought was the entire point of conservatism before discovering The Conservative Mind in my youth. It lasted through the years of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and will remain after Trump, too.
“I have been endeavoring to steer clear of bigotry, intolerance, eccentricity, and preoccupation with the hour’s political controversies—the curses of American conservatives,” Kirk wrote more than a half century ago, explaining his intentions for Modern Age.
These curses endure. Thankfully—gratefully—so does Russell Kirk. ♦
Jack Hunter is the former political editor of Rare.us and cowrote the 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington with Senator Rand Paul.
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