Is the Conservative Movement Dead? What Must Replace It?
An Interview with Pedro Gonzalez
For months, since I discovered his work at American Greatness, and at Chronicles Magazine, I’ve been telling people that writer Pedro Gonzalez is a must-read commentator for those of us on the Right. At last I was able to arrange an interview with Mr. Gonzalez, to share his perspectives with Stream readers.
A Proud Record of Conditional Surrenders
John Zmirak: Thank you for taking time to answer these questions. Can you please explain what you mean by speaking of “the Right” instead of “conservatism”? How has the conservative movement failed or self-destructed?
Pedro Gonzalez: I’m not a conservative because when I look back at the history of the conservative movement in the United States since the post-war era, I see a legacy of fleeting and false victories that ultimately amount to an uninterrupted record of failure. For years it has, as Samuel Francis wrote, contented itself with “retreat into elegant reprimands of the establishment rather than advance to a principled confrontation with it.” Paleoconservatives on the margins of polite society were among the first to acknowledge that the movement has been a failure on its own terms.
President Ronald Reagan, for example, did not dismantle the Great Society programs as promised but merely found a new way to finance them and signed into law an amnesty act that ultimately incentivized illegal immigration. Reagan, moreover, swelled the size of the federal bureaucracy and tripled the national debt. Yet “Reaganism” is a byword for limited government and fiscal responsibility.
More recently than Reagan, as Black Lives Matter agitators destroyed the symbols and statues of historic America last year, National Review editor Rich Lowry penned his umpteenth call to remove Confederate monuments. One can find such principled headlines in “America’s paper of record for conservative fact and opinion” as: “A Conservative Defense of Transgender Rights.” What has been conserved by the conservative movement?
For all these reasons and more, I simply refer to myself as “Right.” The term carries a moral connotation and is not necessarily tainted by the bloodless market fundamentalism so intimately associated with conservatism. To be “right” presupposes that there is a correct way to live, a supposition at odds with the atomizing individualism of a conservatism that seems to have no higher aim than consumerism in the geographical space incidentally known as the United States.
Did Trump Fail?
You agree with Ann Coulter and with me that Trump has largely failed the movement he helped launch. Can you point to the three biggest issues that illustrate that?
Here is one chain that shows how much Trump moved from populist toward establishmentarian, in policy if not rhetoric. He campaigned on infrastructure in 2016. By 2017, it had been smothered in the cradle by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. It was to them that Trump deferred. He delivered the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act instead, which actually incentivized job offshoring. By 2020, he had made a capital gains tax cut part of his reelection platform.
Similarly, Trump campaigned in 2016 on law and order but, in the same way Governor Reagan delivered the most sweeping divorce bill of the time, Trump signed into law one of the most sweeping pieces of prison legislation in the First Step Act.
Lastly, this may seem like an obscure point, but it shows how the friend-enemy distinction functioned with Trump. Under his administration, the chief beneficiaries of clemency were people repulsive to Trump’s core base: Charles Kushner, Democrat megadonor Salomon Melgen, four rappers including Lil Wayne and Kodak Black, the handler of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. The Trump administration effectively allowed Pollard himself to flee the country when the Justice Department refused to renew the five-year travel ban that was part of his parole. What aid came to his supporters for January 6?
The Oligarchs Control the “Revolutionaries”
Are we moving quickly into a left-authoritarian Oligarchy? What is some evidence for that?
I don’t think that we are moving toward an oligarchy so much as we are witnessing the consolidation of its power. The riots last year, the power grabs by bureaucrat actors, the heavy-handed censorship of corporations — these all were perceived as revolutionary by the right when they were, in fact, reactionary. Though Trump was, in practice, more or less harmless to the real power of the regime, it treated him as an existential threat, and his administration, at least at the start, was a kind of counterrevolution.
Antifa, Black Lives Matter, the “black blocs” that advanced in swarms through our cities with looters on the wings; these were not revolutionary elements but lumpenproletariat, “social scum” and tools of reactionary intrigue, as Marx called them. They were unwitting foot soldiers of the most powerful institutions and corporations in the world.
The Market: A Means, Not an End
You advocate that we on the Right abandon free-market doctrine and seek instead to rally support from our natural base — small businessmen, workers, the unemployed — with policies that directly benefit them. Let economic “efficiency” and libertarian demands for “free exchange” be damned. Can you explain why pro-family MAGA Christians should follow that policy?
I have nothing against and am supportive of free enterprise — but that is quite different from the kind of market fundamentalism that I see as the defining feature of conservatism. There is no reason why conservatives for whom markets come first should deny membership to a fiscally conservative transgender “woman” running a small business selling sex toys adorned with the Stars and Stripes. Or denounce pornography, or drug use, or prostitution. They treat these as matters of mere consumer choice rather than ethical and moral questions with profound spiritual implications. This kind of market idolatry is inimical to the traditional social and cultural patterns cherished by many Christians. It is a corrosive agent; abstract conceptions of right and wrong, male and female, and long-term civilizational thinking … all melts away before the instant need and gratification of consumption.
Christian Nationalism: Should We Just Cop to It?
Can you comment on the epithet “Christian Nationalism” that some on the Left have coined as a slur against the views of virtually every US president from Washington to Reagan. I’ve argued that we should embrace the term and use it.
The question of “Christian Nationalism” is an interesting one. Hungary provides a model for what this looks like in practice — a model that I like.
Setting aside obvious adversaries on the left, it’s unclear how seamlessly the conservative movement would receive a true CN groundswell. When Charlie Kirk and his team barred a pornographic actress from entering a TPUSA conference, the most scathing critics were conservatives. “I’m not sure how limits to federal power, a free market economy, and individual freedom have anything to do with career choice,” tweeted Nick Palmisciano, a conservative activist. That sentiment echoed in the mouths of conservative influencers across social media. In other words, the emergence of a CN movement would likely conflict with the conservative movement as much as it would with the left.
Let’s Say What We’re Actually For
What must be done?
Any hope for a better future begins with disabusing ourselves of the principles and preconceptions that guaranteed conservatism’s irrelevance and defeat. Instead of merely saying what we are against, we will need to develop a positive vision of the future. I wrote an article in this vein, “Middle America’s Road to Power,” that sold out copies and became White House reading material for certain staffers. I think part of the reason it was received so well had to do with the fact that I laid out a kind of agenda for Middle America instead of an empty litany of grievances. Attitudinally, the right will have to think more in revolutionary terms instead of conservative ones; it must destroy before it can rebuild.
Where can we read you regularly?
John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”