For decades, the standard history of conservative intellectuals in the United States in the 20th century has been George Nash’s magisterial The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945. Now, a young scholar, Joshua Tait, has produced a study of conservative intellectualism that compares favorably to Nash’s in its depth of research and acuity of analysis.
In this podcast discussion, Josh talks about his 2020 Ph.D. dissertation, “Making Conservatism: Conservative Intellectuals and the American Political Tradition.” He describes his interest in the post-World War II conservative intellectual project. This movement drew together the ideas and philosophies of the right that opposed the prevailing New Deal consensus and built a political coalition and set of institutions that could persuade the public and achieve political power. He discusses his interest in early conservative intellectual movements, including the New Conservatives, the Straussians, the traditionalists, and the libertarians – as well as the ideas and influence of specific figures on the right such as Peter Viereck, Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, James Burnham, and William F. Buckley, Jr.
Ultimately, Josh believes that the “fusionist” consensus forged around National Review magazine in the 1950s – which united traditionalists and libertarians under the shared banner of anti-communism – was always unstable and was glued together more by shared enemies on the left than by any genuine synthesis. He also describes how the catastrophism of leading conservative intellectuals, including Burnham and Kendall, ultimately made it impossible for conservatives to cooperate with liberals and centrists, thus depriving them of the ability to govern. He believes the conservative intellectual project should turn away from existentialist counter-revolution and seek to recover the prudence and historicism of traditionalist thinkers like Russell Kirk. This would facilitate a return to conservative politics grounded in realism, reform, and continuity.
Joshua Tait: The extent to which modern conservatism has declined in the last ten years made me rethink my entire approach to the history of American conservatism. I was a much more sympathetic and I would say naive historian before 2016.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello, I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m pleased to be joined today by Joshua Tait, who I think has the distinction of being the youngest person I’ve ever had on the podcast and also the person who was most recently in graduate school.
He received his Ph.D. in history in 2020 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His dissertation, which is a tremendous work of research and scholarship, is titled “Making Conservatism: Conservative Intellectuals and the American Political Tradition.” It is as yet unpublished, but you can find large segments of its arguments in articles that Josh has published in outlets such as The Bulwark, the Washington Post, the University Bookman, and the National Interest. Welcome, Josh!
Joshua Tait: Thank you for having me.
Geoff Kabaservice: And congratulations on your dissertation.
Joshua Tait: Thank you. I appreciate it and I appreciate the kind words.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you’re welcome. And we are talking, at the moment, across the oceans. You are in New Zealand?
Joshua Tait: That’s right. I’m not sure it always comes through in my work, but I’m a native New Zealander who has spent much time in the United States thinking and writing about it.
Geoff Kabaservice: Which island are you on right now?
Joshua Tait: The North Island, but I am from the South Island.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay, well, there are any number of directions in which our conversation could go, but maybe we can start with you telling us something about yourself and how you came from New Zealand to North Carolina to study American intellectual conservatism.
Joshua Tait: That is a question I sometimes ask myself. I think the truth of the matter is I was an undergraduate in New Zealand and I took U.S. history courses — I was a history major. And I had excellent professors who filled me with enthusiasm for the subject, for America, for the American political system. And I think looking back now I can see some of the threads, kind of institutionally speaking, that led me to study conservatism.
One of the professors that I had, he had a background working with the Madison Program at Princeton, which has that conservative edge to it — overseen by Robert George. And so I had those connections in the background, though I was unaware of them at the time. And I, in my final year of undergraduate, did some research on Robert George and his role in shaping what I now think of as modern American conservatism — and particularly the religious component to it, and the high-end religious component to it. And from that, I started to work backwards through American conservative intellectual history.
And I think some personal biography makes sense here, in the fact that around the time, I had a religious experience and conversion to Catholicism. And so I was very open to people like George. And so through Robert George, I started reading First Things and discovered people like William F. Buckley and saw in them ideas that I was very sympathetic to at the time. And I think I became increasingly interested in and identified with the conservative intellectual movement.
And over time, I would say I became — as I went through graduate school and I guess saw the trajectory of conservatism over the past decade — became first a sympathetic critic, and then probably a more straightforwardly knowledgeable critic of the American right, as I’ve seen what I thought were clear principles deteriorate, perhaps, and my own understanding of the history of the movement and the history of the ideas and the way that they were shaped and how they were utterly inseparable from the political context — which often includes some quite nasty history — from the ideas and principles that I once thought stood alone.
So I’ve changed quite a lot since I started. But I think my interest in conservatism, and in the characters and intellectuals that were critical in framing the terms that we understand it and still use today, has not changed.
Geoff Kabaservice: I was quite interested to see that your faculty advisors at Chapel Hill included two business historians, Benjamin Waterhouse and Angus Burgin; two historians of religion and the right, Molly Worthen and Michael Lienesch; and Katherine Turk, who studies women’s and gender history. These are people whose work I know and respect, yet their areas of focus wouldn’t have seemed to have overlapped with yours necessarily to a large extent.
Joshua Tait: Oh, it’s interesting you put it like that. I think when you lay it out, especially the business side and the religious side (with some fudging), I think you can kind of see the bare bones of the conservative alliance or the political bedfellows that make modern conservatism. I mean, religious history and the religious right are not the sole, I guess, traditional or cultural conservative component, but it’s a considerable part. And then business history, of course, informs perhaps the more libertarian policy-focused and free enterprise side of what we now call conservatism.
But I would say each of those scholars brought very important aspects to my work, or at least to overseeing my work and critiquing it. Particularly Ben Waterhouse brought a — who I think is a business but also political historian — brought a harder-edged political component, always encouraging me to link my work with institutions and politics, and not just be what Molly Worthen called “floating brain intellectual history,” which I think can be a temptation and something that I’d suffered from and probably still do suffer from.
But all of those historians brought something I think quite important, including a critique that suggested perhaps even where I had emphasized ideas, perhaps it really was all about identity and privilege, which is I think an enduring debate in studying the American right.
Geoff Kabaservice: So it’s actually, I think, a bit necessary to do a little discussion of the historiography here. There’s a book that sort of defined the field for a long time, which was George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945. If I’m remembering correctly, that came out in 1976, but it was heavily updated in 1996 and that’s the version that I know.
Joshua Tait: There was a subsequent update in, I think, 2006, which was the edition that I knew.
Geoff Kabaservice: I spoke with George Nash on a few occasions and our approach in some ways was simpatico, because when I was in graduate school I was Sam Tanenhaus’ research assistant on the biography that he’s still working on of William F. Buckley, Jr. And it makes a big difference both when you start to look at the intellectual movement on the conservative side and through whom you look at it.
And Nash, in some sense, kind of took the wilderness narrative, which is that the conservative intellectual movement was in complete disarray after World War II and that William F. Buckley starts National Review and builds it into this coherent movement, in the process sanitizing conservatism of some of its darker aspects. But that actually has been very much of a minority view in a lot of the historiography that has sprung up since. So I wonder how you positioned your approach to this topic.
Joshua Tait: Yeah, I think that’s a good question. I think it’s exactly as you lay out in the sense that sort of by 2010, 2011, 2012, there was a big push by historians of the right and of conservatism to conceptualize it as something that fit into the broader trends, the deep currents of American history. And they note that the emphasis on individual liberty, on free markets, on minimizing the state — all of these things had more considerable purchase in the American public and with politicians than Nash and movement conservatives who followed his line said about Buckley and the movement that coalesced around him — in effect arguing they were knocking on an open door or they were building on something that already had plenty of purchase. It was simply up to them to repackage it and resell it to the American people.
And I think that is certainly true. Those, I think, broader cultural and political structural factors exist, existed, and probably continue to exist. But I think from the perspective — and I think Nash gets this right — from the perspective of Buckley and his allies and co-combatants in the political conflict, they certainly saw themselves as deeply isolated. And I think it is fair to say that the core ideas that we associate with movement conservatism — of free enterprise (whatever that means, and I know there’s been a lot of work unpacking that cliché), but the core ideas of free enterprise and the limited state — were, I think, in disarray and undermined as a result of the Depression and also as a result of the Second World War.
Another complicating factor is the position of isolationism within all of this. Pre-Depression, pre-World War II isolation was the default or close to the default position of the American right. And then as a result of the Cold War, it spent a long period being kind of verboten on the right, and is now perhaps resurging. And we’re, as some people have argued recently, cycling back to a conservatism, a right-wing politics closer to the 1920s than movement conservatism.
But essentially the argument I’m making here is that while these deep currents of American politics existed, they were not felt by Buckley and those like him. They felt very much out in the wilderness. And even though they were able to effectively capitalize on existing networks and existing ideas, it did not feel like it to them. That might be a little bit of an experiential argument more than anything else, but that was their lived reality. And they did suffer from getting funds to launch their magazines or find places to publish and so on. And some of that was the opportunities and some of that was their own connections and talent, but that was their experience.
Geoff Kabaservice: So you have a review coming out of Matthew Continetti’s recent book, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism. And he chooses the 1920s as his starting point. And although he does focus on writers principally, he’s also taking in not just the conservative movement, not just the Republican Party, but the right writ large. So what are some of the advantages one gets by focusing more specifically on conservative intellectuals as you do versus taking that kind of wider focus that Matthew Continetti takes?
Joshua Tait: Well, I think I should start by saying that the wider focus is essential. The conservative intellectuals that I write about, they don’t exist in a vacuum. They do exist in this broader context, in this broader political coalition and set of actors. So to treat them in isolation, which I think has often happened, runs some serious risks, including basically the “floating brain intellectual history” I referred to earlier, where you can have these actors and treat them as if they’re purely existing on a plane of thought and purely existing in response to ideas and arguments. And does the most powerful argument or the most successful argument win out and shape important issues? And is their response to, for example, segregation shaped by deep principles or is it shaped by something else?
And I think treating intellectuals in isolation runs that risk. So it is important to ground conservative intellectual history in deeper and wider politics. The risk it runs — and I think Continetti runs into this — is that there’s far too much for one scholar or writer to cover in a book. And especially the first two-thirds of Continetti’s book, you’re traveling at such a pace… He worked so hard to cover so much of the past hundred years of history that you only get snippets. You get half a paragraph on the Southern Agrarians, and there are full books written on them. You get a half a paragraph or maybe a page to cover not only the Ku Klux Klan but other various fascist or quasi-fascist organizations from the period.
And it’s not enough to simply describe those organizations or those types of groups without drawing complicated links and showing the relationships. And unfortunately I think Continetti suffers by ambition of scope, trying to cover too much. So the challenge, I think, for anyone writing on the right is one of scope and one of putting it all together. And I wouldn’t say that my work is perfect in this regard, but that is always the balance one has to strike between coverage and the relationships on the right, and also being able to tell your story properly.
Geoff Kabaservice: So to ask you a big sweeping question, what do you see the American intellectual conservative project as having been in this post-1945 period?
Joshua Tait: I would say that it happened and it existed in stages. The first, I think, would be drawing together and unifying and rehabilitating the anti-liberal or liberal-critical factions or groups or persuasions that existed, drawing them together in opposition to the prevailing New Deal consensus and any sort of liberal cultural moraes that existed on an elite level and then spread out into the broader population. So drawing those together into something coherent and united, and rehabilitating the ideas, often using European philosophy or religious or philosophical tradition to try and give those ideas credibility and prestige after being discredited, as I say, by the Depression and the Second World War. And then a process of institution-building, uniting those ideas behind something that was politically effective, a discourse that was powerful and effective at winning votes or winning politicians to their side.
And then ultimately… Actually, to take a step back, I would say that the way that these ideas and these factions coalesced, you are often talking about conservatives who believed in some sort of moral, transcendent framework and an ordered social hierarchy or social system based on that transcendent framework. And then you’re often talking about libertarians with a kind of free-market, anti-state type perspective. And there was a lot of gray area and blurring in between the two. And so when I talk about bringing these two factions into coherence, it was merging those ideas into something that we recognize today as conservatism. And one of the things I argue in my dissertation is that the way that that happened in effect prioritized (at least in the policy space) libertarian free-enterprise ideas. That became the default policy and political perspective of these groups. And then relegating conservative (in the sense of traditional, cultural moraes and that sort of thing) into the cultural space, with the assumption that freedom and the limited state would lead to a natural flourishing of those conservative moraes that the thinkers and activists wanted.
And that’s led to kind of the Reagan-era, fusion-type conservatism, where you had libertarian politics, libertarian policies with kind of a cultural (or sometimes half-hearted cultural) push for conservative culture. But that I think has broken down over time. One of the longstanding arguments was that this was all held together by anti-communism, which I think is half-true. The concern or the belief — and I think Sam Tanenhaus has made this argument — was that conservatism would crack up once anti-communism disappeared as a uniting factor. But I would say that anti-communism proved to have the uniting factor — but more than that, I would say, a generalized anti-leftism and specific anti-liberalism has united the right. Over the last two decades, we’ve seen a breakdown of the kind of modus vivendi, the hierarchy that places libertarian policy outcomes above conservative, cultural moraes into something that we’re seeing today, where there’s been a push (perhaps an aggressive push) to have conservative culture as a policy and political outcome, not just libertarian politics. That’s simplistic. I think there’s more to it than that. But that’s kind of the broad trajectory that I see on the right. Does that make sense?
Geoff Kabaservice: It does make sense. Those of us who research conservatism know a lot of the usual quotes that come up almost by heart, but not everyone listening to this podcast will. So I think it’s actually worth going back to Lionel Trilling’s famous quote in The Liberal Imagination in 1950, in which he says: “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
And that was really, you know, the quote that launched a thousand resentful conservative would-be intellectuals to prove themselves. But I do think you point out at the beginning of your dissertation that liberalism overwhelmingly dominated the American political scene in every dimension in the post-war era and that the conservatives honestly had reason to believe that they were in the wilderness at that time.
Joshua Tait: Yeah. Their political lodestar at the time, Robert Taft — senator and perennial presidential candidate — he described himself as a “conservative liberal,” which goes to show that, as I say in the dissertation, they were all liberals at that stage except for the ones who began to consciously think of themselves not as liberals. And that was an ongoing project. Buckley wasn’t calling himself a conservative at the outset of his career. Hayek famously had the keynote address, “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” And though he never reconciled himself to the term, he became obviously part of the canon of conservative thinkers as we think of them today. Is there a podcast or a Substack called “Irritable Mental Gestures”?
Geoff Kabaservice: There should be.
Joshua Tait: There should be. It’s one of those great phrases. But it’s one of those phrases that I think captured a very specific moment in time — as I say with this Taft quote and others like them, at a very specific moment in time, right before McCarthyism really kicked off, and right before all of the, I guess, intellectual and discursive work that I talk about in the dissertation to try and rehabilitate conservatism as an idea, not just by Buckley but by other characters who have kind of a different sense of what conservatism might look like.
One thing I will say (and I think it’s really important) about that Trilling quote is that it has been treated as something triumphalist or the closing statement of the high point of mid-century American liberalism. But I think it’s worth noting it comes out of a kind of lament. Trilling had some, you could say, conservative impulses within him — not in the way that we understand the conservative movement, but I think on a personal level or on kind of a Matthew Arnold cultural level. And he was lamenting the state of liberalism as kind of a rote acceptance of elements of the Democratic Party and kind of a positivistic vision of what liberalism could be. And as a literary thinker and as a literary man, he was hoping for something richer and deeper and more thoughtful and creative. And within or as part of that kind of dialectic, he was looking for a smarter and more thoughtful conservatism to challenge liberalism, so that liberalism might overcome a best form of its enemy or its dialectical opponent. And he was, I think, lamenting that these “irritable mental gestures” weren’t something more coherent.
Arthur Schlesinger, the great historian and Cold War liberal, makes an argument around the same time that if we don’t get a good conservative opposition, if we don’t get a thoughtful and intelligent conservative opposition, we’re going to get something quasi-fascist that will turn these irritable mental gestures into a political movement. And I think he was thinking of McCarthyism. You don’t want to over-read the lessons of history, but you could also potentially look at the Trump Republican Party and compare it to the Republican Party of at least parts of 10, 15, 20 years ago. And although the Bush era had serious problems, especially when you’re talking about security and the war in Iraq, at least on a policy front it considered itself a party of ideas and it was proposing legislation. You had the Reformicons emerging out of that, believing that they could seriously have a conservative but also civic impact on policy — quite different in the way that they conceptualize themselves than the Trump party and even the intellectuals around it today.
Geoff Kabaservice: Very true. You wrote about halfway through your dissertation that “The American conservative intellectual movement has been superb at self-mythologizing.” And part of the mythology is that William F. Buckley, Jr. sort of de novo created a conservative movement through the fusionist project. And you explain in your dissertation that you are going to both decenter Buckley, who’s a relatively infrequent visitor to your pages, and also criticize the conservative self-mythology around fusionism. Can you explain what fusionism was and then why you think the sort of mythology is inadequate?
Joshua Tait: Fusionism, yeah, it’s been back in the conversation a little bit, maybe a couple years ago more so than now. But fusionism, as I’ve gestured at earlier, is this idea that there are constituent components of conservatism that have come together in a fusion. It’s really a fusing of the libertarian persuasion and the conservative, transcendent view of morality and of the social order. Combining these two ideas, fusing them into something not only workable but complementary — often, in Nash’s treatment of it, united by anti-communism. But it’s really the fusion of the libertarian and traditionalist wings of conservatism as they conceived it: not only unified but complementary ideas brought together by a shared emphasis on individual liberty and the idea of having some framework like virtue within freedom, or freedom under God, or something like that — something that marries freedom with transcendence. The second part of your question was about decentering Buckley?
Geoff Kabaservice: Correct.
Joshua Tait: Yeah. I’ve been revising parts of my dissertation lately, and you’re right. Buckley appears… He’s such an interesting character. In a lot of ways, he’s like this princeling from another conservative country who appears, and all of the contradictions of conservatism seem to resolve themself in his person. But I think he’s such a figurehead that it’s worth recognizing that he was not the font of conservative ideas. He was a very smart man and he was a very good articulator of ideas. But I think he was probably more a high-level, secondhand dealer of ideas rather than a theorist or thinker in his own right.
Certainly within the conservative intellectual circle, Buckley was many things: He was a networker, he was a figurehead, he was a proponent, he was a gatekeeper in some respects. But I think in terms of the ideological creation, he recognized that he was bringing people together and drawing on greater — yeah, I think he would say greater thinkers or deeper thinkers, or people who were able to allot more of their time to thinking through the problems of conservatism and the problems of liberalism. And he was publishing them. I mean, he wrote tremendous amounts for National Review and for his columns, but he was also publishing other thinkers. And I was focusing on that sort of second-tier or second level of thinkers throughout the dissertation, who did a lot of the labor to justify conservatism and critique liberalism.
Geoff Kabaservice: Buckley is important even in your dissertation in the sense that the traditionalist movement (and people like Russell Kirk) really did have serious incompatibilities with the libertarians. They did not see each other as allies. They did not see each other as part of a movement. They would not have cooperated absent an individual like Buckley and a magazine like National Review. Am I stating your position correctly?
Joshua Tait: I think yes. Certainly they were incompatible. These two political movements or political persuasions or whatever you’d want to call them… Should they have existed outside of a dominant form of liberalism or modern liberalism or progressive liberalism, I think they would have found very little to unite on. They both opposed socialism, and they both opposed modern liberalism as the thin end of the wedge of socialism. But I think inherently there are many great contradictions within them. In 1957, for example, I suggested Hayek was completely alert to these. He saw conservatism as the opposition to change and backward-looking, while classical liberalism (what we more or less think of as libertarianism) was forward-looking and progressive. So I think, yeah, they were incompatible, and I think that’s proven to be the case over time.
I think it was having a platform like National Review that helped bring these people all together within the same boat, alongside this broader opposition to liberalism. But I would say that through the comity of the trenches, and also just willing it to be the case, they did manage to find some sort of working coherence for a while. I argue throughout the dissertation that one of the ways that they did that, the way that they convinced themselves, was by saying, “Conservatism is this combination of libertarianism and traditionalism.” And by saying it is so, it became so. But also by reading that complementarity and that perfection of political order into American history, and by saying, “Here is our conservatism. It is a balance of the best parts of libertarianism and traditionalism. It’s a perfect balance that recognizes the frailty of men and the need for government or order, but also recognizing that the state is overbearing and destroys freedom. And that balance is perfect. And look, here is the perfect exemplar of it in the Madisonian Constitution. It’s this that we are trying to conserve.”
So increasingly, I argue, conservatives moved away from European transnational, conservative ideas. You’ve got Kirk talking about Edmund Burke. You’ve got this very potent Roman Catholic influence on a lot of these thinkers. Then you’ve got European émigré scholars — who never fully identified with conservatism — but folks like Leo Strauss or Eric Voegelin providing this intellectual firepower for the anti-liberal right. But increasingly, I argue, the conservative intellectuals, the second tier that I was speaking about, grounded their sense of conservatism in American history and what it meant to do politics the American way. In that way, I think, we sort of draw the circle between those deep currents of American politics and this postwar sense of isolation and wilderness, looking to Europe, looking to elsewhere to rehabilitate right-wing ideas. But then, having done that, looking towards the American past and reconnecting with those deep currents and making that claim about what it means to do American politics, and as a result of that how liberals and progressives are in denial or opposed to the true American way of doing politics.
Geoff Kabaservice: You had mentioned Russell Kirk. Can you give just a brief portrait of who he was and what role he played in this early formation of the conservative movement?
Joshua Tait: Russell Kirk was not the first postwar intellectual to call himself a conservative, but he was the one, I think, to make the biggest splash earliest. He was a working-class or a lower-middle-class guy from small-town Michigan. He, through a series of scholarships and hard work, went first to what was I guess the state agricultural school in Michigan, and then did a master’s at Duke, and eventually over to St. Andrews in Scotland to work on history. Through that process of study, interrupted by World War II, he developed this really strong conception of himself as a conservative who believed in organic order and gradual reform and maintaining what he called “the permanent things in life.”
He wrote quite a lot. He wrote tremendous amounts on this subject and developed a sort of coterie of people that believed in Kirkian conservatism. But his biggest breakthrough was with a published version of his dissertation called The Conservative Mind, I think it was in 1953. And it was this enormous, extremely sympathetic history of Anglo-American conservatism from Edmund Burke onward. It was published through a conservative publishing house, but it got an enormous five-page review in the then-dominant Time magazine, I think through… I won’t go into the weeds about that. But it got this enormous review. It became a surprise bestseller, which launched the idea of conservatism.
His conception of conservatism was, I think, much closer to the traditionalist perspective of conservatism. There was a period where his was the dominant idea of what conservatism might look like. But he was a Michigander and had sort of old Republican, GOP-right sympathies. And that came through his personal politics. It also came through — he read that into his broader political outlook and found and built an alliance with William F. Buckley and others, and was eventually, I think, subsumed into the fusion. You could sort of treat him as one wing of the fusion, the other being Hayek or libertarianism.
Geoff Kabaservice: Kirk comes across as a somewhat tragic figure in your dissertation. Because it seems to me, reading your dissertation, that the libertarians essentially ate the traditionalists. And there’s a quote, again, from the middle of the dissertation that I found interesting here… Louis Hartz was a well-known scholar of the ‘50s who argued that the American tradition was liberal and that conservatives essentially were defending the liberal order. And you write here: “Louis Hartz was essentially correct: the mid-century conservative intellectuals committed themselves to bourgeois liberalism. Unable to recognize it as such, they called it conservatism. Russell Kirk’s hope for an authentic conservative alternative to liberalism was stillborn. However, the once-discredited philosophy of Old Guard Republicanism had a potent new branding and an incoherent but compelling rhetoric to attack the New Deal state.” You want to just expand on that? Am I reading your Kirk correctly here?
Joshua Tait: Certainly I think Kirk is one of the tragic figures of my dissertation. I think there are a few, but I would say that in terms of a tragic arc, I would say so. And I deliberately constructed it that way — well, one, because I see it that way, but two, because in the conservative mythologization that we’ve talked about a little already, this tendency to establish this conservative canon and mythologize these figures, erase their flaws and highlight their perceptiveness, I think Kirk absolutely comes under that rubric. He’s treated one, as this powerful progenitor of ideas, or at least a rediscoverer of ideas perhaps. And two, he’s treated as an easy, natural, and coherent part of movement conservatism. Whereas if you look at his history, I think he burned very brightly for a very brief period and then had dramatically diminishing returns before I think being sublimated (or eaten) by the more libertarian conservative movement as it shook out.
I would say that the dissertation, as well as trying to show the effort to ground conservatism in American history, it’s also a history of the sublimation of traditionalism under the libertarian persuasion. And then later in the dissertation, you see the real bitter discontents, the successors of Kirk who absolutely resented the way that movement conservatism had gone. And I think the most visible of those was Patrick Buchanan, and I think we could trace to some extent elements of present-day Trumpism to that sublimation of traditionalism and the bitterness that it created.
Geoff Kabaservice: Something I found very interesting about your dissertation is that you begin the story of postwar conservatism with the New Conservatives. Now, granted there’s a lot of people who’ve sort of gone under the new rubric, especially the New Right…
Joshua Tait: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: But this is actually a specific group of whom I would say the leading figure was Peter Viereck, who was the first person I think to consciously call himself a conservative in a positive sense in this postwar period. Can you tell me something about the New Conservatives?
Joshua Tait: On the one hand, I’m very glad that I’d spent time writing about the New Conservatives, because I think they’re an extremely interesting group. And I do think they made a considerable contribution to American political discourse by rehabilitating the idea of being conservative and making it into something not just negative. And on the other hand, I regret the linguistic confusion it creates throughout the dissertation where I have to be talking about New Conservatives, Buckleyite conservatives, and so on and so forth. It is a real struggle.
But the New Conservatives are similar to Kirk — and Kirk was associated with them, but I think his personal politics were different enough that he ends up coming under the fusionist conservative, the Buckleyite conservative wing. But it wasn’t immediately clear at the outset. The New Conservatives — as you say, Peter Viereck, but others like John Hallowell and Clinton Rossiter — were a group of academics and writers who were consciously articulating a positive vision of conservatism right after the moment, or even around the moment, Lionel Trilling was saying that there was no American conservatism, it was irritable mental gestures.
Joshua Tait: As Trilling was making that statement, America was going into a period of cultural conservatism. I write about how this manifested in philosophical spaces, religious spaces, and then in cultural ones as well. You have a return to the idea of natural law; Walter Lippmann starts talking about natural law. You have a resurgence in orthodox or neo-orthodox theology. You have more people going to church. There’s obviously the baby boom. There’s kind of this conservative moment. Eisenhower gets elected as I think one of the most conservative (on a personal and kind of small-c conservative-labeled) politicians in the 20th century.
Joshua Tait: And so the New Conservatives were these academics and writers who often were very Anglophile, were talking about a conservatism of shoring up the gains and the victories of modernity and of liberalism, and protecting them against mass politics, against the threat of atomic warfare, against communism, and against degradation. And they were kind of a centrist political movement who wanted to conserve the New Deal and give the New Deal and the modern Cold War liberal state… basically make the modern Cold War liberal state something to conserve and something to be conserved and provide a backbone and a ballast to liberalism. They often saw conservatism as a close partner and not an enemy of liberalism: one that gave it its strength, that cut off the hard points or the faulty points of liberalism and made it something more stable. And they had a brief vogue where they were the dominant understanding of what it meant to be conservative before they were replaced by Kirk and then ultimately by Buckleyite conservatism.
Geoff Kabaservice: And something, again, fascinating about your reading of the New Conservatives is that they actually mattered, even though the movement faded away fairly quickly and a number of the people whom I wrote about, like McGeorge Bundy and August Heckscher, ended up as Kennedy Democrats. You say that they actually transformed the American political academy by legitimating conservatism as an explicit and conscious political ideology, and that this in turn facilitated a reading of liberalism as materialistic and the U.S. past as conservative. And this actually benefited, not them, but the right-wing political movement that they opposed in many respects.
Joshua Tait: Yeah, exactly as you lay out. They spent a lot of time and energy justifying conservatism, rehabilitating the concept of being conservative as something that didn’t just mean ipso facto a rugged individualist capitalist who opposed the Democratic Party — or worse, a segregationist or something like that. They justified it as a legitimate political outlook, and then Kirk obviously built on that. But also, yeah, the critiques that they leveled from a sympathetic perspective — not necessarily sympathetic, but from a perspective of enhancing liberalism and making liberalism more stable — the critiques they leveled at it of being materialist or what have you, they thought their brand of conservatism could fill the gaps there. But as I argue in the dissertation, the harder-edged conservatives, the Buckleyite conservatives, and in some ways the Kirkite conservatives — they took those critiques and primarily used it to knock down liberalism rather than to build it up, I suppose.
Geoff Kabaservice: You wrote again elsewhere that basically what the Buckleyites did was that they took this attack or criticism of liberalism and they used it essentially as a weapon against the New Deal, which they portrayed as an illegitimate interruption of America’s conservative traditions.
Joshua Tait: Yeah, and you can contrast that with folks like Hallowell or Viereck or Heckscher and McGeorge Bundy, who obviously found themselves compatible with either the New Deal or the New Frontier.
Geoff Kabaservice: You don’t necessarily play sides in your dissertation, but it does seem that a generally positive role is played by conservatives such as Kirk and the New Conservatives, and also the Straussites. And a pretty negative role was played, even within the conservative movement, by other figures such as Willmoore Kendall and James Burnham. I wonder what you found… I know what you found to be pernicious about Burnham and Kendall, which was their tendency toward catastrophizing. And you said that that actually undercut their program, certainly in Burnham’s case. Can you describe that a little bit more?
Joshua Tait: Well, it’s interesting… I think it’s probably true that I do end up putting a more negative spin on Burnham and Kendall, but I find it kind of funny because they’re two of my, insofar as you have favorites… It’s weird for a historian to talk about having favorite people that they study, but I would say that James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall are two of my very favorite people. And if you’re speaking about..
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, they’re both fascinating. Can you just give a brief portrait of both men?
Joshua Tait: Sure. So Willmoore Kendall, I’m actually in the process of reading one of the first full biographies of Kendall by Christopher Owen at the moment. He’s one of the tremendously interesting figures of American history. He was a son of a blind Oklahoman minister who went on to become a boy wonder. He went to university as a young teenager, dropped out, became a reporter, went back to university, won a Rhodes scholarship, went to Oxford, went around to universities and also to Spain as a reporter and as a teacher. Then he entered — this is Kendall the younger — he entered the intelligence community, where he was a foundational figure of American intelligence analysis, before becoming a professor at Yale, finally allegedly selling his tenure back to Yale or taking a payment to resign, whichever way you want to spin it, and becoming this kind of house philosopher or would-be house philosopher for American conservatism.
The thing about Kendall is that he was an extremely dynamic person and thinker, but he was beset by serious personal problems. And he could not maintain good relations with even his closest friends or closest mentees or even wives, until the end of his life, to save his life. He was just a… And some of this was intellectual and some of this was personal. He would just burn bridges over principles or perceived slights all the time. He was an intense thinker, an intense thinker about the American political landscape and its history, and a deep believer in a form of populist deliberative democracy. He believed in the power and the rightness of a community deliberating together to reach political conclusions, and the necessity of having small communities and the majorities within those communities being able to overrule the rights of others, which led him… So it’s a populist democratic view that was almost a fundamentalist belief in the power of the majority that led him to be very pro-McCarthy and later to be, at a minimum, circumspect and perhaps very opposed to the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think you said Buckley at one point in 1963 quoted him as having said that he was in favor of segregation for most African Americans, and that his views on this had become more intense than they had been even in 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education was decided.
Joshua Tait: Exactly. And I think there is debate about was this Kendall the Oklahoman with Southern roots who was a racist, or was this Kendall the rigorous thinker committed to principles? I probably come down closer on the principle side of things, although you can never disentangle people’s (especially mid-century conservatives’) views on race from their thinking entirely. But yeah, he thought his way into being pro-segregation on kind of democratic grounds at the height of the civil rights movement, which gives you a sense of how both populist (in the sense of a white populist) and also how contrarian he was as a thinker.
He died relatively prematurely and left this outsized gap in the history of — or the canon, the mythologized canon — of the American conservative movement, in part because of his relationships (both friendly and hostile) with Buckley, and in part because he was just at such an interesting and contrarian character. And there have been efforts, I think, to rehabilitate or to rediscover his ideas, and Matt Continetti has been part of this recently. And I’ve sort of been skeptical about how well that would work, but there are certainly resonances in his thought that are worth tackling today.
Geoff Kabaservice: How about Burnham?
Joshua Tait: James Burnham is almost the opposite of Willmoore Kendall on a personal level. And yet they have, as I think I point out in the dissertation or elsewhere, they have a very similar career trajectory — although Burnham comes from at least a moderate degree of wealth and comfort in, I think, Chicago. But he goes to elite boarding schools, he studies at Princeton, he’s an absolute wunderkind. He teaches at NYU in philosophy and aesthetics, and during the ’30s and ’40s became a fairly prominent and fairly highly regarded Trotskyist and leftist thinker before he broke with Trotskyism and broke with communism or dialectical Marxism entirely and became something of a Machiavellian pragmatist and increasingly anti-communist right-wing figure. If you’ll excuse the kind of fictional degression, he reminds me somewhat of a mentat from the Dune universe. I always think of him as Buckley’s mentat.
In his own right, he was this very rigorous thinker. He wrote this tremendously influential book on — oh, shoot, you’ll have to remind me of the title — The Managerial Revolution, that basically supposes that there’s a transformation in the way that society is going to be governed, away from bourgeois liberal democracy towards society organized in a kind of technocratic society, in which the dominant social class will not be the bourgeois but will be the managers, the white-collar class, the technicians. And flowing from that — coming from this Marxist background, this is how Burnham thought — flowing from that managerial revolution, in the new dominant class, it was going to be a new discourse, a new justifying ideology of managerialism. And that’s a critique that’s been of progressivism, and I guess socialism, or the changing manifestations of those, that’s been picked up subsequently by neoconservatives or someone even like Wesley Yang. I think you could see his ideas, you could see parts of them in Burnham’s framework.
Geoff Kabaservice: But you also see people on the left relying on a similar PMC framework.
Joshua Tait: 100%. Yeah, it’s an idea that has a lot of currency, and I think in some ways was quite prescient. And Burnham’s predictions were picked up by George Orwell, and I think informed 1984 far more than anyone recognizes. At the same time, Burnham also made a lot of predictions that didn’t come true, some quite dramatic ones about world historical events. He was such a logician that he would develop his premises and then extrapolate dramatically from them. And he wrote with such precision that he is a very overwhelming person — a very easy but overwhelming person to read. And I think this did a lot to damage his credibility, his predictions about the coming collapse of Russia and so forth.
But he winds up becoming essentially Buckley’s extremely able lieutenant and mentor, and has a profound impact on the conservative movement not only through his ideas, but also by managing — or not managing but running National Review, editing it for large parts of the year, and allowing Buckley to have that sort of freewheeling figurehead role.
Geoff Kabaservice: So Buckley’s Thufir Hawat, one might say…
Joshua Tait: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: He was very intelligent, he’d had this whole career before he joined National Review. And yet, as you point out, he is so dire in his warnings that liberalism is tending towards Caesarism, that the West is committing suicide, that this in effect prevents conservatives from engaging with the left and even the center, and it prevents themselves from moderating. And this apocalypticism essentially deprives the right of the ability to govern, ultimately, as you see it.
Joshua Tait: Yeah. I think this is something that I saw in your work and I drew on explicitly, this rule-or-ruin idea. And I found that that perspective comes through clearly not only in the second-tier type of thinkers and the activists, and even politicians like Goldwater. If you look at Goldwater’s 1960 speech in support of Richard Nixon, he strikes some extremely dire and catastrophist notes. But I found this tendency even at the highest levels of conservative thought, the figures they hold up on the highest pedestal — namely Burnham and Kendall. They have this tendency to see liberalism as entirely corrosive, or even to the point of being the driving force of Western civilization’s suicide, as Burnham frames it later on.
Burnham, in the way he writes, he will step back a little bit and take on more of a descriptive analytical mode, as if it’s not really his position but a position that’s objective in fact. But I think, of course, that comes out of his brain. He’s the one making those arguments. So even if he’s not necessarily saying, “We must sound the alarm,” he sketches such a framework that it’s obvious that what he’s saying is, “We must sound the alarm.” But yeah, there’s this catastrophist impulse that finds ultimately every part of modern liberalism… For them, it was the New Deal plus accretions, Truman through Kennedy, and then I think Burnham also had a bit of a more of a global perspective; he’s sort of thinking about decolonization and things like that. But he saw all of this as … Or the two of them saw liberalism, the entire liberal project, as something that was destructive either to authentic governance and the people (for Kendall) or for Western civilization and liberty (for Burnham). And the argument that I make is that having those presuppositions, based even at the highest levels of thought, totally preclude any sort of governance. Because there is no room for compromise, no room for give-and-take, no room for back-and-forth. It’s only opposition or death.
Geoff Kabaservice: There seemingly was a greater degree of pragmatism displayed by a lot of the people who were more on the economic and libertarian side. But you point out that one of their characteristic flaws as well was their sort of instinctive justification of hierarchy and privilege, which led them to accept the rule of economic elites and enormous degrees of inequality. And it also caused them to accept, for example, racial disparities, and even perhaps segregation itself, as natural. And this is a problem that it seems has carried on to the present-day generation of conservatives.
Joshua Tait: Yeah. I think I was thinking about that question specifically in relation to Corey Robin’s work.
Geoff Kabaservice: Ah…
Joshua Tait: Corey Robin, who I find a lot to agree with in his broader take on what conservatism or the right means. He treats it as a defense (or sort of a reflexive defense) of privilege or power, once that power has been challenged. And one of the critiques he often gets — and I have issues with how he shows that, but I think as an insight that’s quite useful, and you can find points where folks like Willmoore Kendall almost eerily echo his description of what the right is when he describes the right. But one of the critiques thrown at Robin — or just any definition of the right that treats it as involving hierarchy to some extent — people will respond, “Well, how do libertarians come into that? Don’t they believe in just the market? Isn’t it just natural? Aren’t we talking about liberty or freedom in equality under the market?” And I think once you step back and recognize that the market does create these hierarchies, it becomes very clear that libertarianism is at the very least comfortable with a sense of hierarchy and naturalizing that sense of hierarchy. And so it becomes clear how libertarianism fits under this broader sense of the right, if we understand the right to be a defense of hierarchy — I’m drawing on Norberto Bobbio here — a defense of hierarchy that assumes it either to be salutary or natural.
Geoff Kabaservice: You also had an interesting critique, though, of the cultural conservatives or traditionalists, which to some extent plays into some of the debate that we’ve seen around national conservatives and even integralists. You wrote that anti-statism hampered the creation of a conservative philosophy, because without the federal government, the cultural conservatives were just left to hope that their favored practices endured, and they didn’t. But what was interesting about that is that you kind of went on to suggest that maybe they shouldn’t have had that aversion to federal power. Maybe they actually should have relied on the coercive power of the state to preserve the conservative institutions and traditions that they liked. Is that what you had in mind, or was this something else?
Joshua Tait: I think that is the upshot. I’m not necessarily advocating for it, but I think that is an upshot. If we look at conservative efforts, conservative governments elsewhere, I think we’ve seen very obviously attempts to use the state to hold up institutions, often the church or other institutions, and maintain conservative positions. And I think it could be argued that the traditionalist-type conservatives in the American setting missed a trick, because they were ultimately Americans and they believed in limiting or having a liberal conception of what the state was. And maybe, you could argue, they should have taken a more proactive approach about using the state. They did in some cases, and I think we can look to segregation — not at a national level necessarily, although there were national politicians arguing for segregation — but using the state to enforce conservative, racially conservative social moraes. So we see that throughout the South.
What I would say… And this is an argument about using the state to produce conservative outcomes. This is an argument that’s been taken up by the integralist right or by more nationalist conservatives, as you know, in the last five or ten years. I would say that the history tends to suggest — and I drew a parallel for this in The Bulwark recently — history tends to suggest that when states and regimes rely on state power to enforce conservative cultural standards, such as in Francoist Spain or in Portugal (as I’ve argued elsewhere), the outcome usually tends to be when those state powers are released, the reaction in the opposite direction undermines whatever it was those conservative states were attempting to hold up — perhaps even worse than the traditionalist sort of, “Let’s fight this on a cultural level” approach works.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think that’s correct. In fact, I actually was reading a history of Ireland, which obviously was not an authoritarian state, like the ones you’re describing, let alone…
Joshua Tait: But it still had the deeply entrenched Church.
Geoff Kabaservice: It did. And it had those kind of almost unchallengeable conservative social norms. And that meant that when the reaction came against it, they fell almost entirely. Ireland is now one of the more secular societies, and an anti-clerical society, more than just a post-Catholic, post-Christian society. So I think there is some danger there.
You have actually shown in the dissertation an appreciation for some of the best thinkers and writers and thoughts on the conservative side. And I wonder how you feel about the current state of conservatism, given that perspective. Do you feel that there are the good aspects of conservatism that perhaps are coming back? Or is it more or less a tale of degradation, and a sort of slide from what had been good about the movement?
Joshua Tait: I think today I would say there’s the emergence of some very interesting ideas — which is not necessarily to say good or ones that I would support — but interesting ideas that could have powerful and perhaps dangerous ramifications (and arguably already have) on the trajectory of American politics. But I would say… I think ultimately… In graduate school, you’re warned not to write declension narratives, and I don’t think I do entirely. But I would certainly say that the last ten years of the history of the American right has been, for some people, a seriously disabusing moment where all of the belief in principle and moderation and perspicacity and thoughtfulness in politics has seemingly gone out the window. And I think, yeah, I would say that the extent to which modern conservatism has declined in the last ten years made me rethink my entire approach to the history of American conservatism, in a way that put much more weight on identity and prejudice and privilege and catastrophizing and I think post-facto rationalization than I had beforehand. I was a much more sympathetic and I would say naive historian before 2016.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s interesting that toward the tail end of your dissertation, Samuel Francis emerges as a kind of prophet of Trumpism, which is also how Matthew Rose in his study of post-liberalism has also placed him.
Joshua Tait: Yeah, I think so. I was reading… So this came out of Paul Murphy. I was aware of Francis. I was familiar with him, even, as someone who got a Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina — I have that connection to him. So I was familiar with who he was, and how he had become one of those characters “written out” of the conservative movement — “written out” in air quotes because I think it’s never as simple as that.
But I had this sort of, I don’t know, I don’t want to overdramatize it, but I had this startling moment when I was reading Paul Murphy’s study of Southern agrarianism. It’s older now, I think the early 2000s, but it’s an excellent history. And it goes on to talk about the paleoconservatives who are… I would frame them as the bitter successors of Russell Kirk, the ones who… Kirk sort of lived out a happy if not totally fulfilled life as an early founder of conservatism, but his successors were deeply embittered by how they wound up. And Francis was, I think, part of that circle of the paleos, often Southerners. And Francis is in there.
And Murphy finds some of his key essays describing “middle American radicals,” and the need to have a nationalist state that had a radical opposition to liberalism. And that the conservative movement, as we had understood it, was full of “beautiful losers” — his term, which actually, now that I think about it, has sort of a Trumpian ring to it. But they were beautiful losers, and they never had the stomach for the type of politics, the type of hard-nosed materialist politics that was needed to fight. And I was reading that, and explicitly the types of language, the types of issues he was pointing to — often immigration and racial — and the types of coalition he was talking about, where I thought… I was reading it in 2016. I thought they were fully captured by the movement we were seeing behind Donald Trump.
And I think a lot of people… I’m certainly not the only one to have seen this connection. As you say, Matthew Rose, but a lot of other people have recognized Francis. And Francis was a speechwriter and an advisor for Pat Buchanan, and wrote pretty widely on a lot of topics. So he’s a prophet, and I think someone who was prescient about a possible direction of conservatism or the right. And he also, I think, had some influence on that direction, even if his own life ended with him in isolation, just discarded and disregarded. I think his ideas and his impact — especially on Buchanan, and ultimately through Buchanan on to perhaps Trump — I think have had much more of a half-life.
Geoff Kabaservice: What’s past is prologue. Which is why, although you can’t see it, I am making irritable mental gestures right now. Joshua Tait, thank you so much for talking with me. Congratulations again on your dissertation, “Making Conservatism: Conservative Intellectuals and the American Political Tradition.”
Joshua Tait: Thank you very much for having me.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to The Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating, or send us an email at email@example.com. Thanks as always to our technical director Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer Ray Ingenieri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.
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