On the subject of cycles, Warren Buffett likes to talk about “the natural progression, the three I’s.” As he put it to Charlie Rose in 2008, those are “the innovators, the imitators and the idiots.” One creates, one enhances — and one screws it all up. Then, presumably, the cycle starts afresh.
Buffett was describing the process that led to the 2008 housing and financial crises. But he might as well have been talking about the decline of the conservative movement in America.
I was reminded of this again last week, on news that Fox News host Sean Hannity will receive the William F. Buckley Jr. Award for Media Excellence later this year at a gala dinner in Washington, D.C. As honors go, neither the award nor the organization bestowing it — the Media Research Center — is particularly noteworthy.
But sometimes symbolism is more potent than fact. If we have reached the point where rank-and-file conservatives see nothing amiss with giving Hannity an award named for Buckley, then surely there’s a Milton Friedman Prize awaiting Steve Bannon for his insights on free trade. And maybe Sean Spicer can receive the Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent for his role in exposing “fake news.” The floor’s the limit.
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Or, in Hannity’s case, the crawl space beneath it.
In 1950, Lionel Trilling wrote that there were no conservative ideas “in general circulation,” only “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” By the time Trilling died 25 years later the opposite was true: The only consequential ideas at the time were conservative, while it was liberalism that had been reduced to an irritable mental gesture.
This was largely Buckley’s doing. Through National Review, his magazine, he gave a hidden American intelligentsia a platform to develop conservative ideas. Through “Firing Line,” his TV show, he gave an unsuspecting American public a chance to sample conservative wit. Not all of the ideas were right, but they were usually smart. And as they evolved, they went in the right direction.
Buckley “learned to free himself of views that had come to him by the circumstances of his background that he concluded ran counter to values he cherished,” notes Alvin Felzenberg in his superb new biography, “A Man and His Presidents.” Buckley shed isolationism, segregationism and anti-Semitism, and insisted the conservative movement do likewise. Over 50 years as the gatekeeper of conservative ideas, he denounced the inverted Marxism of Ayn Rand, the conspiracy theories of Robert Welch (founder of the John Birch Society) and the white populism of George Wallace and Pat Buchanan.
In March 2000, he trained his sights on “the narcissist” and “demagogue” Donald Trump. “When he looks at a glass, he is mesmerized by its reflection,” he wrote in a prophetic short essay in Cigar Aficionado. “The resistance to a corrupting demagogy,” he warned, “should take first priority” for Americans.
Buckley died in 2008. The conservatism he nourished was fundamentally literary: To play a significant part in it you had to know how to write, and in order to write well you had to read widely, and in order to do that you had to, well, enjoy reading. In hindsight, 2008, the year of Sarah Palin, was also the year when literary conservatism went into eclipse.
Suddenly, you didn’t need to devote a month to researching and writing a 7,000-word critique of the Obama administration’s policy on, say, Syria to be taken seriously as a conservative foreign-policy expert. You just needed to mouth off about it for five minutes on “The O'Reilly Factor.” For books there were always ghostwriters; publicity on Fox ensured they would always top The New York Times’ best-seller lists.
Influence ceased to be measured by respectability — op-eds published in The Wall Street Journal; keynotes delivered to the American Enterprise Institute — and came to be measured by ratings. The quality of an idea could be tested not by its ability to withstand scrutiny from experts but by the willingness of people to swallow it.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that a post-literate conservative world should have been so quick to embrace a semiliterate presidential candidate. Nor, in hindsight, is it strange that, with the role Buckley once played in maintaining conservative ideological hygiene retired, the ideas he expunged should have made such a quick and pestilential comeback.
Thus, when Hannity peddles conspiracy theories about Seth Rich, the young Democratic National Committee staffer murdered in Washington last year, that’s an echo of John Birch. When fellow Fox host Tucker Carlson — who once aspired to be the next Buckley and now aims to be the next Ann Coulter — tries to reinvent himself as the tribune of the working class, he’s speaking for the modern-day George Wallace voter. Isolationism is already back, thanks to Trump. Anti-Semitism can’t be far behind, either, and not just on the alt-right.
And so we reach the Idiot stage of the conservative cycle, in which a Buckley Award for Sean Hannity suggests nothing ironic, much less Orwellian, to those bestowing it, applauding it or even shrugging it off. The award itself is trivial, but it’s a fresh reminder of who now holds the commanding heights of conservative life and what it is that they think.
In the financial world, we know how this stage ended for investors, not to mention the rest of the country. The political right might consider that a similar destiny awaits.