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Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, George Hawley

Reviewed by Paul Elliott Johnson


George Hawley has written a book that is a timely exploration of the past and present of American conservatism, mapping various schools of thought within the American right. Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism focuses particularly on conservative voices in the wilderness, those that do not appear to be in the driver's seat of the political conversation. Since the 2016 presidential election, of course, it seems Hawley has unintentionally written what, in parts, is a kind of guidebook for making sense of what is a not particularly stable—but certainly existent—conservative coalition that maintains a skeptical yet very faithful relationship with the Republican Party. For good reason, Hawley consistently notes that the conservative establishment appears to have a weak grip on power.

Hawley's book offers nine chapters worth of case studies. Chapter 2 focuses on the purges that have made American conservatism at key moments and that have also delineated the criteria by which these “right-wing critics” of conservatism are determined. In the quite prescient conclusion of this chapter, Hawley notes that “organized conservatism's weakness will open up a new space for right-wing ideological movements that have long lived on the fringe” (p. 73). This chapter details the purges of members of the John Birch Society, Ayn Rand, David Duke, and Pat Buchanan, among others.

Chapters 3–8 focus on specific schools of conservatism, articulated by certain thinkers and publications. Chapter 3 discusses on localism in conservative thought, focusing particularly on figures such as Robert Nisbet and Rod Dreher, harkening back to the traditionalist thinking of conservative acolytes such as Richard Weaver. Chapter 4 examines the secular right through figures such as George Will. Chapter 5 is the first of two chapters that take up libertarian questions. This chapter focuses on moderate libertarians in a Nozickian mold, while Chapter 6 focuses on radical libertarians; Hawley suggests that while these groups may have much in common in the abstract, in practice, the distinctions between them are quite sharp. Chapter 7 focuses on paleocons, including Samuel Francis's work on the white middle class as a counterrevolutionary movement vehicle. Hawley treats a number of European rightists in the book's eighth chapter, including Carl Schmitt and Oswald Spengler. Perhaps most interesting is his treatment of the Russian critic of liberalism Alexander Dugin, who argues for a “new political theory” that “must be forceful in its repudiation of liberalism” (p. 236).

Chapter 9 focuses on the American racial extremists. The most important part of this chapter comes where Hawley notes that in contrast to websites with relatively unsublimated racist context, there are other sites where “an unsuspecting reader may not even initially realize that they are reading racist material, as such sites may emphasize ordinary conservative concerns such as undocumented immigration, crime, and affirmative action” (p. 259).

In the conclusion, Hawley asks a lot of questions about the future of conservatism, although he is unwilling to answer them with a high degree of confidence. After the election results, one can hardly blame him. Indeed, given that the book came out in advance of the surprising election result, his humility and prescience are refreshing. His remarks about anti-intellectualism and populism certainly hit the mark, as he observes that “[a]lthough a populism that pits ordinary folks against out-of-touch intellectuals is politically useful, it will make it more difficult to advance a conservative political theory capable of solving twenty-first century problems” (p. 285). The highly individualistic, resentment-laden populism of Donald Trump's presidential campaign is, indeed, not just a threat to conservative political theory but to politics in general. Hawley's book is important to understanding one part—albeit unwilling—of the coalition of American conservatism that exerts significant influence on American politics.

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