January 30, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Between the Dust and the Flame: American Conservatives and Trump’s Immigration Policy
MUCH HOLY IRE has descended upon President Trump and the American right, since the issuance of the executive orders on immigration. But holy ire as a sentiment weds itself conveniently to the hysteria which has reigned since our good real-estate magnate managed to make himself president-elect, and I do not anticipate we can expect much quietude from either side of the political fence in coming days. The cows have been well riled both to the left and to the right; woe to us if the stampede should come.
The left, in this particular case, has certainly won the battle of inflationary rhetoric. There has been talk of the “tragedy” of America’s “broken promise to the world”; references to a “constitutional crisis” sparked by the President’s presumed refusal to abide a federal court ruling; and suggestions that conflicts of interest, not to say outright bribery, have governed, or at least shaped, his decisions.
Strangely, the right does not respond to the pith of these critiques. There is a curious way in which the left and the right are speaking over each other’s heads: while the right justifies Trump’s orders (insofar as it justifies them) on the basis of national security, the left demonizes them on behalf of the “American dream,” pointing intently to the current “narrative” of the United States as a “melting pot” and a “nation of immigrants.” The right screams “Terrorism!” and the left responds “Statue of Liberty!” and both grow only the more irate when they fail to hear their own echo in din of the response.
But note this well: though the left has some things to say regarding the question of terrorism, the right has nothing to respond regarding the question of the “American dream.” The left has its arguments against the crux of the right’s position, whether or not these be persuasive; the right leaves the left at peace precisely in its most fundamental values. The left, as it were, encompasses the right in this debate; and because the left embodies the wider question of principle, the left has seized the upper ground.
That is hardly anything new. The American right is conservative, and that means, it attempts to enshrine and to protect the principles it perceives at the core of the American experience. But those principles, alas, are but the American principles as they were defined by the left, particularly in the past hundred years; they are anything but conservative. There is nothing conservative in the principle of human equality; two hundred years ago “human equality” was even considered the progressive principle par excellence throughout all the nations of Europe, sufficiently revolutionary to make the weary old European aristocracies quake in their lace. There is nothing conservative in the principle of democracy; democracy is precisely as static, precisely as stable, precisely as traditional, as the liquid masses that move it. There is nothing conservative in the principle of freedom, as that concept is today understood, namely, as a form of licence; for what good is human licence, if it is simply to be reigned in by this or that old-fashioned conservative morality?
Yet whenever does American conservatism dare play so much as the gadfly to these sacred cows of our contemporary politics?
Were the right in any way prepared for such an undertaking, the present moment would reveal itself as an opportunity, such as does not often arise, to open the question of the meaning of America. That questioning itself would be radically conservative in the best American tradition; for America alone of all the nations of the world was founded to some extent on the back of an idea. Aye, for an historically and ideologically prepared right, this would be moment to ask what is American culture—if it is anything at all anymore!—and what “immigration” or “diversity” really has to do with it. This would be moment to inquire what becomes of the melting pot when the primary metal within it is superseded by its complement. This would be the moment indeed to ask, with all due urgency, just what we want the America of tomorrow to embody, and how it must relate to our past, and how we may best arrive there.
But who hopes for such depth or courage any longer from the American right? Oh, these conservatives! When they do not want to go back to that nostalgic moment when the left was first planting its most fertile seeds, they want to go ahead, they want to be—progressive. They pose then as visionaries on borrowed themes from the Europe of yesteryear, and radicalize and vulgarize and make themselves into far-right effigies primed for the vindictive fury of the left and the general scorn of decent men.
I am afraid that in the chaos surrounding Trump’s first week, the status of our dear contemporary American right has become most painfully clear: there it is, poor confused beast, plodding ever on, bewildered and cowed, somewhere between the dust and the flame.