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 I’s 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 at a gala dinner in Washington, D.C.
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.
In 1950, Lionel Trilling wrote that there were no conservative ideas “in general circulation,” only “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” When Trilling died 25 years later the opposite was true: The only consequential ideas were conservative, while liberalism had been reduced to an irritable mental gesture.
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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.
Buckley shed isolationism, segregationism and anti-Semitism, and insisted the conservative movement do likewise. 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 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 for five minutes on “The O'Reilly Factor.”
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.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that a post-literate conservative world should have been so quick to embrace a semiliterate presidential candidate.
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 is trivial, but it’s a reminder of who holds the commanding heights of conservative life and what it is they think.