One of the more curious aspects of Trump-era American conservativism has been its utter failure to develop any imaginative cultural and artistic talent that both subtly and persuasively bears the stamp of the Western aesthetic values that movement purports to esteem. There is no doubt that as a rallying point of courageous philosophical conviction and excellent intellectual talent this activist reinvigoration of the Right has made its mark and that media influence will only continue to grow. However, as a movement, this conservatism lacks worldliness and sophistication; a whiff of the provincial surrounds it, subverting the cosmopolitan urbanity that naturally comes with a confident world outlook. With wit and flair, the ‘conservatism’ should itself become almost incidental, a seamlessly embedded message within works of art and not a tiresomely repetitive, polemical one. This is the potency, the influence that is missing and we are suffering quite badly for it. What is most needed at this point is an ambitious literary, film and design and ‘lifestyle’ (for lack of a better term) component that would allow it to compete where it most needs to: with the liberal-left stranglehold on American/Western cultural life. In fact, Trump-era conservatism, for all its thunder and ballast, is remarkably bland and cookie-cutter. It reacts but has few real Reactionaries. It condemns but it does not create. It postures a maverick attitude but consists mostly of recycled Ideas. Its cultural contribution has produced no aesthetic vision, only the cult of Commentary, endless commentary, and its aspirants seek not to write A Man for All Seasonsor work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Library of Congress or to write for Architectural Digest, etc. but only to become–it appears–You Tube pundits. We need more of these as much as we need more illegals. In a word, we just teach because we do not do.
Most embarrassingly, this lack of larger ambition demeans the cerebral heft possessed by the late, great 20thcentury “Man of the Right”– the stylish adversary of the-then more popular ‘Man of the Left’. Today’s Right is devoid of that earlier generation’s alluirng ideological anarchist: the art-obsessed, cultivated, proto-Fascist who could create raging works of spirit and linguistic grandeur, fusing language and love of beauty with intransigent conviction. Thiswas revolution and, most likely, its leading lights would have had little if anything at all to do with “conservatives” of today.
Consider that devastating Anglo-American tsunami comprised of Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, T. E. Hulme, W. B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens; the continental literary and art movements known Futurism, Vorticism, and right-wing Expressionism; the poetic dissident class that emerged from Central and Eastern Europe in the second half of the century….These eccentric icons and their fringe institutions gathered around the margins of the Left-ward drift of that totalitarian century, championing either war or strict isolationism, 19thcentury capitalism or free market agrarianism; community democracy or imperial monarchism–but always through the lens of an exalted respect for Western civilization.
They achieved this with a devil-may-care stubbornness of personality all the while producing works of art that even communist intellectual elites openly admired. Among the poets, they never wavered in their desire for some prince-tyrant to restore the spirit of the West, and if he appeared in the form of a Mussolini-to-Franco range of dictator, this unapologetic longing for the classical, mythological and radically übermenschlichleader was treated as a natural longing to thwart social and moral decadence. But what one read and remembered was The Wastelandor Canto 81—not merely critique.
The artists among them viewed, Ernst Juncker-like, periodic cycles of civilizational collapse as a means of regeneration in ways unthinkable today: “We wish to glorify war—the only health of the world”, wrote F.T. Marinetti, founder of the anarcho-industrial art movement known as Futurism, last seen most vibrantly a beautiful exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York in 2014. “Militarism, patriotism, the destructive arm of the anarchist, the Beautiful Idea, the contempt for women…“. This was the movement’s rallying cry and creed. It did not produce Neocons. It just produced masterpieces.
And here was ‘diversity’ at its finest. The various poets, artists, editors and publishers who made up these diverse “right-wings” coalesced into an intellectual force that ranged in aesthetic intensity from Hulme, the “mercenary of modernism” and war veteran who famously fought Bertrand Russell on the battlefield of metaphysics, to T.S. Eliot writing his seminal Tradition and Individual Talent in 1919,to Yeats the romantic nationalist defending the ‘racial supremacists’ of the Irish cause, to Wyndham Lewis declaring: “You as a Fascist stand for the small trader against the chain store; the nation against the super-State, the creator against the middleman…” Whatever the “reprehensibility” of their political views by today’s standards, they fired their salvos from a very weighty arsenal of intellectual artillery aimed at the vacuum of an apocalyptic and terrified age.
Their literary and art movements were known as Vorticism and Futurism. The latter, formed under the specter of World War I by such Italian artists as Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini and Tullio Crali, was a powerful descendent of Cubism and forerunner of a strain of Expressionist painting and cinematography exalting ‘the Machine’, industry, individualism and military combat in a style that was hard, geometric, violent. Vorticism, led by Pound and Lewis, took root in “Ulster politics, labor unrest and the pending European conflagration”. Its short-lived flagship magazine, Blast, was the subject of New York Times andTimes of London feature coverage for its well-educated fury and star writers.
The aesthetic mood swings of tradition, radicalism, capital-B Beauty; war-lust, anti-Statism; the conformist authenticity of the small town or the glorious chaos of the Industrial Age all constituted the intellectual personality of that Right. “Populist”, as that term is understood today, that movement decidedly was not, for it decried the intellectual laziness of the conservative mass. “My goal”, stated Pound famously, “is to save the public soul by first punching it in the face”. Pound expresses the core genius of his cultural generation in that blunt quip. In the name of Art, the thinkers of his camp were so far to the Right they ultimately reached around to the outer extreme of the Left. Therewith, they knew they could subvert their polar ideological adversary all the while championing the same need for the power of art in all spheres of life; for individual men to be bound by a higher aesthetic cause and kinship.
In this regard, the ultimate contempt of this Right–just as that of its Socialist-Communist counterparts–was directed against the venerated Everyman; against a society lacking vigilance, intellectual rigor and center-stage guts. It is what elevated the worldliness of these cultural icons–leaders such as the “suburban anti-Semite”, as Allen Ginsberg called his later-life friend Ezra Pound, who regularly published the best left-wing writers in Blast: the likes of Sydney Webb and Henri Bergson were featured alongside John Galsworthy, Benedetto Croce and Lytton Strachey.
The political-cultural enemy was many things, all of it emanating from left-wing causes. But the real spiritual enemy was the unthinking, uncritical ‘democrat’, the very essence of the Unexamined Life.
This mindset is what lent their Fascist or “Fascist” leanings a universally attractive bent. The objective of the Vorticist movement, a kind of right-wing Bloomsburg Group, was “to create a definitive force against amorphous thinking” whereby Pound tasked himself to become the prime mover of modern poetry, prompting the decidedly un-Rightist Carl Sandburg to credit Pound for doing “the most of living men to incite new impulses to poetry”. Pound, for whom Mussolini was a kind of latter-day Sigismondo Malatesta, cuts a sympathetic figure because of his assistance to writers of all political hue. The power of art was placed before that of politics and therefore “the Right” resonated—deeply, emotionally and so memorably.
Why is any of this important? Because it underscores why the Trump-era Right is failing culturally despite the strength of its numbers and the rising tide of its voice: a) there is little to no appeal to Imagination and b) there is not enough ‘highbrow’ intellectual demand placed upon conservatives in general; we are not hard enough on our own.
As concerns the first, it explains, in part, why the Right has lost the universities. It explains the general drift of the film and television world into lurid, progressive sentiment; why it has no theater, no major literary publishing house, no powerful art magazine, no strong literary journal, no guiding light, no Lewis Lapham, no film festivals, no philosophical influence of high intellectual rank. Its energies and finances lambaste yet do not lead. For decades, its political sympathizers have created few works of stirring artistic impact. A “lack of money” or a “lack of support” is the most absurd attempt at a counter-argument to this that there is.
Regarding the second aspect, Trump-era conservatism has awoken all the best instincts at large, all the best unheard voices and a massive vanguard of sharp, fearless commentary and analyses. However, as a mass movement it is largely inarticulate: educated or ‘learned’ polish is lacking; it fears too much being labeled ‘elitist’, a conversant sense of history is thin or non-existent as is the desire to start film companies or television networks or publishing houses that don’t have some shallow family-fun Jesus-Saves! aspect to them. It is mainly online preaching to the choir with “F” bombs, messy grammar, and borrowed lines about Soviet this and that. There needs to be more.
In a word, the conservative movement has failed on the cultural for decades because it does not have the moral or intellectual independence of the mad, bad Right of generations past. It has become all grassroots and no bloom.