The political right has drifted away from the values of conservatism. It is not simply the Republican Party in the United States, but right-wing parties around the world. This is a difficult realization to make because conservatism is typically defined as the politics of the right. But I interpret the politics of the left and the right as far more adaptable than the ideologies of liberalism and conservatism. Any word has the potential to evolve but right-wing and left-wing have far less ideological baggage than a far more closely defined concept like conservatism, or dare I say, socialism.
Conservatism and liberalism have always been ideologies defined by values for me. Liberalism emphasizes the values of rights and privileges, while conservativism emphasizes the values of duties, responsibilities, and obligations. I have never seen them as direct opposites so much as quarrelsome siblings. Liberalism is a bit more prepared to abandon institutions in the name of rights, while conservatism struggles to cast aside anything because of long held duties and obligations. But democratic government has allowed them to coincide in the concept of the rule of law. Moreover, liberal democracy has brought about a bizarre convergence where conservatives have aligned their sense of duty and obligation to institutions purported to have liberal characteristics.
The convergence of liberal and conservative political philosophies has caused some confusion among intellectuals because nobody has offered a coherent account of a conservative theory of democracy. For example, Yascha Mounk describes George H.W. Bush, his son, George W. Bush, and Ronald Regan as liberals in the conventional sense. But this definition fails to recognize how conservatism has the potential to be democratic. Patrick Deneen comes closest, but he uses a cultural defense which limits any sense of conservative democracy to the Anglo-American tradition, or at best, to the West. David Stasavage has opened the possibility to a longer democratic tradition that spans world cultures. Unfortunately, conservative philosophers have not taken him up on this opportunity to expand their sense of democratic tradition beyond a purely Western conception. ‘
Friedrich Nietzsche has always offered the politics of the right an alternative to conservativism. There is no sense of duty or responsibility in the morality of Nietzsche beyond a commitment to narrow self-interest. But the political right has largely ignored this vision of morality apart from Fascism in Italy or Nazism in Germany, but these are imperfect examples that are emotionally charged. Many believe it is unfair to draw a comparison between Nietzschean philosophy and the purely racist ideology of Nazism. Indeed, the herd mentality of totalitarianism is incompatible with the fierce individualism of Nietzsche. Moreover, there is an element of romanticism in the spirit of totalitarianism and a perverse equality in the oppression of totalitarian government. Nietzsche was nothing if not an opponent of human equality.
Human greatness is central to Nietzschean philosophy. He offers a simple classification of humanity into those who matter and those who do not. It is easy to sense a reactionary sensibility in Nietzsche where he yearns for a truly aristocratic class, but its membership only has relevance so long as it works towards greatness. Thomas Jefferson is a perfect example of this aristocratic class because he depended on slavery to offer him the leisure for his statesmanship. Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, overcame numerous obstacles as documented in Chernow’s biography or Lin Manuel’s musical. Differences in finances shaped their public service. Jefferson resigned from Washington’s cabinet as a matter of principle, while Hamilton resigned to pursue a more lucrative practice in law.
Nietzsche believed the greatest of humanity deserve the resources to fulfill their potential. He broadened the definition of aesthetics to apply to any form of human creation. And there is some truth to this interpretation. Andy Warhol has shown how industrial design was capable of art. And it is not a stretch to regard Steve Jobs as an artist. But Nietzsche saw politics, most of all, as an art rather than a science. A great statesman becomes an artist when there is a vision. Any limits (financial or social) on genius become unconscionable for Nietzsche. This aesthetic appeal has similarities to ideas of socialists or even communists. But in contrast to the philosophers of the left, Nietzsche embraced the exploitation of the masses as necessary to support an aristocracy of human genius.
Now, Friedrich Nietzsche throws around terms like slave, master, and aristocracy so often it is easy to become lost in their typical meanings. I do not believe Nietzsche cared whether aristocracy was based on birth. But he did find value in the inheritance of aristocratic values. It was important for Nietzsche to have not simply two different stratified classes, but two different value systems. He believed Christianity had perverted the aristocratic classes through a slave morality based on the equality of humanity. This passage from Nietzsche illuminates how Christianity undermined what he describes as aristocratic morality:
The ‘good’ person of the other morality, the noble, powerful, dominating one, but re-touched, re-interpreted and reviewed through the poisonous eye of ressentiment… anyone who came to know these ‘good men’ as enemies came to know nothing but ‘evil enemies’, and the same people who are so strongly held in check by custom, respect, habit, gratitude and even more through spying on one another and through peer group jealousy, who, on the other hand, behave towards one another by showing such resourcefulness in consideration, self-control, delicacy, loyalty, pride and friendship.Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (Cambridge University Press, 1994), pg. 22.
It has been difficult to classify Donald Trump because he repudiates so many elements of conservatism. He was regarded as a Republican-in-Name-Only (RINO) by movement conservatives before he won the Republican nomination for President in 2016. But now traditional conservatives are portrayed as RINOs by Trump supporters. He has redefined the Republican Party in his image, but it is a challenge to define his image because it has redefined so many classifications. Moreover, this transformation of the political right is largely a global phenomenon. The PiS in Poland won reelection through social conservatism, but also an expansion of social welfare programs. Viktor Orbán has also pursued a policy of welfare chauvinism in Hungary as well.
The philosophy of Nietzsche helps to clarify the politics of the right in the twenty-first century. Donald Trump, for example, views himself not as a politician or even a businessman, but as an entertainer. His television show The Apprentice demonstrated his desire to surround himself with artists in a variety of genres and mediums. Indeed, Trump views himself as an artist as evidenced by the title of his most famous book The Art of the Deal. And his approach to politics is based in art rather than science. He trusts his gut rather than experts.
But Trump has a definitively Nietzschean view of morality. His behavior throughout his Presidency, but especially during his impeachment, brought to light how he believes he is held to a different standard of morality. His morality is not simply relativistic. It is his own creation and adaptable to his own circumstances. But it is a morality. A morality he has weaponized against his adversaries, most notably Hillary Clinton. Even his own victimization is remarkably Nietzschean. He blames traditional elites for imposing norms and rules which limit his political creativity.
Max Weber saw charismatic leadership as necessary to overcome the calcification of political norms through the bureaucratization of the state. Charismatic leadership redefines norms, rules, and laws based on political necessities. It reshapes political institutions because the basis of charismatic leadership transcends the limitations of those institutions through a direct relationship with the people. But this transformation is dangerous in a liberal democracy based on the rule of law. Nietzsche opens a pandora’s box where political violence becomes glorified as expediency. The law becomes redefined as an obstacle for the will to overcome. In this light, it is no surprise the right has embraced the sources of state violence even as they undermine the effectiveness and performance of the government. Nietzsche goes on to justify the normalization of corruption even as its perpetrators level accusations against adversaries. In the end, Nietzsche does not simply apologize for hypocrisy, but justifies it as the morality of the strong.
My thoughts on Nietzsche are best expressed by a passage from this book, “I have, perhaps, never read anything to which I said ‘no’, sentence by sentence and deduction by deduction, as I did to this book: but completely without annoyance and impatience.” I cannot deny his analysis is brilliant despite my absolute abhorrence to his conclusions. And yet, there is a decadence to the philosophy of the strong. He glorifies the dilettante who ignores social conventions because his financial, social, and political position depend little on the opinions of others. Nietzsche refers to a morality of the Greeks and Romans. But the heroes of Greek literature were able to focus on their own personal growth because their personal success was aligned with those they led. The philosophy of Nietzsche departs from the statesmanship of Pericles to allow for a justification of Alcibiades.
Nietzsche imagined himself as the reincarnation of the Sophists. In Ancient Athens, the Sophists emphasized the art of rhetoric over the science of logic. Socrates emerged as the great adversary of Sophist philosophy in Athens. Plato memorialized his approach in the Dialogues where Sophist ideas were eviscerated. The resurgence of Sophism into political thought requires the reincarnation of a Socrates. Political philosophy needs a new gadfly to disrupt the decay of modern political ideas. Unfortunately, I have not found one yet.
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