‘Genuine Civil War Potential’

Column: Willmoore Kendall, Donald Trump, and American conservatism

Kendall Buckley Trump McCarthy
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• July 27, 2018 5:00 am


"Few who met Willmoore Kendall ever forgot him," George Nash once wrote. The same can be said of those who read him. Every summer, in my class on the conservative intellectual movement for the Hertog Political Studies Program, I look forward to the day when my students encounter Kendall for the first time. Let us just say his defense of Joseph McCarthy, drawn from his 1963 book The Conservative Affirmation, arouses strong reactions.

Kendall was such an eccentric figure that Saul Bellow immortalized him as the title character of the novella "Mosby's Memoirs." Born in 1909, this son of a blind preacher taught himself to read at the age of 2, graduated from the University of Oklahoma at 16, studied at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and completed his dissertation, in which he argued that John Locke was in reality a majoritarian democrat, at the University of Illinois. A self-described "Appalachians to the Rockies patriot," Kendall opposed the liberalism of John Stuart Mill and the "open society" of Karl Popper in favor of the "deliberate sense of the community" expressed through the symbols, traditions, and institutions of the American founding. In 1946 he joined the faculty of Yale, where he soon met a first-year student recently discharged from the Army: William F. Buckley Jr.

"I studied with him; I was an usher at his (second) wedding; he was often a guest at my parents' houses and my own; he made important editorial contributions to my first two books; he urged me into the Central Intelligence Agency in 1950; he introduced me to my paramount associate at National Review, James Burnham; and he served as a senior associate at National Review from its inception until resignation in 1963," Buckley wrote decades later.

Yet this catalogue of Kendall's influence on the tyro is somewhat incomplete. Buckley's ornate and serpentine prose, expressed schematically, filled with Latinisms and bon mots and witty asides, is clearly patterned after Kendall's. And the antiestablishment verve of those first two books—God and Man at Yale (1951) and McCarthy and His Enemies (cowritten with L. Brent Bozell in 1954)—coursed through Kendall's work as well.

It is rather ironic that this one-of-a-kind individual was such a communitarian. Kendall's philosophy was well summarized by his protégés Buckley and Bozell in McCarthy and His Enemies: "Not only is it characteristic of society to create institutions and to defend them with sanctions. Societies must do so—or else they cease to exist. The members of a society must share certain values if that society is to cohere; and cohere it must if it is to survive. In order to assert and perpetuate these values, it must do constant battle against competing values."

The battle turned especially ferocious in the aftermath of the Second World War: not just between the Soviet Empire and the Free World, but also within the United States. Kendall stood with the majority, with the old and tried, with the benefactions of the Founders. "The characteristic of Kendall's political thought," according to one critic, "is his unrelenting defense of the historic mainstream, the heartland, of American society against a radical and basically un-American establishment." Such a line of argument, of course, is not uncommon among American populists and conservatives today.

My students read an essay in which Kendall attempts to explain the McCarthy phenomenon. "What exactly was everybody so mad about?" he asks. "What was the issue?" The intensity of the fight over McCarthy, culminating in his censure by the Senate in December 1954, stood out in high relief against the supposedly conformist politics of the 1950s. Whether one was for him or against him, Kendall said, McCarthy polarized opinion like only the controversies over the Loyalists, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and slavery had done before. All three of these earlier debates, he went on, involved "a question that the American people must answer in order to know themselves as the kind of people they are, in order to achieve clarity as to their identity as a people …" A similar question lay in the background of the McCarthy firestorm.

But McCarthy himself was not the issue. "McCarthy," according to Kendall, "like Achilles after the death of Patroclus, stepped into a battle that was already raging, one in which the lines were already drawn, one whose outcome he could and did still affect, but not one in which he could possibly become the issue being fought over." Nor was the war simply between two opposing views of communism. "I do not believe that Americans in general were at any time during that period that interested in foreign policy," Kendall wrote.

To think of the McCarthy debate in ideological terms would be to discount the visceral passions and intuitive reactions at work. So would reducing McCarthyism to an argument over legislative powers vis-à-vis executive prerogatives: "The admittedly hard-to-read slogan emblazoned upon the banners of the McCarthyites, whatever it proclaimed, could not have proclaimed the principle: ‘All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.'"

What McCarthyism was really about, Kendall said, was the ability of society to uphold "a hard core of shared beliefs" by excluding "ideas and opinions contrary" to its self-understanding. McCarthy, in his view, was defending the traditional American consensus not only against Communists in government, but also against liberals, who view America as "a society in which all questions are open questions, a society dedicated to the proposition that no truth in particular is true, a society, in Justice Jackson's phrase, in which no one can speak properly of an orthodoxy—over against which any belief, however immoral, however extravagant, can be declared heretical and thus proscribed." It was this clash of fundamentally opposed understandings of American democracy that propelled McCarthy to the center of politics and endowed the controversy over his public career with "genuine civil war potential."

Kendall's account of McCarthyism, needless to say, is not one with which most Americans, much less young Americans, are familiar or comfortable. A great deal of classroom time is spent defending the open society against his criticisms. Indeed, Kendall would most likely criticize the contemporary right for assimilating too many liberal premises, for backing away from root questions of belief that, to his mind, have to be answered one way or another. In this sense, Kendall is a thinker out of time, a fascinating object culled from an intellectual archaeological dig, whose opinions and attitudes have been in large part rejected by the very movement to which he belonged.

In another way, however, Willmoore Kendall is profoundly relevant. As I prepared for class the other day, I could not help drawing parallels between the McCarthy era and our own. In political correctness, we see a new, multicultural orthodoxy struggling to be born. Meanwhile, the rise of a populist leader has sparked another social, intellectual, and political conflagration. One has to spend only a few minutes browsing on the internet before coming across references to the "genuine civil war potential" in America today, and articles about sanctuary cities, Cal-Exit, and other forms of secessionism. Speakers face the heckler's veto, people lose their jobs because they violate one or another orthodoxy. Donald Trump not only exhibits some of McCarthy's rhetorical, theatrical, and strategic traits. For a long time he employed McCarthy's lawyer Roy Cohn. Like in the McCarthy era, the battle line is drawn not between policy positions so much as between attitudes toward the populist tribune.

Kendall might observe that Trump, like McCarthy, found himself involved in a conflict that was already raging. And this conflict, too, goes to our very self-definition as a nation. The difference is that, whereas the McCarthyites understood themselves to be upholding the national consensus against the anti-McCarthyites, today we are fighting over whether "nation" and "consensus" are terms that carry any meaning at all. What Donald Trump did, on the first day of his presidential campaign, was light the fuse of the debate over illegal immigration and national identity. He drew attention to questions that still have not been answered: who belongs within the political community, where are borders to be drawn and ought they to be enforced, what traditions and symbols (the English language, the National Anthem, the flag) are worthy of preservation, deserving of honor.

We cannot know how Kendall would respond to Trump himself. Nor can we know whether Kendall would find symmetry between the McCarthy era and the Trump era. By the end of his life, Kendall had become a solitary figure. Famously dyspeptic and argumentative, it was said that he was never on speaking terms with more than two or three members of the National Review staff at a given time. A posthumous collection of his essays bears the title Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum—Willmoore Kendall against the world.

"He was the only anti-elitist at National Review in the 1950s," Garry Wills wrote later. "(Spiro Agnew's right-wing brand of populism was still off in the future.) His views should, of themselves, have led to a break from the magazine, apart from his difficult personality." Eventually he did leave the magazine, and had a falling-out with his star pupil. He died in 1967, age 58, happy in his third marriage but estranged from the intellectual tradition he assisted in founding.

And yet, within the fissures and crevices of the 21st-century right, inflected in the rhetoric and sympathies and aspirations of some of its most prominent figures, Willmoore Kendall lives.