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A Theory of the 2016 Conservative Apocalypse

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Why so glum?

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson is the latest to ponder the apocalyptic cloud hovering over conservative America, warning that the morbid oratory of the Republican presidential campaign is making the party ill.

It's a hard-knock, catastrophic life out there on the hustings. Christianity is criminalized (Mike Huckabee), the White House is "the world's leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism" (Ted Cruz), and the likely Democratic nominee for president "believes in the systematic murder of children in the womb to preserve their body parts" (Chris Christie). And that's just a sampling from the last Republican debate. In this crowd, the nightmares of Ben Carson and Donald Trump, the main targets of Gerson's essay, are superfluous.  

In any case, blaming the presidential candidates half misses the point; the entire conservative movement is packed into hell's little hand basket. Immigration restrictionists bewail President Barack Obama's chimerical "open" borders while millions of the dispossessed allegedly fix their sights on obtaining "free stuff" at the expense of honest (conservative) taxpayers.

When the hordes arrive, you'd best have guns and ammo ready. "Do you trust this government really to protect you and your family?" thundered the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre in a 2014 speech. Only a sap believes the government can protect him, even though he should absolutely believe that the government has the resources and will to confiscate some 300 million guns in private hands. "We're on our own," LaPierre concluded.

Abandoned, neglected, alone -- yet nonetheless completely smothered by an all-encompassing big government: That is the conservative condition. 

Wrenching changes in the economy are no doubt contributing to despair. Rising inequality is a particular challenge to conservative orthodoxy. The left has a ready target -- the rich -- and an all-purpose remedy -- tax 'em! -- that conservatives are loath to adopt. But conservative explanations for soaring wealth among the richest and stagnation for everyone else can't be very satisfying even to conservatives. Blaming a powerful, multi-decade trend on "Obama" or "crony capitalism" just doesn't cut it.  

Such particular discomforts exist within a broader context. Two trends, one domestic and one global, are bound to increase status anxiety; each complements and reinforces the other.

In the U.S., the white majority is in the process of giving way to a nonwhite majority around mid-century. It's the sort of thing white people might not think much about -- until the nation elects its first nonwhite president, a handy and persistent reminder that their days in the majority are numbered. Multiple surveys and studies have indicated that many whites -- especially conservative whites -- are not looking forward to the transition.

Outside the U.S., a similar transformation is under way. U.S. hegemony is giving way to a multi-polar world and the rise of China as an increasingly powerful economic and geopolitical competitor. Amid civil wars, streams of refugees and Russian provocations, the U.S. appears helpless: interventions magnify chaos, retreat invites irrelevance. The whole globe seems a giant Hobson's choice.

The erosion of U.S. global pre-eminence mirrors what whites are experiencing domestically. Job security has vanished, and even sinking unemployment hasn't produced sizable wage gains. First, women and minorities wanted American jobs. Then the continent of Asia and the rest of the world got in on the action. Is it any wonder that non-college-educated white men form the backbone of the grievance party?

Economic uncertainty and status anxiety are hardly unique to whites, conservatives or the 21st century. But the double-barreled revolutions at home and abroad make the whole world, near and afar, seem up for grabs.

Whether the seeds of fear would sprout quite so robustly without the aid of a little demagogy is a reasonable question. As Gerson wrote:

Apocalyptic rhetoric is more than the evidence of historical ignorance and bad speech-writing. It leads to a distorted politics. If the United States has reached its midnight hour, it means that the institutions that have gotten us here are utterly discredited. The normal avenues of political reform are useless.

When the normal avenues can be deemed "useless," extreme measures become self-justifying. The corollary, playing out in the 2016 Republican campaign, is that candidates are no longer forced to justify extreme rhetorical wares. The monsters they describe are taken on faith. After all, the voters swear they've seen them too.   

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net