- Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism by George Hawley
Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016; 376 pages. $35.00 (paperback), ISBN 978-0-7006-2193-4.
George Hawley's prescient book Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism is an essential read for anyone seeking to understand conservatism during the era of Donald Trump. Written just prior to the rise of Trumpism, however it's defined, Hawley's research presages the rise of the "alt-right," Steve Bannon, and the white identity populism that shocked the GOP's establishment in 2016.
Hawley agrees with the notion that the contemporary Republican Party faces a long-term existential crisis, where social, cultural, demographic, and other trends all point to a future with a new Democratic majority. Unlike other academics and progressives who have hailed the demise of the GOP, however, Hawley warns that "if conservatism breaks down, many of its present constituents may embrace a more radical right-wing" alternative that will make "American politics far more unstable" (288). Hawley thus focuses on providing a nonjudgmental overview of these disparate strains of radical right-wing thought that fall outside of the mainstream conservative movement of the past fifty years. Rather than dismissing these political outliers as crackpots united within an ambiguous category of "hate groups," Hawley treats them as ideologues with sincere disagreements who are worthy of serious scholarship, despite the deplorable positions many of them hold.
After providing an overview of how the parameters of the modern conservative movement were set by a network of conservative thinkers and institutions, bolstered by the mobilization of new evangelical and neoconservative voters, Hawley spends the bulk of his chapters on the right-wing critics of this "mainstream" interpretation of conservatism. These critics range from an appalling assortment of white nationalist groups to the benign "localism" [End Page 183] of Wendell Berry. Hawley is particularly adept at parsing the intricacies and divisions within libertarian thought and differentiating between the ideals of mainstream libertarians and their radical cousins. Hawley also includes substantial analysis of the European New Right, which is especially relevant to contemporary conservative politics, highlighting key differences between it and American far-right thought but also pointing to avenues of future alignment.
This is an important book, and much of Hawley's thesis was borne out near instantaneous to publication in a way that most scholars and prognosticators can only dream. It does, however, have some significant flaws. Though much of this work centers on the history and development of conservative thought, Hawley's historical analysis is often flawed. For example, he claims that in nineteenth-century America "outside the South, there were few prominent vigorous defenders of fixed social hierarchies" (6), ignoring a generation of northern academics, politicians, and businessmen who embraced social Darwinism. On 1950s- and 1960s-era politics, he notes without equivocation that "the cold war was the primary concern" (27) of conservatives, and thus minimizes an entire branch of southern racial conservatives fighting tooth and nail against integration and voting rights for blacks, often under the guise of cold war anticommunism.
It's also curious, given Hawley's focus on the full spectrum of the Right (including many who would reject the term conservative), that nearly every individual examined is white. For a book that squeezes thinkers like Berry, who rejects modern consumerism and calls for a return to local economic and social organization, into the category of "right-wing," surely the conservative moral austerity and religious fundamentalism associated with the African American fringe—such as Harlem's ATLAH World Missionary Church or the Nation of Islam, whose ranks number in the tens of thousands—merits at least a mention as an alternative right-wing ideology that is antithetical to mainstream conservatism.
Moreover, though scholarly detachment is important, Hawley is almost too dispassionate (at least for this reader) in his coverage of radical ideologies. His voice and role as a critical analyst is often lost behind strings of block quotes and sheer summaries of various right-wing thinkers and groups. Very rarely does the reader get a sense of Hawley's judgment, as an eminent scholar, on the...