In his latest column, George Will laments that conservatism has been “hijacked” by “scowling primitives” and “vulgarians.” A conservatism that once cheerfully and unapologetically embraced “high culture” has been overtaken by a vulgar populism, which defends main-street values against elite liberal cosmopolitans, but which increasingly embodies not intellectual argument but rather, in Lionel Trilling’s words, “irritable mental gestures” masquerading as ideas.
To rise above this, Will writes, we should draw lessons from Alvin S. Felzenberg’s new book, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley, according to Will, needed to evolve from his early judgments favoring isolationism, among other juvenile statements, and his “ebullience, decency, and enthusiasm for learning propelled him up from sectarianism.”
Chronicling Buckley’s moral, personal, and political growth, the book shows, in Felzenberg’s words, how “Buckley walked a tightrope between elitism and populism.” Alas, Will notes, Buckley could not reconcile the dissonant notes they struck. And now, nearly a decade after Buckley’s death, conservatism “soiled by scowling primitives.”
But what was conservatism before “vulgarians hijacked it”? Why was conservatism, in Will’s thinking, “susceptible to hijacking”?
Surprisingly, Will blames Whittaker Chambers:
The warm weather hasn’t stopped the wind from blowing or the foliage from turning gold and red and orange. As the leaves fall, and the trick-or-treaters prepare to make their rounds, here in Baltimore it’s also “Pumpkin Papers” season. Recalling this fascinating chapter of the Cold War is as much a part of an anticommunist’s autumn as little kids dressed like ghosts or storefronts decorated with dried cornstalks and hay bales.
CHARLESTON, WV - MAY 5: Coal miners and their families pray before Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses his supporters in Charleston, WV. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
In his neglected mid-century essay “The Direct Glance” Whittaker Chambers sought to understand the smugness of the West and America regarding Soviet Communism. The struggle against it was marked, Chambers thought, by a “boundless complacency” rooted in the West’s belief in its material superiority. And this failure of understanding left the West, Chambers argued, listless and without appeal.