By the pricking of my thumbs,/ Something wicked this way comes!
“It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo and a desire to return to the past in one emotionally cathartic revolt.”
The restoration will be cathartic the way the bathhouse scene of Sully’s youth was cathartic: every day will present new opportunities.
“If conservatives are pessimistic, reactionaries are apocalyptic.”
What is the difference between a conservative and a reactionary? It is exactly that which separates the man who is watching a stranger loiter near his property and the man who hears footsteps inside the house. It is the difference between the apprehension of a future risk and the fortitude to resist a danger which has already arrived.
Someone who has the courage to resist a disaster can take pride in having confronted the situation like a man even if he only found himself in danger in the first place due to his own lack of foresight. A man who pessimistically predicts a looming disaster but then meekly submits to it when it arrives is just a coward.
And a coward who is not content to have predicted the disaster which he is currently enduring, but who prides himself on continuing to fret and cluck about future disasters which we all know he will endure with equal sluggishness and servility?
Of course, we live not in the abstract realm of thought but in this, the most actual of all possible worlds, where concepts like conservative and reactionary carry around with them a whole history of culturally- and ideologically-specific uses. This is a world where gay does not refer to joy and jolliness but to seropositive men like Sully. And in this world, “conservative” is the progressive term of praise for the servile — those who see the whip-hand moving back and brace themselves for the lashes — and “reactionary” the term of abuse for those who fight on.
The toxicity of virtue signaling being what it is, the only way to break the cycle is to go along with it. (Okay, Sully; I’m the evil reactionary, you’re the noble conservative, now get out of my country.) But keep the underlying conceptual relation between conserving and reacting in the back of your mind in case there is a chance to recover lost ground.
“If conservatives value elites, reactionaries seethe with contempt for them.”
In any bad essay there comes a point where you realize the mediocrity of what you have read up to now cannot be explained by the tightness of deadlines, the timidity of editors, the dullness of the public, the delicacy of the topic, or any of the other extenuations a published author can claim.
As Collingwood observed, you cannot know the nature of a thing until you ask what question it proposes to answer. Answers that look uncommonly dull to people who have only a vague idea what the question might be often look fiendishly clever to anyone who has spent five minutes trying to answer the question on their own.
In other words, many of the stupid things you might read in Sullivan’s articles (or those of any other conservative catamite) are open to interpretation. Many stupid phrases do not add up to one stupid essay. Sullivan needs to please gatekeepers and power brokers, Sullivan needs to attract attention to his once-famous name, Sullivan needs to earn the respect of other pundits and “conservative intellectuals”, Sullivan needs to appeal to those who read New York Magazine, Sullivan needs to avoid antagonizing potential book-buyers and potential sexual partners. Sullivan is a busy man! If in all this appeasing and pandering Sullivan looks like he is a blundering fool, it is hard to know whether Sullivan looks like a fool because he is a fool or because you, the observer, do not appreciate the theatrical flair with which he performs the delicate kabuki his audience(s) required.
And then comes the blunder that serves no purposes, that sends no subtle message; one which merely indicates the presence of a great fool. What is better known than the reactionary fascination with élites — even strange, foreign élites, even hostile élites?
Of course, probably Sullivan has in mind something like this: I used to be a co-blogger at The Atlantic. These reactionaries who hold me in contempt hold Atlantic bloggers in contempt; therefore they hold élites in contempt. The error in this reasoning will no doubt occur to him eventually.
“If conservatives believe in institutions, reactionaries want to blow them up.”
To hear Sullivan tell it, the true conservative is the man who berates firemen who just hacked through a wall and rescued his children for the fire hazard created by the debris they left behind.
“If conservatives tend to resist too radical a change, reactionaries want a revolution. Though it took some time to reveal itself, today’s Republican Party — from Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution to today’s Age of Trump — is not a conservative party. It is a reactionary party that is now at the peak of its political power.”
Today’s Republican Party? Am I the only one who remembers what the primary campaign was like? The GOP is a (very moderate but) very firmly progressive institution which freaked out when its electoral constituency turned out to support a man (the aforesaid Trump) who promised to slow social change in one or two areas where its effects had proven particularly damaging.
What, exactly, is Sullivan so afraid of?
“I find myself repelled by many of their themes — and yet, at the same time, drawn in by their unmistakable relevance.”
If anyone would know anything about relevance, I imagine it would be Sullivan. No one ends up as a celebrity journalist without being able to spot influence, and spot it early. As a tropical insect is infallibly drawn to the unique species of orchid on which it feeds, so too has Homo sullivanus evolved a special attraction to the next ass it will try to lick.
“I’ve grown out of it in many ways — and the depression and loneliness that often lie at the core of the reactionary mind slowly lifted as I grew more comfortable in the only place I could actually live: the present.”
Dear Reactionaries, I abandoned the principles of my forefathers so I could see my byline in the pages of Famous Magazines. The rising social status this brought me made me very happy. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! I have won the victory over myself. I love democracy. —— Signed, Andrew Sullivan
“You will not arrest the reactionary momentum by ignoring it or dismissing it entirely as a function of bigotry or stupidity. You’ll only defuse it by appreciating its insights and co-opting its appeal.”
Good luck with that. May the Lord be our judge and decide between us.
“And is America seriously going to remain a white-majority country? How, exactly?”