One of my favorite novels is Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. It’s a hard sci-fi novel based on the premise that scientists live in monasteries cloistered off from the rest of society. People outside the monasteries have attitudes and beliefs about them that the science-monks resent and consider ridiculous. Over the course of the novel our protagonist, one of the science-monks gradually comes to learn that the hazy and confused notions people outside the monasteries had about them were grounded in a kernel of truth about the science-monks doing some pretty scary things to reality and memory.
This is a bit like being a conservative in 2016. For years we’ve been subject to libsplaining about right-wing authoritarian personalities and dog whistles to racism and our entirely sincere reaction was “that’s ridiculous.” For instance, when the Tea Party was in full swing, it was a really common thing to call it racist. (A Google search for “tea party racist” just gave me 1,070,000 hits). And the conservative response is what are you talking about, this is a small government movement and sure they have an unfortunate penchant for revolutionary war cosplay, PAC scams, and primarying anybody who doesn’t threaten a government shutdown over a bill to repeal the New Deal, but their hearts are in the right place, and have you heard how they clean up trash after their rallies?
And then Trump happens. You see a lot of people who liked to wave around pocket Constitutions as they seemed like they were angry about government that was too big to drown in the bathtub are now supporting a man who wants to order the military to commit war crimes and engage in the greatest politicization of the economy since the National Recovery Administration. And you realize, these people weren’t angry about an expansion of the state or problems with the separation of powers, they were just plain angry.
For decades fusionist ideology provided a rallying point that usefully sublimated our coalition’s politics into a rational and principled political program. And it was infuriating when liberals said, whatever, we don’t like your coalition and ignored what we were saying. But it turns out they knew something. Just as it is obviously true that the politics of late antiquity weren’t really about adoptionist Christology but this just provided a flag of convenience to separatist movements (and chariot racing hooligans), so it increasingly seems that our politics are epiphenomenal to more atavistic and tribal conflicts.
To put it another way, 2016 was the year when Perlstein’s Nixonland showed that Nash’s Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 has a glass jaw.