Those members of the radical and racist right who led the Jan 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol building, vandalizing the Senate chambers and threatening members of Congress and the police force sworn to protect them, have altered the terms of public debates and collective understanding including, perhaps, our understanding of conservatism.
As I argue in my keyword essay, since the dawn of the 19th century there have been two overarching strands of American conservatism. The first sees itself as a philosophical bulwark against disorder, viewing hierarchies and natural forms of inequality as positive goods for healthy societies. In its Burkean pretensions it views sudden change as inherently dangerous and supports, instead, reforms that are gradual and even evolutionary in nature. In this strand, conservatives are the guardians of liberty and the defenders of our constitutional Republic who have histories of keeping the unruly aspects of full-fledged democracy at bay.
The second strand is more sinister, chaotic, and reactionary. This is the conservatism of “dark money” political machinations of those who fund and fuel the Radical Right. It is a vision of conservatism embroiled in a “deep history” of “stealth planning” to alter the rules of democratic governance. It traffics in conspiracy and disinformation often operating under the guise of grassroots political movements.
Both strands are united in what they understand to be an epic struggle against the forces of the Left. One the one hand, this cynically convenient marriage has not always been a happy one with each side striving to keep their distance from the other. On the other hand, in the last days of the Trump Administration, the feasibility of drawing distinctions between a conservative and a reactionary is growing more dubious by the hour in the last days of the Trump Administration.
In their effort to stop the certification of the 2020 Electoral College for the fraudulently contested presidential race, Republicans linked arms with Far Right forces in ways that pushed the latter from the margins to the center of conservative politics. The sporting of Confederate flags, the display of antisemitic symbols, and the noose erected on the Hill remind us of the degree to which conservatism is historically structured by race, racisms and white supremacy. The startling violence of the mob reminds us too of the lengths to which so-called defenders of the Republic are (still) willing to go to preserve the prerogatives of a white Christian nation, “under God,” when they feel threatened by liberals, leftists and nonwhite activism mobilized in the name of justice, equity and inclusion.
This is not the full story and meaning of conservatism. But as the Republican Party and the American Right continue to navigate the influence of Trump and Trumpism, to many present-day observers the reactionary violence is just more of what conservatism has always been but rarely admitted.