There are a particular Gang of Sodomitical Wretches in this Town, who call themselves the Mollies, and are so far degenerated from all masculine Deportment, or manly Exercises, that they rather fancy themselves Women, imitating all the little vanities that Custom has reconcil’d to the Female Sex, affecting to Speak, Walk, Tattle, Curtsy, Cry, Scold, and mimick all Manner of Effeminacy, that ever has fallen within their several observations; not omitting the Indecencies of lewd Women, that they may attempt one another by such immodest Freedoms to commit those odious Bestialities, that ought for ever to be without a Name.
So wrote Edward Ward, a sort of Morpheus Manfred of the 18th century, in A Compleat and Humorous Account of All the Remarkable Clubs and Societies in the Cities of London and Westminster, the seventh edition of a tract first published in 1709. Ward’s polemic seemed particularly apropos to the 1750s, capturing the public mood of imperial and national decline increasingly attributed to the decadence of elite society, a corrupt oligarchy and a foreign-born monarch. Moral panic and the fear of effeminate excess gripped much of the British political nation; John Bull recoiled in disgust from Ward’s “Mollies Club”—although that was also an emotion he reveled in—those “womanly men” who gathered on a pretext of “the Promotion of Trade,” but in fact for “a promiscuous Encouragement of Vice, Faction, and Folly, at the unnecessary Expense of that Time and Money, which might better be . . . spent with much more Comfort in their several families.”
The fear of geopolitical decline and social decadence has been a periodic theme in the West, in Great Britain and the United States, especially during “post-war” eras. The Roaring 1920s framed the popularity of Oswald Spengler, whose obtuse reasoning and prose “style” might be otherwise unaccountable. The Red Scare of the 1950s saw the publication of James Burnham’s jeremiads against liberalism, and now the post-Cold War Time of Trump is coincident with not only a large body of declinist literature and a sense that material interests trump political ideology, but a rising anxiety that liberalism has devolved into social and moral decadence and a loss of virtue—especially manly virtue. In each case, concerns about geopolitical weakness have coincided with the blurring of traditional gender roles and identities, reflecting—and perhaps in some way creating—a broader sense of political, strategic, social and cultural panic.
Panic that, as we shall see, was often unfounded.
The Effeminate Years
Gendered fears of decline were at the forefront of the British politics of the 1750s. The Anglican priest, playwright and essayist John Brown was even more appalled than Ward had been. In 1757, his popular pamphlet An Estimate of Manners and Principles of the Times—it was so popular that Brown, who died in 1766, has forever since been best known as John “Estimate” Brown—described “so important and alarming” an apocalyptic state of affairs “rolling to the Brink of a Precipice that must destroy us.”
As Declan Kavanagh has shown in his recent study titled The Effeminate Years, the cause was a cultural collapse brought on by the blurring of gender distinctions. Men were “sunk into Effeminacy” and, perhaps worse, women had “advanced into Boldness.” This degeneracy had been insinuating itself into British life during the course of the Hanoverian regime and the long dominance of the Whig party of Robert Walpole and his successors, sapping the roast-beef-and-liberty patriotism of England.
“Effeminate minds cannot contain public spirit or Love of our Country,” wrote Brown. The combination of Continental, even “Oriental” despotism—for the Hanoverian element in London was often likened to a louche Persian court—with rising urbanity was reducing Britons to a “vain, luxurious and selfish Effeminacy.” Indeed, Brown suggested that the growth of trade and more sophisticated finance that was undercutting the leadership of the traditional landed nobility also was undercutting the national tradition of manliness and martial fervor. Yes, the commercial community had contributed “loyal subscriptions” to help put down the Jacobite uprising of 1745, but “This is weak reasoning: for will not cowardice, at least as soon as courage, part with a shilling or a pound to avoid danger? The capital question therefore still remains, ‘Not who shall pay, but who shall fight?’”
With the onset of the Seven Years’ War, the truth of this critique appeared self-evident. Thanks to an unknown and wet-behind-the-ears Virginia colonial militia colonel, George Washington, who could neither control his Iroquois auxiliaries when they ambushed and scalped French troops in the Ohio River backcountry nor understand the terms of surrender he signed shortly thereafter, the British had in 1754 blundered unprepared into an unwanted, but soon to be worldwide, war. In an attempt to get this strategic toothpaste back into the tube while still securing the American frontier, in 1755 the British government sent Maj. Gen. Edmund Braddock and two regiments of British regulars to intimidate the inland Indian tribes and drive the French back to Canada. The subsequent “Massacre on the Monongahela” of July—during which Washington rode at Braddock’s side—provided lurid tales of scalpings, cannibalism, and disaster that the English press milked for every penny.
Worst of all was the failure, in 1756, of Admiral John Byng to relieve the embattled British garrison on the Mediterranean island of Minorca. Formal declarations of war had barely been issued when a French amphibious force landed on the island, surprising both the small British force there and the government in London. Byng’s small and poorly prepared squadron was hurriedly dispatched in May to drive off the French fleet and to reinforce and resupply the Minorca post. But by the time he arrived, the French had put thousands of troops ashore and opened a siege of the British fort. On May 20, Byng attacked the French at sea. The opposing forces were roughly equal, but Byng’s strict adherence to the Royal Navy’s rigorous “fighting instructions” to attack in line of battle, and his subsequent caution in the aftermath of the bloody initial exchange that allowed the French to draw off out of range, smacked of excessive caution. He neither pursued the French nor relieved the garrison—which, by heroic contrast, held out until the last extremity—but instead withdrew to the safety of Gibraltar to lick his wounds.
As the historian Brendan Simms has written, “A profound sense of paranoia and unease now gripped not only popular opinion but much of the political nation. Britain had been defeated not just on land but in her own element: at sea.” Britons no longer ruled the waves, with the inevitable result, made plain in broadsheet verse:
And when to the French you’ve lost your Trade
Soon to the French Slaves, vile Slaves you’ll be made.
Another declared that the British had become a “nation of Harlequins,” too effeminate—too Frenchified—to defeat the French. Another still attacks the weakness of the British government:
Trulls, toupees, trinkets, bags, brocades, and lace
A flaunting form, and a fictitious face
It was unthinkable that the foppish French could go toe-to-toe with the British navy in a fair fight. The only explanation for such an ignominious defeat would be an “ostentatious and voluptuous” gentleman captain. Even before the Minorca expedition, London newspapers had begun to revive this trope. The Monitor observed that, trapped ashore, officers had started to “display their effeminate capacities in balls and masquerades.” Nor could John “Estimate” Brown resist the temptation to comment:
[I]t would be ill-taken, to suppose, that the fashionable and prevailing manners not abound in the Army and Navy. The Gentlemen of these professions are even distinguished by their taste in dress, their skills at play, their attendance, provided it be but fashionable. And sure it must be by miracle, if this trifling and effeminate life conduct them to knowledge or produce capacity.
Minorca, in this reading, was no more than an accident waiting to happen, and poor John Byng was made for his role. He was a sociable sort, the son of a peer, and a client of Baron George Anson, now First Lord of the Admiralty. Though just moderately successful in his command career, he had nonetheless amassed a small fortune, including works of art and fine china, then very much in vogue. He was a member of Parliament from 1754, and, in his vanity, regularly sat for portraits. In London he owned a house in Mayfair and had begun work on a country estate. Pointed in the right direction by the Newcastle ministry, the popular press piled on. “Was he afraid of the smell of gunpowder, or did he love the touch of gold?” asked the Gentlemen’s Magazine. The campaign against Byng culminated in the poem Admiral Byng and the Elysian Shades, which conjured the ghost of his heroic father Admiral George Byng, to chastise him for his unmanliness:
Arriv’d at manhood, when did you display
Of martial sunshine even a single ray?
Effeminate and soft you tripp’d along,
Some Molly still the burden of your song…
With skin and downy hands as white as milk,
Ton’d thy affected voice as soft as silk
Your dress, the emblem of your fripp’ry mind,
Was for Farinelli too refin’d.
How delicately showed your morning hours,
Midst Tulips, richlesses, and senseless flowers!
Drest in a gown, loose dangley, sad mishap!
In red-heeled slippers and en-ribboned cap,
You wanted a hoop, or a little more
A cardinal perhaps or a pompadour
To make you downright woman . . .
“Farinelli” was the stage name of Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi, one of the greatest Italian singers in opera history, and a castrato with a soprano’s range. It is hard to imagine a more devastating attack on Byng’s masculinity. He was court-martialed, and—perhaps from a guilty conscience—appealed to the King for clemency. On March 14, 1757, a squad of Royal Marines shot Byng dead on the quarterdeck of the HMS Monarch.
The fury that erupted in the 1750s and vented itself on the unfortunate Admiral is thus best understood as the culmination of a long-brewing crisis of British domestic and imperial politics, society and culture, fueled also by an extreme and extremely rigid partisan divide. Dispossessed of power by a Hanoverian regime nervous about its own status, the Tories came increasingly to doubt the legitimacy of a governing class that excluded them. Endlessly entangled abroad and addicted to the stock-jobbing riches that flowed from debt-propelled militarism in service to foreign interests, the traditional, benevolent, agrarian, native and natural social order of Old England had sunk into cultural decadence, producing government corruption and geopolitical retreat. The heart and measure of the matter were the disruption of traditional gender roles. Women had grown too bold and men—including, horror of horrors, the Royal Navy—grown effeminate. The rot at home made for weakness before the larger world. And salvation and imperial restoration could only come with the ascent of a patriarchal and patriotic monarch, who would banish the plague of partisanship—along with the proscription of Tories—and revive civic virtue and love of the common good. Only thus could Great Britain be made great again.
Decline & Decadence Revisited
“I wouldn’t go to war with you people. You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.”
So said President Donald Trump to Defense Secretary James Mattis, the assembled Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on July 17, 2017. Trump has yet to execute any officers on the quarterdeck, and the commander-in-chief’s preferred “locker-room” mode of rhetoric is less elegant than that of John “Estimate” Brown. But he’s clearly not afraid to insult the manhood of his senior diplomatic adviser and generals. The Trumpian moment is also clearly one of late-stage declinism, seeming social decadence and red-pill revanche that rings with the echo of the clanging bells of the 1750s. And now, as then, perhaps loudest in the cacophony of complaint is the note of gender anxiety. Trump, whose public persona reflected a nationalistic and atavistic response, stands as the complainer-in-chief against the loss of the traditional social order, and the champion of its return.
The rise of “declinism” and the growing sense of cultural decadence over recent decades have been nothing short of meteoric. The collapse of the Soviet empire and the resulting end of the Cold War may have taken American elites by surprise, but they quickly engendered an almost shameless triumphalism. As early as September 1990, essayist Charles Krauthammer declared that the post-Soviet era was a “unipolar moment. . . . The center of world power is the unchallenged superpower, the United States, attended by its Western allies.” Yale historian Paul Kennedy, originally known as the Cassandra of the great powers, in 2002 described the United States as “The Greatest Superpower Ever.” He began the piece with a near-erotic meditation on the U.S. Navy’s large-deck aircraft carriers and overall military might, and concluded it thus:
Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing. I have returned to all of the comparative defense spending and military personnel statistics over the past 500 years that I compiled in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and no other nation comes close. The Pax Britannica was run on the cheap, Britain’s army was much smaller than European armies, and even the Royal Navy was equal only to the next two navies —right now all the other navies in the world combined could not dent American maritime supremacy. Charlemagne’s empire was merely Western European in its reach. The Roman empire stretched farther afield, but there was another great empire in Persia, and there was a larger one in China. There is, therefore, no comparison.
But as early as 1992, in The End of History and the Last Man, political scientist Francis Fukuyama went a step beyond, asserting not simply that the post-Cold-War, American-led order was durable and uniquely historically and globally dominant, but that humanity was no longer able to conceive of a viable alternative to democratic capitalism. This Whiggish and progressive paradigm reigned supreme; even China—which remained a rigid one-party state and seethed with centuries of resentment at the West—was regarded as a potential “responsible stakeholder” in the world America had made. Still, even with such large loose ends to be tied, history, in the Hegelian, ideological sense, had ended.
This spirit animated both the Clinton and, especially, the George W. Bush Administrations. Clinton couldn’t “stop thinking about tomorrow,” sure that it would be “better than before” and seemed pleased that “Yesterday’s gone!” In the wake of the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks and the initial successes in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush transformed himself from a “compassionate conservative” promising a “humble” foreign policy to a man who aspired to the “greatest achievements in the history of freedom.” These he sketched in his second Inaugural Address. “We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom,” he declared. “We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in the dark places, the longing of the soul. . . . History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.”
To be sure, this triumphalism from the start had its discontents; as Fukuyama completed his zeitgeist-defining work, the French-American cultural critic Jacques Barzun was publishing his bestseller, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, arguing that, while Western modernity had resoundingly defeated its ideological competitors it had run its course over the five centuries from the Renaissance to the end of the Cold War. It described decadence as a “falling off.”
It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but particularly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions functioned painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.
Another refugee from Europe to America, the Hungarian-born historian John Lukacs, saw a similar falling off of a civilization, a cultural arc coming full circle. His 2002 meditation At the End of an Age described an exhaustion in our notions of progress, of history itself, of science, on the limitations of knowledge and, finally, how we understand our place in the universe. Lukacs’ cosmic and quietly Christian confessional reflection is a succinct encapsulation of the fin-d’une-ère frame of mind: “It is due to our present historical and mental condition that we must recognize, and proceed from not at all a proud but from a very chastened view of ourselves, of our situation, and of our thinking—at the center of our universe.”
Most recently, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has sounded a similar note. In The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, he characterizes “late-modern civilization as a treadmill rather than a headlong charge.” Like Barzun, Douthat acknowledges what appears to be the frenetic pace of early 21st-century life, but the whirring treadmill masks a slowing of the kind of change that “really counts: growth and innovation, reform and revolution, aesthetic reinvention or religious ferment.” As he looks about the modern world and sees meritocratic elites, the columnist sees “the last of a series, without a clear sense of what comes next.” The good news—sort of—is that the material progress of the previous centuries has been so great that it inoculates us against a too rapid or violent unraveling; we can remain comfortably numb for some time to come.
As in the mid-18th century, the sense of cultural decadence dances in step with geopolitical decline. This is especially evident in the writings of the “realist” school of international relations, which posit a naturally-occurring balance of power whereby states are reluctant to entrust their security and sovereignty to the mercies of others. But by the end of the second Bush term, as Iraq turned from a swift “mission accomplished” to a grinding counterinsurgency and a financial crisis sparked a global recession, even the previously-bullish Paul Kennedy doubted the staying power of history’s greatest superpower. The theme of “imperial overstretch,” the central thesis of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, again dominated his mind; in a 2009 column in The Wall Street Journal he reckoned that “American Power Is on the Wane.”
The rapid growth that has made East Asia the dynamo of the international economy—in combination with the economic lethargy of Western Europe—and the rise of China as a global, great-power competitor have reinforced the notion of American relative decline. The Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani has long argued “The Case Against the West” and that the 21st century is an “Asian Century.” Beyond what he calls the “ridiculous” invasion of Iraq, Mahbubani sees a general loss of geopolitical “competence” in the West and a corresponding rise in Asian competence not only in handling “regional” but “global” challenges such as climate change. Mahbubani, too, sees the prospect of decadence in decline. In sum, the West is the past and now a problem, Asia is the future and the solution. “Are there domestic structural reasons that explain this?” he asks. “Have Western democracies been hijacked by competitive populism and structural short-termism, preventing them from addressing long-term challenges from a broader global perspective?”
But perhaps the most enthusiastic decadent-declinists are Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. For the past decade, a central element in Putin’s campaign to legitimize his rule has been that the American-made political order is obsolete: Liberalism has “outlived it purpose,” he recently repeated to Britain’s Financial Times. At the most recent congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the state-owned Xinhua news agency “reported” that “the Western model is showing its age.”
It is high time for profound reflection on the ills of a doddering democracy which has precipitated so many of the world’s ills and solved so few. If Western democracy is not to collapse completely it must be revitalized, reappraised, and rebooted. . . . The Chinese system leads to social unity rather than the divisions which come as an unavoidable consequence of the adversarial nature of Western democracy today. Endless political backbiting, bickering, and policy reversals, which make the hallmarks of liberal democracy, have retarded economic and social progress and ignored the interests of most citizens.
Perhaps not surprisingly, these two dictatorial strongmen have won, among a growing number of Western conservatives—and President Trump—a kind of admiration that is far from grudging. Speaking at the Davos forum of world leaders, the President has declared he and Xi “love each other” and “will always be friends.” The venerable Pat Buchanan, the original conservative culture warrior, writes in The American Conservative, a publication now in the forefront of the Trump-era conservative movement, that Putin is getting a bum rap. “He is no Stalin, no Communist ideologue,” explains Buchanan, “but rather a Russian nationalist who seeks the return of her lost peoples to the Motherland, and, seeing his country as a great power, wants NATO out of his front yard.” Tellingly, Buchanan praises Putin’s attacks on “the excesses of multiculturalism and secularism,” particularly the West’s increasingly tolerant attitudes on homosexuality and gender identity. Asks Putin and approves Buchanan: “Have we forgotten that all of us live in a world based on Biblical values?”
Bold Women & Effeminate Men
In their disgust at the decadence of American and Western society and culture and the geopolitical fatalism that accompanies it, 21st-century conservatives are taking on a distinctly Tory aroma. They similarly yearn for a return to tradition in all things, but particularly in religion, social morals, and the exercise of national sovereignty. They admire strong, manly, and patriarchal leaders—not just for autocracies but for democracies, men like Trump and the emerging populists of Eastern Europe. As the critic Camille Paglia first observed during the 2016 election, “Trump’s fearless candor and brash energy feel like a great gust of fresh air, sweeping the tedious clichés and constant guilt-tripping of political correctness out to sea.” And, importantly for the “Middle American” voters who would provide his margin of victory, Trump “has a swaggering retro machismo that will give hives to the Steinem cabal. He lives large, with the urban flash and bling of a Frank Sinatra.”
Trump’s swagger is at the heart of his political success; his most avid supporters are drawn to his attitudes—beginning with his attacks on “political correctness” and the excesses of distant elites—more than particular policies. As George III “gloried in the name of Briton,” Trump promises to “Make America Great Again.” In 2019, in a speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations, Trump asserted that “the future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations.” The speech was a paean to particularist national identity, with Trump insisting that governments must defend their “history, culture and heritage.”
The Trumpian hour comes at a moment when analyses of American geopolitical decline have given way to assessment of cultural decadence and, especially, forebodings about the fluidity of gender and sex roles. For many conservatives, the process of social redress that began with the civil rights movement—which they originally doubted not for its efficacy but for its legitimacy—has run amok, encompassing first the women’s movement, then gay rights and now, at what seems the last bastion of traditional order, an open tolerance for “transgender” people. As R.R. Reno, editor of the influential journal First Things, wrote recently about the abuse of the pervasive civil rights analogy:
Our anti-discrimination law was set up to address pervasive discrimination against black Americans . . . to use the full force of government power to address clear and present injustices in American society. This is not the situation for gays in twenty-first-century America. . . . In the present circumstances, it is absurd to speak of gay rights as an anti-discrimination imperative with any relevance to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. . . . There is no evidence that those drafting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 imagined extending its protections on the basis of sexual orientation; certainly not on the basis of gender identity.
What is telling about the essay is not its legal reasoning. Indeed, Reno castigates those who make a textual case against subsuming gay and transgender claims under the “sex” provisions of Title VII of the original law. Rather, Reno argues the case as a matter of resisting oppression by secular, decadent elites. Thus he encapsulates the cultural panic increasingly common to Christian and Catholic conservatives:
[I]t is dangerous to give powerful people the weapons of anti-discrimination law. They will be tempted to use those weapons to destroy the institutions, organizations, and people whom they happen to disfavor. This is all the more likely to happen when those powerful people live disordered lives, engaging in sexual practices that make their consciences, however malformed, whisper doubts.
But it is probably Rod Dreher, a frequent First Things contributor and senior editor of The American Conservative, who has given, in his best-selling The Benedict Option, perhaps the most fulsome exposition of the fears of “Christians in a post-Christian Nation.” The book charts a neat timeline at how creeping modernity led the United States and the West arrived to its present “blasted heath of atomization, fragmentation and [religious] unbelief:” the 14th century saw “the defeat of metaphysical realism by nominalism,” severing the link between “the transcendent and material worlds;” the Renaissance shifted “the West’s vision and social imagination from God to man;” the Protestant Reformation “birthed an unresolvable crisis in religious authority” and “unending schisms, the 17th century scientific revolution introduced the idea of “the universe as a machine;” the Enlightenment made “Reason the polestar of public life, with religion . . . relegated to private life,” while the French and American revolutions “broke with old regimes and their hierarchies;” the 19th-century Industrial Revolution “pulverized the agrarian way of life, uprooted masses. And brought them into cities” and into “alienation.” The “horrors of the two world wars of the 20th century” led to a cult of autonomous individualism and a “Sexual Revolution [which exalted the desiring individual as the center of the emerging social order, deposing an enfeebled Christianity as the Ostrogoths deposed the hapless last emperor” of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century.”
This is Whig history stood completely on its head, progress as regression and social unraveling, liberty as nothing but license, the supplanting of the divine by individual eros. What elevates this Toryism of the 21st century above and beyond its 18th-century ancestor is its obsession with “transgenderism,” a phenomenon unknown to “Estimate” Brown. This, in Dreher’s reckoning, is the final fulfillment of the self-made man, the “newest vanguard of the Sexual Revolution.”
[T]ransgendered people . . . refuse to be bound by biology and have behind them an elite movement teaching new generations that gender is whatever the choosing individual wants it to be. The advent of the birth control pill in the 1960s made it possible for mankind to extend its conquest and subjugation of nature to the will to the human body itself. Transgenderism is the logical next step, after which will come the destruction of any obstructions, in law or custom, to freely chosen polygamous arrangements.
Having thus viewed the awful “endpoint of modernity,” Dreher argues that engagement in present-day politics is, for conservative Christians, a fool’s game, that “[t]rying to regain our lost influence will be a waste of time or worse,” and a temptation to make common cause with a “strongman” like Donald Trump “who would impose order by force of will,” when what is needed is a “reinvention and new beginning” grounded in a renewal not just of faith but pious obedience to God.
Yet political quietism does not come naturally to those who believe themselves to have been wrongly deprived of power while the society and states they love careen toward decline and decadence. Here, for example, Reno and Dreher seem to part ways. Reno’s latest work, 2019’s The Return of the Strong Gods, is a kind of apologia for a Trump-style populist nationalism. Reno writes that the atavistic movements surging through American and Western nations reflect a response to decadence and decline that “is not entirely wrong.” He at least grants Enlightenment reason and individual interest to be necessary influences shaping “the strong god of self-government and sovereignty,” but he asserts that such consensual and contractual arrangement are insufficient to sustain a society; only a patriotic and pre-rational “love” of a national “we” can supply such inspiration. In place of Lockean “idolatry,” he writes, “we need to nurture two primeval sources of solidarity that limit the claims of the civic ‘we:’ the domestic society of marriage and the supernatural community of the church, synagogue, and other communities of transcendence.” Though there is a role for government in promoting these sources of social solidarity, there remains a cultural war to be waged, “to combat the radical feminism that is hostile to even the weakest expressions of distinct male and female roles. . . . [W]e need a sober conversation about what it means to be a man and a woman.” Moreover, he argues, religious faith makes more “stable and stalwart citizens, less likely to be inflamed by ideological promises that are surrogates for true religion. . . . [A] strongly transcendent faith grounds a person.”
Even in these high-minded formulations, these yearnings for traditional order cannot be separated from the current Internet-fueled culture; feminism, gay rights and all things transgender are conservative, Christian, and Catholic click-bait. Like all websites, First Things keeps track of trending topics. “Pornography,” “homosexuality,” and “transgender” are consistently top-five topics; its concerns about “feminism” have muted with time, but began with Richard John Neuhaus’ 1991 piece, “Boys and Girls: The Long Way Back to the Obvious,” which argued, in a more-hopeful, pre-decline-and-decadence world, that “[w]e now may be entering a new period of reconfirmation, notably in the realm of sexuality, and also among young people at college.” Even mainstream, old-light conservative publications like National Review seem to have discovered the marketing secret: Madeleine Kearns is a talented and incredibly prolific young writer for this and other conservative outlets. During 2019, she wrote about 175 pieces for National Review; fully 75 were on transgender issues. Nor is the appeal of promoting social tradition confined to journalism. The Canadian psychologist, author and lecturer Jordan Peterson has turned his determinist arguments for traditional and hierarchical social structures—and his stand-offs with various and vicious manifestations of political correctness—into a successful speaking career. He counts 2.6 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. Click-bait these may be, but they provide some index of the conservative cultural zeitgeist.
History does not repeat itself, or perhaps even rhyme, but it can echo, and the conservative choirs of the 1750s and the 2020s do seem to be in tune—Handel would be appropriate to both. To begin with, the despair of decline and decadence of the mid-1750s was reversed almost immediately, though in an ironic twist: when William Pitt—previously the most powerful parliamentary voice for a Tory approach to the war with France—took the helm of wartime leadership, he turned his sails in a decidedly Whiggish direction. Indeed, he pushed Whig strategy—deep engagement in continental conflict and subsidies to anti-French allies, especially in Germany—to new extremes. George II, who had loathed Pitt and resisted bringing him into the government, was delighted. Pitt also formed an effective partnership with his prior nemesis, the Whig grandee Duke of Newcastle, who continued to manage Parliament through his patronage networks and to raise revenues and loans almost as fast as Pitt spent the money. Pitt further came about in regard to strategy for North America, continuing to deploy British regulars but substantially subsidizing colonial militias—the local assemblies, particularly in New England, responded with unbridled imperial enthusiasm—and Indian diplomacy through the powerful agency of the Iroquois confederation. While Pitt occasionally threw a strategic scrap in a Tory direction—not only by continuing the build-up of the Royal Navy but conducting indecisive-but-popular naval “descents” of the French coast—he did nothing to reduce the size of the British army and exacted ever-higher taxes from the landed classes while courting London financiers at every turn. In critical ways, it was Edward Ward’s supposedly corrupt “Mollies Club” which sustained the war effort; “who paid” was, arguably, more important than “who fought.” The result, by 1761, was a global British empire on which the sun never set. What vexed the great victory—and left the Bourbon monarchies alive to lick their wounds and contemplate revenge—was the death of George II and the ascension of a Patriot King. George III pushed Pitt out and brought Tory proscription to an end.
The Tories of the 1760s had learned nothing from Pitt’s triumphs, which they believed were due simply to the return of the natural order of things, nor forgotten any of the experience of their proscription. The Newcastle patronage networks were decimated even more thoroughly than Louis XV’s forces, the lot turned out of government with great speed and no mercy. The Tories trusted in their own manly virtue and the Patriot King to lead them and to restore the Anglican church, a traditional society, and proper humility about Britain’s role in the world. In this way could the British ship of state be set on its proper course, the endless and expensive war with France brought to an honorable conclusion, the sprawling and disturbingly diverse empire be reformed and reorganized, and the government’s finances placed on a “sound” footing. The Tories styled themselves not as partisans but as “king’s men,” working in the name of what they saw as the common good. In this way they crashed bravely, manfully, and confidently ahead into the iceberg of 1776, insensate to any of the warning signs from the colonial frontier—indeed, the warning signs incited them to ever-greater efforts to demand compliance and the army in America became not a tool of expansion but oppression. What soured the Americans was their devotion to individual liberties, a contractual model of government, and relentless desire for continued imperial growth. This proved, within the span of just two decades, to be a more powerful love than the traditional, hierarchical, and patriarchal arrangement on offer from London. Whiggish political independence and autonomy trumped Tory tribalism.
It thus behooves 21st-century Tories to reconsider the strength of this liberal god. Past reports of the death of Western civilization—and particularly its Anglo-American variant—have proved greatly exaggerated. Indeed, it is the very fluidity of liberal culture, its insistence on epistemological rigor even at the expense of metaphysical certitude, that has enabled the liberal order to reform itself, and helps account for its longevity. Past panics over political decline and moral decadence have been precursors to renewal, not collapse. Moreover, it’s fair to wonder whether Benedictine obedience and discipline translate well from the spiritual to the secular realm, or provide a reliable guide for a pluralistic polity. We might ask why St. Benedict was so beloved by Charlemagne, and whether dreams of a new Holy Roman Empire, with a reconciliation of state and church, lie beneath modern monasticism.