Like other political movements, American conservatism offers predictable explanations as to where bad ideas arise. During the Cold War, the explanation for this problem that one would have found with some regularity in conservative publications would have been communism, socialism, the welfare state, or “totalitarianism.” More recently, socialism has alternated with “fascism,” or “Islamofascism.” For today’s conservative media, moreover, these “isms” are mostly interchangeable designations. If Islamicists are against our “values,” then they must be “fascists”; “Marxists”; or, perhaps even worse, Democrats. And lest I forget, Democrats used to be “fascists” and are now “socialists,” according to Glenn Beck, Dinesh D’Souza, and Dennis Prager.
Making the identification of an enemy even more problematic is that the conservative movement is steadily undergoing change. Thinking historically, it seems to me that what movement conservatives now profess is far less conservative than what they used to believe when I was in college and graduate school back in the 1960s. Civil rights icon Martin Luther King had not yet become a “conservative” or “conservative Christian theologian,” but was still a radical leftist. National Review and its contributors denounced him as such, and from the perspective of our mainstream politics in the 1960s and where the conservative movement then stood, this judgment was probably defensible. I also don’t recall National Review or even the New York Times in the 1960s defending attempts at marriage between two men as a “family value” or featuring self-identified gays as proud conservatives. On at least some question of social morality, the founders of the Frankfurt School may have been as “conservative” as the people who are now denouncing them supposedly from the right.
I would also ask why all groups that offend self-described conservatives should be treated as an interchangeable enemy. Islamists undoubtedly represent a danger to civil order and human safety, but the fact that they are murderous doesn’t necessarily make them “fascists.” If we compare Islamic extremists to the Italian fascist movement of the 1920s, it’s hard to see what ISIS and its supporters have in common with Mussolini and his followers. Latin fascists claimed they were defending a distinctly Western classical heritage and viewed themselves as successors of the ancient Romans. How similar is this to what Islamists believe as the sworn adversaries of the West and its Judeo-Christian classical inheritance (which is what Western democracies are now running away from)? Perhaps “Muslim extremists” are a bit more like the German Nazis in their totalitarian design and use of anti-Semitic propaganda. But this too isn’t a good fit, because unlike the Nazis, Islamists are multiracial and hardly sympathetic to Nazi neo-paganism.
Neoconservatives charge that like the fascists, Muslim extremists don’t practice “human rights.” But this helps us even less in defining them. “Human rights” are a modern Western invention that are constantly expanding in accordance with journalistic and ideological fashions. The French jurist Michel Villey has demonstrated that there is no solid evidence that European jurists or philosophers thought about individual rights before the early modern period. Attempts to trace individual rights back to Greco-Roman law and medieval philosophy, according to Villey, have come from historians who are hoping to find current thinking in older sources. But these efforts have ended in misrepresentation. The ancients and medieval scholastics spoke about moral obligations owed to specific people and about duties that devolve on those holding positions in relation to others. But this had nothing to do with assigning “rights” to individuals with whom we have no personal dealings and to whom we distribute our preferred rights in terms of what our present culture values.