Abraham Lincoln has become, for most mainline conservatives, an icon, and, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., no opportunity is lost—it seems—on Fox News or in the establishment “conservative press,” to stress just how much conservatively-minded Americans owe to these two canonized martyrs. Any demurer, any dissent or disagreement, brings forth condemnations of the complainant as a “racist” or “reactionary,” or worse, maybe some Southern redneck hick who hides his old Klan robe but keeps it at the ready.
During the past fifty or so years the old Southern Democratic Party has virtually disappeared, died out, as millions of conservative Southerners, many motivated by their sincere religious faith and resistance to radical and unnatural change, migrated to the Republican Party. The GOP, beginning in the Nixon years, employed what was called a “Southern strategy,” largely elaborated by consultant Kevin Phillips and spelled out most clearly in his volume, The Emerging Republican Majority (1969). GOP spokesmen learned to speak a language and offer symbols that millions of Southerner found attractive, even compelling.
Not only that, but early on the election of former-Democrat Jesse Helms as a Republican US senator from North Carolina (1972), with his huge following of “Jessecrats”—mostly Democrats or soon-to-be former Democrats—and the conversion of political leaders like South Carolina’s Senator Strom Thurmond, turned what had been a trickle into a kind of stampede into the ranks of what had hitherto been seen as the discredited vehicle of the Reconstruction.
But this new home, this refuge from the increasingly liberal, left-leaning modern Democratic Party, would not be for Southerners a recreation of the type of familial, regional and traditional conservatism which they had been accustomed to. Increasingly as the 1980s and 1990s progressed, the older traditional Southern conservatism, with its enduring devotion to its Confederate heritage and its illustrious catalogue of admirable statesmen and heroes, first became downgraded, then finally largely despised by both a national conservative movement and national Republican Party dominated by ideologues who were self-denominated “neoconservatives.”
These former Leftists—in the main ex-Trotskyite Marxists who migrated into the conservative movement and the GOP—with their mastery of communications and conservative media, and their unswerving zeal which arguably was a carry-over from their days advocating for a kind of Trotskyite universalism, soon vanquished the older, much more inviting and older conservatism. Where once the “conservative movement”—as exemplified by a Dr. Russell Kirk—welcomed traditionalist Southerners; and where once the national Republican Party accepted a Senator Helms and or Senator Thurmond and conferred on them positions of authority; now with the zealous neoconservatives seizing control of both the movement and the party, older icons—whether a Robert E. Lee (so praised once by President Eisenhower) or a John C. Calhoun (given status as one of America’s great conservative minds by Kirk) were shown the door, even condemned as “racists,” often paralleling accusations made by those on the further Left.
New heroes and models were erected, and in the place of a Lee or Calhoun, Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., were pronounced as the conservative and Republican models for Americans…and for Southerners. Indeed, arguably the specter of Lincoln had never been far from Republican mythology. But at first, as Southern traditionalists streamed into the GOP, it seemed that there might be some co-existence with the party of Calhoun and his descendants.
But it was not to be. At venues such as the formerly-conservative magazine of record, National Review, brilliant Southerners like Mel Bradford were shown the door and unceremoniously removed as contributors. Gone were the days when founding editor of the Modern Age quarterly, Russell Kirk, could dedicate an entire issue to the South and an appreciation of Southern traditions (cf. Modern Age, Fall 1958 issue).
Indeed, National Review led the Never Trump charge in 2016, suspecting darkly that the MAGA movement was a not-so-subtle attempt of unreconstructed Southerners and (largely marginalized) Old Rightists to regain control of what Paul Gottfried has called “Con Inc.”—both the modern conservative movement and the national Republican Party.
That battle continues, and it continues not just politically since the election back in 2016 of Donald Trump (who probably didn’t realize the full import of his initial success). For it is at base a contest of fundamental ideas about what is a country—what is our country—and the role and position of the American South in (and outside) of that geographical entity we call the United States.
For the most part, the neoconservatives still control “Con Inc.” Every night on Fox News or Newsmax one is likely to see a Nikki Haley, Jonah Goldberg or Victor Davis Hanson (he who praised Sherman’s blitzkrieg through South Carolina as exemplary and a “good thing for South Carolinians—they deserved it!”). Save for occasional minutes on the Tucker Carlson Tonight program, a continual drumbeat for “equality” as the central principle—the essential element in what is termed “American exceptionalism”—is heralded as undebatable. Globalism—a key tenet of neoconservative (and Trotskyite) thought—marinates conservative news coverage. And, of course, Lincoln and King have been turned into plaster, canonized “conservative” saints, untouchable, undefilable. Monuments to Confederate heroes, indeed, symbols of most anything honoring Southern tradition are shunned and now condemned…perhaps not as hysterically or “woke” as by the demonic denizens of the far Left, but certainly the targets are the same.
The words recently written by David P. Goldman ring, in retrospect, ever so true: Now under Biden the neoconservatives, partially sidelined under Trump, are back. And “their ideology is a sort of right-wing Marxism,” which definitely has no room whatsoever for defenders of a Lee or Calhoun and those who reject the idea of a “proposition nation,” those in opposition to across the board domestic and global equality and imposed universal democracy. To paraphrase the Kennedy brothers, Ronald and Donald, who in turn quote General Lee, this is the legacy of Lincoln: a country "aggressive abroad and despotic at home," now conjoined with the evangelical zeal of the neocons.
There are few print magazines left that boldly and intelligently oppose the dominant neoconservative vision of America and the world with its increasingly explicit rejection of a Kirkian Old Right conservatism that once-welcomed defenders of Southern heritage and tradition. The most significant is Chronicles magazine.
In the April/May issue, the magazine took pains to answer some questions of newer readers regarding the differences between traditional conservatism and the newer ersatz neocon version, which although at times appearing to defend what Kirk once called “the verities,” is in reality exactly how Goldman described it: a warmed over, right wing re-incarnation of Trotskyite globalism, anti-Communist—yes, but inimical to the older traditions and inherited beliefs of both Southerners and other Americans, concerning not just the nature of these United States, but about the very founding and creation of it.
The editors at Chronicles, in response to several letters inquiring about these differences, which, I would suggest, are fundamental to our understanding of our history as well as our current politics, have offered a somewhat detailed answer. And that answer also admirably offers a critique of Lincoln and his disastrous legacy in both America and in the world.
With the permission of the Chronicles editors (Paul Gottfried and Ed Welsch), I offer their full explanation and response. I believe it is an excellent summation of what defines so-called “Con Inc.” is today, the stark cleavages that separate members of the Old Right and traditional Southern conservatives from the dominant neocon globalists, and the dastardly role of Father Abraham in unleashing successive devastation on America and eventually the world.
That same issue, April/May, includes a superb analysis by the Abbeville Institute’s Dr. Brion McClanahan of both the “1619 Project” and the “1776 Commission” counter-project (initiated unfortunately under Trump). Both emit from the same fetid swamp that assures us that America is founded on a “proposition”: the principle of universal equality. The editors end their response with a gloss from Bruce Frohnen, summing up the late Wilmoore Kendall and George Carey (in Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, 1971): “…any principle is a dangerous thing for any tradition to take as its common, collective goal. Traditions, societies, peoples, are not dedicated to principles. Ideologies are dedicated to principles. And ideologies are the motive force for armies and for campaigns to punish heretics and enforce a uniformity of life that spells death for human variety and living tradition."
The critical analysis of Lincoln and his inheritance is something all Southerners should read.
This piece was previously published on MyCorner on April 27, 2021.
Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.