The Conservative Movement is a Failure

(The audio version of this essay can be found here.)

Millions of conservatives throughout America are feeling disappointed, dismayed, and even demoralized in the wake of President Trump’s loss in the 2020 election. I say “loss,” of course, but we all know the truth: it was a coup, from beginning to end. Everyone wants to know what we can do now. Many on the right are already trying to figure out how to get our guy back in the White House in 2024, whether it is Donald Trump himself, or someone else. If we can elect a true conservative, they say, then we still have a chance to save our country. However, I suggest that the lesson we must learned from the presidency of Donald Trump is that our nation has already fallen too far for one man to fix. Furthermore, the so-called conservative movement shoulders much of the blame for the decline and fall of our nation.

Many on the right have long complained that the Republican Party does not know how to win. In October 2016, when Republican leaders began turning on Donald Trump after the Access Hollywood tapes were leaked, Trump tweeted, “Disloyal R’s are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary. They come at you from all sides. They don’t know how to win – I will teach them!” And teach them he did, winning a victory nobody thought possible. Even then, however, the Republican Party wasted another chance to fix our country.

While the Democrats use electoral victories to increase their own power, Republicans seem to have no idea what to do once they are in office. Sure, they speak boldly while they are in the minority – calling for term limits, repealing Obamacare, and challenging the progressive assumptions that guide our government. Yet the moment they are in power, they find themselves unable to put their money where their mouths are. A charitable explanation might be that as a small-government party, the GOP is naturally averse to anything that increases the power of government. But government power has grown inexorably no matter which party holds the reigns. The GOP seems to have little problem with government power for its own sake, they are just afraid to use it. For example, Senator John McCain campaigned for years on repealing Obamacare, but once the GOP controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress in 2017, he joined with his Democrat friends to kill that very repeal. Why?

I contend that half a century in the political wilderness killed the fighting spirit of the Republican Party. Before the Great Depression, the GOP was stalwart and confident. Afterward, they became so focused on militarism and the Cold War that they allowed the left to run roughshod through our culture. By the 1990s, Republicans had fully adopted the globalist agenda, and after 9/11 they replaced Cold War militarism with the Great War on Terror.

Even worse, they adopted the very premise of the left: that history is naturally progressive. Consider the language used by progressive leftists. They often accuse us of being on “the wrong side of history,” they warn that our policies will “turn back the clock,” and that we impede social progress. This language reveals their worldview. They believe that history naturally trends toward their preferred positions and that we must simply keep up with the times. For decades, the GOP has allowed the Democrats to set the terms of every discussion and set the limits of every debate. The Republican Party of today is unable to articulate any reason for its own existence, preferring to slow the spread of progressivism rather than return us to a point in history before leftist gains. It is as if they see so-called progress as inevitable, so they do their best to manage it rather than to oppose it outright.

Such so-called progress has led to enormous social changes in a very short period of time. Consider how quickly we lost the debate over gay marriage. In the late 1990s, even the most outspoken homosexual activists were claiming that they did not want to force their view of marriage on the country, they merely wanted the same economic and social benefits that our laws accorded to married couples. In 2008, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton claimed that they wanted marriage to remain defined as being between a man and a woman. Yet just seven years later, the Supreme Court imposed gay marriage on the entire country, and President Obama celebrated by lighting up the White House in the colors of the gay pride flag. Once the battle over gay marriage had been won, the left immediately moved to the next battle, and are now working hard to normalize transgenderism.

Rather than trying to return society to a place of sanity, conservatives instead simply defend the progressive gains of the previous generation. The same conservatives who once protested gay marriage now defend it. Charlie Kirk’s TP USA celebrated when the Trump Administration convinced the government of Botswana to decriminalize homosexuality. Some conservative organizations have proudly promoted a Trump-supporting drag queen, as if that is a sign of victory over the degenerate left. Herein lies the fatal flaw of conservatism: they can only defend the status quo. They have little will or ability to advocate for a return to a better time, because they agree with the left that the past was racist, sexist, exclusionary, and bigoted. By adopting the premises of the left, conservatism failed before it ever began.

In 1955, William F. Buckley founded the conservative newsmagazine National Review with the intention to “stand athwart history, yelling stop.” One can argue that the modern conservative movement began at this moment. The Cold War was in full swing and the world, as well as our country, was being divided between free market capitalists on one side and Marxist-Leninist Communism on the other. Buckley defined conservatism as opposition to Communism, belief in small government, and resistance to world government.

However, neither National Review nor the conservative movement in general have done a particularly good job of standing athwart history and yelling stop. Instead, they stand athwart history and speak of compromise, slowing down, and not changing society too fast. They try to manage our leftward slide, rather than stop it, much less reverse it.

By the 1960s, few Republicans were willing to criticize the New Deal, nor suggest that we should roll back its programs. By the 1980s, even Ronald Reagan was unwilling or unable to reverse the Great Society programs of the 1960s. One could argue that he was constrained by a Democratic Congress, but that only supports my point that the Republican Party had forgotten how to win. Conservatives tend to speak boldly while in the minority – they even suggested erasing several cabinet positions during the 1980s – but once in power they are unwilling to rock the boat. The GOP has had control of both houses of Congress as well as the Presidency only four times since the Great Depression: They had a very slim majority during President Eisenhower’s first term, but they frittered away their political capital on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for Communist agents in the government. (While McCarthy has, in my opinion, been proven largely right about Communist infiltration, the way he went about his investigation alienated his fellow Senators as well as many Americans.)

The GOP would not control both houses of Congress again until 1994 during the Clinton administration, when they won a surprise victory on the back of Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America. They briefly lost the Senate in 2000, despite winning the presidency, when Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched his party affiliation. However, President Bush was able to count on GOP control of Congress from 2003 to 2007. During this time, he just passed one piece of major legislation, a tax cut, but was unable to make any progress on other campaign promises such as Social Security reform or school choice, as the Great War on Terror took up all of the GOP’s political capital. Besides, the federal bureaucracy had grown far too large and resistant to reform, and the American people had come to count on entitlements such as Social Security. The Republican Party was completely unwilling to touch anything related to the Great Society, much less the New Deal. These things that had once been correctly seen as examples of tremendous government overreach were now taken for granted as part of the fabric of American life.

Finally, the Republican Party controlled the House, the Senate, and the presidency one last time in 2017. President Trump had a Republican majority in Congress, but he faced a party leadership that was unwilling to work for his agenda. By now, the GOP had evolved into the right-hand side of the globalist uniparty, and so they fought his attempts to secure the southern border, limit refugees and immigration, fight a trade war with China, and withdraw our troops from Afghanistan and Syria. The Republican Congress could not even agree to repeal Obamacare, an issue upon which many of them had campaigned. Instead, they passed another tax cut, and promptly lost the House in 2018, and then the Senate in 2020.

The Democrats now control both houses of Congress and the presidency, and I predict that they will not be so hesitant to use their power. Everything on their agenda for the next two years is designed to consolidate their control of our society. HR1, currently being debated in Congress, would bring control of our elections under the federal government, preventing states from instituting voter ID or other systems to prevent fraud. Many in the Democratic Party advocate for packing the Supreme Court and the District Courts, greatly expanding their power over the interpretation of our laws. They also plan to extend statehood to Washington DC and Puerto Rico, which would give the Democrats four more Senators, ensuring their permanent majority.

The Democrats are used to winning and consider themselves to be the rightful lords of our nation – they see power as their birthright. If they happen to lose an election, Democrats and their friends in the media operate on the assumption that the Republicans must have cheated. To them, “democracy” means “Democrats winning”. Recall that leftists in Wisconsin attempted to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker in 2012, only to see the governor actually increase his vote count from two years before. Rather than accepting the fact that they had been outvoted, leftist activists cried foul. One young man told a reporter that, “democracy died tonight!”

Much hay was made in the media over some Republican Congressmen and Senators objecting to the electoral vote count this year, but the Democrats had objected to every Republican presidential victory since the year 2000 with barely a peep from our media. The last Republican president that the left accepted as legitimate was George H.W. Bush, who was elected in 1988.

Why do elected officials on both sides of the aisle seem to think that the natural order of things is for the Democrats to be in the majority while the GOP remains principled losers? Why have conservatives implicitly adopted the premise of the left that history is naturally progressive?

Many of us on the right who study history consider Woodrow Wilson to be one of our worst presidents. I suggest that many problems America faces today were built upon the foundation of Wilson’s administration. The income tax, direct election of Senators, and the Federal Reserve all came about during his first term. He involved us in a European war, not because our own interests were at stake but because he saw it as an opportunity to shape a new world order. Wilson was the first American president to leave our country during his administration when he went to France to take part in negotiation for the Treaty of Versailles. He proclaimed that his goal was to “make the world safe for democracy.” He issued a statement containing the fourteen points upon which he intended to build his new world order, including the creation of a League of Nations that would have the ability to maintain peace in the world.

The Republican Congress back home saw things differently, however. Led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the GOP prevented ratification of the treaty and refused to allow the United States to enter the League of Nations. For all of Wilson’s high-minded talk, the Congress still saw themselves as American patriots, not citizens of the world. Their job was to protect and nurture the American people, not use their position to try to maintain peace in a world gone mad. Subordinating American sovereignty to any international body, no matter how well-intentioned, was unthinkable.

On the domestic side, Wilson indulged in every depraved characteristic that we have come to identify with authoritarian progressives. Using the war as an excuse, he censored the mail, imprisoned dissidents and journalists, and compelled private industry to shift production to military material. However, the Republican Party would not allow this tyranny to continue indefinitely. In the 1920 presidential campaign, Ohio Senator Warren Harding won a landslide victory after campaigning on a “return to normalcy”. This marked the first of three consecutive Republican victories, a record that has only been equaled once since. Under the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations, America returned to normalcy. The overreaches of the Wilson administration were erased, political prisoners were released, and the government stopped meddling in the economy. We even passed the 1924 Immigration Act, severely curtailing the number of foreigners allowed to enter to the United States. This pause allowed the previous three generations of immigrants to fully assimilate into a strong American culture that would persist for decades afterward.

The United States was able to survive the upheavals brought about by Wilson’s entry into World War I and his domestic tyranny because the Republican Party still had enough courage and political will to fight back. However, the seeds had been planted for many of the problems our nation faced over the next century. The 16th and 17th amendments and the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913 had given the government tremendous power that could easily be abused during the next economic or political crisis. The 1930s provided both.

High school history textbooks like to contrast Herbert Hoover’s response to the onset of the Great Depression with Franklin Roosevelt’s by saying that Hoover adopted a so-called laissez-faire attitude of leaving the economy alone to fix itself while FDR used the power of government to fix the problem and save the American people. Reality was not so black and white.

Herbert Hoover was an engineer by trade. He had risen to prominence as a businessman during the Great War when he led a commission to provide food for millions of civilians left destitute by the ravages of war. He served as Wilson’s so-called Food Czar, then Secretary of Commerce under Harding and Coolidge. His background was not laissez-faire, rather he was one who thought that every problem had a solution. Contrary to what textbooks now say, FDR actually criticized Hoover in the 1932 presidential campaign for interfering too much in the economy.

The die was cast, however, and FDR won the White House in a landslide. The new president was determined not to let a crisis go to waste. Roosevelt’s New Deal completely redefined the role of the American government. The central planning that Woodrow Wilson got away with during World War I become the norm. The federal government went from being distant and rarely important to our daily lives to an ever-present help in our time of trouble. New technology assisted this transformation, as radio allowed President Roosevelt to speak directly to the American people. Despite the Depression continuing into 1936, he was able to convince the American people that he remained the only man who could possibly fix the problem and so won a second term with an even greater landslide.

The role of government was redefined from simply protecting our natural rights to taking care of our every need. FDR himself explained this new role when he spoke of the so-called “four freedoms” in 1941. The first two, freedom of speech and freedom of worship, were already guaranteed by the 1st amendment, but the other two, freedom from want and freedom from fear, required a government that had nearly unlimited power and authority to achieve. As many conservative commentators have pointed out through the years, a government large enough to give you whatever you need is large enough to take everything away.

The second great crisis of FDR’s administration was, of course, World War II. The American people strongly favored isolationism, and Congress passed a Neutrality Act in 1937 as war loomed ever closer on the European horizon. After Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, President Roosevelt convinced Congress to amend the Act for what he called “Cash and Carry,” which allowed the US to sell military equipment to the Allies. By 1941, with France on the brink of defeat, Roosevelt and his Democratic Party wanted to amend the Act even further, proposing something called “Lend-Lease” which would allow the US to “lend” military equipment, even warships, to Britain without payment. Republicans in Congress strongly opposed this measure, warning that it would inevitably drag the nation into the war, but after ten years of the New Deal the GOP was very much a minority party. Lend-Lease passed along party lines, and the US was drawn further toward an apocalyptic war.

Unfortunately for the American people, we never experienced a return to normalcy after the massive reorganization of our society due to the New Deal and World War II. The GOP took control of Congress in 1946, but their majority was short-lived. They won the White House in 1952 behind General Dwight Eisenhower, but by then the redefinition of government was etched in stone. At home, the government was now a benevolent caretaker for the American people, and in foreign affairs, the United States was the guardian of the new world order born out of World War II.

From 1932 through 1948, the Democratic Party won the White House five consecutive times. Even during President Eisenhower’s eight years in office during the 1950s he often had to contend with Democratic control of the House, the Senate, or both. I suggest that these long decades of being in the minority left a lasting mark on the psyche of the Republican Party. In 1937, for example, the Democratic majority in the Senate was an astounding 75 to 17. By the 1950s, few Republicans, if any, remained from the caucus that was willing to stand up to Woodrow Wilson’s globalist ideas. Few Republicans during the Eisenhower administration were willing to criticize the New Deal or suggest that it should be dismantled, nor were they were willing to stop the militarization of America and the new focus on maintaining the postwar world order. Ike himself warned of the growing power of the military/industrial complex in his farewell address in 1961, but both his would-be successors had campaigned on expanding the use of American blood and treasure to save the world from Communism. This position inexorably drew Presidents Kennedy and Johnson into the quagmire that was Vietnam.

The Vietnam War is where our current ideological battle lines were drawn, and the decisions we made then continue to echo more than half a century later. Whereas World War II remains the “good war” in popular culture, Vietnam is seen as unnecessary at best, and even by some as outright villainy by the United States. The Baby Boomers had grown up in the relative peace of the late 1940s and 1950s, hearing tales told of the great things their fathers had done fighting in France, Italy, and the Pacific, as well as the high ideals for which they fought. Many enlisted in the military out of sense of patriotism, of honor, and of loyalty, both to their heritage and to their country. What they found in Indochina was not the heroism of their fathers, and if they were lucky enough to come home, they were not given the heroes’ welcome of their fathers either. The reaction to the Vietnam War throughout the 1960s and 70s created the modern divide between conservatives and progressives.

During the Cold War, both political parties believed it necessary for the United States to intervene in nations such as Korea and Vietnam in order to stop Communism from spreading throughout the world. President Eisenhower did not want to get involved in another war, so he sent millions of dollars of foreign aid to the South Vietnamese government instead. Despite privately believing that involvement in Vietnam was bad news, President Kennedy continued sending aid, along with sixteen thousand American military advisors, hoping to bolster the South Vietnamese military and political leadership. After all, the Soviet Union and Communist China were sending money, arms, and advisors to the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong guerillas, so what other choice did we have? The idea of simply leaving Vietnam to fall to Communism was considered unthinkable. The domino theory, which was the prevailing view of politicians and pundits on both sides, predicted that if South Vietnam fell to Communism, then they would continue into Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, and eventually to Burma, Pakistan, and perhaps even India. Eventually, they warned, the forces of Communist revolution would be landing on our own shores. “We must fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them over here,” they said. Does that sound familiar?

Battle lines were being drawn throughout our society. As American casualties mounted in the mid-1960s, an anti-war movement developed. However, that movement became strongly identified with other social movements of the time, encompassing ideas such as free love, drug use, and socialism. Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968 by promising to win victory with honor. To accomplish that, Nixon actually expanded the war, bombing targets in Cambodia and Hanoi even as he withdrew US ground troops. Thus, the conflict started by Democrats JFK and LBJ became associated with the Republican Nixon, and the antiwar movement became associated with the far left.

There was division within the antiwar movement. Some were truly pacifist, believing that war was wrong no matter what. Some loved America but believed that involvement in Vietnam was against our interests. However, many in the movement were outright anti-American, believing that our country was evil to the core, racist, sexist, imperialist, and capitalist. These were the protestors who did not just want the US to withdraw her troops, but actively supported North Vietnam and hoped for a Communist victory not only in East Asia, but in the United States itself. The most outspoken of the antiwar protestors often took this position, and terrorism by groups such as the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers made sure to keep these extremists on the front page of the newspaper. Many celebrities seemed to identify with the far left; recall Jane Fonda traveling to Hanoi and posing with North Vietnamese soldiers.

While most musicians supported the antiwar movement and wrote songs protesting the war, a few took the opposite position. In 1969, country singer Merle Haggard recorded two of his most famous hits. In “Okie From Muskogee” he contrasted the humble and hardworking people of America’s heartlands with the crazy hippies in San Francisco who did drugs and burned their draft cards. In “The Fightin’ Side of Me” he complained about protestors who criticized the Vietnam War, lumping them in with the extremists who sought to overthrow the US government and impose Communism in America. The political situation of the late 60s and early 70s demanded that you choose between those two sides. If you loved America, you had to support the troops, which meant you had to support the Vietnam War.

As the 1972 election approached, the divide in our country became even more stark. South Dakota Senator George McGovern ran for president on an explicitly antiwar platform, promising to immediately withdraw the troops if he was elected. It is interesting to look back on this era through the lens of popular culture, because so many of the people who create our culture were on the antiwar side back then. Movies, music, and popular history tend to emphasize the antiwar protests, and the unpopularity of Richard Nixon personally. 1972 was the first presidential election in which 18, 19, and 20-year-olds could vote, after the passage of the 26th amendment a year prior. Clearly this age group, who were at risk of being drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam, would oppose the president who was prosecuting the war, right?

Yet that is not what happened. President Richard Nixon had earlier appealed to what he called the “silent majority” of Americans who were still conservative and traditional, who did not support the drug use, free love, socialism, and everything else associated with the hippies and the antiwar movement.  In 1972, that silent majority made their voices heard as Nixon won a 49-state landslide, one of the largest electoral victories in American history. Just a few days after his second inauguration, Nixon announced the Paris Peace Accords, and the end of the Vietnam War. Soon his own fortunes would be tied up with the fallout from the Watergate break-in, and Vietnam would quickly fade into the past.

Yet the scars from that era persisted for a long time in American politics. The 1992 presidential election was a contrast between the incumbent President George H.W. Bush, who was a World War II hero, and Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who had avoided fighting in Vietnam by getting draft deferments in his youth. Republicans naturally made an issue out of this since they had long ago associated support for the Vietnam War with support for America in general. Yet Clinton won the election. The same thing happened in 1996, when the draft-dodging Clinton ran for reelection against Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, another bona fide war hero. Clinton won in a landslide.

Whether or not someone fought in Vietnam remained a campaign issue in the next three elections as well. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore claimed to be a better veteran than Governor George W. Bush of Texas, but both had fairly flimsy war records. Both Gore and Bush were scions of powerful political families, and both their fathers used their connections to keep their sons safe. Gore had indeed been to Vietnam, but as a journalist, and was somewhat safe from the harshest combat. Bush never went to Vietnam, completing his tour with the Texas Air National Guard. At least he served, however, which is more than could be said for Bill Clinton. Nevertheless, Governor Bush won a very close and contested election.

In 2004, the Democrats nominated Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. In contrast with the incumbent President Bush who spent the war stateside in the National Guard, Kerry had been decorated for his tour on a swift boat with the Navy. When he returned home, however, he joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and accused his comrades of horrific war crimes. The Democrats tried to play both sides during the campaign, presenting Kerry to the far left as a principled antiwar protestor, while presenting him to moderates as a faithful soldier who did his duty. Some other swift boat veterans who served alongside Kerry in Vietnam collaborated on a book claiming to expose his shameless hypocrisy, accusing him of inflating his service record, even while he was in Vietnam, for future political gain. In any case, Kerry lost a close election and President Bush won a second term.

2008 saw the last time Vietnam arose as a presidential campaign issue, thirty-five years after the last combat troops withdrew. The Republicans nominated Senator John McCain of Arizona, who had not only served in Vietnam but had famously been shot down and captured, enduring torture as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. The Democrats, on the other hand, nominated Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who was only a child during the Vietnam War and had absolutely no military service. Obama won, if not a landslide, at least a comfortable victory.

Considering the extent to which support for our troops has become equated with support for America on the conservative right, it is striking that in all five elections from 1992 to 2008, the “least veteran” candidate won all five times.

The Vietnam War faded from public discourse by the second decade of the 21st century. The 2012, 2016, and 2020 elections each featured candidates who had no military service. Today, the youngest Vietnam veterans are at retirement age, and for most voters, Vietnam is ancient history. But the dividing lines in our culture remain the same. After the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, President Bush declared that American military policy would be to preemptively strike any nation that could possibly threaten the United States or her interests abroad. He sent the military to Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, the Islamic extremists who had harbored Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Two years later, he ordered the invasion of Iraq, which had allegedly been developing weapons of mass destruction. Iraq, along with Iran and North Korea, formed what President Bush called an Axis of Evil.

Once again, our leaders told us that we must fight our enemy “over there” to prevent them from coming to fight us over here. Conservative Republicans by this point had firmly fused the ideas of patriotism and love of country with unconditional support for military adventurism. Support for the war became the biggest characteristic of the conservative movement. Three decades of pop culture taught us how badly our troops had been treated during and after Vietnam, so conservatives made sure to loudly and publicly express support for our troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. I recall patriotic conservatives decorating freeway bridges with yellow ribbons in support of our troops. Support for the troops became synonymous with support for the wars, and so criticism of the wars was considered by many on the right to be unpatriotic at best, and treasonous at worst. In retrospect, this proved to be a major distraction from the conservative charge to stand athwart history and yell stop.

I believe that something changed with the conservative movement in the decades after William Buckley founded National Review in 1955. A cadre of men and women who were once leftist, and even socialist, immigrated to this country and made common cause with American conservatives to take down international Communism. For many of these new conservatives (or neo-conservatives, if you want to be fancy) the social issues that motivated conservative Christians were not so important as defending the free market and free trade. They recognized that issues such as abortion and gun rights were important to their would-be allies, and so publicly adopted those positions, but I do not believe their hearts were ever in those battles. They wanted to harness American conservatism to defeat Communism, and in this they were extraordinarily successful.

The Reagan era, beloved by Republicans for the past thirty years, was all about defeating Communism. Unlike his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, President Reagan drew a hard line against Marxism-Leninism, calling the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire”. Reagan increased military spending, forcing the Soviet Union to bankrupt themselves to keep up. At the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Reagan implored the Soviet Premier Mikael Gorbachev to come there and personally tear down the Berlin Wall.

On the economic front, the energy of the neoconservative leadership was directed toward tax cuts and deregulation. President Reagan’s economic team of Paul Volcker, Art Laffer, and Alan Greenspan unleashed the stagnant economy they inherited from President Carter and created the greatest period of American prosperity since the 1950s. Despite a couple of short recessions, momentum from the Reagan economy propelled America into the 21st century.

Despite success in foreign policy and economics, however, little progress was made on social issues. For all his greatness, President Reagan did nothing to roll back the New Deal or the Great Society. In fact, like the rest of the GOP he simply tried to slow the progressive takeover of our country. As governor of California, he signed one of the first no-fault divorce laws in American history. As president, he signed an amnesty act in 1986 that allowed millions of illegal aliens to remain in the country. The Democratic Congress had promised to work on immigration enforcement in exchange for the amnesty, but we all know how that game is played.

George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, despite representing opposite parties, both worked to transition the United States out of the Cold War and into an explicitly globalist future. Both supported the North American Free Trade Agreement, both supported increasing foreign aid, both wanted more openness with China, and both used the American military in foreign adventures – Bush in Iraq, and Clinton in the former Yugoslavia. The differences between the two on social issues, as well as between George W. Bush and Barack Obama, were merely window dressing in the end. Bill Clinton supported legalized abortion, while George W. Bush opposed it, yet abortion remained legal throughout their combined terms. Bill Clinton banned semi-automatic rifles, and while Bush allowed the ban to lapse, he did not reclaim any ground in the gun rights sphere.

In truth, the leaders of both parties had adopted the globalist perspective. Ever since the early 2000s, our presidential elections have presented a false binary choice. Parents and teachers know that a good trick for ensuring compliance by children is to present them with a false choice. For example, instead of telling your child to brush their teeth before bed, offer them a choice – do you want to brush your teeth now or after your book? If you want them to play quietly, ask if they want to play with the cars or the trains. By giving them the appearance of a choice, you get them to buy into what you want them to do in a way that simply commanding them will not. Our leaders treat us like small children. Every four years they give us the choice of a red globalist or a blue globalist. We argue over the margins, while the endless wars, free trade, and open borders continue to sap America’s soul.

There were few politicians willing to call for a return to nationalism and cultural conservatism. Former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan was one of them, and he gained a loyal following in the early 1990s. After challenging President George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Republican presidential primary, Buchanan spoke at the Republican National Convention in Houston, Texas. In a speech that became famous, or infamous depending on who you ask, Buchanan exposed the social changes that were being engineered by the Democratic Party. Buchanan boldly warned that the left-wing agenda would bring about radical feminism, normalization of homosexuality, pornography, and abortion, indoctrination in public schools, pushing women into combat roles in the military, and environmental extremism that would “put birds and rats and insects ahead of families, workers, and jobs.” Buchanan said, “there is a religious war going on in this country. It is a culture war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.”

Over the years the left has lambasted Buchanan for this speech, calling him sexist, racist, and homophobic. Many on the right, especially the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party, find themselves embarrassed by this sort of rhetoric. They would much rather ignore social issues entirely and focus on military adventures and the economy. It is obvious, however, that Buchanan’s warnings have all come true. Everything he told us would happen has happened. One can certainly blame eight years of Bill Clinton in the White House for the moral and spiritual decline that followed, but the truth is that our culture was already on the downslope by the 1990s. America was no longer Christian in any real sense, though organizations like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition still had some political power back then.

In the early 2000s, the neoconservative establishment began trying to wean American conservatives away from social issues. They had successfully replaced the fight against Communism with a new fight against Islamic terrorism as the primary characteristic of conservatism and seemed embarrassed that many in the Republican Party still held to old fashioned beliefs about abortion, gay marriage, and other tenets of Christianity. Whereas the conservative movement once championed free markets as the moral alternative to godless Communism, capitalism had now become a god unto itself, with GDP the only measure of morality. Mitch Daniels, who preceded future Vice President Mike Pence as governor of Indiana, famously tried to move the GOP away from social issues and focus entirely on the economy. After all, “It’s the economy, stupid!” had been the slogan of Bill Clinton’s successful campaign in 1992.

The danger of focusing entirely on the economy and foreign affairs is that it becomes easy to take the American people for granted. Globalists, sipping champagne in their ivory towers, look down and see no difference between American citizens and everyone else in the world. We are all just interchangeable cogs in a vast economic machine to them. Once you abandon the moral framework of Christianity that this country was founded upon, how can you make a moral argument against outsourcing thousands of jobs from Detroit to China? Patrick Buchanan warned us not to forget the American people. Referring to Americans who were losing their jobs in the early 90s, he said, “These people are our people. They don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but they come from the same schoolyards and the same playgrounds and towns we come from. They share our beliefs and convictions, our hopes and our dreams. They are conservatives of the heart.”

The conservative movement, however, did not heed his warning. When Donald Trump offered a hand to the downtrodden white working class in 2016, the leaders of the conservative movement scoffed at him. These people had seen their jobs exported to foreign countries, their communities gutted by the opioid epidemic, and their young men scarred by endless wars halfway around the world. Rather than showing compassion for these destitute people, writers like Kevin Williamson of National Review derided them. In March of 2016, Williamson wrote, “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible.” Basing your moral worldview entirely upon GDP numbers is sociopathic, but that is exactly what our conservative leadership did over the course of thirty years.

In 2008, Senator John McCain of Arizona was running for president to succeed George W. Bush. McCain had built his political career on the image of a maverick, someone who was willing to break with the Republican Party if his principles demanded it. He was very pro-war, supporting intervention all around the world, yet as a survivor of torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese he opposed the harsh interrogation methods that had been approved by President Bush for use on Islamic terrorists. The mainstream media had promoted him for many years for these reasons, but in 2008 they savaged him as a far-right extremist in comparison to their golden boy Barack Obama. Now McCain was of course a globalist like Bush and Obama, but he still surely wanted to win. So, he decided to do something crazy, and picked a woman as his running mate. Former Vice President Walter Mondale had tried the same gimmick in 1984, when he knew he had no chance to defeat President Reagan. McCain’s campaign searched for a woman that would make the ticket look good without rocking the boat. Unfortunately for them, they picked Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska.

In the first Rocky movie, Apollo Creed’s trainer warns him that Rocky “…doesn’t know it’s a show. He thinks it’s a fight!” So it was with Governor Palin. She did not seem to understand that her place on the ticket was a gimmick. She did not seem to understand that the Republican leadership did not really believe in the social issues they sold to their voters. She thought she was really campaigning against a crypto-socialist in Barack Obama, so she attacked him. She boldly proclaimed her belief in the nuclear family, in the right to life for the unborn, and in an unabashed belief in the reality of Jesus Christ.

This was embarrassing the McCain campaign. Despite the fact that they were leading in the polls after Palin’s convention speech, campaign staffers sabotaged her, setting her up to look bad in interviews and leaking unflattering stories about her to the media. When McCain lost the election, the GOP establishment was quick to place all the blame on Palin, despite the fact that McCain was a terrible candidate himself. Steve Schmidt, McCain’s campaign manager, apparently absolutely despised Palin. It was no surprise when he reappeared as one of the leaders of the NeverTrump movement.

The campaign and presidency of Donald Trump exposed many of the neo-conservatives for the grifters they always were. For three decades they had led the conservative movement by paying lip service on social issues in exchange for our support for military adventures, free trade, and open borders. They grudgingly allowed Republican leaders like George W. Bush to make small efforts to restrict abortion in exchange for unleashing the military-industrial complex. Trump was the first president in many years who seemed to not only genuinely believe in the socially conservative positions he advocated during his campaign, but also to come out against the very things that the neo-conservatives valued the most.

Suddenly, all their lip service to social conservatism went out the window. They had demanded that we support politicians such as John McCain and Mitt Romney, even if we did not agree with them on much, because they would appoint conservative judges and promote small government, tax cuts, and cut regulations. When the tables were turned in 2016, and we demanded they support Trump despite their disagreements on militarism and free trade, because he too would appoint conservative judges, they took their ball and went home. Many conservative pundits and politicians openly denounced Trump, even after he officially became the Republican nominee. Some of them even went as far as to endorse his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Ironically, many of those pundits, chief among them Jonah Goldberg of National Review, had spent the last decade warning about the peril to our country of a Hillary Clinton presidency.

The NeverTrump wing surely believed that Trump himself had no chance of victory. They expected that we would all come crawling back to them on hands and knees after Hillary’s inevitable landslide, begging them to take us back into the conservative movement. That did not happen. Donald Trump shocked the world and won the White House in 2016. Some of the NeverTrumpers saw which way the wind was blowing and jumped on the Trump train – see Ben Shapiro, Matt Walsh, Charlie Kirk, and even Glenn Beck. Yet many more refused to support a man who promised to bring our troops home, enforce immigration laws, and put the American people first.

To the globalists, there is nothing special about the American people. The purpose of the United States, in their eyes, is to service the international order and to provide blood and treasure for their various schemes. Working-class Americans were just part of the international GDP machine. President Trump was having none of that. He proudly called himself a nationalist. He said, as you hear in every podcast intro, “We will no longer surrender ourselves or our people to the false song of globalism.” This was completely unacceptable to the neoconservative globalist establishment, so they did everything within their power – legal or not – to destroy him.

The same neoconservatives who once demanded we stop worrying about social issues and focus entirely on foreign affairs and the economy loudly proclaimed that their principles demanded they work to effect President Trump’s defeat. Men such as Jonah Goldberg, Bill Kristol, Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt, David French, Justin Amash, and George Will found wealthy donors to finance new publications and political organizations that were dedicated to taking down Trump at all costs. The Dispatch, the Bulwark, and the Lincoln Project joined existing GOP establishment media like National Review in attacking the president, and even in endorsing his Democratic opponents.

As I record this, the Lincoln Project is on the verge of collapse in the wake of sexual harassment and assault allegations against one of its founders, John Weaver. Weaver was a top advisor to John McCain and helped manage his presidential campaign in 2008. It had been long rumored that Weaver would sexually harass young men in politics, hoping to trade them jobs in exchange for sexual favors. Ryan Girdusky broke the story, and when mainstream media picked it up, the other members of the Lincoln Project disassociated themselves from Weaver. Despite his predilections being an open secret for nearly twenty years, his colleagues feigned ignorance. These are the sorts of people who once led the conservative movement. These are the sorts of people who failed to conserve anything. These are the sorts of people who would be embarrassed by Patrick Buchanan’s culture war speech, and demand that we focus on the economy. These are the sorts of people who lost our country.

In 1992, Patrick Buchanan called upon the Republican Party to fight back: “…we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.” Rather than fighting back, we continued to surrender ground, to fall back. Despite the election of President Trump in 2016, the truth is that we had already lost the culture war. Every major corporation is firmly in the leftist globalist camp. Most major newspapers and other news outlets are left-wing. Schools, colleges, and universities are all engaged in left-wing indoctrination. Entertainment is rabidly socialist. Even many of our churches are bending the knee to the new woke religion – the Southern Baptist Convention, once the bastion of Christian conservatism, has now gone all-in on identity politics and Critical Race Theory. How was one man supposed to fix this? Maybe a Pat Buchanan White House in 1992 or 96 could have stopped our decline, but we were undoubtedly too far gone by 2016. For all his strengths, for all his populist and nationalist instincts, not even President Trump was willing to fight the culture war. He supported gay marriage, was ambivalent on transgenderism, and while he made a big deal of saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” his Christianity seemed to be cultural rather than heartfelt. Trump did not share Pat Buchanan’s strong beliefs about the nature of American culture. In fact, in 1999 Trump strongly denounced Buchanan, saying:

“Look, he’s a Hitler lover. I guess he’s an anti-Semite. He doesn’t like the blacks. He doesn’t like the gays. It’s just incredible that anybody could embrace this guy.”

Donald Trump was basically 1990s Bill Clinton, albeit one who was pro-life. The absolute hysteria with which our globalist elites reacted to Trump’s administration shows how far our country has collapsed since the Clinton era. We are not the same people we were in the 1990s, much less the 1960s.

Speaking about the effect of the Vietnam War on American culture, historian James White said, “I think it demonstrated both some of the delusions of a postwar world that there was a sense that it was somehow our responsibility to deal with every problem everywhere, but also did represent a real strength and commitment on the part of a lot of Americans. We’re asked to serve our country, and we’ll do it.”

The generation of young men who volunteered to fight in Vietnam did so because they had inherited a love of country and trust in their government from their World War II veteran parents. Yet what of our society today? The war in Afghanistan is approaching its 20th anniversary later this year. Young men who signed up to fight after 9/11 completed their tours, came home, settled down, raised a family, and now watch their sons sign up to fight in the same place. Eight years of Vietnam was enough to break the psyche of America, but twenty years of endless war in the Middle East has become just a fact of life. Our military bases throughout the world are simply accepted as outposts of our Empire, as normal for our soldiers as basic training. A burgeoning antiwar movement during the Bush administration fizzled out once Obama came to power, and now both political parties and the mainstream media adamantly support the endless wars. Why is our Vietnam different than our grandfathers’?

For one thing, we no longer have a military draft. The armed forces have had no issues maintaining the troop levels necessary for their various missions, perhaps because of the high levels of benefits they offer to potential recruits. The draft was a hugely motivating force for the antiwar protests of the 1960s, as young people feared being forced to fight in the jungles of Indochina against their will. With no draft, there is less motivation to protest our current wars. Nobody is in Afghanistan against their will today – they all signed up, and they all presumably knew where they might be sent.

Second, our troop levels in Afghanistan and the other deployments of the Great War on Terror have never matched the numbers we sent to Vietnam. Half a million American fighting men were in Vietnam at the peak of the war, and we lost nearly sixty thousand of them over eight years. Twenty years in Afghanistan have resulted in a tiny fraction of that number – less than three thousand. As I record this, there has not been a combat death in Afghanistan in more than a year. While every death in these adventures is a needless tragedy, the relatively low number of casualties makes it easy to forget that these wars are still ongoing. World War II and Vietnam affected all Americans. Everyone had a son, a brother, a father, a neighbor, or a friend who served in those wars. Today, millions of Americans live their entire lives without any exposure to military families.

In the early 2000s, supporting the wars was synonymous with being conservative and patriotic. Division over the wars in the late 2010s was one of the major wedges between the old neoconservative leadership and the growing nationalist movement in the Republican Party. Representative Dan Crenshaw of Texas, who lost an eye in Afghanistan, has become one of the most outspoken supporters of the endless wars. Another supporter is Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House served to illustrate this growing division, as shown when Liz Cheney voted to impeach President Trump a second time, shortly before he left office on January 20th. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who ran for president in 2016, voted to convict Trump in his Senate trial, and also supports the endless wars. Do you see a pattern yet?

A civil war is brewing in the Republican Party. The same conservatives who conserved nothing are fighting to maintain control of the Republican Party and the conservative movement in America. The priorities of Christian conservatives are not the priorities of the neoconservatives. They want to define conservative principles to mean endless war, open borders, free trade, and low taxes. The writing is on the wall, however. More than seventy-five million Americans voted to re-elect Donald Trump not because he was an establishment conservative but because he was a populist nationalist who spoke for the forgotten men and women of America. These nationalists are not going away. Many of them recognize how useless the conservative movement has been. They hear pundits like Kevin Williamson telling them that they deserve to die, while populists like Donald Trump actually listen to them.

While our cultural dividing lines might have been drawn in the 1960s, today is a different time. The Baby Boomers grew up in the shadow of World War II and the subsequent American prosperity, but the following generations were not so lucky. Generation X grew up in the cynicism that followed Vietnam, Millennials grew up in the spiritually decadent 90s, and Generation Z is coming of age in the dumpster fire that American culture has become.

The anonymous blogger AntiDem recently wrote a great piece about how our society has changed since 1968. His premise is that America survived the turmoil of the 1960s because of a tremendous reserve of social capital that our country had stored away. However, that social capital has been depleted over the past half century. AntiDem defines “social capital” as “the bond that exists between people within a certain society; it is their sense of mutual trust, loyalty, obligation, and responsibility; it is what makes us say “We are one; we are all in this together”. These are the ties that bind a nation; that bind a people together. Once these bonds are severed – once the reserve of social capital reaches zero – then there is nothing that can hold things together but brute force. And this is where conflict begins.”

Americans of the 1960s still believed in themselves and believed in their country. They trusted their government, trusted the press, and trusted their neighbors. America remained bound by a common heritage, common beliefs, and common values. As Charles Murray explains in “Coming Apart,” the division between the upper and lower classes in America grew tremendously between 1960 and 2005. The two groups of people had once interacted, gone to the same churches, attended the same schools, belonged to the same fraternal organizations, and even served in the military together. Today, the lives of the rich and powerful bear no resemblance to the lives of the poor, or even of the middle class.

The divide between left and right has grown as well. Whereas most American politicians of the 1960s might have disagreed with each other on policy, they all believed in American exceptionalism and greatness. Today, the globalist left considers the United States to be a fundamentally racist and sexist country, whose supposed greatness was just white supremacist hagiography, which needs to be completely dismantled and rebuilt in a cultural Marxist image. Rank and file conservatives, on the other hand, believe that America remains the greatest nation in the world, and many are still convinced that it is not beyond saving.

The generation that fought in Vietnam grew up in a time of prosperity. They had heroes to look up to: presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy; industrialists and philanthropists like the Fords and Rockefellers; classy celebrities like Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, and athletes like Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays. Even when these heroes had less than heroic privates lives, as was the case with JFK, the press considered their job to be to sweep such unsavory things under the rug so as to keep the image of the president larger than life. Most people assumed that their president and congressional leaders were serious men who could be trusted to do what was best for the American people. Trust in the press was high as well; most Americans believed that Walter Cronkite and his colleagues were telling them the whole truth about what was going on in the world.

Contrast that with today. Every president is despised by at least half the country, and mercilessly criticized and mocked. Congress has even lower opinion ratings than the president, and trust in the press is at an all time low. Celebrity culture is a race to the bottom, as they seem to compete to see who can live the trashiest public lives. Americans are depressed, neurotic, and either perpetually angry, or simply tuned out. What changed?

Vietnam itself obviously disillusioned an entire generation. The young men who came back from those jungles had learned the hard way that war is not all honor and glory. Unlike their fathers who fought in World War II, they could not even tell themselves that they had fought for a great cause. When Saigon fell in 1975, it made all those years of fighting, all those lives lost and destroyed, seem for nothing. That is enough to turn anyone into a cynic.

Watergate was another stop on the road to disillusioned cynicism about our society. While President Nixon might not have done anything differently than his predecessors, the press decided he was guilty, and both parties moved in for the kill. The Watergate scandal did not just take down a president, it destroyed the integrity of the office in the eyes of millions of people. Rather than reflecting the best of America, our leaders seemed to reflect its worst.

In 1992, FBI agents raided the property of a man named Randy Weaver, who lived with his wife and children in rural Idaho. Depending on who you ask, Weaver was either a villainous white nationalist who was plotting violence against the government, or simply a man who wanted to be left alone. When Weaver did not show up for a court hearing on a weapons charge, agents besieged his property, and ended up killing Weaver’s wife Vicki and fourteen-year-old son Sammy. An FBI agent was also killed during the siege. For many Americans, the Ruby Ridge siege was a wakeup call that the government did not necessarily have their best interests at heart.

Less than one year later, FBI and ATF agents besieged a compound in Waco, Texas. The government suspected the Branch Davidian cult of stockpiling weapons and possibly holding people against their will. After several firefights, the siege ended on April 19 when government agents assaulted the compound. A fire started – some say it was due to the FBI tear gas canisters, while others say cult members set the fire deliberately. Either way, seventy-six people were killed, including twenty-five children.

While the 1990s were, on the surface, a time of relative prosperity and optimism, the American people were becoming more jaded and cynical than ever. What was the conservative answer to this cynicism? What did the conservative movement offer people who were losing their jobs, their families, and their faith in America? Tax cuts and broken promises.

The conservative movement fully accepted the premises of the left that America was progressing toward a more globalist utopian future. Rather than heeding the warnings of Patrick Buchanan, they instead accepted the premise that America was fundamentally racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic, and that it must not only change and progress, but forever apologize and atone for its past sins. In doing so, the conservative movement lost the ability to advocate for America itself. They cannot criticize anti-white racism; the most they can do is find a black person to speak out on behalf of white people. They cannot criticize the full-on assault on masculinity that our culture has engaged in. They have almost given up arguing social issues entirely, preferring to confine their discussions to “stopping socialism” in America, as if it was not already here. Conservatives could not even conserve the women’s restroom.

The conservative movement is a failure because it could never articulate a reason for its own existence. When the left is demanding we drive off the cliff at full speed, while the right meekly suggests that half speed might be more prudent, then of what purpose is the right wing? The left supports their extremists, while the right censures theirs. The left uses government to expand their own power, while the right uses it to constrict theirs. President Obama used his last day in office to pardon terrorists, while President Trump pardoned rappers who hate him. When Representative Maxine Waters of California urged her followers to harass Trump supporters in public, the media shrugged, and her party cheered her on. When Representative Steve King of Iowa urged us to preserve Western Civilization, the media attacked, and his party dutifully stripped him of his committee assignments and then supported a primary challenge against him.

The biggest example of the GOP’s failure to win was seen in the contrasting reactions to the Black Lives Matter and antifa protests of 2020 versus the MAGA protest at the Capitol on January 6th. All summer long, BLM and antifa rioters burned, looted, and even murdered their way through dozens of cities. They caused billions of dollars in property damage, and hundreds of small business owners lost their livelihoods. The response of the left? Celebration and promotion. Kamala Harris raised money to bail rioters out of jail. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that the point of protests was to make people “uncomfortable”. Leftist media fell over themselves trying to be the first to repeat Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that “riots are the language of the unheard.” Every corporation in America solemnly intoned that black lives matter, and they donated billions to far-left political organizations.

Republicans tried to thread the needle between denouncing the violence while not appearing to be racist in the eyes of the media. Many proclaimed their belief in the cause that the rioters were supposedly fighting for while also claiming that the violence was caused by a few outside agitators. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina sponsored a bill to reform the supposedly racist police. The truth that George Floyd died of a drug overdose, not from the actions of an allegedly racist policeman, was considered impolite, yet every Republican spoke his name.

Contrast that with the reaction to the Capitol protest last month. As I record this, the only death that we know of that was directly caused by the protest was that of Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran and Trump supporter who was murdered for no apparent reason by a member of law enforcement. Nevertheless, Democrats called this protest an “insurrection” promoted by “domestic terrorists” and instigated by President Trump himself. They impeached the president, announced a 9/11 style commission to investigate, and prepared a bill to crack down on supposed domestic terrorists – that is, Trump-supporting conservatives.

How did the Republican Party respond? By echoing every Democratic talking point. No Republican stood up for their own people who were caught up in the events of that day. No Republican politician spoke the name of Ashli Babbitt.

The Democratic Party supports the most extreme members of their own constituency, even when they tear down statues and burn down buildings. The GOP, on the other hand, is embarrassed by their base. In fact, I think many in the Republican leadership actively hate their own voters. They would rather lose than have to face constituents that they consider to be too uneducated, too religious, and too patriotic for their own sensibilities.

The Republican Party and the conservative movement have failed to save this country, and in many ways, they have abetted its decline. The lesson of Trump is that our country has declined too far for us to save it through political means. The burgeoning MAGA movement must avoid the mistakes of the past. It is not enough to simply conserve the previous generation’s progressive gains – the American right must become explicitly reactionary. We must be bold enough to say that we have to go back to a better time, that the progressive gains of the last twenty years, the last fifty years, even the last century, must be reversed if we are to have any hope of reclaiming our country. We must reject the premise that history moves in only one direction. Instead, we have to go back.

C.S. Lewis had some thoughts on this premise many years ago. “If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world it’s pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We’re on the wrong road. And if that is so we must go back.”

We have to go back, folks. America has been going the wrong way for a long time. We can return to an era where men were masculine, women were feminine, and children were innocent. We can return to a time when a man trusted his neighbor, and where our leaders and journalists told the truth. We can return to a time when the American people believed in American exceptionalism. The conservative movement has neither the intention nor the ability to take us to this promised land. We must reject the progressive view of history and recognize that our ancestors, for all their human faults, were good people who knew a thing or two about life. We must reject the temptations of modernity and return to time-tested tradition. The new society we create must be explicitly Christian, explicitly reactionary, and full of people who believe in its ideals, and who are willing and able to defend them.

In his inaugural address in 1961, President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Let us return to an era when we had a country worth preserving.

2 thoughts on “The Conservative Movement is a Failure

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