Many years ago, I argued that one of the biggest problems facing conservatism is how baroque and complicated its “universe” had become. Its fans are expected to have immediate recall of obscure concepts and plot points, while tolerating obvious continuity errors in matters like when personal freedom is good and when it’s bad, when the government should be small and when it should be much more heavy-handed, etc. The result has been a dwindling audience as fewer and fewer people are willing to put in the work of becoming emotionally invested in such a complex fictional universe all for the sake of justifying their support for some pretty mediocre contemporary content.
In that post, I argued that it might be time for a Crisis of Infinite Earths of conservatism, which could wind down the unnecessary complexities while still maintaining some kind of continuity over time. I pictured a Newt Gingrich: Year One miniseries, and in many ways, we did get that over the past couple presidential cycles. The Gingrich we saw was streamlined: a representative of small-government conservatism, without the distracting plot points of the spurious Clinton impeachment and his disgraceful exit from the Speakership (to be succeeded by a literal serial child molester).
The so-called “reform conservatives” seemed to have in mind that kind of “back to basics” reboot — small-government libertarian-ish principles, shorn of the culture wars, racist dog-whistling, and conspiracy thinking that had increasingly tarnished the conservative brand. For a time, therefore, Rand Paul could seem like a way forward, as could a certain fantasy version of Paul Ryan who was really good at math.
But it appears that a different kind of continuity reboot has in fact occurred. The Trump/alt-right reboot has ditched the weird libertarian scholasticism, streamlined the racism so that you don’t have to learn a bunch of complicated dogwhistles to enjoy it, and doubled down on the conspiracy theorizing. In other words, it has kept all the stuff that kept people emotionally engaged with conservatism while ditching a lot of talking points that no one had ever really cared about. But weirdly, it didn’t wind up reaching new audiences — though it has done much better than Gary Johnson’s attempt at a more strictly libertarian reboot.
As with so many of these attempts to revive complex fictional universes, the problem is that the whole thing was still so in-universe. In the DC version, for instance, they felt the need to literally show the destruction of the alternate earths that helped them to account for the various iterations of each superhero, and the new Star Trek films literally had the original Spock appear to explain how this new timeline came about. This resulted in a rebooted universe that was paradoxically even more baroque and confusingly self-referential than the original.
Better, it seems, to do a clean break. One model might be the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which did not evince much anxiety about maintaining continuity with decades of comic books. One might also think of the Democrats’ successful reboot over the course of the 90s, where neoliberalism was repackaged as the only possible progressivism. Here as elsewhere, the conservative hatred of the Clintons is surely motivated by envy — they took the Republican idea of a reboot and did it better, as with so many other Republican ideas.