Democrats are not the only ones struggling for the soul of their party. Conservatives are doing the same.

Let’s look at two conservative efforts, American greatness and the Benedict Option. They are very different, but each is hypercritical of conventional conservative politics.

The American greatness movement sees Trump as a valuable but loose cannon.  They hope that if they can just moor that cannon just long enough, but no longer.

According to the American Greatness “Declaration of Independence from the Conservative Movement”, the ideas of Goldwater and Reagan can’t act as conservatism’s foundation any longer.

The other transformative conservative thread, the Benedict Option, which mainly addresses social conservatives, pretty much gives up on conventional politics entirely.

That option is “Benedict” because it is based on the ways that a community of Italian Benedictine monks combines their contemplative prayer life with community engagement. (Rod Dreher The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Penguin, 2016)

This option supports “internal exile”—religious conservatives withdrawing from conventional politics to form their own communities— to “islands of sanctity and stability” within the broader community.

The American greatness movement is both more visible and politically feasible. It is also more dangerous.

The founders of the greatness movement were a small minority of conservative writers and intellectuals who unlike most such conservatives supported Trump.

Founders of the American greatness movement supported Trump, attracted by his anti-establishment conservatism.

Gage Skidmore

The fact that what they call “Conservative, Inc.” did not support Trump indicated to them just how clueless and out of date these right wing movers and shakers had become.

To American greatness, Trump has tapped into a set of ideas that should be the basis of a new, more anti-establishment conservatism based on the anti-immigration, American-first sentiments that he mobilized.

The movement shares Trump’s sentiment that free trade needs to be limited if it hurts America’s interest.  They share his notion that foreign policy needs to be more American-centric.

But it’s the shared sentiment on immigration that is most important because it is the best indication of the essence of American greatness, which wants to limit immigration in order to protect the “American character” and our country’s “political religion.”

This is not the way Donald Trump talks about it.  Nothing about rapists, crime waves, walls, or terrorists.

But style aside, American greatness shares similar assumptions about threats to an American way of life: too much diversity, too many threats a shared American culture.  The country needs to solidify from within.

White nationalism?  Yes.  I’ll get back to that.

As for advocates of the Benedict Option, here’s how Rod Dreher, the author of the book by that name, describes the 2016 election:

“Though Donald Trump won the presidency in part with the strong support of Catholics and Evangelicals, the idea that someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional.”

“No matter how furious and all-consuming partisan political battles are,” he argues, “Christians have to keep clearly before us the fact that conventional American politics cannot fix what is wrong.”

Instead social conservatives need to recognize that Christianity has become a counter-culture, which like other counter-cultures from Hippies to Czech dissidents during the time of Vaclav Havel, to Mormons and ultraorthodox Jews, can only thrive if it focuses on building its own communities.

These would be “island [s] of sanctity and stability amid the high tide of liquid modernity.”

How to build such islands? Social conservatives need to focus on strengthening their own institutions like the church and the family.  People living this life must take their children out of the public schools and create more religious schools as an alternative.

More piety, more prayer, more family; less social media, television, and secularism.

Internal exile does not mean isolation. Benedict Option community members participate in many broader community activities.

But instead of trying to pass laws that vindicate social conservative beliefs, they must model their own beliefs and hope others will be convinced by that.

At the same time, these religious community members have to be willing to tolerate the social, economic, and even legal costs of living this way. You are deviant.  There are things most people choose to do or are required to do that you will not do.

The American greatness movement has made headway, thanks to Trump’s victory and the reservoir of white nationalism and white resentment that the 2016 election brought forward.  And thanks to the fact that many of them, Victor Davis Hanson comes to mind, are very articulate.

And that’s the danger of American greatness, particularly in light of what happened in Charlottesville last week.

Greatness responses focused on defending Trump’s response as well as defending Steve Bannon.

To be clear, American greatness is not racist or Fascist.  It did not support the “Unite the Right” march in that city.

Still, whether the movement likes it or not, American greatness is an intellectual gloss that can legitimate this kind of resentment that has historically stained American politics.

The Benedict Option has very different problems.

It is simply hard to imagine it happening, partly for religious reasons.  The evangelical and Catholic support for Trump shows how easy it was for piety, restraint, and religiosity to take a back seat to other more worldly matters. Most social conservatives, including the many pro-Trump clergy, still believe in change through politics.

But the most formidable obstacles for a Benedict Option aren’t religious.  They are generic, the same ones that any such communities from Hasidic Jews to communes have historically faced.

One is maintaining internal solidarity and discipline. The second is the struggle to accommodate just enough but not too much to the outside world.

But so what? It’s refreshing to consider religious ideas that transcend our awful everyday politics and consider something utopian even if it’s not the utopia I would choose.

For me, a Jewish liberal?  I like the fact that for Mitch McConnell these Christian conservative ideas might as well be written in Klingon.

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