The King Over the Water

On the folly of yoking a political movement to a lost cause.


Political parties and movements have often been captured by strong personalities and wild overpromises. One is reminded in this regard of the rise and dominance of the Jacobins of the French Revolution, led by the irrepressible Maximilien Robespierre and driven by promises of utopia and crusades against an ever-changing roster of ideological foes. To borrow a phrase from the counterrevolutionary thinker Jacques Mallet du Pan, the Revolution often ‘devoured its own children’ on its continuing quest to root out wrongthink and redress perceived injustices. The Jacobin Terror destroyed the progressive dreams of its supporters in a blood-fueled spasm of violence, turning the French Revolution in a decidedly more moderate direction that ended with the eventual restoration of the very monarchy it overthrew. Processes like these have recurred again and again throughout history, usually ending in a total rout for groups like the Jacobins; it is quite a bit rarer for the defeated party to hang around afterwards, still siphoning loyalty and attention from its backers.

We are seeing a version of this phenomenon playing itself out in real time in American right-wing politics. As the consequential 2022 midterm elections approach and chatter begins around the 2024 Presidential election (I’m sorry, but yes, it’s already here.), Republicans and conservatives are faced with a stark choice: return to the MAGA fold and embrace Donald Trump, or move forward with new blood and ideological competition. The answer they choose will determine whether the party capitalizes on an historic opportunity to dominate American politics and advance conservative ideas or fails and is forced deeper into the political and ideological wilderness during a crucial period for the nation. As noted, this is not a new occurrence in political history, although it is uncommon. Focusing on past grievances and trying to turn back the political clock generally isn’t a winning strategy, especially when it is paired with overpromises and personality cults. Still, these lost causes have drawn support time and time again. One of the prime historic examples of the power of such a combination to ruin political fortunes and movements comes from 17th and 18th century Britain: the failure of the Jacobites.[1]

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