A recent piece in the New York Review of Books by Mark Lilla distinguishes between the conservative — liberal polarity and that between revolution and reaction; Lilla then contrasts the “restorative” reactionary impulse with the new American pereat mundus apocalyptic. Left and right remain useful tribal categories, but they are poor analytical tools. For conservatism, society is ontologically prior to the individual, but liberalism is plural and progressive. In practical mainstream politics, we are all liberals now, to the temperate right or left of some sane gradualist centre. The revolutionary and reactionary attitudes are about history not society. Restorative reactionaries want to turn back the clock. “Redemptive” reaction, recognising the impossibility of a return to the status quo ante, seeks a cleansing by fire to prepare the way for the phoenix. This is a bit like fascism, which was a new broom that wasted no time on nostalgia. What the two have in common is hatred of the corrupt, fallen present.
Lilla, watching the Republicans, sees this as new, and perhaps it is new in mainstream US politics, but the material has been available for a long time. Think of a film like “Terminator II”, where the mother of the saviour John Connor bides her time till the nuclear apocalypse husbanding her cache of semi-automatic weapons in the desert. Scorching the earth isn’t a coherent political programme until the earth has already been scorched, when it is a way of transforming the most feared possible outcome into an opportunity. Now, it serves to take the wind out of the sails of the ship of state by removing the idea of a desirable destination, a progressive direction – all is already lost. So it’s obfuscatory noise, and cannot by definition be policy. The Right’s policy is laissez-faire (or sometimes, regulation and protectionism), either in the sincere (progressive) belief that it is for the greater good, or as a second mask for honest cupidity.