Conservative or right-leaning intellectuals and writers have a tendency to want to identify the original heretic—the person who first had the terrible idea that started everything going so very wrong. For Richard Weaver, the culprit was William of Ockham and his nominalism. For Eric Voegelin, the guilty man was Joachim of Flora. For George Will, it’s . . .Whittaker Chambers?

In a recent column reviewing a biography of William F. Buckley, Jr., the increasingly dyspeptic Will writes that “America needs a reminder of conservatism before vulgarians hijacked it, and a hint of how it became susceptible to hijacking.” After discussing Buckley and his life, Will addresses this hijacking of conservatism, offering the novel thesis that it is Chambers, the commie spy turned Time magazine editor turned government witness against Alger Hiss turned National Review editor, who was to blame.

Will writes that Buckley, “to his credit, befriended Whittaker Chambers, whose autobiography ‘Witness’ became a canonical text of conservatism.” So it did, and Will previously thought this to be a good thing. On the back of the fiftieth anniversary edition of Witness the volume is described as: “One of the dozen or so indispensable books of the century”—praise offered by none other than George Will.

But this praise (and more) was offered before the vulgarity of a Trump presidency and its continuing corruption of conservatism, for which Will is seeking a culprit. He claims to have traced the original sin back to Chambers’s book, declaring that Witness “injected conservatism with a sour, whiney, complaining, crybaby populism. It is the screechy and dominant tone of the loutish faux conservatism that today is erasing Buckley’s legacy of infectious cheerfulness and unapologetic embrace of high culture. Chambers wallowed in cloying sentimentality and curdled resentment.”

If Will has changed his mind about Chambers and now considers him to have been dangerously populist, that is his prerogative. But he offers only one quotation to illustrate his point, and it is cobbled together (six fragments patched together!) to the point of being disingenuous. It is an unconvincing piece of evidence, especially coming from a writer who in the same column insouciantly dismissed Buckley’s famous crack about preferring to be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard.

Furthermore, this dubious bit of evidence is beside the point. Whatever populist impulses may or may not be detected in Witness are insignificant in the scheme of the book’s seven hundred plus pages. Witness, written at a time when it seemed that all the world might become communist, is many things (including an often-gripping spy memoir), but it is at heart a wrenching spiritual autobiography, written by a man who believed that in leaving communism, he was leaving the likely winners to join the losing side.

For Chambers, the crisis of communism was not political or economic at root but spiritual. Communism declared that there is no God to save us now or comfort us in the hereafter, and so we must save ourselves. Witness presents the full allure of this vision, one which moved men to do terrible things, and presents in titanic terms the struggle of the soul to break from it. To take from this context a few lines praising the ordinary folks who believed his accusations against Alger Hiss and condemning the elites who didn’t and to present them as proof that the book introduced a poisonous populism into conservatism, is nearly as ridiculous as mangling a few quotes from Will and offering them as evidence that he hates baseball.

Furthermore, no less than Chambers (in fact, a good deal more), Buckley criticized the complacently ascendant liberalism of the midcentury American elite and wrestled with the question of how to make conservatism (and the GOP, as the more conservative party) appealing to the common man. One can easily find populist sentiments in Buckley, such as his defense of Joe McCarthy’s rabble-rousing anticommunism, which Buckley attributed to his need to appeal to the “non-university crowd.” Chambers, in contrast, by that point distrusted McCarthy and correctly thought he would discredit anticommunism. Such anticommunism often had a populist edge to it, but it was one Chambers was generally reserved about indulging.

He was also hesitant about identifying as a conservative, at times preferring to label himself a counter-revolutionary or a man of the Right. Nonetheless, he sought to think through the practical realities of a conservative politics and how it had to accommodate itself to an industrialized and democratic world. His writings, both public and private, show no evidence of vulgar, crybaby populism, unless Will considers salutary political realism to be such. In a letter to Buckley and Willi Schlamm, Chambers wrote that “history tells me that the rock-core of the Conservative Position, or any fragment of it, can be held realistically only if conservatism will accommodate itself to the needs and hopes of the masses.” The observation seems almost banal: to succeed politically in America, conservatism will have to appeal to the voters.

But Chambers went on to add an image that illuminates the dilemma of practical politics in poignant terms:

Those who remain in the world, if they will not surrender on its terms, must maneuver within its terms. That is what conservatives must decide: how much to give in order to survive at all; how much to give in order not to give up the basic principles. And of course that results in a dance along a precipice. Many will drop over, and, always, the cliff dancers will hear the screaming curses of those who fall, or be numbed by the sullen silence of those, nobler souls perhaps, who will not join the dance.

This is not populism. Indeed, it warns of the dangers of populism and unprincipled vote seeking—cautions that are especially applicable to conservatives in the age of Trump. Some will fall to their doom, becoming hacks in the service of a buffoonish populist. Others will wash their hands of the GOP and practical politics. And the rest will dance along the cliff, trying to balance between principles and electoral realities.

And one of conservatism’s central insights is that this problem is a permanent one. This attempt at balance is the position of anyone who will not retreat to a Platonic city in speech nor attempt to establish the ideal polity on earth. It is the position of Augustine’s judge in book 19 of the City of God, who, if he is at all pious, will plead with God to deliver him from the necessities of his position, which compels him to punish, torment, and condemn men who may be innocent.

We must do the best we can with our fallible judgment and imperfect knowledge. What went wrong? Things have always been going wrong. To go wrong is the human condition. It is hard work just to preserve and pass on human knowledge, insight, and achievement, and there are a multitude of temptations to decline. Thus, while tracing the genealogy of a particular ill may be illuminating, it can easily go awry, especially if it seeks a solitary source for a complex, multifaceted error. In such cases, the desire to make sense of the problem, to reduce it to a clear case of cause and effect, overrides judgment. And so George Will has irrationally fixed upon Chambers as the snake who planted the seeds of populist vulgarity in Buckley’s conservative Garden of Eden.


Nathanael Blake has a PhD in political theory. He lives in Missouri.