Tanenhaus sees only two kinds of conservatives, good ones in the tradition of Burke, who today would be classic liberals, and bad ones like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. The modern bad conservatives resemble Madame LaFarges with knitting needles to destroy the nation stitch-by-stitch, snuffing out the last remnant of benign humanity.
He calls them "insurrectionists" and "radicals," blind to the reality that he is describing many on the left. His description of Joe McCarthy as the father of contemporary conservative insurgency is the simplistic analysis beloved by ideologues of the left. This analysis ignores the shrill gasps of outrage and name-calling in Obama's base, recalling the lava-encrusted dog at Pompeii, frozen in ash struggling against the leash that denied escape from doom.
Like his liberal cohort, Tanenhaus imagines the examination of the conservative movement as an "autopsy," but the corpse begins to twitch as plummeting public-opinion polls signal a new reality as we move beyond Labor Day. Nevertheless, the "autopsy" is useful for examining flaws and weaknesses on the right, suggesting a need for a fresh vocabulary. And that's the prescription in Trilling's book, whose literary analysis of politics is a corrective for the arguments of knee-jerk liberals.
Trilling worried as early as the 1950s about the complacency of liberalism, urging liberals to read imaginative conservative writers if only to sharpen wits and clarify reasoning. Nothing refreshes the mind of an ideologue like the cogent argument of a skillful opponent. He understood that liberal goals, no matter how "righteous," could be corrupted in the journey to attain them.
This is the useful lesson for conservatives who cling stubbornly to rigidly traditional values when there are badly broken families to mend. Just as undisciplined capitalism can give way to undisciplined greed, uncompassionate conservatism can be stingy in taking care of the most needy.
"Now and then," writes Trilling, "it is possible to observe the moral life in process of revising itself." This could be one of those times.