“Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.” — William F. Buckley Jr.
Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, and so, we are told, conservatism is dead. With despair in their hearts, #NeverTrump’s dwindling group moans that our movement has begun slouching towards Nuremberg, Gomorrah, or possibly some hellish combination of both. The best we can hope, they tell us, is for conservatives to hole up in a bunker (or, failing that, the offices of The Weekly Standard) and, like Albert Jay Nock’s remnant, emerge to rebuild civilization once the fires of Trumpism and leftism burn themselves out.
At the risk of halting their doomsday prepping, I have to tell you that reports of the death of conservatism are greatly premature. With apologies to Marco Rubio, it is time to dispel with (sic) #NeverTrump’s apocalyptic claims that Trump is not conservative, and that as the Republican nominee, he will effectively destroy conservatism. Obviously, these claims are linked: if Trump actually is conservative, it’s hard to imagine how nominating him destroys conservatism. So simply rebutting the first goes a long way toward rebutting the second.
There is a long and a short way to dismiss the idea that Trump is not conservative. The short way is simply to ask, firstly, “How do you know?” And secondly, to ask “Where have you been?”
How Donald Trump Compares to George W. Bush
Trump isn’t a pure movement conservative. But this is not a new problem for conservatives. William F. Buckley Jr. himself said George W. Bush was “conservative, but not a conservative,” and no one complained he’d destroy the conservative movement (until it was too late). Yet the comparison to George W. Bush is important and valuable in evaluating Trump’s conservatism or lack thereof, particularly when you consider that many of the #NeverTrump advocates come from the ranks of ex-W. enthusiasts and supporters.
Whether intentionally or not, Bush the Younger took it upon himself to redefine conservatism to a dramatic degree in the aftermath of the 1990s and Bill Clinton’s declaration that the era of big government was over. At times, he seemed to confuse the branding strategy of “compassionate conservatism” with an animating philosophy of big government for “compassionate” ends. He disdained conservatism so much that he refused to even mention the movement in a CPAC address, and openly bragged that he’d “redefined the Republican party.” So he did, not only by saying things similar to what Trump says, but acting on them in a way that Trump himself has yet to do.
The gaps between these two are not as far as some would like to pretend. Trump has said he won’t let people die in the streets. Bush said “when somebody hurts, government has to move.” Trump is running on putting tariffs on China. Bush put tariffs on Brazil and other steel-producing countries in 2002. Trump has said security, education, and health care are the three most important roles of government. Bush’s main legislative accomplishments as president are the Patriot Act (security), No Child Left Behind (education), and Medicare Part D (health care). Bush’s policy heresies were hardly considered the death knell of conservatism. In fact, many of those steps were loudly supported by conservative Republicans, and current House Speaker Paul Ryan backed all three.
This is not to suggest that Trump is a complete Bush retread: that would be a disaster, if true. In fact, if you compare Trump the candidate with Bush the president from a conservative perspective, Trump looks far better on two of the biggest issues: taxes and judicial appointments. Trump’s tax plan is well to the right even of the Bush tax cuts. Yes, Trump could completely reverse himself on taxes, but it’s hard to see why he would, short of a crisis, once in office. And hey, at least his campaign plan doesn’t include the phrase “read my lips.”
As for judges? Well, let’s not forget that the second Bush nominated the embarrassingly underqualified Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Trump’s proposed list of judicial nominees are universally more conservative and more qualified than Miers was. True, Trump is likely to confront a Senate that has more Democrats than when Bush nominated Miers, and whether he’ll be able to get such a body to confirm his nominees is an open question. However, it must be admitted that the people Trump has named as his first, second, third, and even eleventh choices are all better options than the woman who was Bush’s first choice, even when confronted with a fairly safe Republican Senate. That speaks volumes of Trump’s political instincts, and is not what one would expect from someone out to destroy the conservative movement.
Remember: The Right Is a Coalition
But let’s leave Bush alone for a second. The policy positions of other 2016 candidates weren’t viewed as wrecking the conservative cause: Gov. Mike Huckabee railed against globalism and free trade early in this campaign, just like Trump, but no one suggested Huckabee would be the death of the Republican Party. Rick Santorum openly baited libertarians and boasted about voting for an increase in the minimum wage, yet no one thought he’d destroy conservatism. When Gov. Scott Walker announced that he believed the immigration policy of the United States ought to be about “first and foremost, protecting American workers and American wages,” he was criticized by the Wall Street Journal, but no one accused him of being out to destroy conservatism.
If you think Trump is the destroyer of conservatism because of his rhetoric or potential policies, I hate to break it to you, but this is not the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man waltzing down Eighth Avenue.
It’s important to understand that, unlike the Left’s rigid demands, conservatism has traditionally been a many-splendored thing. Ronald Reagan’s fusionist coalition was an acknowledgement of disagreement and the need for alliance, not in pretending that all conservatives agree about all things. Conservatism is not a rigid ideology that demands fealty at all times, and that is a good thing. Yes, Trump is conservative—but not in the way most Americans, and many conservatives, think of that word.
Some of Trump’s harsher critics have accused him of being a blood and soil nationalist. Not quite. Yes, he echoes the truly nationalist Pat Buchanan, and yes, his rhetoric appeals to nationalists. But when you look at Trump’s overall message, I’d argue he echoes the socially liberal hawkishness of Rudy Giuliani at least as much, and his actual policy positions mark him as a descendant of a much milder breed. Trump has loudly compared himself to Theodore Roosevelt, and he’s certainly in line with the Roosevelt and McKinley style of Republicanism.
Per Julia Azari of FiveThirtyEight: “This was the party of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt – projecting national strength was tied up with a very specific view of masculinity. Aversion to “social disorder” was also a defining characteristic. This bygone form of nationalism was the best description I’ve seen of Trump.”
Yes, Donald Trump Fits the American Founders’ Vision
However, if you’re looking for actual members of the conservative intellectual or political movement, Trump’s antecedents are thinkers like Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, and many of the court intellectuals of the New Right movement of the late 1970s. If you want reassurance that Trump’s vision is consistent with that of the Founders, or those who inspired them, look no further than John Adams and John Locke.
Let’s start with Kirk, also known as arguably the most intellectually distinguished Buchanan volunteer ever. Kirk was a man of many inconsistencies, but he universally denounced one thing in all his writing about the art of politics: dogmatic ideology. Kirk even referred to it as “demon ideology” in the introduction to his most well-known book “The Conservative Mind.”
However, Kirk wasn’t just against things. He had a very clear idea of what conservatism itself was. Specifically, Kirk described it as an ideology concerned with preserving order, custom, and hierarchy, primarily through prudent governance. Kirk also laid this out in the intro to the aforementioned book. Some characteristics Kirk saw as important to conservatism are:
Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls ‘Logicalism’ in society[…]
[Conservatives have] faith in prescription and distrust of ‘sophisters, calculators, and economists’ who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impules and upon the innovator’s lust for power.
In other words, it seems clear that if someone complained to Kirk that someone like Trump was insufficiently coherent in his ideological commitments, or not particularly attached to technocratic policy positions, Kirk would be the first to shoot back, “Well, I should hope not!”
Indeed, many of the thinkers Kirk praised and highlighted in “The Conservative Mind” contradicted each other, and for him, this was a feature, not a bug. Moreover, the people whom Kirk really liked espoused positively Trumpian viewpoints. One such example is the English philosopher W.H. Mallock, whom Kirk described as exemplifying “a conservative synthesis,” as the first person to bring all the disparate, mutually contradictory stands together. What did Mallock believe? Well, to quickly summarize his 1898 book “Aristocracy and Evolution,” Mallock argued that social Darwinism wasn’t so much wrong as redundant, because the existence of aristocracy proved that God did, indeed, reward virtue with in-born privilege, and vice with peasantry.
Or, to put it another way: “Every time I speak of the haters and losers I do so with great love and affection. They cannot help the fact that they were born f—ed up!”
Donald Trump the Prudent
Then there’s Oakeshott, who, similarly to Kirk, denounced the idea of making politics into a mechanistic, ideology-driven machine. Oakeshott called this “Rationalism in Politics,” and devoted an entire essay to attacking it. Once more, for Oakeshott, experience and judgment were the key components of a statesman, not whether their policies followed a single ideological party line. Oakeshott would’ve seen nothing wrong in Trump’s appeals to his own experience making deals as a substitute for a policy agenda, and he would’ve most likely thought Trump’s self-described brains and savvy were simply a means of advertising wisdom and prudence through more earthy language.
Conservatives might balk at the idea of Trump as a prudent and judicious man, but on the evidence of his own book, “The Art of the Deal,” he seems to be just that, and not much else. Certainly he is not a utopian rationalist of the type Kirk or Oakeshott would’ve disdained. To quote from liberal blogger Scott Alexander’s excellent review of the book:
People ask [Trump] something like ‘How would you fix Medicare?’, and he gives some vapid answer like ‘There are tremendous problems with Medicare, but I’m going to hire the best people. I know all of the best doctors and health care executives, and we’re going to cut some amazing deals and have the best Medicare in the world.’[…]
These strategies have always worked for him before, and floating off into some intellectual ideal-system-design effort has never worked for him before. So when he says that he’s going to solve Medicare by hiring great managers and knowing all the right people, I don’t think this is some vapid way of avoiding the question. I think it’s the honest output of a mind that works very differently from mine. I’ve been designing ideal systems of government for the heck of it ever since I was old enough to realize what a government was. Trump is at serious risk of actually taking over a government, and such design still doesn’t appeal to him. The best he can do is say that other people are bad at governing, but he’s going to be good at governing, on account of his deal-making skill. I think he honestly believes this. It makes perfect sense in real estate, where some people are good businesspeople, others are bad businesspeople, and the goal is to game the system rather than change it. But in politics, it’s easy to interpret as authoritarianism – ‘Forget about policy issues, I’m just going to steamroll through this whole thing by being personally strong and talented.’ […]
Trump of the book is more a-intellectual, in the same way some people are amoral or asexual. The world is taken as a given. It contains deals. Some people make the deals well, and they are winners. Other people make the deals poorly, and they are losers. Trump does not need more than this. There will be no civilization of philosopher-Trumps asking where the first deal came from, or whether a deal is a deal only by virtue of its participation in some primordial deal beyond material existence.
This is pretty much exactly what Kirk and Oakeshott clamored for in their respective books. Of course, Kirk and Oakeshott had differences with Trump, too. Most notably, both were fiercely elitist and anti-Democratic (although, as I stated before, Kirk did support Buchanan). But these features were incidental both to Kirk’s brand of cultural traditionalism and Oakeshott’s skepticism of technocracy. After all, even if Kirk and Oakeshott were anti-Democratic, the same could not be said of Bill Buckley’s mentor (and another founding National Review conservative) Wilmoore Kendall, who agreed with both Kirk on culture and Oakeshott on opposition to technocracy, yet also argued for direct democracy and idolized Andrew Jackson.
More substantively, even if you assume anti-Democratic feelings were a necessary part of conservative thinking, both men were writing at a different time, and the needs of the Right have changed since then. Sounding like a country gentry philosopher or a think tank scholar is simply not going to win elections. Here, I’ll quote from another exceedingly intelligent Trump supporter to prove my point:
The Old Right was strong on intellectualism. This is worthy in itself, but unfortunately, that was as far as it went. In criticizing proposed programs like the Great Society schemes, the Old Right could make its objections soundly and completely, in scholarly publications. The only problem was that it was not speaking in the language of the ordinary man. The language was incomprehensible, and what is incomprehensible is politically irrelevant.[…]
Though the upper classes clearly had more intellectual expertise, they tended to become deficient in something that was strong in the working middle classes: values. In blue-collar areas…tradition was as real a part of life as paying taxes, and old world culture was close to home. Well-bred, well-heeled youth allowed right and wrong to become blurred, and tradition to become a romantic decoration. Respect among working people was a consciously instilled value, the cornerstone of everything else – respect for father and mother and grandparents, for priest or rabbi, for the institutions of society: teachers police, law, government. Respect engenders discipline, and hard work was the means to achieve desired goals.[…]
People have come to expect certain things of their government, and that it is possible to give those things to the people without destroying the free enterprise system.
Okay, I lied. That’s not a Trump supporter denouncing think tanks and modern GOP elites. That’s Paul Weyrich, the co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, complaining about the overly highbrow, snobbish character of the conservative movement in 1982. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
A Flawed Personal Character Doesn’t Preclude Patriotism
Of course, some would probably angrily point out that the people I’ve mentioned were all devoutly religious, and Trump, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, is not. I mean, the man’s a libertine and a bully, these scandalized conservatives would protest.
With regard to libertinism, yes, Trump’s no boy scout. But neither were many people conservatives idolize. Newt Gingrich’s romantic past is right in line with Trump’s where divorce is concerned. Reagan was the first remarried divorcee to be elected president. Grover Cleveland, one of the most effective anti-government presidents in American history, came to power under the cloud of having allegedly fathered a bastard child. The Founding Fathers themselves were infamously willing to get the juices flowing, whether we’re talking about Thomas Jefferson’s many affairs with his slaves or the serial womanizing of Benjamin Franklin. Libertinism, it seems, does not preclude one being a patriot or a conservative.
As for Trump’s allegedly bullying style? Well, as George Nash reminds us in “The Conservative Intellectual Movement In America,” Trump’s got good company in the history of National Review in the form of its old publisher William Rusher:
Rusher was a fighter. He took no prisoners, gave no quarter, and cared not a whit for anyone’s feelings. Bill Buckley would attract, engage, and convert. Bill Rusher was out to destroy.
The advent of late-night talk radio in the ’60s gave him his arena. The Fairness Doctrine was still in force, so hosts had to provide two sides to discuss the controversies of the day. One side may have come to discuss; Rusher came to debate. The other side may have brought notes on yellow legal pads; Rusher brought a carving knife. Time and again, to the delight of the listening audience, he filleted his liberal counterparts and, for good measure, sliced to pieces any host who came to their defense.
So once you get rid of these non-unique character flaws as impediments to conservatism, what does that leave us with? That Trump isn’t particularly Christian? Well, that does seem true enough, as far as it goes: Christian Trump may claim to be, but his conception of God is distinctively Old Testament. But again, lack of Christian commitments is not a new attribute for conservative heroes. Many of the Founders were Deists, and while some believed in the moral philosophy of Christianity (like John Adams), they still shied away from endorsing a God who intervened in human affairs.
Moreover, objecting to Trump’s religion (or lack thereof) seems particularly rich coming from #NeverTrump. Let’s not forget that Mitt Romney, #NeverTrump’s lion in winter, was subjected to religion-baiting on the basis of his Mormonism, which rightly scandalized the Right. Many #NeverTrumpers who complain of Trump’s irreligion also object to his Muslim ban for being “anti-American” for imposing religious tests, even though logic dictates they can’t have both.
Speaking of Trump’s Muslim ban, it is eminently in line with the vision of the Founding Fathers and the people who inspired them. In regard to the Founders, look no further than the Alien and Sedition Acts, both of which John Adams himself put through as president. Whether you approve of these acts or not, the fact is that no one outside an American Studies department would describe Adams as a would-be fascist.
Some might protest that the Alien and Sedition Acts were not religion-based, but this is no comfort, because Trump’s unwillingness to tolerate hostile religious forces hearkens back to John Locke himself. From Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration”:
That Church can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate which is constituted upon such a bottom that all those who enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince.[…] It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahometan living amongst Christians would yet more apparently renounce their government if he acknowledged the same person to be head of his Church who is the supreme magistrate in the state.
Making the Right Great Again
The takeaway from this should be obvious: Far from the closet liberal, fascist caricature of #NeverTrump, Trump is actually a more ancient brand of conservative, who values prudence and experience over ideology, and who takes his lessons from history and experience rather than technocratic rationalism. Furthermore, while Trump is surely no ideological libertarian, he does seem to understand something instinctively that the more ancient expositors of that philosophy did as well: that liberty must be circumscribed by limiting principles, including lack of toleration for those who are unable, by virtue of ideology or religion, to obey the laws that make ordered liberty possible.
Put all this together and you realize that far from destroying conservatism, Trump is restoring it to its original definition. His candidacy is not a departure from the conservative consensus, but rather a reversion to the historical reality of what conservatism had been. Or, to put it more briefly, Trump is making not just America, but the Right, great again.
Funny, you could even put that on a baseball cap.