Conservatives tend to be skeptical of joining great political movements because they tend to be skeptical of both politics and movements that are great. They prefer the little platoon, the shire, which they know to be safe—or at least probably safer than what lies beyond. Not all politics may be local, but all politics that isn’t local tends toward the totalitarian, however far short of it it may actually fall.
That sounds almost like a philosophy of government—though not a government that any American alive today has experienced. But times can change, and they have with the election of Donald Trump. Conservatives who have been asking, “Where do we go from here?” have discovered the answer may be: “Where Donald Trump is going.”
Most conservatives and many Libertarians saw the conservatism of William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of modern American conservatism, as a compromise (today’s Libertarians tend to see it as just compromised). Buckley was a free marketeer who opposed radical social experimentation. But he accepted the superstate (even knowing it was a threat to freedom at home) because it was necessary to do battle with the threat to freedom from abroad: communism, the force of darkness that threatened the globe for almost half a century.
Today’s young Libertarians, who came of age as Ronald Reagan was readying history’s dust bin for the Evil Empire, think the previous age consistently overrated communism’s threat. It didn’t; and the youngsters should show more respect for the analytical ability and survivalist instincts of their freedom-loving forebears whose blood ran strong for so long—even as they should respect their forebears’ desire to preserve a culture free from, and opposed to, radical social experimentation unmoored from the truths and traditions that sustained Western Civilization for centuries.
None of this is to say we must speak Latin or Old English, or write in Carolingian script, however prettier that is than the scribbly scrawly scratches of the computer era. In 1964—the year Barry Goldwater kicked off the modern political conservative movement (the intellectual movement having begun in 1955 when Buckley founded National Review)—Buckley said, “Modern formulations are necessary even in defense of very ancient truths. Not because of any alleged anachronism in the old ideas—the Beatitudes remain the essential statement of the Western code—but because the idiom of life is always changing, and we need to say things in such a way as to get inside the vibrations of modern life.”
Billions and billions of vibrations later, Buckley said that conservatism was in need of repristination, a fancy WFB word perhaps for his “modern formulations” of 1964.
But even before “modern formulations” and “repristination,” there was the dedication in Buckley’s first book, his history-making and history-changing God and Man at Yale: “For God, for Country, and for Yale … in that order,” wherein lies a guide, if not a roadmap, to a conservative polity.
Can we have a vibrant conservatism without God? Self-described “amiable, low voltage atheist” George Will says yes, as did serious Roman Catholic Buckley. Russell (The Conservative Mind) Kirk said no.
History, and especially the decade since Buckley’s death, would seem to support Kirk. America’s Founding Fathers were religious. As was William Wilberforce who led the decades-long movement to stop the slave trade in England. As was Martin Luther King Jr., the great civil rights champion in America. Perhaps the jury is still out, but it’s not clear that the admonition to love our neighbors as ourselves (and its modern statist equivalents) has any moral force if it comes only from, say, a Barack Obama who ridicules people who cling to their Bibles, or from Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Cloud Cuckoo Land dba CA) who insinuated that a nominee to the court of appeals couldn’t be a good judge because she was a Catholic. What is the authority of the state—other than the Glock 22 with its 15 rounds of 9mm shells carried by most police officers—to command us to be nice to our fellow man? Equality and respect for blacks—and for Jews? Who says?
True conservatism must include love of country, which means not just love of this country but a preference for this country over all others—even as people in other countries should prefer theirs to ours. Why do we want people from Haiti or the Central African Republic to come to the US, or from Mexico or El Salvador or other less happier lands? We have our own problems: the structurally poor, the undereducated, legions of fatherless children, an opioid crisis, and a growing debt that could usher in economic conditions that would make the Great Recession look like the Promised Land.
A conservative prefers his patch, his little acre, his blessed plot; his town to his state; his state to all the others. That is the essence of federalism, a founding principle of the Founding Fathers, and one that mimics the Catholic tradition of subsidiarity.
So what should a conservative polity look like? It comes as a shock—like a Bob Mueller raid in the dark of the night—to realize that many of the policies promoted by President Trump are out of the conservative playbook.
Trump is no pious Christian, but he is proud of his role, synecdochically significant, in making it safe to say “Merry Christmas” again. He has wooed people who cling to their Bibles (and to their guns). And he may be the most anti-abortion president we’ve ever had.
Trump prefers America to other countries, a preference reported as scandalous because of his accurate, if … famously unusual, description of some of those other hell-hole countries.
Trump seems naturally federalist—e.g., in wanting to get rid of those “lines around the states” that restrict the health insurance companies from writing policies on people who don’t live in their states. He seems instinctively opposed to the superstate: his deregulation efforts have already gotten America moving again, and he’s making it easier to fire workers who work for the federal bureaucratic leviathan state.
He seems to care about communities that have had their middle class jobs shipped overseas. The free trade purists have their arguments: they tell us that free trade makes the world richer, and that may be true. But the US share of world GDP has gone down in the last 15 years, while the share of the Industrializing Six countries has gone up.
Could it be that “Make America Great Again” qualifies as a modern formulation of an ancient truth, even if not written in Carolingian minuscule? Many Americans, perhaps excluding the editors of some national political journals, would agree.
Trump came to his positions, presumably, because of the work the Conservative Movement has been doing all these years since 1955, and he has been, surprisingly to many, remarkably successful in changing America’s course. But there remains much to be done by conservatives to prepare and popularize a conservative polity.
Trump has not yet taken on the new-age cultural Marxists who are so calculatedly evil that they are trying to erase the difference between the sexes, shamelessly milking the sentiment that promoted equality for blacks. Even a foul-mouthed, pussy-grabbing rhetoric is preferable to the cultural vandals who seek to institutionalize, through the courts—hello totalitarianism!—their own bizarre sexual proclivities, vandals like Friend-of-Hillary Obergroppenführer of the liberal intelligentsia Harvey Weinstein, and so many of their friends. Better a one-night stand with a porn star (if you choose to believe that story) than accepting homosexual marriage as normal or forcing women and girls to shower with males who are so confused they don’t even know what sex they are. Alas, even national magazines that review the culture and should be thwarting history tend to take a pass on the cultural issues if they have sitting around their own table people you, er, wouldn’t want your children playing with.
Nor has Trump tackled America’s amazing debt growth. But that is not a battle a politician can win on his own. Politicians who promise to cut social security or welfare significantly, even if only in the far distant future, will not get elected, absent a prior and successful intellectual campaign to educate the voters.
So, the problems of culture and debt remain, each potent enough to do America in, as sobering a fact to contemplate as a Cold War battery of totalitarian missiles aimed at the land of the free. Conservatives do not lack for challenges!
Still, battles have been fought and won, which indicates that it is still possible to fight and win battles. No one would be likely to describe Donald Trump as the Repristinator-in-Chief. But the country is already better off than if Clinton, or even any of Donald Trump’s Republican opponents, had been elected president.
True conservatism was never a rigid ideology and never a political program defined by a particular politician. Conservatism is a way of life, a practical program for keeping the people of this country (shaped by history, faith, and culture) safe and free, and if necessary, more safe and free than prosperous. There may be calamity ahead—but there is always calamity ahead. Today, conservatives and conservatism, and the nation, are better off, and headed in a better direction, than they have been for years.
Repristinated or not.