In 2016, Trump was derided by his fellow Republicans for, among other things, lacking the proper conservative credentials. Among those were a bellicose foreign policy, traditional cultural values, and laissez-faire economics. If that is the definition of “conservative,” then the critics were certainly correct.
This article will deal with the latter subject only- capitalist economics. The fact is that since the dawn of the American Industrial Revolution, the Right has criticized capitalism. This is predicated upon the belief that laissez-faire capitalism has helped to undermine a certain social hierarchy and order.
Before the Civil War, many argued that the South’s system was more humane than the increasingly industrialized North. The apologists for slavery had a lot in common with many progressives after them as they lamented the working conditions of those in Northern factories. They argued, in contrast, that the Southern slaveholder had an economic and moral reason to better care for their slaves; they had a greater incentive. After all, they were property and they made no bones about it unlike the “slaves” in the factories of the North who were a means to an end and expendable. A mistreated slave was the equivalent of a broken piece of machinery in a factory. To the South, this paternalism was unthinkable in industrial capitalism. Also, slavery was a means to repress the radicalization of the underclass which preserved the social order.
While everyone is familiar with capitalism’s critics after the Civil War and the rise of the “robber barons,” history lessons are short on its critics from the Right which is unfortunate since the most-remembered person of this generation was Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt is best known for his trust-busting, but his policies were deeply rooted in Right wing philosophy and he was especially influenced by Brooks Adams who grew disgusted by the American’s thirst for materialism, or what he called the evolution of the “economic man.” The American frontier was now closed, tamed and settled and Roosevelt feared the country would lose its adventurous spirit. He thought the country would become dominated by economic bean counters and an army of accountants and economic theorists, not doers. Visions of American empire danced in his head, but first he had to reign in American industrialists. This, not some moral imperative against trusts and monopolies, was the motivation for his actions.
World War I threw a monkey wrench into this vision. With America’s place secured in the world and the stretches of the American empire largely established, we saw the rise of the corporation and the rebirth of laissez-faire capitalism once again in the Roaring Twenties.
In many respects, the Southern agrarians embraced and encouraged a smaller version of Roosevelt’s vision. Believing the agrarian lifestyle was rapidly disappearing around them, they viewed themselves as the ideal conservative lifestyle and key to social order. The South’s fundamental spirit could survive in a post-war context without slavery and without secession. They argued that the social order and hierarchies within that order and the agricultural economy needed to stand firm against the urbanization and industrialization impinging upon them. In essence, they argued that modern capitalism was a morally degrading influence on the masses.
While not going back to the days of slavery, they nevertheless were not paragons of civil rights. Yes- there was a racial divide in the South, a necessary one, but one that was less brutal than industrial capitalism. Corporations, they argued, had no concerns beyond their profitability. The Southern elite, however, remained close to the people, they argued, and absentee ownership was largely non-existent. The Southern elite agrarian had his fingers on the pulse of the people unlike the Northern industrialist far-removed in their soaring skyscrapers in New York City.
The stock market crash and bank failures were their big “We told you so” moment. Corporations and industries suffered the greatest effects of the Depression. Most studies have shown that the South suffered perhaps the least in those bad times, although it did not escape overall. The Depression was followed in short succession by the New Deal and after the war, a new generation of conservatives challenged the liberalism of Roosevelt’s programs.
By 1960, a new conservative consensus emerged centered around a strong national defense, traditional values, and the free market. Spokesmen like Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman and others emerged. This new vision, best espoused by Frank Meyer, pushed all other ideologies aside and became the only alternative to the Left in America.
Yet, there was ambivalence toward capitalism among this first generation of new, post-war conservatives. People like Kirk and Robert Nisbet wanted to push aside the idea that the new conservatism relied primarily upon economic policy and unrestricted individualism.
In the 1960’s, all these attempts to reign in capitalism were left to the Left. Conservative political victories were few and far between, especially after the assassination of JFK. The first conservatives to enjoy any political victory were the neoconservatives. Although known for their views on foreign policy- especially their desire to export democracy even to countries with no idea of democracy- people like Irving Kristol, William Kristol and David Brooks reconciled conservatism to the now burgeoning welfare state.
Irving Kristol argued that a welfare state was inevitable. Because people would demand safety nets, the best option was how to co-opt these programs to conservative ends. Thus, Social Security for the elderly becomes a must, but many of the Great Society’s programs fostered reckless behaviors. Subsidizing the elderly was fine; the welfare queen, not so much. In fact, the welfare queen was a recipe for social disorder. The neoconservatives also highly favored partnerships between the government and the private sector.
To Brooks and William Kristol, this preoccupation with economic concerns would weaken America’s imperial drive. In that respect, their support of nation building and exporting of democracy is no different than the view of Theodore Roosevelt. They feared a loss of common purpose and patriotism. In a weird way, 9/11 was the best thing that ever happened for the neoconservative.
In some ways, Barack Obama simply continued the ideals and traditions of the neoconservatives. The foreign policy initiatives of George W. Bush were somewhat similar to those of Obama with the difference being only one of style. Despite some misgivings, Obamacare was somewhat congruent with neoconservative ideals, a fact Obama took full advantage of in 2012 in his run against Mitt Romney who gave us Romneycare- Obamacare’s forerunner.
Although barely a footnote in the history of conservatism, so-called paleoconservatives made a roaring comeback with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. People like Sean Francis and Pat Buchanan argued that the excesses of capitalism, especially globalization, harmed the concerns of middle class Americans. Because multinational corporations have no loyalty other than to their profits and their economically elite class, they care less about exporting jobs overseas and importing cheap labor domestically and depressing the wages of Americans. To the extent there was a cohesive message in Trump’s campaign, this was it.
Global capitalism was an economic harm, but also a cultural harm and equally important. To the paleoconservative, the world is viewed as an interchangeable collection of consumers who care less about religion and culture. It explains why today’s “robber barons” concentrated in Silicon Valley espouse socially liberal viewpoints. Thus, their influence must he stopped and it explains why Trump wades into certain social and cultural controversies.
Conservatives love to say that actions always have consequences, mostly unintended. It is the nature of conservatism to move slowly. But, history has demonstrated that capitalism’s detractors on the Right have been just as influential and steadfast as the Right’s boosters of capitalism. As either side fought to define conservatism, the side aligned with corporate interests generally won.
Perhaps, 2016 was the exception to this historical fact. But, it is important to note that since Trump’s inauguration, Republicans in Congress are arguing and acting from the free market playbook. If nothing else, despite all the talk and heartfelt conviction, there is but one certainty: conservatism has always been invoked and criticized by those on either side of the political spectrum to achieve their own ends.