Today, some have described the ascension of Trump as the lunatics taking over the asylum. We have heard this before with the Tea Party. And evangelicals before that. Yada yada yada…
William F. Buckley, relying on the writings of those before him, described the basic tenets of modern conservatism: limited government, low taxation, minimal regulation, local control, and individual liberty. It viewed capitalism as the greatest economic good that could deliver the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. Sometimes, these beliefs involved personal behaviors- veneration of heterosexual marriage, upright moral character, respect for heritage and tradition, and Christian values.
But there was and is an opposite force in the GOP and conservatism which Buckley once referred to as “goo goo conservatism.” It is best exemplified by people like Sean Hannity who defines conservatism as anything that comes from the lips or fingers of Trump. It is falling for a personality, not a principle, then defending that person. Nothing deters the advocacy- not multiple marriages, inconsistent policy stances, ignorance of religion and history, supporting an expanded welfare state, or government interference in business decisions.
Because Trump defeated Hillary Clinton- the face of the anti-conservative for a generation- Trump is now considered by some to be a true champion of conservatism. His tough talk was considered a sign of strength and goo-goo conservatism has an affinity for a strong leader.
This dynamic between camps has been going on for some time. The GOP has largely kept the skirmishes in check by nominating more “traditional” candidates. It was a credible enough strategy and likely would have been in 2016 after eight years of Obama. Some have proffered the notion that only Trump could have defeated Clinton; this writer seriously doubts that assessment. The dynamic basically pits the “win at any cost” contingent against the “principled” contingent. This divide in conservative circles rose to the top and exploded in the nomination of Donald Trump.
In Trump, the GOP “selected” someone who had no allegiance to Buckley’s conservatism, let alone understood it. The battle between traditional conservatives and the more conservatively populist “Trumpsters” will not end. If a more traditional conservative challenged Trump in 2020, it would be a throw of the dice. If he was to lose in either a primary or general election, blame would not be in short supply.
For the true conservative, the best policy may be benign acceptance while holding his feet to the fire of conservatism (as articulated above) and calling him out when he strays. The goal of conservatism is not to accept Trumpism; it is to make Trump conservative.
Conservatives should be well-reminded that during his primary and general election campaign, Trump fired a series of broadsides at conservatism. And it had an appeal. When the National Review gathered a gaggle of conservative thought leaders to pen articles against Trump in a special issue, in the months that followed, Republican voters responded by amplifying support for Trump.
Whether he believed his rhetoric or not, or whether it was a well-orchestrated show, Trump’s words were heard by vast swath of Americans and just enough in three key states. He addressed “forgotten” America- forgotten by both parties. To many, they saw their elected Republican and supposedly conservative officials too willing to compromise where instead of, like Reagan getting 70-80% of what he wanted, the conservative Republican electorate got peanuts.
They were rejecting the intellectual arguments against Trump because Trump wasn’t appealing to the intellect. Trump’s opposition among the National Review crowd confirmed in the minds of many what they perceived conservatism had become- an insulated, elitist bubble that talked and wrote, but seldom, if ever, acted.
Buckley, in one of the first issues of National Review, said that conservatism stood “athwart history, yelling ‘Stop.'” George Nash noted that as conservatives were pulling the handbrake, one looked to the past and those values that stood in opposition to the menaces facing modern America. In that regard, Trump’s rhetoric appealed to the past and a simpler time…a slogan of “Make America great again.” The people heard a return to the values of the past. And it can be argued that conservatism at its core believes that society should return to its values of the past. If- and it is a big IF- Trump truly believes this and acts accordingly, then we can say he is conservative.
Some have argued that Trumpism is the new conservatism. Others argue that by returning to the values of the past, conservatism ignores, denigrates, or lessens the impact the past had on some segments of the population, particularly minorities (ethnic, religious, racial, sexual). Conservatives are not Neanderthal, white nationalist, misogynistic boobs.
However, history cannot deny that blacks were making tremendous economic and social strides before the government intervened and lent its “helping hand.” It cannot deny that this helping hand has created a genocide of Holocaust proportions where 60% or more of black pregnancies end in abortion. It cannot deny that liberal programs have left the poor tethered to the teat of the government, or the local drug dealer. It cannot deny that American public education stagnated or went backwards once the federal government lent its helping hand. It cannot deny the helping hand of Obamacare was and is a disaster.
If nothing else, Trump has shined a necessary light on forgotten America- that vast “wasteland” that liberals describe as “flyover country.” Whether he did it for his own narcissistic ego (highly likely), for political expediency (also likely) or out of pure empathy (least likely), the result is the same. As such, he has confirmed the belief of Buckley and the observations of Tocqueville- that in the end, this is a center-right country. But, he simultaneously ignored the philosophy of Burke, the warnings of Tocqueville, the enunciation of core values by Kirk, and the strategies of Buckley. That is what made Trump unique. It should also be remembered that Trumpism is basically populism with a twist of conservatism- shaken, not stirred. And populism is transitory in nature, but can have enduring tangible effects (even for the good).
Today, we have an alliance- for different reasons- between #TheResistance and those of the NeverTrump persuasion aligned to thwart even the best of intentions from this administration. The rhetoric from both persuasions is basically the same. One is overtly out to destroy conservatism; the other claims they are trying to save it.
The fact is that Donald Trump was elected President. I cringe at the comments that remind us “…but he lost the popular vote” emanating from some on the Right. Are they suggesting we eliminate or ignore the Electoral College? If so, consider this fact: Clinton’s 2 million popular vote margin of victory was all but dictated by the margin of victory in two counties- Cook in Illinois and Los Angeles in California. Does anyone want their President dictated by the likes of two Leftist counties? We should be thanking those 77,000 voters spread over three states.
Although time will tell and be judged by action, not rhetoric, Trump does not stand “athwart history.” He does stand athwart recent liberal history and some accomplices in the Republican Party. The S.S. NeverTrump sank a while back. Some survivors were rescued by the S.S. Resistance.
Today within the Republican Party and the conservative movement we have the equivalent of a rhetorical antifa throwing spoken barbs and bitter hatred towards Trump. We have people parsing his every word, even the footwear of his wife, and hearing what they want to hear to fit their own narrative. Trump, on the campaign trail, stated he could shoot someone in Times Square and people would still vote for him and that was, admittedly, a repugnant statement. Yet, there are holier-than-thou conservatives who cannot find any good in anything Trump says or does. Is that really any less repugnant than the characterization Trump offered up for his supporters on the campaign trail?
Trump is not an existential threat to conservatism. The chance to stop Trump by the GOP was before the convention. Having failed that, today’s detractors, probably because “their guy” lost, now do the bidding of the Left. I get it; my guys lost too, but unlike others, it is time to move onto reality, not what should have been. The year 2016’s political cycle delivered up two sour lemons. Instead of biting a sour lemon or throwing it away, doesn’t it make better sense to at least try to make lemonade?