It is and always has been patently obvious that Donald J. Trump is not a conservative. He is no more a man of ideas than he is a man of manners, and his instincts tend towards decadence, impulsivity and egoism instead of restraint, prudence and selflessness.
Nonetheless, people who emphasise that Trump is no conservative often remind me of Christ’s warning about motes and beams. There is no one set of ideas and attitudes that could call “conservative”. It is obvious that conservatism comes in different forms, not least as different people have different institutions to conserve. But anti-Trump conservatives are often hard to place in the traditions of American or European conservatism. Indeed, it can be difficult to know what such commentators are trying to conserve.
Take Noah Rothman of Commentary magazine. Mr Rothman argues that President Trump ignores “some of the most fundamental ideas of conservatism”. Such as?
…the benefits of free-market health care, skepticism toward centrally planned infrastructure projects, the moral imperative of the preventive use of American military force, the centrality of strong family and community bonds, the necessity of failure, the importance of immigrants to the American project, and an incremental approach to political change.
We shall generously assume that Mr Rothman means American conservatism, for Edmund Burke, arguably the father of modern conservatism as a coherent phenomenon, could hardly have believed in the “moral imperative of the preventive use of American military force” when America barely existed. Even with this generous qualification he is wrong. You will find no insistence on this “moral imperative” in the books of Kirk, Weaver, Babbitt, Voegelin and Nisbet. Nor will you find great emphasis on “the importance of immigrants”. It was the conservative government of Calvin Coolidge that passed the Immigration Act of 1924. Aside from a vague reference to an “incremental approach” this better summarises neoconservatism, which, at best, is a subset of conservatism as a whole.
Rothman goes on to insist that far from Trump being a symptom of conservative failure, he triumphed, somehow, in spite of conservative success. “Because their own cultural victories have not materialized instantaneously,” he writes, “Conservatives have adopted a tendency to undervalue them.”
These include the triumph of free-market capitalism over European socialism, the creation of a series of global frameworks that prohibit protectionist industrial and trade policies, the revitalization of First and Second Amendment freedoms, the scaling back of organized labor’s privileges, and the reformation of the nation’s welfare programs with the aim of inculcating in beneficiaries a work ethic. In terms of policy and governance, America in 2017 is a much more conservative country than it was in 1992. It’s a marvel that so few conservatives recognize their own substantial achievements.
It is astonishing that Rothman can speak of the “triumph of First…Amendment freedoms” when speakers are attacked in universities and academics are driven out of their offices. It is depressing that he can rhapsodise about improvements in the labour market in the face of a steep rise in midlife mortality among whites. It is amazing if he thinks this paltry list stacks up against Middle Eastern chaos, racial tensions, opioid addictions, familial collapse and domestic terrorism as grounds for concern. Something has gone wrong with his conservatism.
Another anti-Trump conservative is Bret Stephens of the New York Times. Mr Stephens writes that no president “has done more to harm the integrity and reputation of conservative ideas as this one”. I do not wish to defend President Trump. On the other hand, reading Mr Stephens’ latest column, I wondered what conservative ideas he purports to defend. Stephens catalogues a litany of “nonimmigrant” sins (crime, out-of-wedlock births) and “immigrant” virtues (academic achievement and entrepreneurialism) without bothering to explain the demographic nuances of these phenomena. Which nonimmigrants? Which immigrants?
Mr Stephens goes on to insist that he thinks of the U.S. as “as a country that belongs first to its newcomers”, who “do the most to remake it”. As an immigrant myself I think it would be outrageous to act as if your new home was more yours than it was people who were born there. As a conservative I think the idea that a country must be “remade” smacks of progressivism.
In the article first quoted here, Mr Stephens charged the late Roger Ailes, founder and one-time Chairman and CEO of Fox News, with engineering the “moral and intellectual decline” of conservatism. The faucet of Fox has long been spewing sewage but that decline was as much caused by those civilised intellectual elements of movement Conservatism which neglected American culture in the heady days of Cold War monomania and capitalist complacence and passed the torch to a bunch of liberal internationalists. It was their foreign disasters and domestic indifference that inspired the frustation that brought the voters to Trump, yet they now pose as the authentic voice of traditional values.
Again, there is no one concept named “conservatism”. Conservatives can be more or less inclined towards interventionism, isolationism, free markets, protectionism et cetera. That much can be discussed. But one should be able to locate oneself in a tradition and be clear on what should be conserved. So-called “Never Trumpers”, despite valid complaints, fail both tests. Serious right-wing critique of Trump’s administration should see further backwards than Ronald Reagan and further forwards than the next tweetstorm. It should speak with both respect for heritage and love for people. It should be authoritative but not indifferent. It should be conservative.