Is Donald Trump a conservative? Are neoconservatives conservatives? Was Ronald Reagan a conservative? This argument has been dividing the Republican Party for years. When Trump entered the primary for the Republican nomination in 2015, it was pointed out that he had a track record of supporting Democratic/liberal policies like abortion rights and healthcare for all. Even while he flip-flopped on many of those issues, he continued to push an economic and social worldview that was out of line with some of the leading players in the Republican Party–a kind of “economic nationalism,” as Steve Bannon described it.
Among the #NeverTrump coalition, Reaganite neoconservatives have strongly represented, including Bret Stevens and Noah Rothman, who come under critique in Ben Sixsmith’s first piece for Bombs + Dollars. For him the question becomes, “Are “Never-Trumpers” still conservative?” I’ll take this to mean, Are small government, pro-free trade, conservatives who support an strong role for America in the world still conservative?, because those are the specific positions under critique. In short, are Reaganesque neoconservatives conservative?
My answer is yes, and here’s why:
First, Sixsmith is right that,
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.
Now let me make a case for why the modern-day American conservatism of Reagan fits into the definition:
Conservatives who invoke the memory of Reagan and talk about “small government” generally believe that taxes should be low, and the role of government intervening in the economy and pushing for “progressive” social change should be limited. Many also believe in the value of immigration, immigrants enhancing American culture and adding vitality to the economy, and they cite Reagan’s words to these effects.
Reagan is also associated with a strong foreign policy that advocates a leading role for America in the world. Reagan argued that peace was only possible through strength that offers deterrence and that if America steps back from the world, countries that don’t respect American ideals of human rights (and that often oppose American interests) will fill the vacuum. Reagan’s foreign policy legacy need not be a prerequisite for supporting low taxes, low regulation, and supply-side economics, but neither is an interventionist foreign policy a limit on conservatism.
Finally, social conservatives who oppose abortion and gay marriage and advocate a culture of values shaped by their view of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage are also a part of the Reagan coalition.
It is these values, Reagan Republicans would argue, that have ensured prosperity and freedom in America. They would point to growth they say was caused by Reagan era tax cuts and supply-side economics, after years of “malaise” under Carter and the price controls of Nixon. They would point to Reagan’s Cold War brinksmanship, attributing the fall of the Iron Curtain in large part due to his defense buildup.
Going back even further to foundational ideas, they would point to the Constitution and principles attributed to the Founders. The principles of free speech, due process, equal rights under the law, and even, many rock-ribbed Reaganistas would say, the Second Amendment giving them the right to self-defense and to keep tyranny at bay. (Yes, conservatives often say the reason we need gun rights is as a possible defense against a tyrannical government, including elected Senators like Ted Cruz and Republican-backing lobby groups like the NRA. This argument is supported by conservative writers across the spectrum, including those of National Review, The Federalist, The Federalist again, and Breitbart. I don’t personally support this argument, but I am laying out the argument.)
What We Conserve
Rothman mentioned “First and Second Amendment freedoms” specifically. It’s true, America does have more freedom of speech, more protections for negative rights than almost any country in the world, and one of the most dynamic economies in the world. As of 2004, the U.S. ranked third in the world for most patent applications per capita and as of 2012 fifth for most patents granted per capita (population). The Innovation Index puts the U.S. 2nd in the world (behind Korea).
It’s true that there are a lot of crazy college students and they sometimes try to get professors fired for stupid things like arguments over Halloween costumes. This doesn’t mean freedom of speech doesn’t exist in America. The First Amendment ultimately protects people’s rights to hold a protest–no matter how stupid (including Richard Spencer’s)–and doesn’t protect an employee from getting disciplined or shamed by non-government entities.
That terrorists in Syria and elsewhere around the world are dead set on killing people is hardly unprecedented. Thomas Jefferson fought pirates off the coast of Libya in 1801. And the world was a much more dangerous hellhole before the United States was even founded. As Steven Pinker says, the threat of dying in war and violence in modern times is at the lowest it’s been in history.
Finally, it is not the government’s role, from a libertarian perspective, to control everyone’s personal choices. The government can’t step in and make sure no one uses and then gets addicted to drugs, drinks oneself to death, or has a midlife crisis. There was panic about crack and cocaine for past decades, so opioids are not new in the sense of some that some the users are using drugs out of desperation–one possible difference is that there may have been more scorn and legal force put down on the users of crack-cocaine.
As for the above paragraph, it is possible to blame social conservatives on the grounds that their efforts to fill society with morals didn’t work. But on the other hand, social conservatives might argue that liberals were to blame, not them, for pushing destructive cultural forces.
Anyway, all of that being said, America is one of the most prosperous and successful nations in the world today. (I need not echo the rhetoric of “American exceptionalism,” which would say America is THE BEST at everything, to make my point.) The home of Apple, Facebook, Google, and Silicon Valley. The birthplace of rock n roll. Hollywood, for all its faults, creates cultural products that are desired the world over, in countries rich and poor, of all different basis. Those most American images are also powered and enhanced by immigration.
The U.S. economy over the past few years has been growing faster than the economies of its developed world peers in Europe and has a lower unemployment rate than most.
That, of course, happened under Obama’s administration, but if one looks at America and conservatism in the long view and through foundational principles, then many of those principles continued under Obama. He didn’t, for example, pass single-payer healthcare, opting instead for a market-based system, due to opposition from Republicans and institutional forces.
As Rothman said, “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.”
Many of those conservative forces came in the sphere of economics and “small government” reforms, even during the Clinton-Gingrich period. Clinton signed a welfare reform bill the Republican Congress supported. Bush came along and cut taxes. Taking the scope back further to the 1980’s, 70’s, and 60’s, America is even more conservative on some of those economic factors: the top tax rates fell over 70%.
Take the scope back to 1776: If conservatives believe that the values of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and support for immigration, trade, and bootstrapping American individualism are the values that made America successful, then those are the values they want to preserve.
On Words and Meanings
Reagan and his successors were and are most certainly conservatives. If not, the word “conservative” hasn’t meant anything for the last four decades, because Reagan-esque Republican Party conservatism is what the word has most often been used to refer to over that time frame.
This is important, the definition and connotation of words and how words function in the English language. Words can and do change and evolve over time. Words change as the culture and background changes.
This important fact is very much the case with labels for political ideology, because politics is always changing. A “conservative” from Edmund Burke’s time was facing a very different culture than do conservatives today. There were arguments about aristocracy, the industrial revolution, child labor, and slavery. What about “classical liberals”? Beliefs in free speech and Enlightenment values have generally been adopted by the mainstream of most major political parties on both sides in the West. There are debates on the margins over what those values mean and how they are applied–and there are radicals on both sides. The point is the political identifiers of 1776 don’t mean exactly the same thing in 2017.
Pat Buchanan’s paleoconservatism is different in important ways from Ronald Reagan’s conservatism. Rockefeller Republicans were not Nixon Republicans or Goldwater Republicans. John Kasich is neither Ted Cruz nor Donald Trump. But they can all be fairly called “conservatives.”
Nor should Europeans argue, “Reagan is an American conservative.” Of course politics is different in different countries. Americans would be stupid to argue that the Tories or the Korean Liberty Party “aren’t conservative” just because they oppose a Constitutional amendment protecting gun rights.
The Question of Trump
Now the question is, will Donald Trump’s presidency result in expanding the definition of conservatism further or moving a new variant of conservatism into the defining mainstream position? Will he move the default view of conservatism towards a view that conservatives are “economic nationalists,” skeptical of immigration, supportive of using the government to ensure jobs in industrial sectors like coal, and ready to put up trade barriers to accomplish that?
An honest answer is we don’t know. We can only wait and see. But here’s one reason for doubt: So far Trump hasn’t even been pushing very hard to manifest his purported vision legislatively. With Paul Ryan and Mick Mulvaney writing the legislation to cut healthcare for the working class and cut taxes for the rich, he seems more like a Reagan/Heritage Foundation conservative on important economic issues.
(*He has taken some actions on immigration and trade through executive orders and executive actions, signing a travel ban from specific countries and pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example.)