There seems to be much confusion these days over political labels. What do these terms even mean any more? What is a centrist? A liberal? A libertarian? A conservatarian? A classical liberal? A neo-liberal? A neocon?
What is a conservative, in today’s world?
To begin answering that question, it is helpful to understand where modern conservative thought in America comes from, and how it evolved.
There were two dominant themes of conservative thought in the middle of the 20th century. One was what we refer to as Buckley Conservatism. This strain of conservatism emphasized the role of traditions and established hierarchical organizations in promoting social order; preferred limited government, recognized the roles of religion and shared culture in social cohesiveness, distrusted rationalizations and promoted the view that people are, at our core, emotional beings. Buckley conservatives accept that private ownership of property, capitalism and free trade economics are the surest path to economic prosperity for everyone.
The other predominant view of conservatism was Coolidge Conservatism, which traced its roots back to the mid-19th century. This version of conservatism differed from Bucklian conservatism in that it viewed the corporation as the principle driver of both economic and social policy. It eventually merged with Objectivist theory to form the modern Libertarian party.
During the 1970s, a third strain of conservatism arose. We came to call this version of conservative thought neoconservatism, although it might also be called Bush or Kristol Conservatism after the men who exemplified its ideas. This version arose from disaffected liberals, although it hews close to the pre-existing Northeastern Republican thought of the day. Neocons espouse that military adventurism in replacing totalitarian regimes with democratic ones is a laudable use of military power, that government intervention in society to promote social change is not only acceptable but necessary, and a general belief in capitalism, but not free markets (Irving Kristol referred to this as “bourgeois capitalism”). While they agree with their forebears that people are not rational beings, they accept the idea that rationally developed plans, implemented by people who were educated and trained to ignore their emotional impulses, could improve the lives of everyone. This includes a belief that a strong welfare state is a requirement for a modern society.
Buckley conservatives were represented by Barry Goldwater’s quixotic presidential run in 1964 and reached its zenith with the Reagan presidency of the 1980s. But the GOP soon shifted from Buckleyism to Neoconservatism under the leadership of George HW Bush. Interventionist foreign policy and regime change became the order of the day, along with increased taxes and government intrusion into some of the social ramparts, such as local schools and civic organizations.
It is the neoconservative view that most Americans came to associate with being a conservative by the time of Barack Obama’s reelection campaign of 2012. While a great many conservative thinkers, politicians and writers paid lip service to the Bucklian concept of limited government and free markets, they only took that so far as limited taxation on businesses. Beyond that, they still practiced government regulation like a Rockefeller, practiced foreign interventionism like a Bush, and railed for government solutions to social problems like a liberal. Buckley Conservatism seemed an outdated anachronism by this point.
The funny thing about that is neoconservatism was actually the least conservative of the three dominant conservative philosophies that came to be in the 20th century. It owes its existence to liberals who were repulsed by the leftward lurch of mainstream liberal thought during the late 1960s. Neoconservatism shares many views with its liberal roots, although in attenuated form. As Irving Kristol once remarked, “A neoconservative is a liberal who got hit in the face by reality.”
That being said, neoconservatives also adopted Bucklian language in deference to the last truly successful Republican president, in Ronald Reagan. So, we have neoconservatives praising free markets when in reality they haven’t actually practiced free market economics. We have neoconservatives pledging fealty to fiscal responsibility, but refusing to actually do anything about it. We have neoconservatives decrying the welfare state, but refusing to do anything about the two biggest social welfare programs managed by the federal government.
Indeed, it is this aspect of the neoconservative takeover of the Republican party that has led many voters to think of it as nothing more than the flip side of the Democratic party coin. Is it any wonder the average person has no idea what a conservative is?
Into this vacuum stepped one Donald Trump. While almost nobody would consider Trump a died-in-the-wool conservative, he was able to capture the nomination of the Republican party by espousing many conservative views on issues, such as fealty to the letter of the Constitution, lower taxes, less regulation, an end to foreign adventurism, etc. At the same time, he promoted ideas that should have been anathema to any conservative: trade barriers, managed economies and a personal moral code that could be best described as immoral.
Some have described Trump, and his policy goals as a form of right-wing populism. It may well be, but I suspect that Trump has so completely rebranded the moniker of conservative (abetted by a very liberal press that wants nothing more than to permanently discredit conservatism, in all forms) that conservatives will need to re-examine their ideals to see which can be modified, and which of the new ideas can be absorbed, into a 21st century conservatism.
For instance, many conservatives are loathe to accept the idea of nationalism as being a conservative goal. At the same time, one of the core tenets of conservatism – irregardless of the particular flavor of 20th century conservative thought to which one might subscribe – is the notion of a cohesive society, built around a shared history and culture. That is the very essence of nationalism. To some, this smacks of the jingoism and xenophobia associated with the extreme nationalism that punctuated the 1930s. But it need not be. Acceptance of the United States as unique among nations extends back throughout our history, there’s no reason we should deviate from that today.
The best way to judge whether conservatism, as both a political and societal philosophy, is at all compatible with elements of Trumpism is to see if the general tenets of conservatism are compatible with them. Perhaps no finer mind than that of Russell Kirk laid out those general principles 25 years ago in a terrific essay (you can find it here). So, if we do that comparison, which are – and which are not?
- Human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent. – NO
- Trumpism doesn’t address human nature at all, nor does it consider it as a guiding principle in any policy decision. Morality is paid lip service, but in practice ignored, both by Trump and most of those in his inner circle.
- The conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. – MAYBE?
- Trumpism has a dichotic relationship with this idea. On one hand, Trump was elected precisely to upend conventional politics and institutions. On the other, many of his supporters want a return to the customs and conventions they recall from their youth.
- Conservatives believe in the principle of prescription. – NO
- This is one area in which Trump’s liberal roots come shining through. Rather than base his decisions on what worked in the past, he very much is out to completely remake the world order in his own image.
- Conservatives are guided by prudence. – NO
- Not unlike most other politicians of the current era, this principle does not apply to Trump. Every decision he makes is weighed against immediate impact, not the effect on the nation or world five or ten years hence.
- Conservatives pay attention to variety. – YES
- Kirk wrote, “The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law…” This is a principle that is upheld under Trumpism, much to the chagrin of liberals – who are determined to end the inequality of outcomes.
- Conservatives understand that humans are not perfect, and cannot be made to be perfect. – NO
- This is another area in which Trump demonstrates his liberal leanings. By action, he shows he believes himself to be perfected. He believes he can also bring perfection to any number of situations. Such self-confidence is a key part of his appeal, even if it is misguided.
- Freedom and property are closely linked. – NO
- The Trump administration has fought efforts to end the abysmal practice of civil forfeiture, and followed Trump’s long history of supporting using eminent domain to seize property. That speaks for how strongly this principle is detested by Trumpism.
- Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism. – NO
- Trumpism is all about big, beautiful, federally driven solutions to problems that certainly would be better left to states and localities. Repealing Obamacare would be great, replacing it with another monster federal program not so much. A $1 trillion infrastructure program, with funds doled out by bureaucrats in Washington, will be as much a boondoggle as the “shovel ready jobs” Obama stimulus program.
- Government and government officials need restraints on power and human passions. – NO
- One glance at the headlines or Twitter on any given day tells you all you need to know how Trump (and due to their slavish devotion, most of his supporters) feel about this principle. That Trump came into the Oval Office thinking he had near kingly powers is pretty obvious, and the fact he doesn’t chafes at him probably more than anything else about the job.
- Permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. – NO
- Kirk meant this in terms of the tension between a normal society’s natural desire towards social progress versus its foundational aspects. As noted previously, Trump is in many ways out to obliterate many of those foundations, without regard to what may replace them. Yet at the same time, his supporters look to return many established norms of prior eras while removing some of the progressive aspects of modern society.
So based on Kirk’s criteria, Trumpism is not particularly conservative, although there are parts of his agenda that will certainly appeal to conservatives – particularly conservatives who have been able to divorce their societal impulses from their views of governance and morality. Still, we can safely say that most who subscribe to Trumpism are NOT conservatives.
Likewise, we can safely say that those who subscribe to neoconservatism are not conservative, either. The entire philosophy of neoconservatism disagrees with Kirk on points 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10. Think of the headlong rush to impose a Pax Americana by force of arms, to alter the nature of education and force federal intrusion into the same, and so forth. None of those policies nor the reasoning behind them were conservative in nature.
Thus, the confusion for us in determining what conservatism is and who in our country actually is a conservative. Our media, for 30 years – two generations – has conflated “conservative” with Republican. In no small measure, Buckley is responsible for this. He once wrote, “National Review will support the rightwardmost viable candidate.” This led the publication that Buckley founded, over the years, to support all four Bush candidacies, along with the McCain candidacy in 2008 and Romney candidacy in 2012. That sort of cover is precisely what the media (which has been unabashedly liberal for at least 40 years) has needed to paint the neoconservative movement as actually conservative. Likewise, the principle espoused (despite NR’s vociferous objections to Trump during the 2016 election) by Buckley has allowed them to paint Trump as a conservative.
So the answer to the question “what is a conservative” is the same as it has always been. If the question is, “who is a conservative,” though, and you refer to national leaders and politicians, then there is no obvious answer these days.