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Conservatism 2016

Donald Trump is probably not a long-time reader of The American Conservative. Yet those who are instantly recognized the constellation of issues Trump chose to highlight in his campaign: concern about mass immigration, criticism of the foreign policy that took us to war in Iraq, skepticism about free-trade deals. These were the distinguishing traits of Pat Buchanan’s campaigns in the 1990s. Trump is no paleoconservative, but he has independently discovered something that sounds a lot like paleoconservatism.

That’s not a coincidence. The elements of a populist, nationalist right have been present in American politics since at least the end of the Cold War; the cluster of issues common to Trump and Buchanan is a natural set. It isn’t necessarily a winning political formula—opportunistic politicians have shunned this combination precisely because they thought it couldn’t win—but the economic and cultural conditions that bring it to life are persistent. As long as they exist, “paleoconservatism” will always come back, no matter what happens to campaigns like Buchanan’s or Trump’s.

For their supporters, this may be heartening news—just as it’s dismaying to their critics, most of all the likes of Bill Kristol. But paleo-populism (which in some forms isn’t strictly “conservative”) is not the only configuration of the right that can spring up time and again. A Christian conservatism that eschews nationalism’s economics and culture is also available to be rediscovered, even should the religious-right leaders who represent it today lose their status. A right that is economically “liberal”—in the classical sense—is also a persistent possibility, and it’s one reason why the Libertarian Party tends to resemble a shadow GOP, complete with nominees who are ex-Republicans. For all that many libertarians prefer not to think of themselves as of the right, the political expression of their principles winds up looking distinctly right-of-center to outside observers.

A fourth and final natural configuration of right-leaning politics is, alas, something like neoconservatism—an ideology that would preserve the worst elements of the status quo by recasting them as “national greatness” or “heroic.” The paternalistic ethos of the welfare state—if not its every program—and the dream of exporting liberal-democratic revolution around the world will not die any time soon. This compound of ideas and interests is of the right in the sense that it does define itself against a radical New Left.


thisarticleappears julaug16 [1]Indeed, all the possible forms of the right are defined against both a left and a rival right. Libertarians are against an economic left and rival economic rights; Christian conservatives are against a cultural left and rival cultural rights; paleo-populists are against the post-national left and post-national right; and neoconservatives are against the multicultural left and nationalist right.

But what about plain conservatism? It lacks a natural constituency; it’s not a product of economic interest or simply an expression of tribe or faith. Rather it’s an ideal of balance, one that must be applied to bring out the best—and counter the worst—in the forces that vie to shape our politics. In today’s America, for too long the balance has tilted too far toward globalism, political abstraction, and counterfeit greatness. But there’s always a danger in the other direction as well, as conservatives well know. The lost sense of nationhood must be regained—but without sacrificing everything else.

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10 Comments To "Conservatism 2016"

#1 Comment By capn On July 20, 2016 @ 8:33 am

I think that Trump voiced many concerns that Pat Buchannan had during the 90s, but I also think that if you will listen to many of Pat Robertson’s concerns during the 1988 campaign you will hear much of the same. I was a county co-ordinator for that campaign, and many believe that campaign may have been the foundation on which the Contract with America was laid, due to people he brought with him from the Democratic party. These issues have been around for a long time, and some people have been more prescient, or able to discern from further out, issues that we will have to deal with. I’ll never forget when William Rusher stepped down as Publisher(?) of National Review, someone asked him what he would be doing, and he said that he and/or his group would be focusing on issues to come in the next 100 years. I don’t know if many can see that far out intelligently, but some do see things sooner than others. At any rate, Pat Buchannan has consistently been right in his views, and for whatever he has to do with this magazine, I am grateful to him.

#2 Comment By J.A.A. Purves On July 20, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

Paleoconservatism, neoconservatism, “Christian” conservatism, Trumpism and libertarianism are by no means the only, let alone the main, configurations “of right-leaning politics.” As Patrick Deneen wrote in TAC last year, Classical Liberalism, Libertarianism and Natural Rights Conservatism can all be clearly distinguished from Traditional Conservatism.

Plain old traditional, or Burkean, conservatism is, as Russell Kirk was so fond of pointing out, “the negation of ideology.” It is equally far away from both Trump and Clinton. It has no party line. It is willing to compromise, to reform carefully and gradually, to uphold tradition with room for the development of the same. It is willing to work with the always changing exigencies of the Age and to be realistic about what can and cannot be accomplished.

Let’s just say that Barry Goldwater’s “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice / Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue” is the antithesis of the old ethics of the virtues. The classical view means avoiding both excess and deficiency of liberty and of law. Extremism of any variety is to err on the side of excess. To the extent that Goldwater, Buchanan or Trump ever decided to err on the side of extremism is the extent to which they depart from the Burkean conservatism of Kirk and Buckley.

#3 Comment By Thomas Sm On July 20, 2016 @ 3:10 pm

@JAA Purves:

Why is Burkean conservatism anti-Trump or equadistant between Trump and Clinton? I don’t like to define conservatism as anti-ideology, since one can argue that the organic society, deference to traditional foundations of authority, a preference for social stability and controlled inequality, a rejection of materialism, etc., are right-wing ideological principles. That’s a semantic debate, however. Trump is not perfectly Burkean but isn’t his form of conservatism innately less dogmatic than the Ted Cruz version or even the Bill Kristol neo- or Pat Buchanan paleo- versions, not to mention Ron Paul, the greatest ideologue of them all? He speaks of conservatism as a means of preserving society, culture, and the State, not as a substitute for anarcho-libertarianism or Austrian economics or Christian Reconstructionism or neo-Confederate ideology.

Surely, he is the most Burkean candidate since at least Nixon or Eisenhower!

#4 Comment By Thomas Sm On July 20, 2016 @ 4:45 pm

Concerning paleo- and neoconservatism as briefly defined in the article, it has always struck me how they manage to be near opposites by combining different and complementary strands of classical liberal and conservative thought.

Paleoconservatism is traditionalist, more morally-oriented and anti-materialist, more respectful of sovereign nation-states and the national interest economically, more deferential to traditional forms of authority, believers in Realpolitik, etc., but also sometimes has doctrinaire classical liberal streaks in domestic economic policy and strongly favours decentralisation and is likewise suspicious of intrusions by central governmental authorities into our civil liberties.

Neoconservatism is right-wing authoritarian in its projection, and justification, of centralised State power, and considers security superior to civil liberties. It offers an idealistic imperialism and propagandises a nationalistic idealism (even if it expects élites to consider these to be simply useful myths). Its defence of aspects of the welfare state has a paternalistic, rather than egalitarian, character. On the other hand, neoconservatives are largely fanatics for economic globalisation and mass immigration. Furthermore, its imperialist idealism goes well into Jacobin territory, with the rhetoric (if not the intention) of democratic egalitarianism and women’s rights.

While Buchanan overall in his career may have been a more standard paleo, his 1996 campaign had some of the right-wing elements of the neos (e.g., Social Security/Medicare paternalism and securitarianism) without their left-leaning deviations. Trump perhaps more clearly has the right-wing and illiberal characteristics of both camps, for better or worse. He has no inkling of attachment to doctrinaire economic liberalism including free trade, he is not opposed to the welfare state, he shows little hint of respect for the 9th and 10th Amendments, no interest in civil liberties, and no apparent desire to curb the powers of the military or intelligence services. He is only lacking in moral and religious traditionalism.

So I find Trump close to a plain conservative, although the editorial board seems to have in mind a more “American” brand hybrid of economic liberalism and social conservatism. All I can say is that libertarianism is not and was never of the Right (Ron Paul is, strictly speaking, a constitutionalist and has some paleocon positions) and the evangelical “Christian Right” has elements which are mainline neocon with extremist (and heterodox) eschatology added on top.

I had always considered AmConMag to be a project generally supporting what you describe as “paleo-populism” and not desiring some sort of average of these four schools.

#5 Comment By capn On July 20, 2016 @ 6:54 pm

Neo-conservatism is right-wing authoritarian in its projection, and justification, of centralized State power, and considers security superior to civil liberties. It offers an idealistic imperialism and propagandizes a nationalistic idealism (even if it expects élites to consider these to be simply useful myths).

Maybe. To me, as one who is in no way anti-Israel (I say that in truth but also aware of the need to be politically correct) – it’s agenda mirrors Zionism

#6 Comment By Andrew On July 21, 2016 @ 4:58 pm

J.A.A. Purges-Many would say Buckley and his NR had long since moved farther away from Kirkean conservatism than Buchanan had by the time he died. One such person might have been Kirk himself, who was a pitchfork brigader by ’92.

#7 Comment By city eyes On July 21, 2016 @ 6:12 pm

How can I believe in a market economy and reject imperial wars and open borders? How can I see diversity as a near cousin of social devastation? I watch Netflix and have to reject nearly 50 percent of their movies as having messages that I do not want to hear. Their descriptions should have message ratings. Mainstream media is equally as guilty. The greatest challenges to the First Amendment are ahead. The propagandists must extinguish the truth to have their servile way going forward. Why does the American Conservative have need to filter comments?

#8 Comment By C. Stayton On July 22, 2016 @ 12:31 pm

Once again, as Paul Gottfried has pointed out, people are falling prey to the false media narrative of Right vs. Left. There is no meaningful difference between these parties in terms of principles. The Libertarian Party is hardly different, with its presidential and vice-presidential candidates being nothing more than a centrist-Democrat and centrist-Republican, respectively.

The real dividing line is between decentralization and statism, and between an individualist and collectivist social/ethical ideology. If you take the validity of the state as a given, you will endlessly justify the aggression of the state against individuals both at home and abroad in the name of “national security,” “group rights,” and economic “fairness.”

The only path to a free, secure, and lawful society is to recognize the individual as the sole legitimate unit of moral agency.

#9 Comment By J.A.A. Purves On July 22, 2016 @ 1:11 pm

@Thomas Sm

1 – Burkean/Traditional conservatism affirms the reality of a transcendent order or body of natural law. It sees political problems to be fundamentally moral and theological. It attempts to apprehend and apply the transcendent moral order to the relational community of human persons.

By both his words and actions, public and private, Trump shows contempt for such a moral sphere.

2 – Burkean/Traditional conservatism has affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence. It equally rejects both egalitarianism and utilitarianism in favor of enjoyment of life, and the diversity and culture life comes with.

Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric, his association with supremacist/racist thinking, and his willingness to support the destructive and leveling effects of corporate empire all show an unawareness, of not a rejection of, the culture that cannot thrive under mere utility. His populist calls for mass deportation destroy any such conservative affection. His triumphant isolationism is contrary to any understanding of how linked all of human life now is.

3 – Burkean/Traditional conservatism acknowledges that civilization requires orders and classes, resisting all radical attempts to level or artificially create equality of condition.

Trump’s equating of “Art of the Deal” corporate practice with a “conservative” view of government is laughable. His ill-informed support for much of the welfare programs that even Paul Ryan has attempted to gradually eliminate is evidence of liberalism in economic thinking. Additionally, Trump’s rhetoric of unrestrained democracy is a repudiation of everything that Madison, Hamiton and Jay argued for in the Federalist Papers.

4 – Burkean/Traditional conservatism links freedom with property rights, and this includes the small property rights of the small landowner and small business.

From his rhetoric, Trump shows no understanding of the difference between private and government “job creation,” no understanding of basic economics, no worry about the ways in which unrestrained corporate competition has wiped out trades, crafts, small businesses, workmanship and local economy. His threats to engage in protectionism and trade wars are threats to engage in the very activity that destroys small property.

5 – Burkean/Traditional conservatism upholds tradition, custom, convention and prescription on the grounds that tradition is built up by the wisdom acquired over time and many generations.

The disregard for history and tradition that Trump and his followers display is not an accident. They don’t care about getting things right. They don’t care about Constitutional law. They don’t care about what they may have to destroy in order to “get things done.”

6 – Burkean/Traditional conservatism recognizes that the consequences of hasty innovation, change and radical reform are more often more harmful than helpful. Progress needs to be slow, gradual and careful. Prudence and moderation are necessary in order to conserve during reform.

Trump’s innovative radicalism is contrary to the most fundamental of conservative sensibilities. His ignorance of the Constitution is dangerous. His willingness to innovate and “change the system” without any regard to prudence or law is against our existence as a Constitutional Republic.

Moreover, rejecting ideology is not just semantics. Neither is insisting that ideology is not just a modernized synonym for philosophy.

For one to advocate for a “conservative” ideology is to place oneself outside the mainstream of traditional intellectual conservative thought, as well as to distance oneself from all the greatest conservative thinkers of past ages. As Russell Kirk wrote: “Ideology, in short, is a political formula that promises mankind an earthly paradise; but in cruel fact what ideology has created is a series of terrestrial hells … Ideology is inverted religion, denying the Christian doctrine of salvation through grace in death, and substituting collective salvation here on earth through violent revolution. Ideology inherits the fanaticism that sometimes has afflicted religious faith, and applies that intolerant belief to concerns secular. Ideology makes political compromise impossible: the ideologue will accept no deviation from the Absolute Truth of his secular revelation.”

Conservatism is, on the contrary, a sensibility. Ideology is, as John Adams wrote, “the science of idiocy.”

#10 Comment By the unworthy craftsman On July 23, 2016 @ 7:00 am

As I always say, with apologies to Uncle Joe: “Capitalism In One Country”.