A Different Conservatism
As J.D. Vance has argued, most Trump supporters aren’t fooled by their candidate’s desultory attempts to speak the language of governance. They back him because he feels their pain, or pretends to. If Vance, David Lapp, and others are correct that this election has marked the emergence of solidarity as an essential political value, then the dogmatically anti-government Republican Party may not have much of a future.
There was an American conservatism before Reaganism burst onto the scene in the latter half of the 20th century, and there will be an American conservatism after it fades from view. The American Solidarity Party is betting that the next iteration of the American right will resemble a purified Trumpism.
The party was formed in 2011 as the Christian Democracy Party USA, and like Europe’s Christian Democratic parties, it embraces a certain form of the welfare state while maintaining socially conservative positions on abortion, marriage, and family. That combination of traditionalism and solidarity with the poor bears a certain resemblance to the message that has swept Trump to the summit of the conservative movement, but party leaders stress that on a principled level they have little in common with the Republican nominee.
“[Trump] is very difficult to describe on a policy level because he doesn’t have a whole lot of policies,” Amir Azarvan told me. Azarvan became the ASP’s first presidential nominee earlier this year, but his employer, Georgia Gwinnett College, asked him to drop out of the race. (He remains on the party’s national committee.) He admits that some of Trump’s favorite talking points, like his insistence on the distinction between free trade and fair trade, could “resonate with a lot of [ASP] supporters.” But he’s inclined to doubt the GOP candidate’s commitment to his own rhetoric, especially on social issues.
The Solidarists also diverge sharply from Trump on a number of his signature issues. One is immigration: the ASP platform calls unabashedly for amnesty, takes a jab at border walls, and implies that global inequality makes immigration “a necessity” for many workers. The party also criticizes the tough-on-crime approach that Trump has adopted since the Republican National Convention and condemns torture. And whereas Trump dismays conservatives by promising to fix social dysfunction through government action and executive fiat, the Solidarists insist on subsidiarity. While they call for the establishment of a single-payer health-care system, for example, they stress that it would be administered by the states.
“[Trump] is the best thing that has ever happened to American democracy,” Azarvan said. However, he adds, that’s not because of any of the Donald’s ideas—it’s because he’s so universally hated that he’s forcing principled conservatives to seek other options. Trump may have brought a version of the politics of solidarity into the American mainstream, but the ASP rejects the aspects of his program that have been linked to white racial resentment. For the Solidarists, then, a great deal hangs on the question of what exactly is motivating Trump supporters: economic anxiety or racial animus?
ASP presidential nominee Mike Maturen told me he thinks his party actually lines up better with Middle America’s prevailing political sentiments than do either of the major parties. “Mainstream America would be sort of center-right on social issues and sort of center-left on fiscal issues,” he said. “The problem is, they don’t know we exist.”
Azarvan is less sanguine. “We are in the minority, just based on what I’ve looked at,” he said. “At the same time I think it’s just a matter of consciousness-raising. Once they discover we exist, those who otherwise thought that they were liberal or conservative might come to see that they are, in fact, Christian Democratic in their ideology.” That was Maturen’s experience; a lifelong Republican, he discovered the party while he was in the depths of the kind of political malaise that many conservatives are experiencing right now. In any case, the ASP has experienced what Maturen called “almost geometric growth” since this year’s election cycle began in earnest. “Pope Francis being so vocal about taking care of the poor and cherishing life from conception to natural death might have more people thinking along those lines,” he said, adding that the lack of “palatable options” in the mainstream is probably responsible for much of this year’s growth.
Positive articles in popular Christian sources like Mere Orthodoxy, First Things, and Front Porch Republic have also helped to drive the party’s expansion. Still, geometric growth for a party of this size doesn’t mean much if it can’t be sustained. At last count, the ASP had around 800 Twitter followers and 3,000 Facebook likes—not exactly nipping at Donald Trump’s heels and well behind other tiny outfits like the Constitution Party. Where other third parties hold conventions in hotel ballrooms, Maturen and his running mate, Juan Muñoz, recorded their five-minute acceptance speeches on webcam.
What can the ASP accomplish this November? Maturen and Azarvan both emphasized that this year’s presidential run is primarily about publicity. As befits subsidiarists, they plan to focus on local government in the medium term. But they hope that in the short term, a visible presidential campaign will put them in a position to recruit competitive candidates for local office. That way, a movement that’s mostly an internet phenomenon at the moment can transition into a stable presence on the local political scene. Maturen adds that a moderately successful campaign could give the ASP enough influence to start making policy pitches to elected officials. “If I can find the candidates or currently elected officials that are on board with what we believe, then we can sort of work together to get legislation through,” he said.
Maturen has a day job—which he has not quit—as a performing magician who plays birthday parties, corporate events, and banquets. And the ASP’s presidential candidate admits that a vote for him doesn’t necessarily represent the same intention as a vote for Trump or Clinton. “A number of our backers are feeling that nobody’s fooling themselves into thinking that we’re going to win the presidency,” he said.
But politics is the art of the acceptable, and for traditionalist conservatives who are frustrated by the conservative movement’s ongoing obsession with neoliberal economics—and with its recent leftward turn on social issues—the Solidarists are likely more acceptable in principle than either major party. Maturen and Azarvan have familiar defenses of third-party voting at their fingertips, but the best case for supporting the ASP is probably the one that takes the long view. For a party that wants to start a new political movement, every vote, Facebook post, and conversation counts double: once in this election and once in the Solidarists’ long-term project of working their way into the nation’s political consciousness.
In Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission, Muslim French president Mohammed Ben Abbes’s anti-liberal policy program includes a revival of distributism. For the anti-liberal Houellebecq, a localized, communitarian economic system is the natural alternative to the West’s failed hyper-individualism. In other words, in the age of liberalism’s crisis, the future seems to belong to solidarity. The question is whether the solidarity of the future will look more like Trumpian ethno-nationalism or the ASP’s vision for an economic and cultural localism uncolored by parochial prejudice.
Some people will also ask whether the latter is even possible, especially in a secular state. Until quite recently, Christian Democratic parties seemed to be prospering in post-Christian Europe, but the latest wave of immigration is demonstrating that for many people, economic solidarity has its basis in blood ties. Still, notions of identity change quickly, and the U.S. has always been less of an ethno-state than its European counterparts. So as neoliberalism flounders around the globe, you can’t fault Maturen & Co. for believing that Christian democracy has a part to play in whatever political alignment emerges from the present American crisis.
Malloy Owen is a philosophy student at the University of Chicago.