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.
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.