You wouldn’t expect the Donald Trump phenomenon to be foreseen by an 18th-century English political dilettante, but there it was in black and white. I was consulting the Memoirs and Portraits of Horace Walpole in connection with an extended review essay I had been asked to write elsewhere on the subject of Samuel Johnson (of dictionary fame) and his social circle. On my way to a relevant passage in the Walpole memoirs, I came across his description of the turbulent political activities of John Wilkes, a wealthy, flamboyant rabblerouser who triggered tumultuous political unrest and was tried and convicted by Parliament, but who was also a champion of free expression and the rights of the common man.
Describing Wilkes and two of his allies, Walpole wrote, “This triumvirate has made me often reflect that nations are most commonly saved by the worst men in [them].” Why? Because, he concluded, “The virtuous are too scrupulous to go the lengths that are necessary to rouse the people against their tyrants.”
Until the coming of The Donald, that had certainly become the case in recent American politics. Until the Orange Menace loosed the fearful lightning of his terrible swift tweets, the “virtuous,” rather battle-fatigued traditional conservative movement—even when controlling both houses of the Congress—had been out-shouted and outmaneuvered by the unholy alliance of a Left-dominated, morally nihilist pop culture and educational establishment, and what is laughably referred to as the “mainstream” media, all nudging an increasingly radicalized Democratic Party further and further to the left.
While fads and fashions can, and often do, change overnight, human nature does not. Any sane student of history—and there are still a few—knows this. If, like me, you also happen to believe in the existence of the human soul, both our susceptibility to transient folly and our inner yearning for a just moral order are deeply stamped into our human circuitry. This explains both our proneness to being hoodwinked by evil, and the decent impulses that make most people, most of the time, strive toward the light and try to do the right thing. Whether you call it human nature or original sin, it has always been the essence of our being.
There are times when a given culture encourages and reinforces our virtues; there are times when it takes them for granted; and there are times when it actively seeks to destroy them. Unfortunately, the current “coastal” Zeitgeist falls into the last category. The more the Left talks about justice, compassion, and fairness, the more it appeals to negative impulses like greed, envy, repression, and revenge. This sick, morally alienated liberal culture—which misleadingly calls itself “mainstream”—has come into collision with what I and many other contributors to these pages refer to as “Main Street” America.
As I see it, “Main Street” America is a loose but living coalition of millions of fellow citizens with varying backgrounds who define themselves, not on the basis of race, entitlement, ethnicity, or gender, but on shared, overarching values. Many of these values are rooted in Judeo-Christian antiquity, some in Anglo-Saxon principles of justice, representative government, and personal property rights, and some in more recent conservative movements. But we embrace them as keys to future progress. The American way of life has generated more prosperity, opportunity, and freedom than any rival system. And it has done so by looking forward, not backward; by applying timeless principles and eternal truths to changing circumstances.
Philosophical hair-splitting and ideological fads come and go. The old “fusionist” conservative coalition of traditional, Burkean constitutionalists, libertarian free marketeers, militant anti-communists, and so-called moral majoritarians is in flux. But many of its elements can be part of a new, durable conservative alloy: one that stands for Main Street values versus Wall Street abuses, that recognizes that a thriving domestic economy is the greatest contribution we can make to global prosperity, and that keeps America safe by maintaining a strong military without squandering it in needless, pointless foreign interventions that solve nothing and exact a grim toll in American lives and treasure.
When my old boss Ronald Reagan turned our country around in the 1980s he did so as a conservative with a strong sense of history and its lessons. But his tone was always optimistic and his eye was always on the future. He never lost sight of his goals and he left us a stronger, more prosperous country in a freer, safer world. One of the secrets of his success was the inspiring way he mobilized patriotic nostalgia and innate American optimism on behalf of the future. In his own unsubtle way, Donald Trump also recognizes the positive power of what, on the face of it, may sound contradictory: forward-looking nostalgia. Indeed, his powerfully resonant motto sums up—and reconciles—the link between nostalgia for the past and future progress: “Make America Great Again.”
As a patriot, the man is pointing us in the right direction. As a blunt, blustering politician with strong gut instincts, he’s also on to something—and it’s a lot closer to Main Street than it is to Wall Street.
Aram Bakshian Jr. is a former aide to presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. His writings on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts have been widely published in the United States and abroad.