There’s been much hand-wringing on the right over Donald Trump’s conservatism—or, more accurately, his perceived lack thereof. From the early days of the 2016 GOP primaries, venerable institutions of Official Conservatism denounced Trump’s departure from orthodoxy on issues ranging from tariffs to Iraq. There was the strange, brief, supposedly serious presidential run from Evan McMullin, a sort of last gasp effort to conserve the Conservatism brand: free markets, strong national defense, individual liberty, and the like. The subsequent launch of The Bulwark ensured that the McMullin gasp was more penultimate than conclusive.
The latest entry into the fray comes from George Will in the Washington Post. Will dismisses national conservatives as simply trying to rationalize the Trump administration’s behavior, and labels their economic thinking “Elizabeth Warren conservatism.” He excoriates Oren Cass as a socialist for suggesting that the United States adopt an industrial policy that allocates resources well rather than “to their most economically productive uses.” He scorns Tucker Carlson’s contention that the private sector now poses a greater threat to personal liberty than government, dismissing corporate power as “friction of circumstances.” To Will, national conservative arguments come at the expense of conservative principles. As he writes, national conservatives “advocate unprecedented expansion of government to purge America of excessive respect for market forces and to affirm robust confidence in government as a social engineer allocating wealth and opportunity. They call themselves conservatives, perhaps because they loathe progressives, although they seem to not remember why.”
The implication, of course, is that the legitimate reason to “loathe” progressives is not necessarily over a difference in political ends (are drag queen story hours good for our children? Do we want a nation in which our manufacturing base is owned by China?) but rather over political means: progressives’ willingness to consider governmental solutions to the social and economic problems that plague our nation. And further, that any openness to such remedial policies among conservatives requires forfeiture of the moniker. Herein lies the essential, un-conservative nature of Official Conservatism. What Will—and Max Boot and Gabe Schoenfeld and countless others—bemoan as unprincipled are not principles at all, but rather policies. These policies, from tariffs to immigration restrictions to troop reductions in Afghanistan, do deviate in important ways from those long associated with the political label “conservative.” They instead seek to conserve a uniquely American way of life—one that, if 2016 is any indication, voters think worthy of conservation. Indeed, the extent to which the language of conservation (“preserve,” “save,” “tradition,” “community”) has been absent from the conservative movement speaks volumes about the truly un-conservative nature of the modern political right.
More importantly, these Trumpian deviations from established GOP policies often seek to correct the very social ills that those policies produced. Blind commitment to “strong national defense” gave us a generation mired in endless wars that have done little to actually defend the homeland and left their disproportionately working class communities to cope with the social destabilization that accompanies missing their would-be civic leaders. Fealty to “free markets” has hollowed out America’s industrial base and produced unprecedented concentrations of corporate power, which is in turn leveraged against conservative cultural ends—to say nothing of the economic toll on the middle of the country. Overemphasis on “individual liberty” has yielded a thoroughly libertine culture in which religious conservatives can conceive of no defense from the excesses of sexual and identity politics but to wave the First Amendment in vain, expecting equal protection for their “bigoted” views.
Enter Donald Trump. A disclaimer is in order, of course, as the irony of a thrice-married vulgarian acting as bulwark against social unraveling is not lost. Trump the man is but a brute instrument, a bull in a china shop bringing attention to the inability of Republican talking points to actually conserve anything worthwhile. His personal behavior, from philandering to boorish tweeting, merits condemnation when necessary. But wholesale dismissals of the broader Trump phenomenon along these lines are tiresome. At their best, the underlying themes that Trumpian policy reflects represent a far more classical, Burkean conservatism than anything the GOP has put forward in recent years precisely because they deviate from “principled” conservatives. The North Star of conservatism is no longer allegiance to a collapsing three-legged stool, but rather preservation of that which gives life meaning: productive work, strong families, cohesive culture.
One need only look at how the right’s leading lights define conservatism to illustrate the divergence. In the midst of his “principled” stand against the Trump candidacy at CPAC in 2016, Senator Ben Sasse made explicit the policy-principle confusion that has plagued the conservative movement: “Conservatism is a set of policy principles,” he said. Contrast that to candidate Trump, who, in his characteristically clumsy way a mere month earlier, defined conservative very differently: “I view the word conservative as a derivative of the word conserve…. We want to conserve our country. We want to save our country.”
Conservatism is not an ideology. It’s a disposition (and as such, is more appropriately discussed in its adjectival rather than noun form). As the founding editors of this magazine wrote, a conservative disposition is “the most natural political tendency, rooted in man’s taste for the familiar, for family, for faith in God.” It’s no wonder that Russell Kirk, a principal architect of American conservative politics, spoke so often of the permanent things. Those permanent things—faith, family, culture, country; the “elements in the human condition that give us our nature”—are the principles that must guide a conservative politics. Policy should seek to promote them, not vice versa. To the extent that Donald Trump can reorient our policy to serve those ends, he is the truly principled conservative.
Emile A. Doak is senior development associate at The American Conservative. He lives in his hometown of Herndon, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @EADoak.