Donald Trump, the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party?
How could a non-conservative become the nominee of the conservative party when he clearly is not one at all? The uncomfortable fact is that conservative intellectuals and leaders have been working for years to make the term become meaningless, so some charlatan was inevitable.
What is the public face of conservatism today? A bunch of angry men and peevish women on Fox News speaking in the three second soundbites required for admission into celebrity space with slogan answers anyone could predict before they open their mouths. Talk radio at least allows a few minutes for some depth but even many of the magazines are mostly aimed at Twitter level.
It is all meaningless slogans: anti-taxes, anti-government, pro-life, pro-defense—who could disagree—or really care?
What message are they sending? Audience-building anger, first at President Obama, at almost anything he does. Then, anger at all groups supporting the president. Then anger at Republicans in Congress because they do not defeat that president, from those who also claim to be Constitutionalists but ignore the presidential veto and that Congress lacks the votes to impeach him. And anger at the Supreme Court for operating as a super-legislature by those who failed to complain when Republican presidents appointed them.
Now there is much to be angry about—entitlements threatening bankruptcy, courts becoming the supreme national legislature to determine the culture, regulations killing the economy and jobs, the Federal Reserve undermining the currency, a bureaucracy so overwhelmed its stasis frustrates all useful work, even Republican leaders not intelligently confronting Obama. But these do not fit on Twitter. Sloganeering is the easier course.
So when a Donald Trump comes along and is angry using the same catchphrases, why not support him? He was a celebrity par excellence and no one told ordinary conservatives what the mantras mean. So the uninformed and the inert rose to support him. Trump likes big government programs and might even increase entitlements as they near bankruptcy? Obamacare is not all that bad? He likes Planned Parenthood although they sell fetus parts? Free trade is not all it is cracked up to be? He wants more power for the president?
Who cares? He is angry against the right bad guys and he knows enough slogans to get by.
How did Trump get his conservative bona fides anyway? National Review was the founding magazine of the conservative movement. But its current editor initially welcomed Trump into the presidential race as filling a vacuum to speak out on controversial issues, although he later called him a “philosophically unmoored political opportunist.”
A former chairman of the American Conservative Union gave Trump a preeminent speaking platform at the leading conservative forum, the Conservative Political Action Conference, following a $50,000 contribution from the mogul to the organization. After these two endorsements, who could say Trump was not conservative?
Liberalism could correctly brag that conservatism barely existed in the U.S. until the success of Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom in 1944, making the first intellectual case for modern conservatism. It was read by William F. Buckley Jr. and other early National Review editors such as Frank Meyer and Russell Kirk, who created an intellectual journal in the 1950s to translate the philosophy into politically relevant form.
Buckley explained that his role in founding the magazine and the movement was simply to bring the leading right-of-center intellectuals together and force them to synthesize each other’s ideas into a more-or-less coherent whole.
The early adherents ranged from monarchists to anarchists but somehow after prolonged serious intellectual debate they had created the modern conservative movement. Their disciples founded think tanks and other cultural and political institutions, published additional books and magazines and created activist organizations that developed the cadre that won the Republican nomination in 1964—and finally the presidency under an early adherent, Ronald Reagan.
It had its successes but it has been obvious for years that conservatism had lost its moorings. Trump simply sealed the movement’s end. He has already proved the slogans have no overall coherence and the mainstream media trumpeted the charade as the essence of conservatism. It turns out the media gave Trump $2 billion in free media (Hillary Clinton only got half that amount) to do the job.
Take the mantra of Republican leaders that “we all agree upon” reducing taxes. But remember what Reagan said about them. Right at the beginning of his presidency, he proclaimed he was not reducing spending and taxes primarily to save money but to return power to the states and people. There was a broader philosophy behind the slogan. That is what has been lost.
A serious conservatism needs to turn from the allure of power and celebrity and get back to serious deliberation, re-learning how to synthesize conservatism’s traditionalist and libertarian elements for today’s world. Inventing showy abbreviated conservatisms—neo, social, paleo, reform—distract from the fundamental necessity of synthesis. While Buckley and Reagan still have much to teach the movement, things have changed and new fusions of principles and events have become essential.
Indeed, the best thing about Trump’s success is that conservative intellectuals seem to be starting to think again, realizing slogans are not enough. With a bit of luck The American Conservative and other serious forums just may find the way back.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and one of his campaign strategists.