Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Conservatism After Trump

How much will this president have changed what it means to be a conservative?

I don’t know enough about the writing either of Charles C.W. Cooke or Jennifer Rubin to have an informed opinion about their spat, though Cooke’s piece is pretty strong and solid in its waylaying of Rubin’s anti-Trumpism. But I think Rubin defender David Frum is correct on a larger point. First, this:

The most revealing thought in Cooke’s essay is his explanation for why he feels it is safe to go with the Trumpian flow: “Conservatism in this country long predated Trump; for now, it is tied up with Trump; soon, it will have survived Trump.”

That’s not really an accurate characterization of Cooke’s point. His contention is that Rubin hates Trump so much that she’s attacking positions she once defended, just because Trump shares them, and vice versa. Cooke’s point is that if Rubin is a conservative, she should defend conservative principles, not allow her views to be shaped entirely by personal animus for Donald Trump. He’s right about that. But Frum has a point here:

This is something many conservatives tell themselves, but it’s not even slightly true. Trump is changing conservatism into something different. We can all observe that. Will it snap back afterward?

You can believe this only if you imagine that ideologies exist independently of the human beings who espouse them—and that they can continue unchanged and unchanging despite fluctuations in their human adherents. In this view, millions of American conservatives may build their political identities on enthusiastic support for Donald Trump—but American conservatism will continue humming in the background as if none of those human commitments mattered at all.


Conservatism is what conservatives think, say, and do. As conservatives change—as much through the harsh fact of death and birth as by the fluctuations of opinion—so does what it means to be a conservative.

The Trump presidency is a huge political fact. He may not be the leader of American conservatism, but he is its most spectacular and vulnerable asset. The project of defending him against his coming political travails—or at least of assailing those who doubt and oppose him—is already changing what it means to be a conservative. The word conservative will of course continue in use. But its meaning is being rewritten day by day by the actions of those who lay claim to the word.

Read the whole thing. 

This is why I just shake my head at conservatives who think Trump is an aberration, a Cromwellian interregnum before the Restoration of the monarchy, so to speak. It is certainly true, at least right now, that Trump is cultivating no heirs apparent. But the idea that right-of-center voters will have learned their lesson by voting for Trump, and will come home to the traditional GOP — that’s bonkers.

Think of how Trump (and to a much lesser extent, Roy Moore) is changing what it means to be an Evangelical. American Evangelicalism, like American conservatism, is a broad and durable movement that was here a long time before Donald Trump showed up, and will be here after he leaves. But the way so many white Evangelicals have embraced Trump really is changing Evangelicalism — this, even though Trump is not even an Evangelical! It is impossible to see how white Evangelicalism can return to the status quo ante after Trump leaves office.

Political parties and movements are more like Evangelical churches than like the Catholic Church. They don’t have deposits of clearly defined doctrine that define them, and that stand outside of history. On the other hand, it must be admitted that this is overblown even in the Catholic Church, which has a well-defined doctrinal code and offices to interpret it. It looks solid as a rock from the outside, but once you get inside, you find that for most Catholics today, Catholicism is what Catholics say, and do. This has a lot to do with the diminishment of the authority of Catholic ecclesial elites over the past 60 years, because of vast cultural changes. Still, if you want to know what the Catholic Church teaches and demands that its adherents believe, you can find it written down. There are structural barriers within Catholicism to rapid change. Political parties don’t have those brakes.

Here are Russell Kirk’s Six Canons of Conservatism:

  1. A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
  2. An affection for the “variety and mystery” of human existence;
  3. A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize “natural” distinctions;
  4. A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
  5. A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and
  6. A recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.

Which of these general principles describes popular American conservatism today? Maybe No. 4, with smidge of No. 1, most of them people who take the Jeffress Option. I subscribe to Kirk’s Canons, but I can’t pretend that they are much in evidence outside of the religious, literary, and philosophical circles I frequent.

The truth is, they probably haven’t been for a long time, because the world that produced Kirkian traditionalism has been largely obliterated by mass culture, consumerism, media, and technology. The fact that so many conservatives responded to my 2002 cover story in National Review describing “crunchy cons” (my name for 21st-century conservatives who are more or less Kirkians) by treating it as if I were trying to smuggle liberalism in through the back door revealed how little influence Kirk’s ideas have on the contemporary conservative mind. (Alas for the contemporary conservative mind!)

What do you call Kirkian conservatives in the age of Trump? Reactionaries? What? All I can tell you is that I identify less and less with what people mean today when they use the word “conservative.” Then again, it’s been like that for me for about a decade, so I’m used to it. It’s kind of vain to say that we are the true conservatives. At least orthodox Catholics who affirm the Church’s doctrinal teachings can appeal to an authoritative standard. Political parties — unless, like the Communist parties, they are run like religious cults — don’t have authoritative standards.

It makes no sense to speak of “conservatism,” when what we really have are conservatisms, plural. But there is such a thing as mainstream conservatism, and for better or for worse, Trump guides its course. For an institution like National Review, which since Ronald Reagan appeared on the scene has considered itself a leading standard-bearer of mainstream conservatism, the wrestling with the meaning of Trump, especially after Trump is gone, will be difficult and consequential. In a sense, NR has been there before, when it was a Goldwaterite magazine when the GOP was in the hands of Rockefeller Republicans. But Reaganism is exhausted, and it is entirely unclear what will replace it, if not Trumpism.

Whatever comes next will have had to have reckoned with Trumpism. My personal hope would be for a J.D. Vance-ist Republican Party, one that takes the best parts of Trumpist populism, and combines it with competence, decency, and prudence. But that’s going to be a ways away.

Anyway, I digress. My basic point is that whatever calls itself “conservatism” will not have survived Trump, if by “survive” one means emerges from him relatively unchanged. It’s not so much the substantive changes Trump will have made (there may not be many) as it is the role he played in knocking off the GOP’s and the conservative movement’s traditional elites. The definition of “conservatism” is going to be fluid for a long time after Trump, in part because of Trump, and in part because of the intensification of the broader cultural and technological forces that brought Trump to the presidency.

Those same cultural and technological forces are going to change the Democratic Party too. It will be fascinating if Democratic primary voters in 2020 allow the party’s traditional elites to foist another establishment candidate upon them. If you were a liberal Democrat, wouldn’t you be looking for someone fresh and dynamic? Would you really want to trust the people who brought you Hillary Clinton, the one prominent Democrat who could lose an election to Donald Trump?



Conservatism After Trump

How the Right—and foreign-policy realism—can survive our populist moment.

From one day to the next, President Donald Trump bulldozes his way through the American political scene, seemingly oblivious to or perhaps taking satisfaction from the resulting chaos. Were he alive, H.L. Mencken would no doubt find the entire spectacle vastly entertaining. The rest of us, conservatives especially, must view the ongoing demolition with dismay.

Indeed, Mencken, ribald observer of American democracy, saw it all coming. Writing just shy of a century ago, the Sage of Baltimore took delight in deriding the dully submissive average American as “a pliant slave of capitalism, and ever ready to help it put down fellow-slaves who venture to revolt.” Yet as Mencken went on to explain, “this very weakness, this very credulity and poverty of spirit, on some easily conceivable tomorrow, may convert him into a rebel of a peculiarly insane kind.” Mencken foresaw the likelihood of people expected to do what they are told one day deciding that they’d had enough.

Simmering popular discontent, he continued, would pave the way for “the professional mob-master, the merchant of delusions, the pumper-up of popular fears and rages” to offer himself as champion of the great unwashed. Other demagogues had already illuminated the pathway for such a “corsair of democracy,” according to Mencken. “There were lightnings along that horizon in the days of [Theodore] Roosevelt; there were thunder growls when [William Jennings] Bryan emerged from the Nebraska steppes.” These, however, were mere preliminaries. “On some great day of fate, as yet unrevealed by the gods,” Mencken predicted, “such a professor of the central democratic science may throw off his employers and set up a business for himself. When that day comes there will be plenty of excuse for black type on the front pages of the newspapers.” That day has now seemingly arrived, as even a glance at the agitated headlines featured on the New York Times or the Washington Post will confirm.

If ever “a master corsair” were “thoroughly adept at pulling the mob nose,” it’s our nation’s 45th president, who has indeed “set up a business for himself.” Mencken had Trump pegged even before Trump himself existed.

Yet an aptitude for inciting the hoi polloi does not necessarily translate into a capacity to govern. Resistance to the Trump regime, coming largely but not exclusively from the left, has gathered with impressive speed. No longer obliged to profess allegiance to the uninspiring Hillary Clinton, liberals have shed their ennui. 

If during the longue duree of the 2016 presidential campaign progressives had expended even half the energy they have demonstrated since last November 8, a Jewish socialist from Vermont would today occupy the White House and Donald Trump would have resumed his duties as host of Celebrity Apprentice. Given the ways things are turning out, I’d have preferred Bernie.

Conservatives should applaud the way that Trump’s ascent has reenergized left-liberals. After all, in character and temperament, Trump himself represents the antithesis of all that conservatives putatively cherish. For the gaudy Trump, nothing is sacred or fixed or permanent. Everything is for sale. Let’s make a deal.

Furthermore, Trump’s success in hijacking the GOP has exposed the emptiness of that party’s claim to uphold conservative principles or any principles whatsoever. There too, Mencken got it right decades ago. The hypocrites who today preside over the Republican Party are direct descendants of the pols who in Mencken’s day cast their vote for Prohibition “with flasks in their pockets.”

So if an establishment press that has long leaned left has now abandoned any pretense of evenhandedness, good. If the proponents of multiculturalism, diversity, and other hallmarks of ostensibly enlightened thinking fill the streets to denounce Trump as a proto-fascist, better. If opposition to Trump’s clownish presidency ultimately succeeds in bringing it down, that will be best of all.

Conservatives can expect to play at best a minor role in the drama that is unfolding. Two considerations should inform our efforts, however modest our numbers. Both considerations should look to the post-Trump era, which cannot come soon enough and might possibly be upon us sooner than expected.

The first of those considerations is to minimize damage to the Constitution, whether inflicted by Trump himself or by his opponents. In that regard, conservatives should side with their brethren on the left in standing foursquare against actions by Trump or members of his lunatic inner circle that jeopardize any aspect of the Bill of Rights, whether relating to speech, assembly, privacy, the free exercise of religion, or limits on the police power of the state.

On the other hand, conservatives should insist that Trump’s opponents also adhere to terms set out in the Constitution. Among more radical members of the left, eagerness to remove Trump from office, using any available pretext, is palpable. I myself will not shed a tear should Trump be involuntarily and permanently returned to the eponymous tower from which he descended to complete the corruption of American politics. Let it be done, however, in strict compliance with either Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution or alternatively in accordance with Section 4 of the 25th Amendment.  

For too long, political leaders have played fast and loose with constitutional requirements, the abrogation of the role assigned to the Congress in authorizing war offering but one important example—one that Trump himself may give us further cause to regret. Yet to remove a president from office by taking similar shortcuts will open the door to all manner of further abuses. Conservatives should warn against such a prospect.

Anyway, given sufficient rope, Trump—perhaps with the unwitting assistance of bullying associates like Steve Bannon—will likely hang himself.  

The second consideration will find principled conservatives in direct opposition to those on the left who through ignorance or ill will cite Trump as reason enough to declare conservatism itself invalid and impermissible. As is already evident, through words and actions President Trump is already doing untold damage to core conservative convictions.

Foreign policy offers one example. Long the domain of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives—the yin and yang of American militarism—the ranks of the foreign-policy elite have rejected approaches based on prudence, pragmatism, self-restraint, or even an appreciation of history’s complexities. They have, in short, succeeded in freezing conservatives out.

Consumed by the need always and everywhere to demonstrate “global leadership” by the planet’s one and only “indispensable nation,” members of the foreign-policy establishment have in recent decades pursued a course radically at odds with actually existing U.S. interests. Pursuing a de facto policy of permanent war, they have squandered American lives and treasure on a prodigious scale while accomplishing next to nothing. Need proof? Assess U.S. achievements over the past decade-and-a-half in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a candidate, Trump seemed to get this. If elected, he promised to pursue a course that put “America First.” You might think that any president, appointed official, or elected office holder ought by reason of their oath of office subscribe to that proposition. Yet President Trump and those on whose advice he apparently relies seem determined to gut the concept of “America First.” They have made the phrase synonymous with impulsiveness and narrow parochialism, with hurling insults and instigating needless squabbles.

Commentators who don’t know their history claim that the very phrase is redolent with anti-Semitism and even Nazism—an argument akin to describing FDR as a tool of Stalin because his administration included a number of communists. Put simply, Trump is enabling a smear, which will make it all the harder for advocates of policies based on prudence and pragmatism when he sooner or later departs from office.

It’s incumbent upon conservatives to push back against that smear. “America First” can be and should be an honorable sentiment. Even Mencken would approve.

Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large. His most recent book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, is just out in paperback.