Conservatism After Trump
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.
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:
- A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
- An affection for the “variety and mystery” of human existence;
- A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize “natural” distinctions;
- A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
- A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and
- 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?