WASHINGTON: Many people call themselves “Conservative.” Others use the term “conservatism” to refer to a variety of public policies. What they mean by this term is difficult to understand, particularly for this writer. My generation of journalists came of age with the emerging conservative movement. We were led by such serious Conservative thinkers as Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and William F. Buckley, Jr.
From my time in college to editing The New Guard, the magazine of Young Americans for Freedom, to serving as a contributing editor for many years of Human Events, to working in Congress for such conservatives as Reps. Philip Crane (R-IL), and Jack Kemp (R-NY), we learned what conservative meant.
What is it that conservatives are conserving?
The 19th century British Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli said that the first thing a Conservative must ask himself is what it is he seeks to conserve. What we sought in those early days is to conserve American political traditions. This involved a fear of government power, of an all powerful executive, an effort to limit such power through a constitutional system of checks and balances and through federalism, a division of power between the states and the national government.
In the post-World War II years, we were committed to fighting Communism. We joined with our allies in NATO to thwart the advance of the Soviet Union. Communism like Nazism met with defeat.
In the area of economics, we believed in free enterprise and free trade. As economist Milton Friedman proclaimed, the form of economic organization most consistent with a free society is competitive capitalism.
Subsidization of favored industries was considered a form of industrial policy, in fact, a variety of socialism.
The days of the young Republicans
When I was in college, I served as College Secretary of the Young Republican Federation of Virginia. Those were the final years of segregation and the Virginia Democratic Party, led by Sen Harry F. Byrd, did everything it could to keep segregation alive.
Democrats in Virginia closed the schools in a number of locations rather than integrate them. Republicans, on the other hand, supported integration. In my freshman year in college, President Eisenhower, a Republican, sent troops to Little Rock to integrate the schools.
As a student at the College of William and Mary, I wrote a weekly column for three years in The Flat Hat, the campus paper. As an officer in the Political Science Club, I invited the first black speaker to appear at the College. When the president of the College called me to his office and chastised me, he said,
“I read your column. You’re a conservative. Why did you do this?” I responded: “Racism is not one of the things I want to conserve.”
What is today’s Conservative party conserving?
Now, in 2018, the Republican Party is not one I any longer consider to be conservative. At least it is no longer representative of the philosophy embraced by those who called themselves conservatives in the past. Today’s Republican Party, for example, is comfortable with tariffs and a trade war with both our friends and adversaries.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 3 million businesses nationwide, has launched an unprecedented campaign against the tariffs President Trump has imposed, with the acquiescence of Republican leaders, who, in the past, were advocates of free trade.
Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue declared:
“The administration is threatening to undermine the economic progress it worked so hard to achieve. We should seek free and fair trade, but this is just not the way to do it. Tariffs are simply taxes that raise prices for everyone.”
President Trump and conservative tradition
Sadly, President Trump seems completely unaware of the genuine conservative tradition. Roger Scruton, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a fellow of the British Academy, notes that in one of:
“…conservatism’s founding documents,’The Wealth of Nations,’ Adam Smith argued that trade barriers and protections offered to dying industries will not, in the long run, serve the interests of the people. On the contrary, they will lead to an ossified economy that will splinter in the face of competition. President Trump seems not to have grasped this point. His protectionist policies resemble those of postwar socialist governments in Europe which insulated dysfunctional industries from competition and led not merely to economic stagnation but also to a kind of cultural pessimism that surely goes against the American grain.”
Roger Scruton, one of the serious conservative thinkers of our time and author, most recently, of “Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition,” provides this assessment:
“Conservative thinkers have on the whole praised the free market, but they do not think that market values are the only values there are. Their primary concern is with the aspects of society in which markets have little or no part to play: education, culture, religion, marriage and the family. Such spheres of social endeavor arise not through buying and selling but through cherishing what cannot be bought and sold: things like love, loyalty, art, and knowledge, which are not means to an end but ends in themselves.
About such things, it is fair to say that Mr. Trump has at best only a distorted vision. He is a product of the cultural decline that is rapidly consigning our artistic and philosophical inheritance to oblivion. And perhaps the principal reason for doubting Mr. Trump’s conservative credentials is that being a creation of social media, he has lost the sense that there is a civilization out there that stands above his deals and his tweets in a posture of disinterested judgment.”
Trump simply does not represent conservative ideals
Whether we consider tariffs, the separation of children from their families at the border, the attacks upon our allies in NATO, the kind words about Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, or the personal insults aimed at fellow Republicans such as Sen John McCain (R-AZ) and former President George H.W. Bush, not to mention Democrats, journalists, athletes and others, there is nothing “conservative” to be seen, either in substance or demeanor.
In the end Mr. Trump and those Republicans who do not challenge his policies and behavior are not only not conservatives, they may embody the epithet they so enjoy aiming at others, RINO (Republican in name only).
It is sad to see the conservatism which emerged after World War II now essentially gone. Hopefully, it will rise again, for our society needs both genuine conservatives and liberals to thrive. Now, it is missing both.
As Republicans embrace nativism and protectionism, and Democrats embrace identity politics and move closer to socialism, both parties seem to have rejected the system bequeathed to us by the Founding Fathers. All of us are losers as a result.