WASHINGTON, February 2, 2017 — Conservatism once had a home in the Republican Party, and there was a general understanding of what conservatism meant within the party. It was grounded in a belief in individual freedom, limited government, and national strength. It affirmed the importance of free markets and argued that these were the best form of economic organization consistent with other freedoms.
It believed in American exceptionalism in a society made up of men and women of every race, religion and ethnic group.
Conservatives believed in our Constitution, which enshrines free speech, a free press, and freedom of religion as fundamental liberties. Conservatism was positive and optimistic. The architects of its intellectual foundations, men such as William F. Buckley, Jr. and Russell Kirk, rejected ideological thinking and looked to statesmen such as Edmund Burke for their inspiration.
The post-World War II American conservatism no longer exists. In Donald Trump we have a president who either doesn’t understand conservative traditions, or who believes that strict conservatism would not have won the election.
Trump counselor Kelleyanne Conway said CPAC—Conservative Political Action Committee—should be renamed TPAC.
For the last two election cycles that put Barack Obama into the White House, Trump is probably right. Only Trump could pull the people of middle America out to vote. But as president he has surrounded himself with people who are angry: angry with the American political tradition in and with itself.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump political strategist Stephen Bannon spoke of “economic nationalism,” not free enterprise. “There’s a new political order that’s being formed out of this,” said Bannon, and he urged the dismantlement of our very structure of government. There are a lot of Americans who agree.
Where Ronald Reagan spoke of “Morning in America” and viewed our country as a “City on a Hill,” the new administration is spreading fear of an imminent collapse of our society, seeing “carnage” everywhere.
The U.S. Is a “mess,” Trump says. He tells audiences that the murder rate nationally is “the highest it’s been in 45 years,” which is not the case.
The overall homicide rate in 2015 was 4.9 per 100,000, well below its 1972 level. Trump is not delivering “painful truths,” but alarming falsehoods. The murders being discussed are murders propagated by gangs and illegal immigrants. And that is an emotional calling card to the issue of sanctuary cities and America’s right to be a sovereign state.
It is ironic that while Trump calls the media “the enemy of the people,” and rebukes media for “false news,” his own falsehoods are unprecedented.
Trump has described his victory in November as “the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan.” His electoral vote, 306, was well below Obama’s 332 electoral votes in 2012 and 365 in 2008. President Bill Clinton received 370 in 1992 and 379 in 1996.
And President George H.W. Bush won 426 electoral votes in 1988.
“I inherited a mess,” Trump claims. Yet the economy is not in recession, and the unemployment rate in January was 4.8 percent, compared to 7.8 percent in January 2009, when Obama took office.
In January, the economy added 227,000 jobs, even though the unemployment rate is already low. The number of people filing new claims for jobless benefits continues to hit lows not seen in decades. Democrats claim this is because of Obama’s policies, while Republicans call it the “Trump Effect” that has had Wall Street hitting record highs since the November election.
Last Spring, Trump told a crowd in California that “there is no drought,” but only a plot “to protect a 3-inch fish,” as conspiracy theorist and alarmist Alex Jones reported on Infowars. In 2015 Trump appeared on Jones’s broadcast and told him, “You have an amazing reputation.”
At CPAC, Trump and Bannon outlined a definition of conservatism which seems alien to America’s early conservatives. It was a declaration of war on “the administrative state,” globalism and free trade. It embraced a narrow nationalism and seemed to define the “forever war” philosophy embraced by Bannon, Breitbart and the so-called “alt right.”
This is a political philosophy which does not seek to conserve traditional American values, but to overthrow them. Bannon said, “Every day it will be a fight.”
Enemies of these new “conservatives” include not only the media and corporate America, but the FBI, CIA, and our entire intelligence community.
Economists that conservatives have long admired—Milton Friedman, Ludwig Von Mises, Friedrich Hayek—would be repelled by talk of trade wars, tariffs, industrial policy and “economic nationalism.” They had a word for such an enterprise: socialism.
America’s conservative movement asked the basic question which the 19th century British Conservative Benjamin Disraeli said was essential: What do we mean to conserve? America’s conservatives sought to conserve constitutional government, division of powers, freedom of speech, press, and religion, and a respect for individual rights that, they believed, came from the Creator.
Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the last three Republican administrations, notes:
“Conservatives are rightly proud of our Constitution, yet many of them are disdainful of our government. But the Constitution created our system of government, and our goal in political life should be to reform that government back into one we can be proud of again. Understanding government in this way, and taking the steps necessary to enable it to work better and therefore regain the trust of the American people is a worthy calling. And a deeply conservative one, too.”
The American political tradition, from the beginning, was not against government, but was against its abuses and wanted it to be limited so that freedom would be preserved.
In the Federalist Papers, James Madison makes this clear:
“It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were Angels, no government would be necessary. If Angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Russell Kirk, whose book “The Conservative Mind” really launched modern conservatism, believed that the major problem faced in the 20th century was its commitment to “ideology.” In his book “The Politics of Prudence” (1993) he commends political prudence, one of the four “classical virtues,” as opposed to “ideology,” a word that signifies political fanaticism. He offers brief accounts of eminent conservatives, among them Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Sir Walter Scott, Benjamin Disraeli, T.S. Eliot and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The book, he tells us, is meant to be a “defense of prudential politics as opposed to ideological politics.” He writes:
“‘Politics is the art of the possible,’ the conservative says; he thinks of political policies as intended to preserve order, justice, and freedom. The ideologue, on the contrary, thinks of politics as a revolutionary instrument for transforming society, and even transforming human nature. In the march toward Utopia, the ideologue is merciless.”
The ideologies which have been costly in our time—Communism, Nazism and Fascism—are, Kirk points out, really “inverted religions.” But, he notes,
“…the prudential politician knows that ‘Utopia’ means ‘Nowhere’; that we cannot march to an earthly Zion; that human nature and human institutions are imperfectible; that aggressive ‘righteousness’ in politics ends in slaughter. True religion is a discipline for the soul, not for the state…It is the conservative leader who, setting his face against all ideologies, is guided by what Patrick Henry called ‘the lamp of experience.’ In the 20th century, it has been the body of opinion generally called ‘conservative’ that has defended the Permanent Things from ideological assaults.”
The basic difference between conservatives and the advocates of the many ideologies which clutter the intellectual landscape, including the pseudo-ideology of populism and nationalism which now appears embedded in the White House, relates to the nature of man himself.
As Russell Kirk puts it,
“Man, being imperfect, no perfect social order can ever be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination and would break out once more in violent discontent, or else expire in boredom. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster. The conservative says, ‘We are not made for perfect things.’ All that we can reasonably expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve the tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are neglected, then the anarchic impulse in mankind breaks loose … The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the 20th century into a terrestrial hell.”
Many who now claim to speak for conservatism, among them glib radio talk show hosts, partisan politicians, and White House aides, have forgotten Disraeli’s question about what it is conservatives really seek to conserve. It used to be the American political tradition, embodied in our Constitution and in the thinking of the Founding Fathers. In that tradition religious intolerance, fear of foreigners, and contempt for government is no place to be found.
That people who once called themselves conservatives, among them Republican Party leaders, can abandon their traditional views to be on good terms with the Trump-Bannon White House is sad, but not unexpected. Politicians want to be close to power.
Hopefully, genuine conservatism will survive in other sectors of our society. But it no longer seems to have a home in the Republican Party.
In the 1930s, Communists in America were in the forefront of urging the U.S. to enter the war against Nazism. Then, when Stalin signed a pact with Hitler, the Communists found the Nazis to be not so bad after all and opposed any U.S. involvement in the fight against Hitler.
They changed their position overnight. Similarly, many Republicans who always embraced free trade, NATO, the EU, U.S. global leadership, and a welcoming immigration policy have changed overnight. Whatever we call these men and women, “conservative” would not be in any way descriptive. And calling things by their proper names is important if we are to make sense of the world.