The circumstances being what they are, it’s awfully hard for me not to think about politics. Perhaps it’s just as hard for you, Gentle Reader. The campaign grows ever noisier, accumulates ever more motifs and side issues, and generally consumes ever more “public space:” in our media, in our commerce and foreign relations, and in our several visions of what to expect from the years before us.
One aspect that occupies quite a lot of the talking heads’ time and the broadcast and cablecast bandwidth is the supposed departure of the Republican Party from “conservatism” heralded by the ascent of Donald Trump. Trump, the pundits keep telling us, is “no conservative.” Trump himself, while he claims to be a conservative, noted in an interview that “this isn’t the Conservative Party; it’s the Republican Party.” All taken together, there’s a general sense that the GOP’s alignment with conservatism has been jarred loose.
But when all the commentators agree on something like that, it’s usually worth a second look. This is one such case.
Conservatism is more than a name for a cluster of policy positions. It’s also the name of an orientation: the determination to conserve: to protect and perpetuate that which is good. What flows from that attitude will depend on what one evaluates as good.
Three areas of divergence between Trump and policies currently identified with political conservatism are of special interest this morning. All three bear upon America’s dealings with the rest of the world:
- Whether international trade should be completely free or taxed and controlled by law;
- Whether there should be any criteria for immigration to the United States;
- Whether the U.S. should wield its military power in foreign lands, in conflicts that don’t directly threaten a vital American interest.
Commentator William Hawkins has argued that free trade is antithetical to “a conservative view of economics.” He framed an argument for a neomercantilist foreign trade policy, in which the law, including tax policy, would explicitly promote the enrichment of domestic commercial institutions. Such a stance implicitly demotes the priorities of individual consumers, as one cannot favor institutions without constraining the choices available to individuals.
Though this is not a staple of conservative thinking today, it was the conservative view at the time of the American Revolution, as we see in Alexander Hamilton’s argument for the protection of the newborn U.S.’s “infant industries.” The nation, Hamilton wrote, would never achieve true independence from Europe without nurturing an independent commercial base, sufficient to make foreign trade a convenience rather than a necessity. Indeed, the promotion of free, largely untaxed international trade was the liberal position from the Revolution roughly to the Wilson Administration.
Assimilation to America's norms – its language, laws, and important customs – was at one time a mandate laid upon the immigrant to our shores. Indeed, until the conclusion of World War II the primary purpose of the government-run public school system was to ensure that even if Mom and Dad retained the attitudes of the old country, Junior, Americanized by his education, would not. That policy made the waves of immigration that arrived here from 1865 through 1926 an asset rather than a threat to the nation.
The public schools transitioned away from that mission over about the past sixty years. The ascendancy of moral and cultural relativism in the educational system was not possible before that; the nation was too greatly engaged in explicitly nationalistic enterprises, especially the two World Wars. Popular sentiment in the first half of the Twentieth Century would never have tolerated it; too many Americans, inherently conservative about their nation and its ways, would have asked “Is this what we fought and bled for?”
The late Joseph Sobran argued, during the build-up to the first Iraq War in 1990, that our military intrusion into the Middle East could not by any exercise of imagination be justified as serving a vital American interest – i.e., an interest upon which the survival of the nation depends. In this he was expressing the original conservative view of military engagement. He was quite correct: Prior to World War I, remaining aloof from the quarrels of other nations was unquestionably the conservative position. The great conservative voices of the Twenties and Thirties, including Garet Garrett, John Flynn, and Lawrence Dennis, were unanimous in decrying American military involvement in Europe and Asia as not our proper business.
However, among self-described conservatives, the “America First” attitude toward military undertakings had undergone a complete turnabout over the course of the Twentieth Century, in part because the Cold War had reshaped our perception of the world stage. Wars between minor nations were no longer regarded as minor skirmishes of no grand-strategic consequence, but as proxy battles between the two superpowers. Therefore, they could no longer be categorically ignored; they bore directly on America’s status as a “world power” vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.
In all three of the policy areas enumerated above, conservative attitudes and stances flipped completely over the decades of the Twentieth Century. The cleavage between the “Old Right” conservative of the first decades and the conservative of the last ones was complete.
I hold no brief for Donald Trump. I find his behavior morally questionable and his style irritating beyond belief. As for principles, if he has any they appear to be summarized in his mantra that “everything is a negotiation.” I doubt there’s a hill upon which he would make a last stand.
That having been said, perhaps it’s not quite accurate to say he’s not a conservative. Surely the positions he’s expressed on the major issues enumerated here clash with those of most contemporary conservatives, especially the luminaries of conservative commentary. Yet a historical perspective suggests that his stances are more compatible with “Old Right” conservatism: the sheaf of attitudes and positions that conservatives largely espoused before conservative thought leaders accepted classical-liberal assumptions and modes of analysis.
Who is right? Or more pointedly: Who is “Right?” From the perspective of American interests and the soundness of the American political edifice, the questions remain arguable; the answers depend largely upon what aspects of American life one holds as good. From the electoral perspective, we’ll see in November.