What does it mean to be ‘conservative’ in the Trump era?

As a conservative writer and thinker, F.H. Buckley has a certain reputation for wit and a wry sense of humor.

A professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, he’s written about the morality of laughter, invoked “the once and future king” to describe former President Barack Obama, and accuses America’s wealthy elites of enjoying “redneck porn,” his term for political stories that objectify all those “deplorables” sniffing Oxy in places like West Virginia.

Yet as he’s become one of the foremost intellectual defenders of the unapologetic nationalism of President Trump, many of his right-leaning peers have begun to question Mr. Buckley’s conservative bona fides, just as they have the president’s.

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And the former Trump speechwriter, who volunteered early to help his insurgent campaign, has been in many ways deliberately provocative, appropriating at times a leftist vocabulary to describe the nationalist energies that have come to dominate the Republican Party, and which many say have challenged core conservative principles as never before.

“I had this one moment where a prominent member of Congress talked about the Tea Party as “right-wing Marxists,” Buckley says. “And I thought, ‘Aha, that’s moi.’ ” In Canada, his country of birth, he might have even been considered part of its tradition of “Red Torys,” he says – capitalists and social conservatives who maintained a robust and even enthusiastic support for social safety nets.

“But now, what I really am is a member of the ‘Republican Workers Party,’ ” says Buckley, no relation to godfather of the modern conservative movement, the late William F. A reference to the serious if irony-laden title of his most recent book, “The Republican Workers Party,” Buckley suggests it’s partly a right-wing Marxist analysis of what he sees as an emerging class warfare at the center of American politics today. It’s a party, too, he says, that repudiates the moribund “official conservatism” of well-funded right-wing think tanks and opinion journals.

Many of these have long used the image of a “tripod” to describe three basic principles undergirding the post-war conservative consensus. First articulated in many ways by William F. Buckley – who also helped build the intellectual and institutional infrastructure of the modern movement – these principles include wide-ranging commitments to free markets and limited government, Judeo-Christian social values, and a robust national defense.

But many see this traditional conservative tripod starting to wobble in the era of Trump. And while there has been from the start a vocal cadre of “Never Trumpers” who continue to disavow the president and see him as a danger to long-held post-war principles, others see Mr. Trump’s disruptions as a good thing, overall – they see his election as a much-needed intellectual jolt.

“Arguably, Trump has been very good for the world of conservative ideas, because he’s loosened up lots of preexisting orthodoxies – he’s loosened up lots of people’s senses of where they belong and what kind of things they can say,” says Steven Teles, professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “Since Trump, a sense of the class nature of the Republican Party has gotten shaken up, and that’s very intellectually generative.”


As a matter of principle, conservatives have often used the term “classical liberalism” to describe the roots of their thinking, especially when it comes to the laissez faire, free-market leg of the traditional tripod. A libertarian ideal that goes back to the European Enlightenment, classical liberalism asserts the autonomy of the individual over the power of the state and claims a fundamental human right to own property and enter into contracts with others.

And such “liberal” economic principles formed the basis of the new global economy. In the 1990s, even Democrat Bill Clinton led his party to embrace the capitalist premises of international agreements like NAFTA, the idea that global free trade could create a “virtuous cycle” of economic growth and new working middle classes in countries once called the “Third World” but now labeled “the developing world.”

These new middle classes, now with money to spend, would create even more economic growth and its members would naturally gravitate toward liberal democratic values, many believed. Investors were giddy, too, at the prospect of “emerging markets” across the world.

These conservative economic principles, too, were tied to the movement’s traditional focus on a muscular American military. After the fall of communism, a number of “neoconservative” thinkers began to advocate for a more aggressive and proactive use of military force, both to combat terrorism after 9/11 and to protect global supply chains.

“You see them in George Bush’s second inaugural address, where he kind of articulates a kind of American mission,” says Patrick Deneen, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. “They believed in a much more aggressive American mission of defending and even expanding democracy in the world, sort of seeing their mission in an almost Wilsonian kind of way, making the world safe for democracy.”

Today, both of these pillars of conservatism are under strain. The movement has long included those with more isolationist leanings, of course, but neoconservative thinkers have lost most of their intellectual influence today, and their flagship publication, The Weekly Standard, which was among the most aggressive Never Trump conservative voices, was shuttered last month after its wealthy owners pulled its funding.     

“And what you see now, too, even across the world in Europe, is a rejection of the kind of libertarian, globalist economic assumptions of this so-called neo-liberal, or classical liberal, consensus,” says Professor Deneen, author of the 2018 book, “Why Liberalism Failed.” “Now, there’s a much more obviously nationalist economic platform with a strong interest in rebuilding a kind of blue-collar manufacturing base, even to the point of engaging in trade wars to defend American production by imposing tariffs and so forth.”

As a result, Trump conservatives have sometimes sounded a lot like their left-wing rivals. Last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts said Trump was right to pull American troops out of Syria. Both she and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind.) of Vermont and their supporters rail against globalism and “job-stealing free trade agreements” as much as the president and his supporters.


Make no mistake, thinkers like Buckley remain committed to free markets and a strong national defense. But as a “class warrior,” he emphasizes certain traditional concerns of the left, including the nation’s gaping income inequalities and growing class divisions, which he says have begun to destroy the social mobility at the heart of the American Dream.

“What does equality of opportunity mean if you’re severely handicapped? What does it mean if you are, for one reason or another, subjected to discrimination?” Buckley says, critiquing a well-known conservative shibboleth. “I mean, it’s not enough to say, ‘Well, we all have an equal shot at it, here you are, here’s a perfect set of contract law rules, so go to it, fella.’ There are certain duties for citizens, as well. Every conservative in every other country well understands that. You know, Margaret Thatcher would never have given up on a Medicare system.”

And he rails against what he calls the rise of “The New Class,” which itself is an allusion to an older description of a privileged Soviet ruling class. Buckley uses it to describe a class of urbane liberal professionals, the top 10 percent of Americans who earn more than $200,000 a year and who “are skilled in the hyper-technical rules and adept in ever-changing Orwellian Newspeak that are employed to exclude the backward, the eccentric, and the politically incorrect.” He includes among this class conservatives like former President George W. Bush, John Podhoretz, and Bill Kristol – another jab at “official” conservatism – as well as those who run the media, educational institutions, and of course the federal bureaucracy.

“And that brought us to the paradox of the 2016 election, when the liberal candidate of a counterrevolutionary and aristocratic New Class was defeated by a revolutionary capitalist offering a path to social mobility,” he writes in “The Republican Workers Party.”

The conservative or “classical liberal” tradition of individual liberty is often based on an abstract universalism, but Buckley argues that a conservative nationalism should have a “special sense of fraternity with their fellow citizens.”

“If you’re a libertarian, as many of the official right-wing thinkers are, you don’t make that distinction,” he says. “But if you’re a nationalist you will say, there are things we provide fellow citizens that we don’t provide noncitizens.”

But he says this is far from ethnically-based nationalism. “There isn’t much room for white nationalism in American culture,” he writes in his book, though he does believe that immigrants like him – he became a US citizen in 2014 – should assimilate. People in other countries may subscribe to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, but “becoming American requires a few more things: American citizenship, and a love for American institutions that aren’t owned by a single race…. It’s not a white culture or a black culture or a Mexican culture. That’s why the American who sincerely hates American multiculturalism is something less than an American.”  

Still, much of the “America First” critiques of global free markets challenges many of the traditional conservative principles of individualism, given their impact on American workers and the country’s growing class divisions.   

“The bigger question is whether or not that dissatisfaction represents a real challenge to certain underlying principles, or rather if it really represents a challenge to the way conservatives apply these principles,” says Jonathan Adler, professor of law and the director of the Center for Business Law & Regulation at the Case Western Reserve University School in Cleveland.

“You know, is the discontent with capitalism?” he says. “Or is the discontent with a political system that has injected a large degree of cronyism and government manipulation, a protection of certain industries. The libertarian in me wants to say that it’s the latter, that when people complain about ‘globalist elites,’ they’re not complaining about laissez faire so much as they’re complaining about the fact that you had certain political elites who talk about things in terms of the market, but act in a way that embraces a significant distortion of the market for the benefit of well-connected industries and well-connected individuals.”

Other proponents of the new conservative nationalism also reject the “blood and soil” white nationalism of the alt-right extremists, and that a focus on the bonds of citizenship retain an American commitment to a liberty and equality that transcends race or creed. 


But many conservatives still see in Trump’s nationalist movement a dangerous tendency toward xenophobia and even racism.     

“The future of the Republican Party has no place for Trumpism,” says Lauren Wright, lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey. “The demographics of the American electorate are changing rapidly, and not in the party’s favor. One need not look further than the 2012 GOP autopsy report, in which Republicans promised to do a better job appealing to young voters, minorities, and women, but then did precisely the opposite in 2016,” she says via email.

“Fiscal prudence and free market capitalism have given way to American isolation, protectionism, and national economic insecurity,” continues Dr. Wright. “Family values, moral responsibility, compassion, and a belief in the equality, dignity, and desire of every human being to be self-reliant and free has turned into vilification of immigrants and a fear of the other.”

But Buckley says the third pillar on the traditional conservative tripod, a commitment to Judeo-Christian values, is essential to any classically liberal political system. The Republican Workers Party repudiates “official conservatism,” he says, “because it’s based on a misreading of John Locke, who himself thought that if you don’t ground [classical liberal ideas] in religion, you’re not going to get anywhere.” 

He says the Republican Workers Party would never call itself Christian, but in the “Red Tory” traditions in Canada and Britain, religious institutions and people of faith undergird a deep commitment to generous social welfare policies for citizens, and not simply a religiously motivated voluntarism to charity.  

“We are in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or in the traditions of religions, and people, all of whom are different from plants and animals, we owe something to each other.”

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