An avowed socialist is running for the presidential nomination of one of the two dominant political parties. Same-sex marriage has been proclaimed the law of the land. Levels of church attendance and religious belief have dropped significantly. And political correctness has run amok on campus, on the net, and in the entertainment industry. One could be forgiven for taking these events as proof that America has lurched to the left over the last seven years. Progressives’ dream of an America more like Europe, complete with socialized medicine, thoroughly secular norms, and an administrative ruling class unconstrained by law seems to have come to fruition under President Barack Obama. The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher now advocates a “Benedict Option” of retreat in the face of cultural onslaught. The Imaginative Conservative’s own senior contributor, Peter Lawler, recently opined that evangelicals in particular no longer support limited government, having made friends with the welfare state. It seems, then, that even some on the right have concluded that conservative America is over and done with. And this leaves aside the myriad establishment Republicans like David Brooks who have given up all but the merest pretense of conservatism in favor of “center-right” social democracy.
One reason for the latest round of pessimism seems to be the rise of Donald Trump. This supposed bugbear on the right is spreading disaffection among mainstream conservatives because he is both leading in the polls and, despite collecting a number of right-wing endorsements, not a conservative. Not only was Mr. Trump a rather typical upper-crust liberal until quite recently, even today he eschews principled talk of constitutional restraint and economic liberty in favor of simple anti-elitism and a willingness to take the people’s position on the issue of greatest importance to them, namely protection of the integrity of our boarders. National Review, at one time a leading conservative magazine, has declared open war on Mr. Trump, gathering publicists and operators associated with various Republican candidates, past and present, in an attempt to strike his name from any list of candidates worthy of conservatives’ consideration.
As many observers have noted, Mr. Trump has never claimed to be “conservative” in any principled fashion. His appeal is clearly populist in the tradition of politicians from William Jennings Bryan on the left to Richard Nixon or Ross Perot on the right. (References to more openly derided populists like George Wallace and Huey Long generally are made for political effect and overlook, at the least, the nature and scale of Mr. Trump’s ambitions.) Populism by nature is uncomfortable with the limits of conservative politics because it sees itself as an expression of popular will, even if the majority, a la Nixon, is a “silent” one. Mr. Nixon imposed wage and price controls in an attempt to “protect the little guy” from the consequences of big government spending during wartime; Mr. Trump shows no signs of rejecting his longstanding support for a free-spending government, either. “The people, yes” as Lincoln’s hagiographer Carl Sandberg so unctuously put it, is an expensive, if less than articulate, policy.
It is Mr. Trump’s openness to social spending that causes some observers, including Mr. Lawler, to see in his popularity proof of the death of old-line conservatism. Evangelicals, he says, no longer are supporters of the kind of minimal government he sees at the root of Senator Ted Cruz’s principled conservatism. But is this really true? Or have we seen in Mr. Trump’s rise, the popularity attendant on addressing the central conservative issue of our time—the drive to protect the character of our culture—along with the abdication of conservatism on the part of Republicans?
Russell Kirk jibed at “economic conservatives” and libertarians by noting that conservatism is not summed up in the desire to sell off the national parks. Kirk, whose wife for years was head of social services in their home county, was proof that it is not only moderate-minded liberals like David Brooks who can castigate unfeeling ideologues (and, as a separate matter, Senator Cruz) for lacking compassion for the poor. But the argument that America is pining for a return to the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush, with its bloated social programs, massive debt, and final, decimating bursting of the real-estate bubble, seems frankly far-fetched.
The notion of compassion in government always has been a genuflection of the left as it gathered power to itself through the central government. Conservatives have known that compassion belongs in local communities, where face-to-face relations make it real (as a government check cannot) and where community standards can fight the enervating tendencies of dependence on the support of others. Republicans’ seizing of the mantle of compassion was yet another attempt to chase the supposed center of American politics as it seemed to be moving leftward. The attempt was to no avail, though to much damage for the party and nation.
As with any major issue dividing a polity, the culture wars split the people into rough thirds. One third of our nation seems irredeemably Progressive in its secular pieties, attachment to centralized government, and drive to annihilate American culture in pursuit of individual pleasure and bizarre notions of existential fairness. One third of America is reliably conservative in the sense of being attached to faith, family, and community. And one third—the usual “independents”—are somewhere in the middle or, more often, confused, alienated, and uninterested.
Sadly, for the last seven years only the left’s third has gained much of a hearing in the American public square. Building on a dangerous trend dating back at least to the revolutions of the 1960s, the increasingly univocal chattering class in America has pulled our middle third to the left, almost unopposed. “Movement conservatives” have taken some hope from the rise of libertarian organs like Fox News. But seeming victories like Fox’s ratings success merely highlight the broader problem of our culture’s abandonment by those on the right who claim to value it. Fighting over budget and regulatory issues, even leaders among movement conservatives have lost sight of their duty to fight for our way of life.
The central issue, here, is immigration. Americans fearful of being called bigots on many social issues have simply had enough of policies and hectoring that insist they cede their culture, community character, and way of life. Millions of Americans are demanding action to protect their communities from the wholesale importation of foreign workers and immigrants who will not and often cannot assimilate. Longstanding policies favoring those from non-Western cultures and subverting laws regarding unskilled and even illegal immigrants already have undermined American traditions regarding public expressions of faith, economic independence, language use, and relations between citizens and those they have placed in positions of authority. Yet, purportedly conservative magazines and politicians continue to encourage in the name of economic efficiency the importation of a new working class and a new electorate. It should come as no surprise that many Americans are looking to rebel against elites working so hard to avoid answering to and serving the actual citizenry they have.
Our political culture, like our culture more generally, is undeniably corrupt. Immigration would not be the issue it is today if Americas were still getting married, staying married, and having a decent number of children. Moreover, our public institutions—and especially the petty tyrants who run our educational system—for decades have been aggressively indoctrinating our young people to hate their traditions and especially those essential codes of honor that once taught our young men to value themselves, young women, and their duty to the public good. But mere populism is the answer to nothing save the will to power. And compassion in the hands of the state remains a dangerous illusion that enslaves the people as it empowers functionaries of the central state.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.