Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 3.58.52 PMListening to George Will pontificate recently on Fox News about his “conservative” principles, I had to ask for the millionth time what Mr. Will and his likeminded friends mean by “conservative.” And I don’t ask this question as a neophyte, having published more on the subject of conservatism than probably anyone else on the planet. But every time I hear the term used to describe a GOP position on just about anything, I have to wonder what makes that position “conservative.” Why for example is nation-building abroad, which involves imposing the latest model of American democracy on populations that are culturally quite different from the present American ruling class, a “conservative” position? And why is letting American working communities languish while our jobs are outsourced a “conservative” policy? The obvious answer is such stands are talking points deployed by the Republican Party as it works to hold on to certain constituents. These stands also happen to be those of the GOP donor base.

What also muddies the meaning of “conservative” is that establishment conservative pundits and theorists sound more often than not like the cultural and social Left. Popular “conservative” journalists Jonah Goldberg and John Podhoretz are high on gay marriage, which they argue promotes family values. National Review‘s rising star Jillian Kay Melchior wishes to see the United States become more fully engaged in Ukraine against Vladimir Putin, lest transgendered Ukrainians come under reactionary Russian sway. Other conservative journalists have berated the Russian president for not allowing gay pride parades in Russian cities. National Review Online has featured a long panegyric to Leon Trotsky, a cofounder of the Soviet dictatorship for opposing fascism and anti-Semitism. The same fortnightly that once celebrated Joseph McCarthy now denounces him as a dangerous right-wing demagogue, while its former leftist bête noire Martin Luther King is now treated by the same publication as a towering conservative figure and traditionalist theologian. Finally, when it comes to going after the Confederate Battle Flag and removing Confederate heroes’ names from any public site or street in this country, the Huffington Post has nothing on such stellar “conservatives” as Max Boot and Jeff Jacobi.

Such sea changes are at least partly ascribable to the transformation of the American conservative movement, when it fell under the influence and finally, control of the neoconservatives, who blew in from the left. Since I’ve written entire books on this development and its implications, I won’t dwell on these matters here. But I am convinced that the designation “conservative” is losing any substantive meaning, except for attachment to Republican operatives and donors and the label that particular media personalities choose to give themselves. And the term and the concept generally didn’t enjoy great success before, at least not on these shores. Although the United States produced genuine conservative thinkers, like Southern Presbyterian theologian Lewis Dabney, historian Henry Adams, and more recently, Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet, our own tradition, going back to the Founders, was much closer to eighteenth-century liberalism. I say this not to put down one side or the other (since I respect both the liberal and conservative traditions properly understood). I’m simply making an observation. My favorite twentieth-century “conservative” statesman, Robert A. Taft, called himself a “liberal,” which is exactly what he was in the true historical sense. Taft did not call for Americans to return to a traditional European society of inherited ranks. His concern was protecting the system of dual sovereignty and constitutional freedom established by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

I would however allow a broader use of “conservative” to designate what just about everyone used to believe about social morality but isn’t supposed to believe any longer: e.g., marriage should be exclusively between members of the opposite sexes, democracy includes the right to restrict immigration, and higher education should entail free inquiry rather than nonstop sensitivity training. Unfortunately permitting such an expanded use of the term would require me to characterize almost every American up until a few decades ago as “conservative.” It is exceedingly odd that what were common American beliefs through most of my life should now be associated with the far Right—and no longer be fully shared by misnamed American “conservatives.”

Even weirder is the fact that advocates of gay marriage and placing illegals on the path to legalization and eventual citizenship are attacking GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump as a fake conservative. This charge, which I encounter constantly on such GOP websites as Red State and Townhall, reeks with foolishness and hypocrisy. Let’s not forget that we’re dealing here with GOP boosters who were happy to praise the conservative convictions of such lackluster, conflict-averse centrists as George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney. I recall Karl Rove a few months ago laying into Mr. Trump for questioning the political wisdom of our last GOP president and Mr. Rove’s former boss. Mr. Rove was beside himself that anyone would even challenge W’s conservative credentials. He assured us that this president, who proposed bringing American democracy to the entire globe, still rates very high with registered Republicans. Presumably so does Martha Stewart, although I suspect not for ideological reasons.

The fact that one of Mr. Trump’s most conspicuous “conservative” haters, Erik Erickson, runs something called “Red State” may speak volumes about our political imbecility. Mr. Erickson stands not for a political worldview but for a sports team under another name. He and his red team rumble with the other side, which is colored “blue.” The sound and fury of this game are reminiscent of the “color wars” that I was forced to play in a summer camp I attended in the early 1950s. Our camp featured a contest between green and gold teams. And we played out the contest, which lasted a week, without having anyone like Mr. Trump messing it up. From all appearances The Donald wants to start his own team, and it is not the one that National Review, Red State, and Townhall are invested in keeping going and for which their team sponsors are paying.  (The nerve of this guy!)

Despite my distaste for his “conservative” critics, I don’t believe any more than they that The Donald is a man of the Right. Mr. Trump assumed this role late in life, and he doesn’t play it especially well. Recently he discussed how he would make Muslims entering the United States undergo “extreme vetting,” which would include making sure they had favorable attitudes toward gays and affirmed full gender equality. I’ve no idea why this test is something associated with the Right.  It looks like something that came from editorial board of the New York Times or from some other publication that is now attacking Mr. Trump as a fascist. Wouldn’t it suffice to find evidence that the person we were letting in would abide by the existing laws? Why must he or she prove fealty to the very Political Correctness that Mr. Trump professes to despise?

In this case as in so many others, one learns quickly that the enemies of one’s enemies may not be one’s ideal ally. Equally disappointing in Mr. Trump’s case is that he often confuses rudeness for fighting Political Correctness. One might have been more impressed if in the primaries he attacked the academic and media efforts to close off discussion on a wide range of “insensitive” subjects instead of the appearance of a female opponent. It would also have been more effective if he had criticized Judge Curiel, Khazir Khan, and other antagonists he’s faced by offering reasoned arguments instead of blurting out something incoherent and apparently insulting. What may separate me in the matter of Mr. Trump from the GOP-neocon establishment is that unlike them, I like much of what I think is Mr. Trump’s message. Too bad he says it so ineptly!

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.

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