One of the most important lessons of Mr. Trump’s electoral victory was that classically-liberal rhetoric and positions were not very important to voters. It turned out that they wanted a candidate who promised to help, not one who knew his Hayek…
The never-Donald Trumpers at the Weekly Standard and National Review are at least consistent and foresee pure ruin as the obvious consequence of Trump’s ideological and cultural presuppositions. As their critic Dennis Prager explained (interestingly in National Review), this group simply does not believe there is a fundamental left-right “existential” philosophical divide and are too culturally “refined” to give the Queens-born city-slicker any slack.
The more challenging opposition is more sophisticated. The best is Samuel Goldman, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University, and literary editor of Modern Age, who expresses his views in a leading essay for the prestigious Library of Law and Liberty.*
Professor Goldman finds Donald Trump’s “hostility to freedom, to the rule of law, and to disciplined thought” quite “different from any that I can share.” The alternatives seem to be becoming a Democrat—both by “Liberal-tarians” seeking “economic freedom and the protection of individual liberties as means for securing social justice,” and by neoconservatives who could then join “their Wilsonian cousins” opposing Trump’s America First. Or one could adopt an extreme “Benedict Option” and simply drop out. The good professor, however, concludes that “one can believe that things are hopeless and remain determined to make them otherwise.”
Prof. Goldman views conservatism as divided between classical liberals and reactionaries, resulting in a “dynamic tension” that explains its original vitality thirty years ago. But with innovations in media, the resulting inability to exclude “kooky” figures and ideas, the loss of anticommunism as a unifying theme, the declining relevance of high taxes and inflation, and the loss of a common nostalgic, golden age under Calvin Coolidge or in the post-World War II era, any possibility of ideological unity has been lost:
One reason that the dispute between the libertarians and traditionalists of the 1950s could be resolved was that they agreed about their preferred social form: an idealized version of the federal republic that existed before the New Deal. As it slips out of living memory, this vision no longer brings together elements of the intellectual Right. The breakdown of the consensus may have been inevitable. For psychological reasons, most people recall with fondness the period of their youth. It is not coincidental that the early conservatives could actually remember the arrangements and mores that many of them wished to restore. The presidency of Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) was nearer in time to the heroic age of American conservatism than that age is to our own.
As the ideal shifted after World War II, “intellectual honesty requires us to acknowledge that these conditions were not the result of classically liberal policies. On the contrary, they were sustained by the very processes of nationalization, bureaucratization, and regulation that American conservatism arose to challenge.” These changes predated Donald Trump but “for the first time since Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose indifference to classical liberalism prompted the creation of the conservative movement, a Republican President barely pretends to care about the philosophy.” “The result is a decomposition of conservatism into opposed factions.”
Like Mr. Prager, Prof. Goldman finds a cultural basis for the two factions. The never-Trumpers “tend to see the Constitution as diminished but far from a dead letter.” They are “often products of prestigious universities and comfortable in major political and cultural institutions” and “tend to regard themselves as custodians of majestic structures in a condition of severe but remediable decay.” Those who have reluctantly or actively supported Mr. Trump, however, “although not necessarily members of the working class they often claim to defend… are typically outsiders to the educational, legal, or economic establishment” and believe the system is near broken.
Prof. Goldman’s intellectual categorization is less easy to follow. The never-Trump intellectuals include neoconservatives, libertarians, Catholics influenced by natural law, theologically-serious evangelicals, conservative legal activists, and East Coast Straussians. The pro-Trumpers include paleoconservatives, the heirs of the Reagan-era religious Right, traditionalist Catholics, Orthodox Jews, West Coast Straussians, and the alt-Right. The former group are associated with classical liberalism and the later with reaction. It is doubtful, however, that most of those in the first group would accept such a designation and many in the second might. While much less sophisticated, the sociological division seems to work better, and Prof. Goldman does state that his is not a “hard-and-fast division” and that it “may be as much sociological as ideological.”
A cultural perspective is more useful because what Prof. Goldman identifies as classical liberalism is actually closer to what most would define as conservatism (as opposed to reaction), or even as Toryism. In the American context, Prof. Goldman’s definition is much closer to Clinton Rossiter’s or Peter Viereck’s idea of a status-quo conservatism opposed to a 1950s conservatism that directly confronted these two for supporting the New Deal and President Eisenhower’s making peace with it. Actually, Mr. Trump is not the first president since Eisenhower with an “indifference to classical liberalism,” as this bent was epitomized also by the two presidents Bush.
Prof. Goldman even concludes that “the diverging tribes of conservatism may have less in common with each other than with formations outside the Right as we have known it.” He concedes “it is possible that the [Trump] administration will avoid major crises, develop a coherent legislative agenda, and find ways to insulate the President from the aspects of his duty that he seems to find overwhelming. But I doubt it.” The dangers from a Trump presidency are Mr. Trump’s proclivities towards greater executive power, labor union-like protectionism, his retrospective anti-intellectualism, and his vulgar common “demotic” speech, all of which trend toward an illiberal white-identity politics:
One of the most important lessons of Trump’s success is that classically liberal rhetoric and positions were not very important to voters. It turned out that they wanted a candidate who promised to help, not one who knew his Hayek. The institutional advantages that the liberal strand of conservatism enjoys are thus the mirror image of its political weakness. It excels in producing journal articles, legal briefs, and business plans, but struggles to win popular support.
Looking at how voters regard freedom is indeed a sobering fact. But the “dynamic tension” Prof. Goldman recognizes as explaining fusionist conservatism’s vitality includes hard-headed traditionalist empiricism too, without going off the cliff with de Maistre or Carlyle. The “relatively favorable assessment of the current state of constitutional government,” which he attributes to a more reasonably intellectual conservatism, seems almost Pollyannaish. “Diminished” seems a much too benign view. As artlessly as President Trump might express it, there is something fundamentally wrong, and something dramatic is required for recovery.
Indeed, one could argue that President Trump is not radical enough. Even if his “drastic” budget was adopted as is—which will not happen—it would not change things much. It cuts only from the 16 percent of national government spending allocated to non-defense, discretionary matters. It would increase the 16 percent of the budget now spent on defense. It does nothing about entitlement and mandatory programs, which account for two-thirds of the total federal budget, and which he pledged not to touch. This is why a serious thinker like Harvard’s Niall Ferguson has warned that civilizations fall from debt more than war. America’s debt could reach 90 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2021, 150 percent by 2031, and 300 percent in 2047. And only widely-ignored Cassandras may even discuss the matter politically.
Self-defined contrarian Gary North is one such fusionist voice who begins his factual analysis with a healthy conservative skepticism about ideology. “Today’s dominant ideas will not shape what happens over the next 35 years,” Dr. North claims, but ideas will decide the long-run outcome. In the short run, entitlements will start crowding out the rest of government, of defense, and especially the domestic administrative state, which “do not have organized voting blocs comparable to AARP and the Gray Panthers. Granny is going to get an increasing share of the federal pie”:
This is the grand opportunity today. It is time for serious thinkers to begin thinking about a world in which the nondiscretionary budgets of all national governments in the West must be re-allocated to meet the growing demands of the retired oldsters…. Here is what I have never put in print before, but I’m finally ready to do it: The federal welfare state is our mid-term friend. At some point, the federal government will not be able to support granny. It will already have decimated the Pentagon and the administrative state. At this point, ideas really will begin to have consequences.
Referencing Harold Berman’s magisterial Law and Revolution (1983), Dr. North argues that the greatest threat to liberty has been the development and expansion of administrative law. This has overwhelmed the whole Western legal tradition, which is based on a common law accessible to the people, and substituted a positivist law defined by elites as fashions change. The squeeze on administrative-law institutions from demands by the elderly, and then a squeeze on entitlements too, present an opportunity to rethink the constitutional arrangement and reassess the relationship between Washington and the states and localities. Functions will inevitably devolve; they have no other place to go. It will then be possible to limit the administrative state permanently, and both libertarians and traditionalists should begin thinking about precisely how to do this best.
Making Donald Trump public enemy number one is short-term thinking. He represents little or no threat as a man on a white horse suppressing American liberties. Actually, because he is more likely to be impeached, he is more Andrew Johnson than Andrew Jackson. He, like his predecessors, is trapped by a political mainstream, which is in the process of disintegration but which dominates public discussion, so that the real threat cannot be publicly debated—even by a presumed agent of change like President Trump, who is constantly trivialized by the popular media and culture.
President Trump has demonstrated his relevance by putting teeth into the moribund Congressional Review Act, voiding a dozen Obama-era regulations that have stifled economic growth. Attacking suffocating administrative state regulations was in fact a major part of Mr. Trump’s electoral appeal and is a major reason why additional traditional conservatives and libertarians have rallied to him since.
This still leaves the coming debt squeeze. A serious conservatism must conclude that now is no time for status-quo Rossiter, Eisenhower, or Bush pragmatism, but for bold thinking about how the great tension that generated its movement can be rejuvenated to meet the coming challenge.
*See the essay here.
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. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.