Trump, Moral Conservatism, and Political Conservatism

Donald Trump will announce before June whether he will run for the presidency as a Republican.  Whether I will endorse him in the primaries will depend upon whom he will be competing against.  Sadly, given the names that I have heard bandied about thus far, that endorsement is almost a foregone conclusion. 

Personally, I don't particularly care for Trump.  I don't doubt that he loves his country and his family, but his unabashed extravagance coupled with the readiness with which he has exchanged one wife for another bespeak a narcissism notable for its comprehensiveness.  If ever there were an individual who seems to epitomize the crass, shallow man of business that earned Adam Smith's personal scorn, "the capitalist" who, as Marx said, revolves his every decision around "the cash nexus," Trump appears to be it.  And when to these considerations we add the fact that, in spite of having been even more financially supportive of Democratic politicians than he has been of Republicans, he is now whistling a different political tune, it is hard to escape the impression that he is something of a cynical opportunist. 

Trump may or may not be the best of men, but from a conservative perspective, he may still wind up being a good president.  That is, even though morally or personally speaking Trump may not have a trace of conservatism in his soul, politically he could be as conservative a candidate as any for which conservatives could hope. 

Trump aside, this distinction between political conservatism and moral conservatism is lost upon many. 

An adherent of one may or may not be an adherent of the other, for the one does not imply the other.  When a person like, say, Alan Keyes describes himself as a "moral conservative," he invites a certain reading, not just of the lines along which he will govern, but his entire worldview.  A moral conservative, we usually think, is someone who affirms "traditional values" like "faith, family, and country."  Forget for the moment that these "values," being generalities, lend themselves to multiple and conflicting interpretations; forget that self-identified moral conservatives not infrequently disagree with one another, not only with respect to the requirements of morality, but regarding public policy.  The point is that even if moral conservatives were in complete agreement with one another, political conservatives need not subscribe to their morality.

There is really but one belief that distinguishes the political conservative.  It is a belief concerning the office of governing.  The political conservative does indeed view the holders of public office as governors -- not "leaders," "managers," or "engineers" -- for the polity over which they preside is not a "community" with a common good that they are expected to bring to fruition.  This polity is, rather, the modern nation-state, a civil association.  Thus, the office of governing is nothing more or less than the activity of maintaining orderly, peaceful co-existence among associates -- citizens -- as they pursue the goods of their own choosing.  What this in turn means is that government has set before it the task of making ever more exact and coherent the laws specifying the conditions that citizens must satisfy in doing whatever it is they decide to do.

In other words, the political conservative embraces the style of governing of which the United States Constitution is an embodiment.  In enumerating a plethora of constraints on government by essentially dividing it against itself, the Constitution guarantees that its aims will be modest.  The idea of an interventionist, activist, or utopian government, whether its perfectionist dreams are fleshed out in domestic or foreign policy, is utterly alien to the American Constitution -- and to political conservatism.

The Constitution neither tells citizens what to do nor even pretends to provide them with a pretext for their engagements.  However, by delineating the legal framework within which their actions are to transpire, it does tell them how not to perform them.  For example, killing in self-defense or for purposes of war is justifiable, but citizens must not kill murderously.  Selecting a sexual partner is permissible, but coercively selecting a sexual partner is not.

Now, there are many people -- even most, I would venture to say -- who find this vision of politics and governing boring.  Admittedly, it is unadventurous.  Yet it is perhaps among the greatest of historic achievements.  The temptation to accumulate vast power for the sake of imposing one's goals upon others has always been so ubiquitous that it isn't even perceived as a temptation by most.  What's even worse is that he who denies the "leadership" role to politicians, he who withholds a plan for others to follow, is viewed as disreputable.

But the dirty little secret, the truth that we have forgotten, is that the way of political conservatism is the surest way to safeguarding and strengthening our liberties.  It is liberty's best friend, for its purpose, if it can be said to have a purpose at all, is to render less tentative the order upon which the exercise of our freedoms vitally depends. 

He is no moral conservative, but Trump just may be something on the order of a political conservative.         

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. blogs at  Contact him at
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