Trump and the Contest to Control Conservatism
What lies at the heart of the Trump movement and those who are critical of it is the very basic question: What is a conservative and what is conservatism?
In reading Derek Hunter’s anger filled invective at Townhall.com, I had to wonder, where is the intensity of the anger coming from?
Trump’s campaign themes are very simple, perhaps too simple, but you can sum them up in a few points: He is for protecting American industry and manufacturing; he is against foreign intervention unless Americans national security is threatened; he is for closing the borders to all illegal immigration; and he has taken a very un-nuanced position on Islam, from a temporary moratorium on Muslim immigration to statements that Islam hates us. Unsophisticated, but still, a very different take from the rest of the candidates, from either party. He has been running on those themes since last August, with very little variation.
One can certainly disagree with one or all of those positions. But why the chalkboard screeching hatred? For Trump as a personality, the screeching, at times, could be understandable, but why the hatred for what Trump represents? After all, these positions are all, or at least, once were, common “conservative” positions, represented by, if not a majority, certainly a sizable minority of the movement.
And therein is the problem, which is easy to define. The current conservative movement is in a crisis and those who have been running the movement for the past 30 years seem to feel threatened that their reign in running it might be over. And thus the long knives are coming out.
The leaders of the movement, the same who run the major think tanks, the conservative foundations and influential journals, have been able to define conservatism, unchecked, for over three decades. There are many themes in that movement that almost any conservative would agree with, but there are some that have caused great ruptures. I will focus on those issues.
In his article, Hunter asks of Sean Hannity and others, “Did They Ever Believe?”(in being conservative) and then answers the question by giving two options, either they didn’t believe or they are lying.
But lying about what? What if, in 1980, I was for an American First foreign policy, reluctant to send our young men to fight in wars unless our vital national security was threatened, for closing our borders to illegal immigration and the repeal of 1965 Immigration Law, for higher tariffs to protect American manufacturing and industry, took a position in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution and a decade of terror, that Islam is simply incompatible with Western Civilization. You can disagree with every one of these, but you simply cannot deny that they are “conservative” positions and had been well within the conservative and some even Republican Party, tradition since the Party’s founding.
For instance, one needs to remind the free traders and free marketers that the Republican Party was founded on high tariffs and protection of American industry and that remained a bedrock principle of the Party from 1854 through the 1920’s.
There is a strong tradition in both the Republican Party and the conservative movement for a non interventionist “realist” view of foreign policy. That tradition has been part of our nation since the Founding; it has been the liberal, Democratic view that we are compelled to travel the world to slay dragons. That was the view of Republicans or conservatives until late in the 20th Century. Our sieve that serves as a border, the movement that pushed through the 1965 Ted Kennedy disastrous law, which turned a century of immigration policy on its head and then the subsequent flooding into our country of millions of illegal aliens? These are not conservative achievements.
The conservative movement shifted in the decades from the 70’s to the 90’s so that the movement came to be dominated by a free trade, loose borders and democracy building, interventionist foreign policy. We can argue the points, we should argue the points, but let’s have the debate. You can be all of these things represented by this new brand of conservatism and still be a conservative, though a very strong argument can be made that you can also believe in the opposite and still rightly and proudly call yourself a conservative.
What we are seeing in the Trump phenomena, as oafish or politically incorrect (depending on your point of view) as he is, is the revolt of Middle America that is tired of seeing their country torn from under them. That its middle class values and standard of living have taken a beating for over three decades is not arguable. This is Christopher Lasch’s “Revolt of the Elites” in spades. You might not agree with any of this, you might not like it, it might even threaten your place in the “movement” and you surely are not happy that Trump is the one who is riding this wave. But don’t say it is not conservative.
Michael Finch is the President of the David Horowitz Freedom Center. The views expressed here are his own, not necessarily those of the Center.