When Two’s a Crowd: Conservatism and Reactionary Trumpism Cannot Coexist in the GOP

In his poem, “A Prayer for My Daughter” (1919), W.B. Yeats laments the unfortunate pairing of exceptional women with odd and unworthy men: “It’s certain that fine women eat / A crazy salad with their meat / Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.” It serves as a fitting metaphor for the Republican Party now that Donald J. Trump is its presidential nominee. A lifelong Democrat, crony capitalist, avowed leftist, and strident nationalist prone to issuing diktats and floating conspiracy theories, Trump indeed makes for the strangest of bedfellows, threatening to undermine the cornucopia of American conservatism.

In truth, though Trump is not a conservative in the American context of the term, he champions a form of backward-looking orthodoxy, or conservatism in the general sense, not unlike that of the Early Modern European reactionaries. Among the latter were groups like the monarchists and feudalists who opposed the classical liberal principles of limited government, free markets and trade, rights such as the freedoms of speech and press, and individual liberty. Thus the ascendency of Trump within the Republican Party obfuscates the difference between the American conservative, i.e. the ideological descendant of nineteenth-century liberalism, and the common reactionary. For example, in a recent interview with Bill O’Reilly, Stephen Colbert declared, “Conservatism is always a losing battle because culture always changes,” implying that the Republican Party is merely an enclave for disparate groups of reactionaries.

In the 1960s, at a time when the American elite began pushing the so-called progressive march toward collectivism, F.A. Hayek predicted that the defenders of individualism would find themselves alongside those who perpetually resist change. Today, the conservative who opposes bad ideas, such as state-sponsored impingement on personal liberty in service of the welfare state, and the reactionary who opposes all new ideas irrespective of merit share a foe in the effete Obama Administration and its insidious agenda of social subversion and identity politics. However, the enemy of my enemy is not a friend in this case. Reactionary Trumpism, as I will refer to the phenomenon henceforth, is ideologically antagonistic to American conservatism and cannot coexist in the same political habitat for the following reasons.

First, the reactionary stubbornly resists placing faith, as Hayek describes in The Constitution of Liberty (1960), in the intangible forces that sustain economic freedom. Not surprisingly, an unwillingness to trust the fundamental theories of basic economics is manifest in Trump’s attacks on free trade and in his unabashed advocacy of protectionist policies such as high tariffs on imports. By casting China as the great rapist of American fortunes for manipulating its currency valuation, he names a seemingly credible sponsor for the economic woes ravaging the industrial heartland. It enables him to offer spurious solutions that promise security.

Second, to cope with a prevalent fear of the unknown, the reactionary finds solace in submitting to coercion so long as s/he finds the actions of the authoritarian acceptable. If Big Brother were to enforce upon others a set of moral or religious values with which the reactionary agrees, then s/he would support the use of arbitrary power. Consequently, many hail the pugnacious and politically incorrect (and often vile) Trump as the Right’s counterpunch to President Obama’s eight-year long assault on America. His bravado then is especially appealing to those demographics -- such as white men, heterosexual couples, traditional families, and religious communities -- that have been intentionally maligned by the Obamacrats.

Third, that the reactionary finds no objection in surrendering power to a demagogue symptomizes a larger ailment -- the lack of political principles. In such apathy toward limiting the power of government, the reactionary finds common ground with the socialist, which explains the affinity between Trump and Bernie Sanders. Finally, the inclination for political expediency and consolidating power in a select few, combined with a stubborn distrust of ambiguity and foreignness, tends to culminate in fervent nationalism. Indeed, Trump has reaped great success at the ballot box by masquerading jingoistic rhetoric as sincere patriotic pride. (To be sure, the left consistently misrepresents his remarks on illegal immigration as xenophobic; like a broken clock that is right twice a day, Trump is not always wrong).

It is therefore evident that the Grand Old Party cannot condone the reactionaryism espoused by Trump and his followers, and also function as a viable conduit for conservative principles. The nomination of Trump has brought Republicans to an important crossroads, wherein we must either wed our destiny to that of Trumpism or strike off anew. For the conservatives amongst us, the choice is clear.

Meg Hansen holds an M.A. from Dartmouth College and directs the political communications of the Vermont House Republican Caucus. Her writing can be found at www.piersonharleth.com.