Is Donald Trump More Conservative Than Conservatives?
The backlash against Donald Trump from a lot of groups is predictable, but one of the more interesting cases of this reaction is from the conservative intelligentsia.
Trump's sins against conservatism are, they tell us, that he is not pro-liberty enough. His proposals, from the infamous wall to a potential tax on imported goods, all smack of statism, rather than the crystalline purity of the free market and all its attendant liberties.
But what this criticism conceals is the fact that, broadly speaking, there are two major strains, or streams, of tradition within what is commonly called "conservatism." One may be called the "capitalist" strain, which extols liberty as the highest good in and of itself. The other may perhaps be called the "localist" tradition, which views liberty as a means rather than an end, and not always a good in itself. The localist tradition extols the family, the community, and, by extension, the nation as the highest social good, with liberty as its handmaid.
In this article, I will not defend either of these two traditions. Nevertheless, I will argue that, for better or for worse, the localist tradition is the more "original" conservatism, and the Trump phenomenon represents a kind of conservatism within conservatism.
Ironically, the thinker who best explains this kind of American First-ism, I think, is actually a Canadian.
In 1965, George Parkin Grant published Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism. For this, Grant was considered the father of Canadian nationalism, but arguably his principles can be used to explain the intellectual underpinnings of the American nationalism of Trump and his supporters.
Grant, a Platonist philosopher of religion, believed that a form of political loyalty is necessary for the good life; it is an allegiance that draws the individual out of himself toward a higher good. But Canada was in danger, as were all other nations, of being absorbed into a homogenizing super-state. This homogenization was being achieved by the proliferation of technology: because technology encourages the achievement of desires, it trained the mind to value will over anything else, including any political or moral boundaries, which Grant called the essence of "liberalism": a belief that individual liberty is the highest good. Thus, a liberal cosmopolitanism was eroding all sense of national loyalty in favor of a globalism that would necessarily be a Huxleyan tyranny and would make the good life impossible.
The only way to arrest this technological homogenization, Grant believed, was through a level of government control of the economy to stop the effects of global capitalism, and this was something the Conservative Party of Canada had once held to. When Canada first came into existence, the Conservatives implemented a protectionist National Policy, applying high tariffs on imported goods in order to protect Canadian industry. This policy was gutted by the Liberals, and eventually, much to Grant's chagrin, "conservatives" began to adapt free-market dogma (which was really right-wing liberalism) instead of historic Toryism.
We will come back to the National Policy, but for now it is worth stressing that Grant did indeed represent an older conservatism. Ralph Nader has chronicled the anti-capitalism of the early American conservative movement, such as the Southern Agrarians. Notably, Nader has also said some approving things about Trump for standing athwart the capitalist establishment.
Mainstream conservatism ended up rejecting this kind of Luddite nostalgia. William F. Buckley, Jr. himself, quoting Whittaker Chambers, remarked that a conservatism that rejects industrialism in the age of the machine is little more than "literary whimsy." Moreover, this kind of localist, anti-capitalist rhetoric was admittedly used as justification for fascism and anti-Semitism. But identifying Trump as a fascist is approaching him from the wrong angle. There is a precedent for his thinking much closer to home.
The National Policy of Canada took its influence from the "National System" or the "American System," or what used to be called the American School of Economics, since it was the economic program that dominated the country until the 1970s. To summarize this system, America's strength and independence should be assured by a strong, well equipped standing army, by protective tariffs, and by subsidies into roads and canals. All of this was inspired by the German economist Friedrich List, who rejected Adam Smith's economic philosophy of individual interest in favor of a philosophy of national or communal interest.
Now, this is almost exactly Trump's platform, and it is exactly why he is denounced as a bad conservative: because of all the spending he is proposing, for following List rather than Smith. Obviously, strengthening the military is a prominent aspect of his platform, but less well-reported on are his suggestion of tariffs to protect American industry and his intention to increase spending on infrastructure. Moreover, he wishes to subsidize American industries such as ethanol, completely counter to the ruthless logic of the free market, simply because it is American. This is how Trump's now iconic slogan must be understood; this is the perceived one-time greatness of America he wishes to restore.
It must be said frankly that the instincts behind Trump's policies and the instincts behind the Trump phenomenon have to be distinguished. Timothy Cardinal Dolan is certainly correct when he recognizes aspects of the old anti-Catholic American nativism flaring up amongst the fervor of Trump's supporters.
But they must be distinguished from Trump himself, who, it should be noted, has appointed two Catholics, Steven K. Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, to run his campaign. Moreover, not only is Trump in favor of legal immigration, but beneath his smouldering rhetoric against all the criminality illegal immigration ushers in (understandable when one considers MS-13), he has advocated a plan whereby undocumented immigrants, upon being deported, would have a fast-tracked reapplication process. Trump thus defends a "path to citizenship" not dissimilar to the policy of "earned legalization" advocated by the U.S. Catholic bishops, who, in their words, "accept the legitimate role of the U.S. government in intercepting unauthorized migrants who attempt to travel to the United States."
None of this is an endorsement of Trump; none of this is a defense of any of these policies. But it is important for self-identified conservatives, especially those who are baffled by conservative support for Trump, to understand the intellectual and philosophical heritage that gave rise to his campaign and his candidacy.
It may be surprising that in this time of fierce social conflict, the Republicans did not gravitate toward a conventional culture warrior like Ted Cruz, and many are flabbergasted that Evangelicals seem to be flocking to a crude, multiply divorced media mogul like Trump (forgetting, perhaps, that the Bible is full of examples of morally compromised leaders who nevertheless accomplish great things). But someone like George Grant gives us an insight into a sentiment that holds that traditional morality cannot be preserved if the tradition-bearing community is not. It is clear that, to many, the appeal of Trump is that they think he will protect that community.
Say what you will about that belief, but it is certainly conservative.