What Is the Trump coalition?

Pundits, commentators, penny-ante prognosticators all talk with certainty about the mixture of voters who sent Donald J. Trump, a gaudy real-estate developer, to the White House.  Yet most can't pinpoint who composed this group of Americans who were willing to roll the dice on an unknown compared to someone as politically familiar – too familiar, even – as Hillary Clinton.

Trump voters are described in various amorphous terms, not all of which are friendly: working class, nationalist, rural, populist, provincial, anti-globalist, immigration skeptics, racist dissidents.  It's also unclear what kind of president Trump will end up being.  Will he be, in the parlance of political scientist Stephen Skowronek, reconstructive in the vein of Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, permanently reforming his party?  Or will Trump be merely disjunctive, signaling the end of the last regime but failing to unite the disparate strands of interests that put him in office?

It's hard to say.  Trump's governing style lacks predictability.  That's because his philosophical core is, at best, inchoate.  Trump himself may not fully comprehend the larger picture formed by his beliefs – an attribute not unfamiliar to most Americans.

A cottage industry has formed around explaining what Trumpism is and isn't.  But many of these tracts, which are sold for inflated prices at airport bookstores, focus on the man, not what he represents compared to the current political order.

Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony just took a big intellectual leap forward in developing a social system close to what Trump voters may be seeking.  In the current state of things, both Democrat and Republican, and their party congeners – greenie, libertarian, democratic socialist – hold fast to the principles of liberalism.  And by liberalism, I don't mean generic Democratic policies.  In this case, it's liberalism qua liberalism – individual equality, consensual exchange, the supremacy of reason.

The American system of government was established largely along these principles, which are based on the thinking of philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.  Most modern politicians still govern along liberal lines.  Democrats relentlessly push for the equality of newly discovered sexual and racial classifications.  Republicans embrace the freedom of the marketplace, within our borders and out.

The one prominent exception is Trump, who has never been a doctrinaire Republican, nor a typical Democrat despite being registered as one for years. He refers to himself as a "nationalist," despite the term's open-ended implications.  Hazony has just written a well received book on the positive attributes of nationalism, The Virtue of Nationalism.  But it's his recent essay in First Things outlining the alternative to liberalism that paves the way for new thinking on our old system of government.

Titled "Conservative Democracy," Hazony picks up where Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen left off with last year's "Why Liberalism Failed," and sketches out what a more conservative approach to liberal democracy can look like.  Hazony right away dispenses with the old canard that fascism and Marxism are liberalism's only replacements.  While recognizing the indisputable benefits of liberalism – no one can seriously claim market capitalism hasn't been a boon for human living standards.  Hello, modern dentistry! – Hazony homes in on its failures: the inability to keep families intact and religion a crucial aspect of our collective lives.

He writes:

The most significant institutions that have characterized America and Britain for the last five centuries, giving these countries their internal ­coherence and stability – the Bible, public religion, the independent national state, and the traditional family – are not merely under assault.  They have been, at least since World War II, in precipitous ­decline.

Hazony points out a glaring omission that even right-leaning defenders of liberalism are guilty of: family stability, faith, and patriotic loyalty are not intrinsic characteristics of liberalism.  The latter doesn't need the former to exist – indeed, their absence is increasingly the national norm.  Skyrocketing out-of-wedlock birth rates, declining church attendance, a withering of our reverence for history and tradition.  These have been liberalism's fruits.

Hazony envisions a new regimen, one that emphasizes national continuity and historical faith while maintaining the better aspects of liberalism, including limited government and individual liberty.  A conservative system, he stipulates, would emphasize five main points: historical empiricism, nationalism, religion, limited executive power, and individual freedoms.

Where liberalism fails, Hazony contends, is in its fatal conceit, to borrow a term from one of the ideology's most famous exponents.  "In their campaign for universal 'liberal democracy,' liberals have thus confused certain historical-­empirical principles of the traditional Anglo-American constitution," he writes, "for universal truths that are equally accessible to all human beings, regardless of historical or cultural circumstances."

Hazony's "conservative democracy" is, in short, a return to particularity.  Like all social systems, it's imperfect and in need of refinement.  But it has potential, not just to supplant liberalism, but to improve it.

The desire for some aspects of conservative democracy was apparent in Trump's election.  The hollowing out of our manufacturing base through liberalism's championing of free trade, the opioid epidemic that stems from a lack of transcendent meaning inculcated through churching, the ever upward tick of the divorce rate among older Americans – these factors boosted the poignancy of Trump's nostalgia-heavy campaign message.

So what's next? Books and polemics are one way of getting the message out that untrammeled liberalism is behind many of our woes.  Hazony has done a valuable service adumbrating an alternative to liberalism that isn't liquidating the kulaks.  But he can't popularize it on his own.

Coincidentally enough, an unexpected voice has distilled some of the more straightforward aspects of conservative democracy and broadcasted them to a wide audience.  Fox News host Tucker Carlson began the year with a ripping monologue, taking American elites to task for living bourgeois lifestyles but not passing those values down the social ladder.  He describes members of the "educated upper-middle classes" as "functionally libertarian" in lifestyle – that is, liberal.  This hands-off approach has given way to a raft of fatherless homes and hopeless drug addiction cases we see everywhere outside high-income ZIP codes.

Carlson, like sociologist Charles Murray before him, wants an elite class better attuned to the needs of the working and middle class.  Hazony has developed an intellectual framework to conserve the best of liberalism while shoring up its shortcomings.  Trump won a presidential election based on the notion that our nation is not as cohesive as it once was.

This constellation of doubt in the status quo isn't a mistake.  Liberalism is due for a rethinking.  At the very least, the motivating forces that elected Trump and Hazony's proposition gives us something more to think about in the highly circumscribed arena of political ideas.