Trump and The Fight for Conservatism

It's clear that as the battle for the heart and soul of conservatism rages, President Donald Trump is fundamentally redefining what it means to be a conservative.  However, the vital question is whether, on balance, he has advanced or degraded the vision of our Founding Fathers.

We turn for explication to Peter Wehner's July 28, 2019 interview in The Atlantic with the archetypical Republican, George Will.

Will argues that Trump has undermined traditional conservatism because he's a populist.  As Will states, "[p]opulism is a direct translation of popular passions into governments through a strong executive."  But the question is whether Trump merely responded to a nascent populism — underwritten by the "deplorables" who have been ignored by Democrats and Republicans alike — or whether he is, in fact, governing as a populist.

In a recent visit to rural Maine, Trump said, "As the workers of Maine know well — and that's for many decades — Washington politicians shipped away your jobs, outsourced your supply chains, and offshored your industry" [1].

That's why Trump's agenda has focused on tax reform to encourage blue-collar job creation and wage increases and an unapologetic defense of religious freedom, the unborn, and the 2nd Amendment.  Additionally, he has brought a clear-eyed perspective to our foreign policy, one driven by America's national security interests, eschewing the Neocons' misguided pipe dream of nation-building.  Trump has tirelessly pursued these goals, guided by unambiguously conservative principles, not by an impetuous populism.

Will is also critical of Trump's antagonistic influence on our culture, a coarsening of discourse and decorum.  However, that's a "forest and trees" criticism, because his visceral disdain for the president blinds him to Trump's legitimate attacks on our sclerotic political culture, which has been nurturing the Administrative State for well over a century.

To wit, in 1887 Woodrow Wilson wrote an article titled "The Study of Administration."  He explained that he wanted to counter "the error of doing too much by vote," that "self-government does not consist in having a hand in everything," and arguing for "administrative elasticity and discretion."  

Wilson preferred governance by a self-selected, elitist group of "learned men" to lead the benighted, unwashed masses.  Those roots have been nourished ever since by faithless politicians, which created our massive federal regulatory apparatus. 

The arch-conservative, William F. Buckley, would certainly have disdained Trump's filter-free discourse.  However, he would likewise have celebrated Trump's loathing of governance by administrative fiat, which has stifled our freedoms.  In his 1955 inaugural edition of National Review, Buckley quoted Friedrich Hayek's Road to Serfdom, warning that America faced a grave danger — "paternalistic government" — which was the grandfather of the Administrative State.

Therefore, if Will is sincere in his concern for our liberties and Trump's alleged encroachment thereon, why doesn't he acknowledge that in just his first term, Trump has achieved conservatism's dream of eliminating thousands of burdensome regulations drafted by faceless bureaucrats [2]?

Announcing Trump's reform of federal rulemaking, Neomi Rao, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, said, "[I]n modern times, the expansion of the administrative state has placed undue burdens on the public, impeding economic growth, technological innovation, and consumer choice.  Our reform efforts emphasize the rule of law, respect for the Constitution's separation of powers, and the limits of agency authority" [2].

What Will and his fellow blue-blood, country-club Republicans detest most about Trump is that he's not a member of the elite D.C. cabal — the glib and polished, Ivy League–educated cognoscenti who, regardless of party, have reliably failed to advance our Founding Fathers' principles and values.

In another article, the pearl-clutching Peter Wehner personalizes his distaste for Trump: "he has to be seen as a culmination of what I think were dark forces on the American right[.] ... [T]he reasons that people latch onto Trump are precisely the reasons that I'm so offended by him — his violation of norms, the style, the disposition, and the temperament.  Trump is also by light-years more ignorant than anyone who's ever run for the presidency" [3].

The question is, ignorant of what?  A thorough reading of the Federalist Papers?  Probably.  But what matters most is that Trump has been a staunch defender of our liberties, because he intuitively understands Benjamin Franklin's statement that "Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature."

  1. "In Maine, Trump Sees a Prize Within Reach," The Wall Street Journal, Aug 15-16, 2020.
  2. "Here's How Much Red Tape Trump Has Cut," The Heritage Foundation, October 17, 2018.
  3. "What's Left of the Right," Democracy, A Journal of Ideas, Summer 2018, No. 49.

Philip Mella is former mayor pro tem of Woodland Park, and currently serves on the 4th Judicial District Nominating Commission.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

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