For a take of mine on current U.S. politics, here’s what I wrote on January 24 in response to the National Review’s feature “Against Trump,” and my view of how its condemnation of Donald Trump would do little to curb his overall support. My ideas have only been reinforced by the caucus and primary results and his continued controversies since.
The National Review’s effective excommunication of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in its “Against Trump” editorial on January 21 marked the conservative magazine’s attempt to openly and publicly distance itself ideologically, and even ethically, from the Trump camp. In the first paragraph of its denunciation, the National Review’s editors lambasted Trump as “a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.” They concluded by asserting that Trump “is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot on behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.”
Yet in the middle of the editors’ critique, they pose the rhetorical question that merits some serious soul-searching among conservatives, and a stark look in the mirror: “If Trump were to become the president, the Republican nominee, or even a failed candidate with strong conservative support, what would that say about conservatives?” What it says is that the same traits that Trump exhibits in his campaign, and the undertones that reverberate so effectively among his targeted audience, are the very byproduct of modern American conservatism.
Trump illustrates much of what significant segments of the modern Republican Party, and the conservative movement at large, have implicitly encouraged and fostered. There is anti-intellectualism, through which Trump has leveraged polling numbers and his brand recognition and wielded insults instead of possessing actual knowledge, experience or interest; and hawkish patriotism, which in recent weeks has assumed a markedly xenophobic, increasingly radical, and ethnic/sectarian tone in Trump’s camp.
Trump illustrates much of what significant segments of the modern Republican Party, and the conservative movement at large, have implicitly encouraged and fostered.
There is a romanticized notion of insurrection, of overthrowing tyranny in the abstract, of limiting the obtrusiveness of a faceless and distant government and bureaucracy and standing up for the common citizen; and staunch opposition to the idea of “political correctness” and exceptions, accommodations or protections for historically marginalized groups and minorities as a liberal, conspiratorial, statist construct. Even the National Review concedes in its criticism of Trump that his “refusal to back down from any gaffe, no matter how grotesque, suggests a healthy impertinence in the face of postmodern PC.”
Finally, and most prominently, there is the idea that America is changing, and is now in an extraordinarily rapid state of decline, and that only through extensive measures can America be redeemed again and brought back from the proverbial and literal edge. Conservative intellectuals may be able to deny Trump their support, but it is far harder for them to deny many of the underlying ideals they share – and that Trump so caustically promotes.
It is interesting the National Review references a “broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP” that Trump is in the process of destroying, when the lack of such consensus is largely what enabled Trump to assume the mantle of the anti-politician under the party umbrella in the first place. The current GOP is less a coherent conservative party with a clearly defined agenda and more a coalition of various distinct groups with competing outlooks and priorities, ranging from libertarians of differing degrees to big-business interests to evangelical and fundamentalist Christians to military hawks to increasingly marginalized and silent moderates.
Though this same breadth of ideological diversity and divisions prevails on the left side of the aisle in the Democratic Party, only within the GOP are there groups that stand almost entirely ideologically opposed to the party establishment and elites. For many of those who fervently support Trump, politicians like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz (despite his evangelical bent) or Jeb Bush represent just as much of a distant and removed East Coast, Washingtonian elite as Hillary Clinton – and are just as intolerable.
Many observers have called Trump proto-fascist, authoritarian or dictatorial. Yet Trump is less motivated to establish himself as an uncontested figurehead, and more so to exploit concerns both genuine and imagined among the voting public for his own political and personal gain. Trump has little to gain from rolling back American democracy; he has everything to gain from undermining the existing political establishment, and particularly the elements of the Republican Party that oppose his rise and ability to manipulate the party to meet his own ends. Trump has little need to say what he actually means; he says what he knows many people want to hear, and what will get them talking about him.
Trump has little to gain from rolling back American democracy; he has everything to gain from undermining the existing political establishment, and particularly the elements of the Republican Party that oppose his rise and ability to manipulate the party to meet his own ends.
The irony of the National Review’s condemnation of Trump as un-conservative and a political pariah is that it will go largely unheeded, and perhaps even invigorate the Trumpist movement. Trump and his supporters embrace the anti-establishment, anti-elite and anti-intellectual impulse that opposes the very institutions and positions that the magazine and its editors embody. National Review and the establishment depend on labels; Trump eschews them. That conservative intellectuals and their publications now find themselves on the wrong side of populist fervor and anger has come as a surprise for them; they now represent the abstract tyrannical establishment that they have encouraged their followers to resist and rise against for so long.
Ultimately, the National Review’s editors may cast Trump out of their conception of conservatism, but not conservatism in general. Trump promotes a haphazard ideology whose conservatism is self-defined, populist and politically expedient. What is most troubling is that for a substantial right-leaning body of voters, Trump being an outcast from the conservative or party establishment does not mean that he is discredited or ruined in the eyes of his supporters; rather, it does precisely the opposite in affirming the legitimacy of his stance.
Ultimately, the National Review’s editors may cast Trump out of their conception of conservatism, but not conservatism in general.
For many disillusioned and frustrated voters – particularly white, blue-collar and rural, and increasingly even members of the mainstream Republican establishment distressed by the idea of Cruz as the party’s eventual nominee – ideological integrity or conformity is unimportant compared to promised change and results. The greatest weakness of the National Review’s critique is that there is no conservative candidate to offer who fits their outlined criteria and who has proven to be as compelling as Donald Trump. The magazine’s editors can banish him from their idealized conservatism, but the closely linked Trumpist movement will continue on without them – and they will hardly be missed.