So will Trump fundamentally alter American conservatism, or is he a mere phase in a longer, unchanging tradition? Three American conservatives, and Britain’s George Orwell, have something to interesting say on the matter.
1. Charles C.W. Cooke:
Whatever its shortcomings—and they are many—the American Right is too complicated and too interesting a force to be ruined or consumed by a single preposterous president. Conservatism in this country long predated Trump; for now, it is tied up with Trump; soon, it will have survived Trump.
2. David Frum:
The most revealing thought in Cooke’s essay is his explanation for why he feels it is safe to go with the Trumpian flow: “Conservatism in this country long predated Trump; for now, it is tied up with Trump; soon, it will have survived Trump.”
This is something many conservatives tell themselves, but it’s not even slightly true. Trump is changing conservatism into something different. We can all observe that. Will it snap back afterward?
You can believe this only if you imagine that ideologies exist independently of the human beings who espouse them—and that they can continue unchanged and unchanging despite the flux of their adherents. In this view, millions of American conservatives may build their political identities on enthusiastic support for Donald Trump, but American conservatism will continue humming in the background as if none of those human commitments mattered at all.
This is simply not true. Ideas are not artifacts, especially the kind of collective ideas we know as ideologies. Conservatives in 1964 opposed civil-rights laws. Conservatives in 1974 opposed tax cuts unless paid for by spending cuts. Conservatives in 1984 opposed same-sex marriage. Conservatives in 1994 opposed trade protectionism. Conservatives in 2004 opposed people who equated the FBI and Soviet Union’s KGB. All those statements of conservative ideology have gone by the boards, and one could easily write a similar list of amended views for liberals.
Conservatism is what conservatives think, say, and do. As conservatives change—as much through the harsh fact of death and birth as by the fluctuations of opinion—so does what it means to be a conservative.
3. Rod Dreher:
This is why I just shake my head at conservatives who think Trump is an aberration, a Cromwellian interregnum before the Restoration of the monarchy, so to speak. It is certainly true, at least right now, that Trump is cultivating no heirs apparent. But the idea that right-of-center voters will have learned their lesson by voting for Trump, and will come home to the traditional GOP — that’s bonkers.
Think of how Trump (and to a much lesser extent, Roy Moore) is changing what it means to be an Evangelical. American Evangelicalism, like American conservatism, is a broad and durable movement that was here a long time before Donald Trump showed up, and will be here after he leaves. But the way so many white Evangelicals have embraced Trump really is changing Evangelicalism — this, even though Trump is not even an Evangelical! It is impossible to see how white Evangelicalism can return to the status quo ante after Trump leaves office….
My basic point is that whatever calls itself “conservatism” will not have survived Trump, if by “survive” one means emerges from him relatively unchanged. It’s not so much the substantive changes Trump will have made (there may not be many) as it is the role he played in knocking off the GOP’s and the conservative movement’s traditional elites. The definition of “conservatism” is going to be fluid for a long time after Trump, in part because of Trump, and in part because of the intensification of the broader cultural and technological forces that brought Trump to the presidency.
4. George Orwell.
I’ll risk application of Godwin’s Law to include a powerful insight from George Orwell. Orwell wrote to critique H.G. Wells (a socialist, not a conservative) on Wells’s view of the war. Wells held – in 1941 – “that the Blitzkrieg is spent,” etc. That was wildly false, of course: the war stretched on years longer, at vast cost. To contend that the Third Reich was spent in 1941 is to give no meaning to the word spent.
Orwell understood that Wells’s complacent optimism was false, profoundly so:
He [Wells] was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity. Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them. The people who have shown the best understanding of Fascism are either those who have suffered under it or those who have a Fascist streak in themselves. A crude book like The Iron Heel, written nearly thirty years ago, is a truer prophecy of the future than either Brave New World or The Shape of Things to Come.
If one had to choose among Wells’s own contemporaries a writer who could stand towards him as a corrective, one might choose Kipling, who was not deaf to the evil voices of power and military “glory”. Kipling would have understood the appeal of Hitler, or for that matter of Stalin, whatever his attitude towards them might be. Wells is too sane to understand the modern world. The succession of lower-middle-class novels which are his greatest achievement stopped short at the other war and never really began again, and since 1920 he has squandered his talents in slaying paper dragons….
I’ve long admired this essay of Orwell’s, for its moral and practical clarity. It’s a reminder of how clever men (Wells then, Cooke now) sometimes are – in the most important matters – also obtuse men.
Frum and Dreher are right that conservatism will not be able to outlast Trump unaffected. Cooke’s complacency is at best a false hope, and also a self-serving one (justifying diffidence in the face of Trump’s transgressions). Conservatives like Rubin, Wilson, and McMullin see this and so fight on, but most conservatives are now transformed in to something unworthy (they’re either Trumpists or timid).
I’m quite sure – even in the small town from which I write – that there are self-styled conservatives who believe (as with Cooke) that they’ve no need to oppose Trump wholeheartedly, as our present circumstances are a mere phase before a restoration of the prominent position they’ve long enjoyed.
Trump will meet his political ruin, but it will come through the efforts of those in opposition and resistance who actively opposed him. The complacent and entitled men who sat on the sidelines of this fight won’t escape the truth of their inaction: head down and eyes averted is a disgraceful memorial.