Conservatives wonder how “liberal,” a word synonymous with freedom, morphed into a euphemism for soft statism. Puzzlement may soon hit regarding what their own label shares in common with William F. Buckley, Ronald Reagan, and Barry Goldwater.
We live in a post-conservative age. Donald Trump’s popularity among people who call themselves conservative indicates this. Not knowing what they stand for anymore, conservatives flock to whoever most boldly insults liberals or becomes Satan to the Fourth Estate. The fault isn’t in the reality-TV star but in ourselves.
Trump famously labeled himself “pro-choice in every respect” in response to a Tim Russert query on partial-birth abortion and endorsed the idea of single payer, i.e., medical costs funded entirely by the government. “Everybody’s got to be covered,” he told 60 Minutes last year. “This is an un-Republican thing for me to say.” He added, “I’m gonna take care of everybody.” And “everybody” includes, he has indicated elsewhere, Planned Parenthood — just not for the abortions they perform. Certainly a billionaire businessman understands the fungibility of money. But Trump reasoned on CNN last summer, “We have to take care of women.”
Nobody who signed the Sharon Statement meant to sign up for the Nanny State and none who read The Conscience of a Conservative understood it to mean that good government treats citizens as dependents.
Surely a Who Moved My Cheese? quality colors conservative complaints over Trump. Like Napoleon Dynamite’s Uncle Rico, they pine to perpetually live in ’82. But the world spins on. Different issues animate our politics. Principles, however, should endure rather than evolve. Unfortunately, conservatives more fond of principles in rhetoric than in reality set the stage for a leader of conservatives who does not even pay those principles lip service. Always talking about shrinking government and fidelity to the Constitution yet rarely backing words with action, those who created a farce of conservatism don’t grasp their own irony when bellyaching over the man making a farce of conservatives.
A leader who speaks without restraint doubtfully sees the Constitution as a restraint. Whereas Reagan spoke the language of freedom, Trump’s lingua franca remains power. Big businessmen and big government generally make for familiar bedfellows. The favorite word of right-thinking statesmen remains “no.” One wonders if billionaire businessmen ever hear the word let alone appreciate it as the greatest the English language offers.
Voters made impotent by court decisions, executive orders, and bureaucratic whimsy all dismissing the will of the people understandably find such a figure appealing. Trump’s success in business, emperor-has-no-clothes contempt for political correctness, adept transformation of the political third rail of immigration into the catalyst for his campaign, and symbolic presence as a middle finger to a Republican establishment fond of holding up a middle finger to the party’s base combine to propel him to frontrunner status among people who fundamentally disagree not just with his stated positions but with the principles that underlie them. Ultimately, the spit-ball shooting pol represents a politics of catharsis for a justifiably frustrated electorate.
One looks without much satisfaction for Trump antecedents in the conservative tradition. “Populist,” a polite word for demagogue, comes more readily as a label. Issues definitely motivated the bimetallist monomaniac William Jennings Bryan and Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” movement. But the issues took second stage to the dynamic personality in the spotlight. The difficulty of populists finding a clean fit on the Right or the Left speak to the primacy of the cult of personality that stirs up the masses. They tap into discontent well; they generally whiff when it comes to the hard work of implementing good policy.
Trump gives voice to a few good ideas. He recognizes that Americans increasingly feel as immigrants in their own country, articulating the majority position of tighter borders rarely articulated among the political class. He understands ISIS as an evil deserving a squashing but notes the folly of remaking their hotbeds through nation building.
One gleans that he arrived at these sound conclusions through common sense rather than by burying his nose in Russell Kirk, Albert Jay Nock, Stan Evans, or any other intellectuals on the Right. This isn’t a deal-breaker. He’s man of action rather than a man of letters, after all, as most good politicians tend to be. But he repeatedly betrays a lack of grounding in conservatism that raises suspicions of him, at least in a worst-case scenario, as a Trojan Horse solidifying Obamacare under a different label, nominating judges — like perhaps his sister — who champion those “New York values,” and raising taxes on all those terribly unpopular rich people.
He speaks in such broad terms, and without a voting record to clue us in, as to invite projection of a positive and negative sort. The Donald is nothing if not a human Rorschach test. And the reactions of Republican friends and foes suggest a similar impetus, desperation — to move on from Obama for the former or to hold on to power within the GOP for the latter — in their strong reactions to the candidate the polls say sits in the pole position.
Trump’s ascendency stands as a natural consequence of party leaders letting down party followers. A conservatism unable to conserve even itself may experience this as the ultimate defeat, a once-revered label that now taunts as a word divorced from its meaning.
But can you really blame Charlie Brown for rebuffing Lucy to kick a different football?