It has come to my attention that there are still conservatives out there who do not believe President-elect Donald Trump is a conventional conservative or even a conservative of any stripe whatsoever. Of course, I suspected him of being pretty much a conservative in 2013 when he spoke at our Robert L. Bartley Dinner, and I have been assiduously spreading the word ever since.
Now, unlike Ronald Reagan, he never read National Review, or The American Spectator for that matter. Nor did he vote for Barry Goldwater, our first bona fide conservative presidential candidate. These are derelictions to which he pleads guilty, but back then he was not a politician or even particularly politically aware. He was a builder and a real estate guy, making billions of dollars and establishing a family — in fact, three families. That can keep a man busy.
Still, I think one would be in error to say Donald Trump was not somewhat conservative in his early years of adult life. He was for free markets, a sound dollar, and all those elements that go into patriotism. By the time he had made it through the same decades as the rest of us boomers and arrived at 2013, take my word for it he had pretty much come our way. He was for free enterprise, a strong defense, and most of our values, and his love for America made him what we would call typically American. He really had come to love America. On that he was emphatic. I cannot imagine his ever being as Laodicean on the topic of America as our laid-back 44th president.
Moreover, in looking over his picks for cabinet, I cannot believe that there are many conservatives out there who have any doubts about Donald Trump’s conservatism. Not since the Reagan Administration has a president chosen such an array of right-of-center appointments to head his departments and his White House staff. Generals Flynn, Kelly, and Mattis come from the London Center, a rock solid conservative think tank. To the Department of Education he is sending Betsy DeVos of the vaunted DeVos family, an advocate of vouchers, charter schools, and school choice. His selections for the Central Intelligence Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Interior Department are solid conservatives, and then there is Senator Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department who has versed himself in the conservative classics since his college days. I count six other professed conservatives in the cabinet, ending with the estimable Ben Carson. Then there is Trump’s White House team, led by Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, and Reince Priebus, all members of the vast right-wing conspiracy. As Machiavelli said, if you want to gain an appreciation for the Prince, ponder his lieutenants.
So where does Donald Trump’s conservatism come from? Now you are going to think I am pulling your leg, but I am doing nothing of the sort. I am not about to joke about the origins of his conservatism. His conservatism comes from the same source as Abraham Lincoln’s conservatism. That would be the Whig Party of the 1830s to the mid-1850s. I am not saying that Donald, between establishing casinos and golf clubs, was devoting his leisure hours to reading political tracts from the 1840s. Yet he was living the life of a Whig in the 1840s, as were other 20th-century business people.
The Whig Party has been ignored by modern-day progressives and left-of-center historians who are uncomfortable with the Whigs’ essential conservatism and the questions that the party posed, namely Jeffersonian elitism, Democratic racism, and opposition to change. These historians promote Honest Abe as a frontier romantic and ignore the Whigs, who basically dissolved into the new Republican Party by the mid-1850s.
Yet there they are, and their beliefs predate Donald Trump. They favored “internal improvements.” What Donald now calls infrastructure. They favored economic growth, especially on the frontier. And they favored high tariffs. Donald says he favors free trade but he will use the threat of high tariffs to sustain free trade. The historian Allen C. Guelzo elaborates on all this in his admirably comprehensive Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, though he leaves Donald Trump out of it.
Guelzo identifies the Whigs (and Lincoln) as essentially a reaction to Jeffersonian idealism, which is another reason the Whigs get the cold shoulder from modern historians. The Whigs opposed Jefferson’s class system with its alliance of the marginal farmer with the aristocracy. The Whigs were working-class and middle-class as opposed to creatures of inheritance. They were optimistic and socially mobile as opposed to Jeffersonian Democrats’ idolatry of stasis and the soil. They opposed slavery, and we all know what the Democrats favored and still do in its welfare-state form. The Democrats were — and today are — for the status quo, and conservatives along with Donald Trump favor growth and dynamism.
I could expand upon Donald Trump’s Whiggery (and ours) for several chapters, but you have to go to lunch. I suggest you get Guelzo’s book and consider the origins of Donald Trump. We are all Whigs now.