Chaos dominates the political scene today thanks to the success of the Trump campaign and the Trumpsteria that has accompanied it. This chaos is the subject of myriad essays, commentaries, and—most significantly—power grabs both brand new and repackaged.
It was, in many senses, inevitable. Donald Trump is attracting large crowds, and his poll numbers are routinely yuge. This is not the sort of excitement that the GOP is accustomed to. Thus, the reasoning: There must be a something at the bottom of all of this, some ism that unites people behind the celebrity billionaire and explains his success. Racism? Nationalism? Populism? Middle American Radicalism? Following this very logical train of thought, everyone appears to have two choices: Oppose Trump with all your might, or try to glom on, hoping that his successes will become yours.
The Trump Opposers take two basic tacks. One is to hurl screaming liberal epithets at him based on tired old clichés, and thereby damn everyone who supports Trump as equally deserving of those worn-out labels. Trump is a racist because he wants to curb illegal immigration. The fact that he prattles on about how much he loves Mexicans, and has great respect for the Mexican people, and has hired many Mexicans is proof that he’s covering up his bigotry. If Trump or his supporters do not see the United States as the forever home of Mexicans, or Family-Friendly Hispanics, or Wise Latinos, there could be no explanation other than the fact that Trump and his supporters are white supremacists, which is something we already knew about conservatives anyway.
The other approach of the Trump Opposers is to insist that he’s not a conservative. Sometimes the Trump Opposers base this on things he has said or done in the past, insisting that he’s contradicting himself. Look at the liberal Democratic politicians he’s supported! Listen to what he once said about abortion! Facebook meme-generators are running hot these days, churning out silver-bullet quotations that provide obvious, incontrovertible proof that Trump cannot be a conservative, no matter what he’s saying at present.
Other times, the same Trump Opposers apply this approach to what Trump is emphatically saying at present, not because he’s contradicting himself, but because he is contradicting their version of conservatism. No conservative can oppose military intervention, particularly in the Middle East, or refuse to adopt a belligerent stance toward Vladimir Putin, and at the same time legitimately claim to believe in a “strong military” and “national defense.” No conservative would ever stop short of treating all Palestinians as jihadist terrorists without calling into question his absolute devotion to Israel, a commitment incumbent on every conservative. No conservative would ever propose the exclusion of any religious class of immigrant wannabes, even if (or especially if!) that class is Muslim immigrants, because conservatives believe in absolute religious freedom, and besides most Muslims who come here (like the Hispanics and/or Latinos) are peace-loving and family oriented, and even potential Republican voters. No conservative would speak the way Trump does about the U.S. trade deficit with China or Mexico, because conservatives believe in a global free market and global free trade, and the worst thing in the world would be for American breadwinners to make the things that Americans need, when foreign brown and yellow people can do the same at a fraction of the cost.
These Trump Opposers are most often the self-appointed keepers of “conservative ideology” (a contradiction in terms), who make their pronouncements from high atop an ivory tower arising from a black-and-white landscape. Witness, for example, George Will, who in the column before me identifies the bigoted xenophobe Trump as a man “unencumbered by any ballast of convictions,” a candidate running “to the left” of Hillary, whose legion of followers (presumably those whom he, George Will, wishes to influence) he dismisses as frivolous “Trumpkins.” Will’s “conservative ideology” allows him to dismiss Trump as a candidate who would “make America great again by having it cower behind trade barriers.”
I wonder: Is there room in conservatism for the Trumpkins formerly employed at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis? Should they be thankful that their jobs were sacrificed on the altar of “conservative ideology”? Also, more generally: Does the erection of barriers necessitate cowardice?
Alongside the Trump Opposers are the Trump Glommers, whose rhetoric suggests that there is an essence of Trumpism that validates some larger mass movement or sociopolitical goal, which just happens to be theirs. This is our moment, they declare, and we must carpe diem!
One such Trump Glommer group is the white nationalists or identitarians, that fairly transparent clan of ideologues that so insists on defying labels, including their own. They are lining up behind Trump, and they hope to convince you that Trump is lining up behind them. And how could they possibly be wrong? He opposes immigration, and so do they! As everyone now knows, David Duke and Jared Taylor have urged their people to vote for Trump, and are attempting to capitalize on his popularity as if it is a sign of their own nascent potential. As Trump’s opposition to immigration is the engine driving his success, they are very quick to fill in certain blanks in the thought process of Americans who are attending rallies and buying “Make America Great Again” hats and T-shirts. Trump wants to make America white again. Trump is awakening America’s white racial consciousness.
This glomming has not, of course, been missed by the Trump Opposers, who have repeatedly asked Trump to disavow or disown or repudiate racists, racialists, the KKK, white nationalists, and white supremacists at every available opportunity. The White Glommers, then, cite any sort of hesitancy in Trump’s predictable (and actual) disavowals of them as proof that he’s really on their side. After all, we’re sophisticated enough to know that Trump’s playing a political game, and that certain things have to be said to placate the media, wink and nod. Others among the White Glommers are assuring their people that Trump has not made it to the mountain yet, that his white racial consciousness has not yet been fully bestirred, and maybe it’s too late for him anyway, but that his basic impulses, despite his guarded and calculated disownings and repudiations, are still at root racialist, and his candidacy is but the first step in the right direction.
What fascinates me about both sides of this Trumpsteria, the Opposers and the Glommers, is the fact that they are unmoored from reality. Trump and his supporters are not actual people, only examples of airtight isms. If we accept that opposing immigration means embracing an abstract and unneighborly racialist identity, or that trade is only free when jobs bleed across borders and oceans, or that vigorously defending America means rewriting the map of the world, we have cravenly allowed the ideologues to define all of our terms for us and to tell us what to think and whom to like or dislike.
Conservatives embrace reality. As I wrote last month in this space, quoting Russell Kirk, conservatism is the “anti-ideology.” At the heart of a conservative is the natural inclination to suspect that abstract ideas that do not reflect long-held tradition nor find their grounding in higher authorities are bogus. Abstract, catch-all answers are always the seed of heresy.
Conservatism has fallen on hard times in America today because ideology rules. Our media-driven, instant-communication, highly centralized, managerial society makes this easy. Today, the carefully written essay is ruled by the unmoderated and immoderate comment. Few are unfamiliar with the experience of “sharing” an article electronically, only to see comments appear instantly, long before the time necessary for any human being actually to have read the piece. Indeed, no one has the time to read all of the things “shared” by his “friends.” So just skim it, get the gist, and weigh in—cast your vote! What matters is not the truth conveyed by the speech or article, but who said it, and whose side he’s on.
The whole situation presupposes that we already know everything we need to know (a thoroughly leftist presumption), and that the purpose of communication is simply to validate or invalidate people whom we like or dislike, especially ourselves. What that translates into is the politicization of everything—of culture, family, religion, and life in general. In Libya, Twitter was used to start a war. But then again, war is the whole point of the medium. It is designed for side-picking, for glib brandishing, and ultimately for creating a false identity. But that false identity, like today’s media (social and otherwise), does not exist in a vacuum, and it becomes the image by which we are known by others, and by which we know ourselves.
The triumph of ideology is, of course, not the fruit of the social-media revolution. America has always been an uneasy mix of a wide diversity of cultures and communities, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, and when these have had room to grow and thrive, our common culture in America has been vibrant. Nonetheless, because fallen man ever grasps for power, the homogenizing tendency has always lurked beneath the surface. “It will become all one thing or all the other,” etc. What mass, instant communication has done is to hyperpoliticize opinion at warp speed, and in regions of space hitherto untouched by ideological thinking. Combine that with the ever-increasing centralization of power in Washington, D.C.—where a few Solons decide what your children learn in school, and what science means, and what medicine you may get, and when retirement comes, and what marriage is, and what the borders of every country in the world should be—and virtually all of life appears to boil down to the machinations of two unconstitutional political parties run by boobs and sorcerers. When the things in life that Really Matter are thought of purely in political terms and decided by elections, every election must needs be the “most important election of our lifetime,” until the next one. A President Trump could build a big, beautiful wall, curb illegal immigration, and prevent America from entering another disastrous war; yet given the ideological bent of American society, the same rainbow coalition who voted for him could simply turn around and elect another Barack Obama (or Marco Rubio) to tear it down, amnesty another horde, and invade another country.
There are plenty of reasons for conservatives to like Donald Trump, and plenty of reasons for us to dislike him. But for conservatism to be great again, conservatives must learn to care less about ideologies, side-picking, and instant reactions, and reestablish our commitment to the Permanent Things.
[Image credit: By Marc Nozell [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]