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What is “Conservatism”?

Donald Trump isn’t a “conservative” as defined by the Beltway Right. Thank Heaven for that. So what are the defining elements of right-liberal “conservatism” these days? It appears that lining the oligarchs’ pockets (“free enterprise”), unrestrained financial speculation (“limited government”), amnesty/unlimited immigration (so “hardworking” people can “come out of the shadows”), and perpetual war (“protecting our freedom”) are non-negotiable ideological litmus tests for the “respectable” Right.

Peter Brimelow recently noted that Trump’s version of what constitutes conservatism is very different than that of “Conservatism, Inc.” When asked “what it means to be a conservative” during the GOP candidates debate on February 6th, Trump didn’t focus on tax cuts, or “reaching out” to “people in the shadows,” as John Kasich did. Nor did he insist that “the world is a safer and a better place when America is the strongest military and the strongest nation on this planet,” as Marco Rubio claimed. Trump said, “I view the word conservative as a derivative . . . of the word conserve. We want to conserve our country.  We want to save our country.”

As Peter Brimelow concluded, conservatism is not an ideology. Conservatism is about the most elemental human attachments, the concrete over the abstract. The natural bonds to nation, country, and family are not, as Brimelow noted, “irrational, but arational—beyond the reach of reason.” And that, of course, is at it should be. The most important ties, the ones that make us human, that support a purposeful identity, cannot be rationalized or reduced to utilitarian formulas.

“Conservatism, Inc.,” was having none of that, of course.  John Hart, in a piece entitled “Conservatism is Still a Second Language to Trump” declared that Trump’s answer was “uninspiring”  and “not worthy” of a candidate with “front runner status.” Trump’s answer was, said Hart, something from out of the 1950’s, an outmoded way of thinking. “Today’s modern conservative movement isn’t a hoarding or protectionist philosophy,” according to Hart. Hart even asserted that “conservatism isn’t about conserving,” but about “growth.”

Growth? To what end? For whom? To paraphrase Donald Trump, we either have a country, Mr. Hart, or we don’t have a country. If “growth” is the aim of the “conservative movement” and “conservatism” doesn’t care about conserving anything, even the country itself, then it is mainstream conservatism that is uninspiring, to say the least.

Today’s battle on the Right is between a residual authentic conservatism that is organic, connected to people and place, and one that is ideological, abstract and unconnected to real people or places, one in which ideological differences matter more than organic connections and loyalties, like those of a child for his father and mother, or to a native state or a hometown. While it’s true that Trump is no philosopher of the Right, his instinctive patriotism is significantly closer than that of the Beltway Right’s to something thoughtful conservatives can support.

Wayne Allensworth

Wayne Allensworth is a Corresponding Editor of Chronicles magazine. He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel Field of Blood. He writes at American Remnant

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