Donald Trump has shattered the false consensus of the Republican Party, the hitherto unrecognized tautology that GOP is conservative because conservative is GOP, and vice versa. In the process, we’ve been confronted by an embarrassing reality: We really have no idea what we mean by the word conservative.
There can be little doubt that Hillary Rodham Clinton, if elected president, would appoint ultraleftists to the Supreme Court; staff and lead a Justice Department (like Obama’s) that would turn every media-generated controversy surrounding crime in the hinterlands into an opportunity for social-justice engineering; continue if not accelerate the demographic transformation of the United States through illegal immigration and “refugee” resettlement; advance the left-liberal war against Christian churches and business owners through executive orders that require them to violate standards of traditional morality; foment foreign hostility that leads to more earth-scorching Middle Eastern bombing campaigns (“wars”) that allow the ever-present seeds of jihadist Islam to sprout and grow; weaken U.S. national security by failing to address the presence of jihadist Islam at home; and further strangle the American middle class through onerous top-down regulations, “jobs” programs, and trade deals.
NeverTrumpers are willing to grant all of that and more, all the while insisting that Donald Trump would do—and be—worse. Why? The reasons are interesting.
One set of charges involves Trump’s personal character. In this case, Candidate Trump offers not so much as an affirmative defense. He owns the charges, leaving it to us to assume that, at his advanced age, he is finished with womanizing, divorcing, and signing off on money-grabbing schemes that involve beefsteaks and diplomas. On the other hand, the glibness, the petulance, the general egotism—these continue, unapologetically and unrelentingly. For some, these undeniably embarrassing character flaws are reason enough to conclude that Trump has lied about every position he has taken during his campaign and would in fact do the opposite if elected.
The other set of charges pertains to Trump’s policies or stated goals, which are consistently ridiculed as being not-conservative. Professional pundits devote entire issues of putatively conservative magazines to the topic, and Barack Obama actually echoed their conclusions during his speech at the DNC. (“[W]hat we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican and it sure wasn’t conservative.”) For their part, some vocal members of the Alt-Right, who tend to support Trump, agree, only to add “thank God” or “Zeus,” after which they brandish their bona fides: “I am not a conservative and never have been a conservative.”
Quite recognizably, half-baked left-liberalism manifests in all kinds of anarchic free-love excesses in today’s antitraditional post-Obergefell society. These are merely effects, flowing from a source that is not so recognizable: the solvent of tradition itself, ideology. As politicians fight over the bones of the late conservative movement and others, fed up with decades of political impotence, neoconservative lies, and a general p.c. leftward drift, are concluding that “conservatism” itself has always been the problem, the point cannot be emphasized enough: Conservatism can and must carry on, because at root conservatism is, as Russell Kirk said, “the anti-ideology”; it opposes the very notion that all of life should be viewed through the prism of unchallengeable abstractions rationally arranged to form a neat system that explains and judges everything in human experience. Ideology may take many forms—left-liberalism, various racial nationalisms, multiculturalism, the “conservative ideology” that infected and neutered the conservative movement. But no matter what form it takes, it always does the same thing: It occupies the place in the imagination that properly belongs to religion, which is quite easily replaced by politics, even a politicized religion. Ideology has been at work in America since before the Founding, thanks to the Enlightenment and its influence on American intellectual life. Historically, the strongest opposition to ideology has come from the South and the lower Midwest, where traditional Christianity was most vibrant—what H.L. Mencken derisively referred to as the Bible Belt. That is not so much the case anymore, thanks to the megachurching of the South and the emergence of an ideological brand of Christianity, as the increasingly political Southern Baptist Convention has shown in recent years.
In the current debate over the meaning of conservatism, ideology appears in the form of what M.E. Bradford referred to as so-called “revealed political truth . . . any a priori political principle by which historic regimes may be examined as if they were merely abstract proposals, models subject to theoretical criticism.” The whole business is an inversion of reality, an illegitimate backward projection of popular sentiments onto history that discovers “values” in places where they never actually were in order to consolidate power in the present. Laws and political positions that previously arose in response to the need of particular people in particular places are thus turned into abstract principles that are applied falsely to the needs of the people of today. Liberals do it more obviously; but it is a very real problem among those who claim to be conservative.
Take for example all of the folderol about Trump’s proposed “temporary pause” on Muslim immigration to the United States. Liberals instantly and predictably howled that this was yet more proof that Trump is a racist Islamophobe. But just as predictably, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan joined the chorus: “I do not think a Muslim ban is in our country’s interest. I do not think it is reflective of our principles, not just as a party, but as a country.” Ryan then gave the Republican version of the Islamophobia charge, by denouncing the use of a “religious test”—which, of course, everyone knows to be a big un-American no-no.
Is it? Why? And if it is, should it be?
The terrorists who are bedeviling Western Europe and beginning to bring their talents to places like Orlando, screaming “Allahu akbar” and proclaiming allegiance to ISIS whilst committing acts of murder, are Muslims. So keeping Muslims from entering the United States would indeed prevent more terrorists from entering the United States. Of course, that would mean that many nonterrorist Muslims would also not be allowed to enter the United States. And?
How is such a ban not in our interest?
The U.S. Constitution specifically forbids religious tests only on potential federal officeholders. More importantly, that particular item was written, passed, and ratified in a very real context wherein the several states allowed for their own religious tests. Furthermore, the aforementioned writers, passers, and ratifiers clearly had in mind various denominations of Christianity—that is, they didn’t want to privilege, say, Anglicanism over Presbyterianism at the federal level. Jihadist Islam simply wasn’t on their radar.
By mentioning “religious tests,” Paul Ryan gave a veneer of constitutionality (and therefore conservatism) to something that doesn’t actually appear in the Constitution. What sounded high-mindedly cautious and conservative was really barely warmed-over liberalism.
This is an ideological maneuver, one that was perfected by the 16th president: The Constitution is mined for its underlying “values,” and those abstracted values are then applied to contemporary issues in ways the founders of this country could never have imagined. The Framers were not statesmen, you see, but prophets, their text was sacred writ, and from their writings we may derive a sort of systematic theology. American law and political thought are thus treated as a magisterium, incapable of error, always developing new doctrinal applications, subject to interpretation by a select few—which is why Hillary Clinton could stand in Philadelphia and claim to be honored to carry on the vision of the dead, white, homophobic, slaveholding, misogynistic males who congregated there in the 18th century. Whereas, if a conservative appeals to the writings of those men, in a way that reflects what they actually had in mind, he may easily be dismissed on ideological grounds: Racism! Sexism! Hillary can believe that Thomas Jefferson date-raped his slave, and hate him personally for it; but his context-free message (“that all men are created equal”) was bigger. Equality at all costs trumps everything, including history, morality, and common sense.
Conservatism above all is a state of mind, one that is disposed toward tradition, or what we call prescriptive truth. These truths are axiomatic—“worthy” of belief in and of themselves. (“That all men are created equal” merely sounds biblical and axiomatic, but it is self-evidently false and therefore must be imposed by some external authority.) But the desirability of justice is axiomatic. So is fairness. So is loyalty to one’s own family, community, and people.
The desirability of a borderless country is not self-evidently good or beneficial in any form. In fact, a borderless country is a contradiction. The idea that everyone has a right to move to the United States, enjoy the fruits of the citizens’ labors, and even have a say in how the country is governed derives from a liberal ideology that is now so entrenched in the imaginations of Americans that those who wish to wear the conservative label feel compelled to grovel and apologize and emphasize (as even Trump does) just how wonderful legal immigration is. We are so unmoored from reality that we are ashamed to say the obvious: We as a nation simply prefer not to become the Middle East or Mongolia. The notion that we would like to remain identifiably American, an already diverse people with a real history and some hope for the country our children will inherit, is actually quite conservative.
“If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country,” said Donald Trump early on in his campaign. That is perhaps the most axiomatic, conservative statement made by a presidential candidate in the last three decades. Pity that the self-proclaimed guardians of conservatism never thought to say it, cannot bear to defend it without qualifications, and are incapable of giving shape to it with conservative arguments. Instead, they cower before a liberal media whose acceptance they crave, and will never get.
Trump’s statement resonated with a great many of the American people, whose impulse is conservative (regardless of party and ideological affiliation), and who had to be convinced by ideologues from both parties that their impulse is immoral and contrary to “conservative” values.
Given that milieu, it’s no wonder that the only candidate who could break through with an argument for immigration sanity was a man of Trump’s character, whose narcissism makes him immune to their ideological attacks.