One of the raps against Donald Trump frequently trotted out by some of his conservative critics, often supporters of one of the more traditional conservative candidates, is that he is not really a conservative. Some even call him a liberal. Yet despite this charge, Trump continues to gain the support of prominent conservatives whose conservative credentials it is difficult to impugn.
For example, Trump recently garnered the support of former congressman Virgil Goode, who was the 2012 Presidential nominee of the Constitution Party. It’s hard to question the conservative credentials of a Constitution Party Presidential nominee. He has also landed the endorsement (or virtual endorsement) of prominent conservative scholar William Lind. Lind is a leading theorist of the concept of Fourth Generation warfare, and is arguably the primary person responsible for the increased recognition of the phenomenon of cultural Marxism that besets our modern discourse. Trump has also been endorsed by longtime conservative movement stalwart, Phyllis Schlafly, whose conservative credentials need no elaboration. I could go on, but this should suffice to illustrate my contention.
So is Trump a conservative, and if not, why is he racking up support from notable conservatives and continuing to dominate polls of potential Republican Party voters? Well, the answer is both yes and no. It depends on what you mean by conservative, but I believe Trump is a conservative in the most meaningful sense.
I attempted to explain Trump’s politics in a couple of past essays. His politics are really not as inscrutable as some believe. They just don’t fit tidily into our current Red and Blue boxes. Briefly, the key to understanding Trump’s politics is to focus on his economic nationalism. This has been a part of his rhetoric since he first became a public figure in the 1980s and is undoubtedly authentic. But Trump appears to view this as a common sense, tough minded position, not an ideological one. It is important to recognize that Trump is not an ideologue. His focus is on getting things done, and he is results-oriented. While he has long flirted with politics, he has not historically immersed himself in the conservative milieu, nor the liberal milieu for that matter. He has clearly tailored some of his current positions to fit the base of the party whose nomination he is seeking, such as gun control and abortion, but he has never donned the mantle of purist crusader for laissez-faire economics or government-slashing spending hawk because those positions would conflict with his economic nationalism and his focus on outcomes rather than pure principle.
Consider, for example, Trump’s past support of universal health care, a position often raised by his conservative critics. This was not likely a position he arrived at based on an ideological commitment to liberalism because that wouldn’t fit the known pattern. Rather it likely was an extension of his patriotic economic nationalism, something along the lines of “A great country like America can have a great health care system that takes care of all its citizens.” Remember that before the Affordable Care Act, universal coverage per se polled well. People just don’t seem to like the details when you attach a name to it, like HillaryCare or ObamaCare. The point being that Trump’s position on universal health care was likely not evidence of an ideological liberal disposition, but rather a roll-up-our-sleeves-and-get-it-done outcome based approach. What the conservative box checkers need to understand is that a lot of the electorate is similarly non-ideological. They may lean one way or the other and viscerally identify with the Blue Team or the Red Team, but they are not dogmatic ideologues.
Trump’s positions and rhetoric place him firmly in the category of Middle American Radical (MAR), as are many of his supporters. He just happens to also be a billionaire. MARs are a well described and relatively large demographic. It’s curious that so many journalist and pundits have missed this relationship and are still struggling to characterize Trump. Liberal columnist Ezra Klein was one of the first to pick up on Trump’s particular policy mix in this article he wrote for Vox, about which I thought at the time, “In other words, what (late conservative columnist) Sam Francis was saying 20 years ago.” Liberal John Judis expanded on the idea in this essay for the National Journal. Judis cannot resist a little PC finger wagging, but beyond that it is an insightful piece. Of interest, I was informed by someone who was familiar with the relationship that John Judis and Sam Francis were friends despite their political differences, so this may be a reason for Judis’ insights.
As a MAR, his conservative critics are correct that Trump is not your typical cookie cutter “three-legs-of-the-stool” modern conservative ideologue, but the problem for them is that what modern conservatism has become is generally a mishmash of policy positions that are often internally contradictory and as a whole have very little to do with actually conserving anything. The MAR position of opposition to mass immigration and opposition to international “free” trade deals, for example, both of which Trump has seized upon with great success, are more conservative in actual effect, in the most basic sense of the word, than is any amount of babbling about the “invisible hand” of the marketplace and cutting marginal tax rates. Trump’s supporters sense this. “Make America Great Again,” is an inherently conservative, reactionary really, sentiment. It speaks of loss for the worse and a need to restore.
As Russell Kirk reminded us, conservatism is not an ideology or hodgepodge of policy issues. Rather, it is a disposition, the desire to conserve what is or else restore something that has been lost. The angry masses in Flyover Country who are supporting Trump look around and see middle class manufacturing jobs going south of the border or overseas and their neighborhoods changing from mass immigration, more people they and their children and their children’s children will have to compete with for jobs, and they want it to stop. Contrast this to Rep. Paul Ryan’s foolish statement that Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration “is not conservatism.” Well, actually, yes it is. What is not conservatism is throwing open the doors of your country to masses of new dissimilar immigrants, including groups that are known to be hostile to us. Only a muddle-headed modern conservative ideologue could miss which one of these positions expresses a truly conservative sentiment.
With the rise of Trump, this election has taken on a meta dimension that it otherwise wouldn’t have had. Partisan stakeholders always attempt to cast every Presidential election as a crossroads, perhaps the starkest in history, but in truth we only really have a choice between Elitist Globalist Neoliberal A and Elitist Globalist Neoliberal B. Trump represents something truly unique in recent elections. He offers a real choice between the elitist post-national consensus embraced by the Establishment of both parties, and a patriotic economic nationalism that truly challenges this elite consensus.
So yes, Trump is a conservative in the sense that really matters. He wants to conserve and restore the nation state of America and not stand by as it turns into just another post-national administrative unit ruled by a globalist power elite. Virgil Goode, William Lind, and Phyllis Schlafly and many other conservative luminaries clearly get this. The conservative box checkers who are ticking off Trump’s fidelity to some laundry list of policy positions are missing the forest for the trees. They are on the verge of losing their country while they hand-wring about eminent domain.