Rumors of Conservatism's Demise Greatly Exaggerated

Posted: Feb 23, 2018 12:01 AM
Rumors of Conservatism's Demise Greatly Exaggerated

I happened onto a piece by Bill Kristol in The Weekly Standard, wherein he links to "a short, powerful piece in National Review" by Rick Brookhiser, who "concludes that 'the conservative movement is no more. Its destroyers are Donald Trump and his admirers.'"

I somewhat get the sentiment -- or at least I used to -- because during the GOP primaries, I fleetingly entertained a similar concern that Trump, whom I didn't consider a conservative, might undermine the conservative movement in the long run if elected.

Presumably trying to console Brookhiser, Kristol writes: "Movements grow old. They eventually die. Bill Buckley founded the American conservative movement in 1955. Can a political movement reasonably be expected to thrive and retain its vigor for more than 60 years? ... Trump is the proximate, the efficient, cause of the collapse of the conservative movement. The principles of sound conservatism compel us to criticize him, to rebut him, to resist him, and to plan to overcome him. But, perhaps it is the 'silent artillery of time' that has done the damage which Trump was able to take advantage of. And that suggests our task, the task of the descendants of the founders of American conservatism goes beyond that: It is to rebuild, or to build other pillars that will uphold the temple of American liberty in the 21st century. Brookhiser suggests at the end of his piece, 'It will take a lot of arguing to rebuild a conservative movement that one can contemplate without scorn.' True. And it will take a lot of work to create a new birth of conservatism -- if it even is still called conservatism -- that will support American freedom and greatness."

The first thing that pops out at me is Kristol's apparent ambivalence. If all movements inevitably die after a while, then why blame Trump, who just apparently accelerated conservatism's downfall? Indeed, Kristol doesn't really seem to be grieving conservatism's alleged demise, because he is suggesting we find some substitute ideology or movement that will serve as a pillar to uphold the temple of American liberty in the 21st century.

This strikes me as doubly ironic. Conservatism, by definition, comprises inviolable principles. It is not just one of many possible ideologies that support constitutionally limited government and ordered liberty. If Kristol believes we can find some other satisfactory "pillar," then he shouldn't cry over the supposed death of conservatism. On the other hand, if I thought it were truly dead, I would genuinely cry over it.

It's also ironic that Kristol seems to be proposing a solution that many Trump supporters would argue Trump has already implemented. That is, they believe conservatism -- though it could never die intellectually -- had become ineffectual because its modern standard-bearers in office were simply not getting the job done; they weren't advancing conservative principles. So, for want of a better term, they found a new "pillar" in Donald Trump to uphold the temple of American liberty in the 21st century. (Please don't send me emails about Trump's not being a pillar. That's not the point.)

I dare say that most of the tens of millions of people who voted for Trump are still Reagan conservatives who advocate mainstream conservative solutions. They could not bear to stand by while President Obama and Hillary Clinton continued to dismantle our constitutional liberties, undermine our traditional values and facilitate the further erosion of our culture. They don't have to like everything Trump does or everything he advocates, but they did have to stop the bleeding and save America. When are you guys going to understand that?

Unlike Kristol and Brookhiser, I don't believe the conservative movement has died or will die. As I said in a recent speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, I think fears that Trump is creating some nationalist or populist movement are unwarranted. What we're seeing under Trump is closer to mainstream conservatism than nationalism, in the pejorative sense of that term. Trump isn't steering the movement in that direction; rather, the movement is nudging him more toward mainstream conservatism, with a few exceptions, but even in those exceptional cases, Trump is not veering toward nationalism. And he certainly is not governing as an alt-rightist -- whatever that means these days. I also do not believe his successor will be Trump-esque in a personal sense. Trump is sui generis. The front-runner at this point is probably Mike Pence, who, in terms of style, is the Antitrump. So quit hyperventilating.

In the quoted piece, Brookhiser writes: "Admiring Trump is different from voting for him, or working with him. Politics is calculation. ... But to admire Trump is to trade your principles for his, which are that winning -- which means Trump winning -- is all. In three years (maybe seven), Donald Trump will no longer be president. But conservatives who bent the knee will still be writing and thinking. How will it be possible to take them seriously? The short answer is, it won't. ... It will take a lot of arguing to rebuild a conservative movement that one can contemplate without scorn."

To the contrary, most of the millions who appreciate what Trump is doing haven't traded their principles for just winning. That is insulting and ludicrous. We do want to defeat liberalism, and we want to retain our principles in doing so, even if you think that sometimes conservatives or Christians have compromised theirs in the process. That is a complex issue that should be discussed and unpacked in detail rather than in the back-and-forth volleys of intramural conservative wars. Suffice it to say, for now, that most are not "bending the knee"; they are animated by the same principles they always have been. Most conservatives aren't in thrall to Trump in the idolatrous fashion Brookhiser implies. But they are grateful that he's employing his unorthodox style to set liberals back on their heels.

It is sad that Brookhiser paints with so broad a brush and is making this personal -- with his talk of scorn. That's unfortunate because Brookhiser is a fine, principled man of formidable intellect. In his rush to judgment, he seems to have misplaced his usual grace.