Earlier this month, American Principles Project sent a letter to The Washington Post signed by 37 conservative leaders (including me) asking the paper to cease identifying columnist Jennifer Rubin as a conservative. To date, the Post has not responded to the request. However, despite this silence, the letter has provoked an interesting debate in various quarters over what it means to be “conservative” in the age of Trump.
Writing in The New York Times last week, Ross Douthat noted that “an important group of NeverTrumpers who previously identified with the right” on a few specific issues such as free trade and a hawkish foreign policy, but who otherwise did not agree with conservatives on much else, have increasingly found themselves at odds with their former political allies in the period since Trump’s rise. He further argued that this group – in which he included Rubin, her fellow Post columnist Max Boot, and failed 2016 candidate Evan McMullin – is “unlikely to animate conservatism again any time soon no matter how the Trump presidency ends.” Boot, taking issue with some of Douthat’s claims, later responded, arguing that his own support for “limited government, fiscal discipline, entitlement reform, free trade, robust defense spending and maintaining America’s current military commitments” at least made him a conservative at one time if not today, and that “[i]t is tempting to say that I’m the ‘real’ conservative and the Trump-worshipers are the imposters.”
However, in all this battling over what set of particular policy positions now constitutes one as a conservative, we are at risk of missing a greater paradigm shift in American politics and culture – one which has arguably rendered the traditional “liberal versus conservative” conflict obsolete.
The catalyst of this shift has been the rise of contemporary progressivism, an ideology which sees all formerly accepted elements of our social order (human beings as created male and female, marriage as the union of man and woman, the family as the bedrock institution of a healthy society) as unjust artifices and obstructions to progress. In addition, unlike the American liberalism of old, progressives don’t believe in liberty for their religious, pro-life, gun-owning opponents. Instead, the progressive left has taken a totalitarian, faux messianic turn, caring less and less whether Americans are free to do as they wish and instead focusing on ensuring that non-progressives are barred from doing as they wish.
The problem is not merely that this ideology goes radically beyond previous iterations of the American left – it is that progressivism is fundamentally opposed to America’s very foundational principles. The Declaration of Independence, for example, takes for granted that human beings inhabit a natural order: there exist “Laws of Nature,” and we are “created” equal and “endowed with certain inalienable rights” which precede us. Furthermore, the Founders’ keen understanding of human weakness led them, eventually, to craft a Constitution with institutions (the electoral college, the Senate, the Supreme Court) designed to thwart radical change rather than promote it. Is it any surprise, then, that these very same institutions are now under attack by the progressive left today?
This presents an entirely new conflict in the history of our country. While liberals and conservatives battled, sometimes very intensely, in the previous half-century over various policy agendas, they could usually at least agree on the objective being sought: the preservation and further advancement of the ideals America was founded on. This end not only defined conservative causes but also liberal ones as well – women’s suffrage, the New Deal, the civil rights movement, and others. However, today, this is increasingly no longer the case. Progressives, disagreeing as they do over the question of the ultimate social good, often see their opponents as not only wrongheaded but also essentially unjust and immoral, and are beginning to treat them as such.
As I have argued previously, it is as a reaction to this change that the election of President Trump and the movement he has energized ought to be seen. Progressives, in their bid for revolutionary social change, have captured, corrupted and weaponized nearly every significant institution of American culture – the press, the entertainment industry, academia, big business, etc. – to advance their vision and marginalize all who oppose it. Trump has been the anti-progressive, populist response to this elitist, progressive takeover, and in winning the White House, he has firmly entrenched in politics the new “anti-progressive versus progressive” paradigm.
So, for political observers still seeking to interpret recent developments through the old conservative-liberal lens, it’s time to wake up and get with the times. We have entered a new era in American politics, one where the divide is no longer over support of “fiscal discipline” or “free trade” but rather the very understanding of America itself.
Frank Cannon is the president of American Principles Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @frankcannonAPP.