From Jackson to Trump, American conservatism is animated by a paternalistic logic.
From the perspective of political stagecraft, the 2016 Republican National Convention was a catastrophe. The presumptive nominee was the subject of continuing opposition from party officials and luminaries, including the sitting governor of the state in which the convention was held. In spite of the nominee’s boasts that the event would feature high-wattage star power, the best that he could offer audiences was the endorsement of an aged thespian best known for portraying a male nanny on a decades-old sitcom. Worst of all, his fiercest rival for the party’s nomination was given a prime-time speaking slot—and then not only refused to endorse the nominee but intimated that American conservatives would do well to withhold their support as well. By contrast, his opponent’s nominating convention the next week was a masterclass in political messaging.
But in hindsight it is clear that the Republican National Convention accomplished for its nominee precisely what it intended. For the point of the event was not to display Donald Trump’s devotion to conservative principle but instead to envelop the candidate in the particulars of conservative identity. The goal, after all, was to portray Donald Trump as a great biological and national father—a singular figure who would rescue the nation from what is, for a great many Americans, the nightmare of multicultural politics. And, at that, the convention was a manifest success.
Modern American conservatism is obsessed with the influence of American fathers past and present.
Indeed, modern American conservatism is obsessed with the influence of American fathers past and present, with the legacies of both the nation’s historical “founding fathers” and its actual, biological fathers. As Raised Right argues, this obsession manifests, in practice, as a paternal rights discourse that emphasizes that American democracy exists for “good” American citizens, who can be trusted to exercise their rights to self-governance and autonomy in responsible ways. Conversely, those Americans who, lacking the influence of paternal authority (whether biological or historical) never learned self-discipline and cannot be trusted to exercise their rights in mature ways. Thus does modern American conservatism employ the standard of paternal authority to cast citizens as either virtuous and worthy of governmental support or vicious and worthy of governmental discipline, of law and order. And, apropos for a multicultural nation, these categories of virtuous and vicious tend to be inflected with gender and race-based dynamics.