Liberals and libertarians cannot meaningfully counter Trump—but conservatism can.
The conservative movement, which is constituted by a dynamic tension between libertarians, traditionalist conservatives and neoconservatives, now faces the real threat of dissolution. Surprisingly, the cause of this threat does not come from within the movement, but from without. It is the result of an idiosyncratic version of populism called “Trumpism.” A toxic mix of reality show romanticism, resentment, cynicism and paranoia, Trumpism has deeply divided the conservative movement along a fault line that cuts across all three of its traditional divisions. Yet as George Nash points out in a recent issue of the New Criterion, “Trumpist Populism is defiantly challenging the fundamental tenets and perspectives of every component of the post-1945 conservative coalition.” Whether one’s primary concern is free trade, traditional marriage and the family, the protection of unborn children, or a robust foreign policy, one will not find much to cheer about in Trumpism. What is a conservative to do?
American conservatism is not identical to Republican Party politics, and it is in deep conflict with Trumpism.
It is important to understand that American conservatism is not synonymous with the conservative political movement. American conservatism is a public philosophy, a form of classical liberalism rooted in the principles of the American founding. Conservatives believe that those principles, furnished by the careful equilibrium of liberty, reason, and tradition, provide for human flourishing better than any competing public philosophy. American conservatism, therefore, is not identical to Republican Party politics, and it is in deep conflict with Trumpism.
Trumpism is also in deep conflict with libertarianism, which favors free markets for labor and goods, and is deeply suspicions of nationalism in any form. But a good argument can be made that libertarianism lacks the resources to understand the true causes of Trumpism, and even tends to reinforce those causes. The reason is that Trumpism is a reaction to the over-reach of modern liberalism, which seeks to deny and suppress the natural human goods that are rooted in historical, cultural and embodied particularity. But because libertarianism shares with modern liberalism the voluntarist and universalist assumptions which undergird that denial, it cannot offer a real alternative to Trumpism.
Take immigration. Trump’s rise in the polls can be dated to the moment when he promised to deport all illegal aliens in the United States and make Mexico pay for a wall along the border. Trump’s demagogic promises, however, have largely been met with equally demagogic denunciations from libertarians and modern liberals: “Xenophobia! Racism!”
That this response largely coincides with the European migrant crisis is telling, as is the fact that Europe is facing its own form of Trumpism, largely in reaction to its handling of the migrant crisis. Both modern liberals and libertarians, for different reasons, promote open borders, and their inability to imagine any other reason for controlling immigration than irrational prejudice reveals a deep ideological blind spot. Even the soft libertarian F.A. Hayek attributes the existence of territorial boundaries to an atavistic tribalism, and looks forward to “a state of affairs in which national boundaries have ceased to be obstacles to the free movement of men.”
But there is a conservative side to Hayek that is in conflict with his libertarianism. Hayek also asserts that “There probably never has existed a genuine belief in freedom, and there has certainly been no successful attempt to operate a free society, without a genuine reverence for grown institutions, for customs and habits and ‘all those securities of liberty which arise from regulation of long prescription and ancient ways.’” And it is difficult to see how this kind of reverence can be acquired and sustained independent of the identity that comes from territorial boundaries. Thus Roger Scruton points out that “Territorial loyalty … is at the root of all forms of government where law and liberty reign supreme.”
The kind of loyalty Scruton has in mind is not nationalism, nor is it simply derived from the consent of otherwise free and equal individuals. It is the kind of historically-funded membership that makes government by consent possible by creating a space independent of, but compatible with, tribal and creedal forms of membership. “Members of tribes see each other as family,” Scruton writes. “Members of creed communities see each other as the faithful; members of nations see each other as neighbors.” This kind of membership is a rare and fragile achievement, as contemporary world events are proving, and when it is suppressed or denied, it risks reverting back to the kind of tribal and creedal communities that make a free and decent political life impossible.
This tribal reaction to the abstract universalisms of modern liberalism and libertarianism is the danger of Trumpism. Conservatism, on the other hand, can provide a counter-force to Trumpism by defending the middle space between modern liberal or libertarian universalism and tribal particularism.
Conservatism can provide a counter-force to Trumpism by defending the middle space between modern liberal or libertarian universalism and tribal particularism.
The discovery and articulation of this middle space, a remarkable and surprisingly fragile achievement, is central to the classical liberalism of people like Edmund Burke and Adam Smith and to the American Founders. It requires an acknowledgment of both the limited though real goods of particular identities, including political identity, as constituent elements of human flourishing and the common good, and of the limited though real goods of the free market and free trade. And it also acknowledges that there is a tension between these two goods that cannot be resolved a priori and by dogmatic abstractions, but only in light of real deliberation about the common good. The antidote to Trumpism is not sarcastic ridicule and denunciation but realistic policy proposals that acknowledge the legitimacy of competing claims of justice with respect to the common good.