I have read countless commentaries, many of them by NeverTrump conservatives, on why it is “dangerous” for the Republican party and the American right to embrace Donald Trump’s populist agenda. And on some counts, I agree. Trump’s more ham-handed attempts to “protect” American workers from foreign competition could end up costing more American jobs in the long run. His decision to kick entitlement reform further down the road means that we won’t make Social Security solvent anytime soon. His distrust of U.S. intervention in foreign countries could encourage bad actors on the world scene to fill the power vacuum. There are substantive, prudent arguments to be made about such issues, on a case-by-case basis.
What bothers me isn’t the willingness to stand independent of the GOP’s standard-bearer when the facts seem to point against him. That’s the job of any patriotic citizen who isn’t directly employed by the White House or a political party. Instead, what we ought to question is a largely unspoken assumption that some Trump critics seem to take for granted, namely:
That conservatism is primarily a set of universal ideas, which could apply equally anywhere on earth. We must stand by them even if they seem to directly harm important institutions to which we owe concrete loyalty. That is the cost of being principled.
That was the central argument, I think, of writers like Ross Douthat (and some at National Review) who asserted that a Hillary Clinton victory would be healthier in the long run, because while it gravely harmed churches, the natural family, individual liberty, and national security, at least it would maintain unsullied the purity of conservatism’s principles.
Conservatism was Born, Not Cloned
Let’s remember the origin of the left-right spectrum. It emerged not in a climate-controlled faculty lounge, but in the sweaty halls of the French National Assembly during the tense build-up to the Revolution. Deputies who wanted to tear down the monarchy, dismantle the churc, and put the radically centralized power of the French state in the hands of middle class radicals, grouped themselves together on the left side of the room. On the right were those who supported the monarchy in some form, and those who wished to protect the church.
Yes, you could find abstract political principles which, carefully teased out, might explain the views of each faction. But in fact, they were dividing based not on such abstract arguments, but over a series of concrete, practical questions: Shall we topple the king and guillotine him? Should the state seize my local church’s lands? Or should we retain the monarchy and perhaps reform it? Should we leave the church alone, and perhaps give it more independence from royal power?
Likewise, in 2016 conservative voters — in sharp contrast to the most prominent conservative writers — decided to back a candidate who pledged to protect particular good things that they considered important, rather than abstract principles that line up neatly in a 700-word column.
Most broadly, they wanted to preserve and restore a middle-class America led by tolerant Anglo-Protestant values, which was domestically safe and internationally respected. They asked for the government to concentrate on furthering those goals, and doing whatever was pragmatically necessary to achieve them. If that lines up with the small-government preference of classical liberals, fine. If it encourages other countries to choose tolerant, democratic capitalism, all the better.
But those rather abstract goals ran a distant second or third in the minds of such voters to the concrete, particular promises which Mr. Trump made so effectively. Proof of that fact lies in the otherwise puzzling preference of evangelical voters for Donald Trump over Ted Cruz. (Full disclosure: as a pointy-head myself, I backed Ted Cruz till the end.)
And voters would not be dissuaded by pundits’ arguments that protecting the things they considered vital to a good life for them and their children somehow violated what seemed to them abstract taboos. For instance, when virtually all domestic terrorism — and most terrorism around the world — emerges from orthodox Sunni mosques, voters overwhelmingly (according to polls) backed Donald Trump’s proposed “pause” on Muslim immigration. They were not at all moved by complaints by Speaker Paul Ryan, for instance, that such a policy was un-American, because it somehow impinged on religious freedom. Nor are voters much impressed by libertarians’ arguments that every human being has an absolute right to pick up and move wherever he wants, regardless of national borders.
The same divide between protecting a concrete good and obeying an abstract principle applied to foreign policy. GOP interventionists such as senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham called for the U.S. to obey some categorical imperative to promote democracy everywhere, all the time, right now, no matter what, by confronting Russia and risking an open conflict in order to protect “moderate rebels” in Syria. Voters rejected candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio who touted this principle, in favor of Donald Trump — who narrowed his eyes and judged that we don’t have a dog in that fight.
Street Corner Conservatism Returns
In the Washington Free Beacon, Matthew Continetti recently touted the 1975 book Street Corner Conservative by former Nixon speechwriter, Bill Gavin. A man ahead of his time (whose book is sadly out of print), Gavin called on conservatives to temper their efforts to work out a perfectly self-consistent ideological program, and focus on defending the concrete goods and particular institutions that mattered to GOP voters. It seems that with this election, Gavin has been vindicated — along with the only major politician who took his advice, his one-time White House colleague Pat Buchanan.
We can’t throw principles out the window. Mindless partisanship and economic populism are in the long run the way you end up with a country like Argentina. Instead, we should re-examine our principles and see if perhaps they are too abstract, if we have slimmed them down too much by cutting off their real-world connections. Perhaps the principles dominant inside the conservative movement became unmoored and needed revision — and voters let us know that in the only way they can. It’s our job to listen to them, and respond with an agenda that defends the Golden Egg of freedom without choking or starving the Goose. (For more from the author of “Did Voters Trash Conservative Principles by Voting for Donald Trump?” please click HERE)