Conservatism in Historical Perspectives

In looking again at my earlier post, “The Non-Conservative Mind of Donald Trump”, it occurred to me that the article lacked some of the important historical perspectives necessary for appreciating how someone as liberal as President Trump can pass as a conservative. If I can be forgiven in advance for painting with a very broad brush, I would like to survey the evolution of conservatism from Burke to Trump, as a supplement to the comments I made previously in my articles “The Republican Retreat to Identity Politics” and “Trump and the Eclipse of Conservatism” and “The Non-Conservative Mind of Donald Trump.”

WWI put an end to the remaining vestiges of the old order, a bloody climax to the French Revolution.

The origin of conservative politics goes back to Edmund Burke’s response to the French Revolution. Nothing describes the French Revolution better than the adage “When Paris sneezes, the rest of Europe catches a cold.” As the revolutionary spirit gradually spread through all of Europe during the nineteenth-century, the result was that monarchy after monarchy collapsed. Ancient systems, structures and norms were not reformed but wiped away, usually replaced by tyrannies far more destructive than the ones that had preceded them. Finally, WWI put an end to the remaining vestiges of the old order.

Throughout the time between the French Revolution and WWI, there was a clear demarcation between the conservative impulse represented by Edmund Burke and his successors vs. the progressive, liberal strain of political thought, as represented by men like Thomas Paine, Rousseau and the radicals who wanted to remake society on the basis of various utopian or semi-utopian ideologies. Conservatives were not simply pro-monarchy—significantly, Burke was a Whig and not a Tory, because he opposed any exercise of unchecked power, whether from the monarch or the mob.

After WWI, conservatism came to be pretty clearly defined by a range of issues, such as opposition to eugenics, opposition to classless utopianism, opposition to socialism, opposition to social engineering, opposition to utilitarian-based political schemes, etc., while being positively associated with spiritual principles such as belief in a transcendent order, adherence to natural law, and so forth. (Russel Kirk has done us an enormous service by combing through hundreds of documents from this period and synthesizing their teaching in six basic principles.)

During the Reagan-Thatcher years, conservatism came to enjoy institutional and professional clout.

WWII and its aftermath began to change everything. The meaning of conservatism started to truncate, as it increasingly came to be associated simply with the fight against communist tyranny. An extension of the conservative fight against communist tyranny involved opposition to communist-leaning liberals who controlled major institutions like the media and the universities. This created a perfect storm for conservatives to enjoy ascendancy, culminating in the professional and institutional clout the movement came to enjoy during the Reagan-Thatcher years. (New York Times columnist David Brooks tells some of this story in a recent opinion piece.) But even as conservatism was in the ascendancy, it was also truncating ideologically, becoming something quite different to the rich intellectual philosophy it had been in the period from Burke to WWI.

With the fall of Communism, conservatism no longer had a rallying point like they did during the Cold War. Moreover, as conservatism was institutionalized and professionalized, it became compromised, de-spiritualized, truncated, and just another option in the beltway swamp. Although it gained some traction by aligning itself with issues like low taxes, entitlement reform, small government, the importation of democracy abroad, and various social issues of concern to the religious right, nevertheless ordinary men and women with conservative impulses have felt increasingly alienated from the new institutionalized, beltway conservatism. This has created a vacuum in which those with a conservative impulses have been latching onto new narratives for a sense of cohesion, such as the alt-right, new types of tribalism, conspiracy theories, us-vs-them narratives against immigrants and outsiders, identity politics, anti-expert popularism, the cause of the forgotten middle class, economic nationalism, and so forth. The genius of Donald Trump is that he has been able to appeal to all these new concerns and subsume them into a new type of conservatism.

The important point, however, is that this new type of conservatism is not only different to the ideas espoused by the movement’s founder, Edmund Burke (and many historians agree with me in seeing Burke as the founder of conservatism), but in many ways represent the total antithesis of anything recognizably Burkean. In my earlier articles on Trump I have gone through issue after issue to show the contrast between Trump’s positions and that of historic conservatism (see especially my article ‘The Republican Retreat to Identity Politics‘ and “Trump’s Brave New World“), so I won’t repeat that now. The point I’m making here is simply that regardless of what our opinion on Trump might be, and regardless of whether we choose to identify with the type of conservatism he represents, we should all be able to acknowledge that it represents a mutation of classic conservative thought, historically speaking.

As conservatism has been progressively debased from all ideological integrity, what has come to matter for self-styled “conservatives” in the era of Trump is simply whether their side happens to be winning. Over and over again, we see Republicans supporting policies under Trump that they would have eschewed under Obama or Clinton, simply because those policies are helping their side to win.

Take the recent National Emergency declaration. If a Democrat president had decided to use emergency powers involving the expenditure of funds not appropriated by Congress, conservatives would be up in arms, and with good reason. The would rightly have pointed out that regardless of our position on the particular funding issue in question, the use of Emergency Powers to circumnavigate Congress is an illegal abuse of executive power. They might also have pointed out that this is a slippery slope comparable to what happened when executive orders began being issued, opening the floodgates for an executive absolutism that strikes at the heart of an “original intent” reading of our Republic’s charter documents. All these same concerns apply with equal vigor in Trump’s recent emergency declaration, but as this executive overstep is being perpetrated by a Republican president, conservatives are conspicuously silent. (But not all conservatives: read Bruce Fein’s article in The American Conservative where he shows, on purely constitutional grounds, that this is a dangerous and illegal abuse of executive power.)

The executive overstep of the recent emergency declaration is part of Trump’s larger agenda of expanding executive power in precisely those ways that conservatives previously eschewed. In the new pseudo-conservative politics, the end justifies the means as long as your side is winning. The important questions, such as what the normalization of this type of executive power could look like in the hands of a liberal president, are overlooked for mere expediency. I say this as someone who has written in support of the border wall. To use emergency powers in this way is truly “revolutionary” along the same contours that Burke traced the impulses behind the upheavals in late 18th century France, in so far as it evokes a sudden solution that intentionally bypasses the sometimes cumbersome and inconvenient traditions by which our freedom has been preserved as an inheritance.

Further Reading