In the age of Trump and an increasingly Neomarxist Republican Party, it can be helpful to pause and remind ourselves what it means to be conservative. Catholic poet and philosopher, James Matthew Wilson, offered just such a reminder in his 2017 book The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition.
For Wilson, there can be no recovery of conservative values without a recovery of beauty. Moreover, he argues, there can be no lasting conservative renaissance if cultural formation is overlooked in the lust for institutional success.
Wilson observes that even as the political right has been on the rise since the time of Reagan, institutional success has not run parallel with cultural formation. Rather, political conservatism has restricted itself to an increasingly narrow range of issues disconnected from the formation of the next generation.
“So wide was this chasm between institutional success and cultural formation, that most of the children raised in the age of Republican ascendancy have arrived at adulthood with, perhaps, their explicit political principles informed by a vague belief in free markets and low taxes, but with their imaginations and sensibilities entirely formed on the mass cultural excretions of music, film, and television–and their cultural politics in turn molded by that sensibility.”
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.
In the first chapter of The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk condenses conservative thought down to the following six canons. It is important to realize that these six canons are not merely Kirk’s opinion of what conservatism is or should be, but an historical observation of what have been common themes in conservative thinkers ever since the movement started with Edmund Burke’s response to the French Revolution.
Before I say anything, I want to be clear that (1) this post is neither for nor against gun control, (2) I support the right of American citizens to bear arms and have written in defense of the Second Amendment (see links at the end of this article).
With that proviso out of the way, I have a few comments about what the Governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin, said about gun control during a recent interview.
A few weeks ago I got into a friendly argument with friends at church about whether President Trump is a liberal or conservative. I said that Trump was a liberal while my friends said that he was a conservative.
Today, as I went to vote in the midterms, I thought back to our conversation at church. I found myself wondering if perhaps Trump is actually “conservative” but in a new sense. Perhaps we are seeing a metamorphosis of what it means to be conservative, as the classic conservativism of thinkers like Russell Kirk and Edmund Burke recedes into anachronism.