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Donald Trump’s Conservatism, by Geoffrey Robinson

Trump’s success lies in the politics of the personal.

The rise of Donald Trump has baffled observers on the Left in Australia and elsewhere. Is he a sign of a coming American fascism or a populist revolt against the neoliberal political class (Riseman, 2016)? In fact Trump’s success reveals both the strengths and the weaknesses of conservatism as a political project. Unfortunately for the Left, these weakness are not ones of which it can easily take advantage.

The lesson of recent Republican primaries is that Donald Trump has a plateau of support among Republican voters of somewhere in the high thirties. This level of support has enabled him to prevail against a divided Republican opposition of moderates, ‘establishment conservatives’ and Tea Party constitutionalists. His success has frustrated his orthodox opponents. Ted Cruz, the voice of Tea Party purity, complains that Trump’s record is ‘not conservative’ (Burns & Martin, 2016). Cruz has interpreted his own recent success as evidence that he is bringing conservatives together (Glueck, 2016). Cruz is correct, but he is only rallying some conservatives. ‘Trump conservatives’ are different both from the Republican establishment and from their Christian Right and moderate rivals.

Conservatism baffles both socialists and liberals. Their responses to conservatism have oscillated between fearful incomprehension and arguments that conservatives are really socialists, or liberals, depending on the analyst. In the era of neoliberalism, a succession of communitarians and socialist-nostalgic Left analysts have claimed that there is a fundamental contradiction between conservative values and the relentless dynamic of capitalism (Aly, 2013; Blackwell & Seabrook, 1993). In Australia, small-‘l’ liberals, including, at an earlier time, within the Liberal Party, have complained that conservatism is an alien doctrine that has taken over the Liberal Party (R. Dean, 2007). ‘Large-“l”’ liberal intellectuals such as David Kemp, John Roskam and Gregory Melleuish cast Australian politics as a battle between liberalism and socialism, seeing conservatives as eccentric liberals (Kemp, 2016; Melleuish, 2014; Roskam, 2005). This is why legislative prohibitions on racist speech are central to Liberal intellectuals. They enable them to define Labor and the Greens as simply anti-liberal (Kemp, 2014).

Nevertheless, despite such scepticism and confusion over how to typify various strains on the Right, ‘conservatism’ has flourished as a political movement, both in Australia and the United States. In both countries mainstream right-of-centre politicians have come to identify as conservative.

It is true that ‘conservatism’ is an ideology riven by contradictions, but, to use the rhetoric of Maoism, these are (mostly) non-antagonistic contradictions. Ideologies when carried into political practice are necessarily coalitions. Socialism, for instance, has been torn by divisions between libertarian and statist strands. There is no one unchallengeable meaning that stands behind signs that make up an ideological discourse; rather, the meanings of ‘signs’ like the words ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’ are defined by reference to other signs (de Saussure, 1966, pp. 26–30). In the conservative case, there is no true original conservatism that Trump either betrays or defends. The American Right that emerged in the backlash against the 1970s has always been a coalition of business-friendly economic libertarians, neoconservative foreign-policy hawks and Christian social conservatives. As a government formula this fusion was problematic; the presidency of George W. Bush overreached in an effort to secure the goals of all of these components (Posner, 2009). Despite this, the conservative coalition that constitutes the American Right remains a powerful force. The Republicans recovered rapidly after Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. Today the conservative movement enjoys unprecedented dominance within the institutions of American politics, apart from the presidency.

The unhappy experience of the George W. Bush presidency led many observers to forecast a break-up of the conservative coalition. Some argued that libertarians would break away, others that social conservatives would challenge libertarian tax-cutters in the name of a European-style Christian Democratic approach (Taylor, 2015; Yglesias, 2007). But politicians who flirted with these approaches, such as Rand Paul for the libertarians and Mike Huckabee for the Christian Right, were notable political failures. Both polled poorly in the current Republican primaries and largely failed to mount a frontal challenge to the Republican establishment. Instead it has been Trump, almost entirely devoid of intellectual support who has prospered, devastating the conservative Right. One response to Trump has been to argue that xenophobic ‘white identity politics’ is an unacknowledged fourth rail of the Republican coalition and that Trump has brought this to the surface. This is a popular theory on the Left, attracting support from some on the Christian and libertarian Right as well (Chait, 2016; Domenech, 2015; Fountain, 2016).

Racial resentment is a key component of Trump’s support, but this is only part of the story. Trump has a particular appeal for an elusive group we might call ‘non-ideological’ conservatives. These are voters for whom conservativism is a matter of group identity and personal labelling as much as it is a set of coherent policy positions. Some conservative intellectuals suggest that conservatism is a disposition rather than an ideology. Roger Scruton argues in How To Be a Conservative that we are all really conservative in relation to the things we know something about. Scruton insists that his Labour-voting socialist father was really a conservative, which was apparent in his love of landscape and place and his scepticism about progress (Scruton, 2014, pp. 2–3). Conservatism is for Scruton closer to aesthetic appreciation than political analysis.

The problem for political conservatives is how to translate this sentiment into political practice. William Buckley, founder of the American Right’s flagship journal, National Review, famously declared in 1955 that it was the role of conservatives to stand athwart history yelling stop (Buckley, 1955). The problem with this vision is that the world changes regardless of how loudly we yell. Five years later Friedrich Hayek, in an implicit response to Buckley, argued in The Constitution of Liberty that as conservatives lacked a vision of their own they could at most slow the drift towards collectivism (Hayek, 2011, pp. 519–33). More recently, when conservative intellectuals have turned their mind to policy they have usually sought to accept Hayek’s challenge and develop conservatism as a counter-ideology. They have raided the terrain of their liberal and socialist opponents.

US ‘conservatism’ is a coalition of neoconservatives, libertarians and the Christian Right. The coalition has worked because each member of it has been able to find reasons to support the policy preoccupations of other members. An adviser to ‘libertarian’ Republican Senator Rand Paul declared in 2014: ‘Too often we don’t do as good a job as the left does in uniting for a victory for those things that we do share’ (S. Smith, 2014). It is a revealing admission because it defines a ‘we’ as the basis of political allegiance. Conservatives begin with opposition to ‘liberalism’—in particular its representatives, such as Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton—and then find reasons to justify their opposition (Kopicki, 2014). So individuals from the ‘libertarian’ wing of the Right like Rand Paul, or in Australia, Tim Wilson, have found in ‘religious freedom’ reason to oppose or temporise about marriage equality (Kelly, 2015; S. Smith, 2014). The centrality of the Institute of Public Affairs to Liberal politics in Australia lies in its ability to provide ‘liberal’ arguments for conservative policies. The Abbott/Morrison Liberal ‘soft Right’ in Australia is the equivalent of the US Republican establishment. Its members have an innate distaste for Turnbull’s urbane liberalism but lack the personal faith of the religious Right (Pen & Rees, 2014).

Trump’s success has lain in exploiting the gap between the conservatism of disposition and the conservatism of policy. His supporters, although skewed to the white working class, include many college graduates and self-defined moderate conservatives (Ponnuru, 2016). Large majorities of Americans identify as ‘conservative’ rather than ‘liberal’. As analysed by Christopher Ellis and William Stimson in their Ideology in America, ‘symbolic conservatism’, analogous to Scruton’s dispositional conservatism, can be distinguished from ‘operational conservatism’, the policy commitments of the Republican establishment. They find that only about one in five self-identified conservatives is consistently conservative on economic and social issues, compared to three in four liberals (Ellis & Stimson, 2012, pp. 108–10). (In Australia Andrew Norton has argued, in a Quadrant piece entitled ‘The Left Sensibility’, that voters on the Left tend to be much more ideologically consistent than those on the Right; Norton, 2009.) Trump supporters identify as conservative, but their policy views on social issues, except immigration, tend to be moderately conservative. Thus concerns like opposition to marriage equality or abortion rights are not at the centre of their political identity, as they are for supporters of Ted Cruz (French, 2016; Konitzer & Rothschild, 2016). Where self-identified evangelicals support Trump, this reflects identification with the project of America as a Christian nation rather than identification with a Christian lifestyle (Malone, 2016). (Conservative intellectuals have recently discovered, to their surprise, that the lifestyle of many poor white Republicans doesn’t reflect Christian norms of monogamy and indissoluble marriage; Douthat, 2014; Williamson, 2014.)

For some on the Left the fact that many Trump supporters dissent from Republican orthodoxy provides a political opening. They point to the appeal of Trump’s protectionism in the rust belt. For Thomas Frank, Trump’s support is ultimately driven by a reaction against neoliberalism (Frank, 2016; Gabriel, 2016). This interpretation revives the Left populist response to the 1990s culture wars. Authors like Frank call for a return to ‘class politics’ in a way that tends to define ‘class’ in opposition to the new social movements (Willis, 2006). In 2008 some on the ‘netroots’ Left of the Democrats briefly rallied to the populist campaign of archetypal ‘white guy’ John Edwards (Traister, 2010). Australian Left critics of establishment liberalism such as Tad Tietze and The Piping Shrike echo this analysis and also identify in Trump’s campaign a general revolt against a political class inevitably alienated from a population it purports to represent (The Piping Shrike, 2016a, 2016b, 2016c, 2016d; Tietze, 2016). These analysts downplay the positive appeal of conservatism as a disposition. Trump supporters are not the embryo fascists of some liberal imaginings, but neither have they simply taken a wrong turn on the way to the Bernie Sanders meeting.

As with Bernie Sanders, who has sought to appeal to economically distressed working-class voters in his enthusiastic embrace of protectionism, so Trump has appealed to this grouping with promises of trade tariffs. There is evidence that American neoliberals fighting their culture war on behalf of free trade underestimated the impact of economic globalisation and the rise of China on American manufacturing employment and wages (McArdle, 2016b; N. Smith, 2016a). Yet Appalachia and the rust belt won’t be returned to the future they once imagined—of union jobs, busy factories and rock-solid Democratic loyalties—by any conceivable trade policy. The closest approximation to this outcome would require a major expansion in the role of government, a form of social democratic government Trump supporters despise (Cohn, 2015; Ozimek, 2016; Porter, 2016).

Trump has cleaved largely to Republican orthodoxy on the virtues of regressive tax reductions. He has, however, defended transfer programs that benefit the deserving elderly, even if maintenance of these, together with his promised tax cuts, would gut remaining government programs (Barro, 2015; Berman, 2015; Stewart, 2015).

Some on the Australian Right have argued that Trump’s protectionism disqualifies him from the label of ‘conservatism’, even though economic autarky was once the standard conservative response to economic crisis and tariff protectionism is quite compatible with domestic economic liberalism (Berg, 2016; Simmons, 1997). From the Australian perspective Trump’s parallel may be less Pauline Hanson than John Howard. Economic liberals like Andrew Norton criticised Howard’s acceptance of a large public sector and a redistributive role for government (Norton, 2006a, 2006b). Some American reform conservatives of a Christian-democratic stamp saw Howard’s model as a potential alternative to the economic libertarianism of the Republican establishment (Salam, 2013).

In the United States some recent successful Republican governors such as Jan Brewer, Scott Walker and Chris Christie have combined an aggressive culture war on immigration and public-sector unions with dissent from Republican orthodoxy on tax cuts and non-cooperation with ObamaCare (Barro, 2016; Olsen, 2015). In the 1950s moderate Republicans accepted a depoliticised unionism as their contemporary equivalents now accept the residual welfare state (Smemo, 2015). The problem is that Howard’s reform conservatism was only possible under conditions of economic growth. In the age of economic stagnation the dream of reform conservatism is Trump’s and Palin’s nightmare (Douthat, 2016).

The successful appeal of conservatives like Christie, Brewer and Walker to Democratic voters speaks to the experience of many white working-class Americans. Jennifer Silva has argued in her outstanding Coming Up Short that many feel deserted by social institutions such as the government, colleges, business corporations, churches and even their families. Sanders’ promise of a bigger and kinder government seems a fantasy. For many the security of public-sector employment in the police or fire service that previous working-class whites pursued is a dream, especially as affirmative action is seen to favour minorities (Silva, 2013). Public-sector unions attract little sympathy. As Jefferson Cowie observed in ‘Red, White and Blue Collar’, a 2011 piece for Democracy, just as Scott Walker launched his offensive on Wisconsin public employee unions:

anyone celebrating the public-sector unions of today because their membership has actually grown over the last few decades better figure out how a non-union, contingent, part-time, low-wage, third-class private sector is going to be able to pay for a first-class public sector. It’s not looking good.

In 1982, in the morning of Reagan’s America, Bruce Springsteen sang, ‘Down here it’s just winners and losers and / Don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line’. Despite everything, Americans are still more likely than Europeans to feel in control of their own lives (Stokes, 2015). Yet this belief collides with reality. Silva describes how many working-class Americans seek solace in a culture of self-therapy. They dwell in a late-capitalist culture of isolation and solitude, haunted by the dream of self-creation that Trump demonstrates. In him they see not just business skills but the power they lack (J. Dean, 2015; Livingston, 2015; Weigel, 2015).

Trump can be understood as a contradictory element within a complex US conservative movement. But clearly, Trump’s supporters are conservatives, and their conservatism is not an error but deeply based in their experience of life. The ‘economic populist’ elements in Trump’s program cannot simply be removed and incorporated into a progressive discourse. Marxists believed that the experience of collective labour under capitalism would train and unite the working class (Marx, 1976, pp. 927–31). US experience in the period of neoliberal ascendancy reveals that the world is more complex.


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