The 2016 election was something of an existential crisis for many across the partisan spectrum, but perhaps not quite as literally for any group as conservatives. Donald Trump’s ascendancy ripped the veil off right-wing ideology and revealed that many of the principles to which conservatives had clung so staunchly in their political advocacy—limited government, free markets—were apparently adopted by many of their brethren simply because they stood in opposition to progressive ideas.
Those who balked at Trump’s economic protectionism and belief that government bureaucracy could be a force for good if managed properly were roundly dismissed as intellectual puritans. The epochal struggle between idealism and pragmatism reared its gaping maw and threatened to swallow the tradition of conservatism which was unapologetically absolutist, even to its political detriment.
20th century conservatism is not the conservation-of-the-standing-order impulse which is supposedly the cornerstone of American right-wing thought. This definition derives from English Parliamentarian Edmund Burke and is contrasted against Thomas Paine, who championed both individual liberty and the utility of the federal government as a distributor of resources which helped make attainment of liberty a tangible reality. Social conservatism is often associated with the preservation of traditional values; in this way, American conservatism is Burkean. But, by this standard, so was the Populist Party, a left-wing reactionary movement which looked to the federal government to protect agrarian interests against the Industrial Revolution and the influx of immigrants and the culture which they imported. And so was the Progressive Party, which endeavored to preserve the traditional American conception of individual freedom against the caustic actions of monopolies.
Burke not only believed in preservation, but in using powerful societal organs to do so. The conservatism of today was conceptualized primarily by Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, and popularized by Ronald Reagan. Unlike Burke, and unlike Trump, who does not fundamentally see government as a limitation upon man, these titans of right-wing thought objected to federal supremacy.
Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act on the grounds that it was unnecessary and unconstitutional because the Constitution already guaranteed equal rights to all and bad laws which were the cause of segregation and oppression ought simply to be repealed. This position is the product of a mind which clung fast to ideals and cared not a whit for the furor they might invoke; to this day, he is remembered, wrongly, as a racist.
Buckley, founder of National Review, one of the few publications that remained opposed to Trump’s message throughout the campaign, boldly proclaimed his unabashedly conservative magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
Their conservatism is absolutist and reckless in that it upholds intellectual integrity as a primary value. True, it has always been more abstract than other ideologies, but the certainty of belief which is the product of absolutism rationalizes this. The nature of absolutism, itself a product of unrelenting analytical analysis, makes one sure of the correctness of their beliefs. It follows that what one has recognized as eternally true cannot be sacrificed for material practicalities.
Conservatism’s reception in the electorate, therefore, was a secondary concern; the truth of the values which conservatism upheld, and their benefit to the lives of individuals, would be borne out by reality over time. As such, conservatives didn’t need to concern themselves with marketing their messaging; the presidency of Ronald Reagan seemed to support this attitude.
This seemed to be the tradition which 21st century conservatives inherited; it was assumed that those who adopted the label shared not just the beliefs, but the fervency which drove conservatives to argue in such abstract, absolutist terms.
Friendliness towards Trump, however, thoroughly debunked this supposition. The whole ideological floor of conservatism, which had been unchallenged since Reagan, fell through. The identity crisis for conservatives was two-fold. Not only was there no longer any certainty about the intellectual platform of the movement, but conservatives had to question whether they still had a home on the right.
The conservative crisis was made worse by the didactic nature of the election; there was no open conversation about a shift in the party. An ultimatum was issued: accept Trump as a politician of the right or risk being ostracized from the party by the very forces which had seemingly co-opted it.
Nor have the intervening months made things any easier for conservatives. Though the Trump agenda, particularly its positions on trade, are directly contradictory with the free market ideology fundamental to conservatism, his message of efficient bureaucratic managerialism has become increasingly defined as conservative simply because it shrinks some agencies.
Conservatism has been hollowed out; it has lost its sense of absolutist, principled belief and instead focused on process, a realm governed far more by relativism. This is part of an ongoing two-pronged effort to redefine conservatism, to move it away from such a rigid ideology which is supposedly out of keeping with the “big tent” nature of modern Republicanism.
There could conceivably be a point in this, as conservatism’s absolutism is connected to a belief in individual self-sovereignty which demands that freedom of conscience allow for competing ideas of morality. Walking back government was a way of better attaining this end; its political goals were never really about stamping out competing schools of thought.
But abandoning absolutism diminishes the movement. And to see the truth of this, one need look no further than the genesis of conservative opposition to Obamacare.
Initial opposition to the law, even for conservatives in government whose idealism was tempered slightly by the need of politicians to garner public support, was built on principled and absolute opposition to public takeover of an industry that constituted one-sixth of the economy. The “public option” was untenable for the right; private business should not have the terms on which it can operate dictated to by government; this violates self-sovereignty. More than that, there is nothing in the enumerated power of the Constitution that place healthcare regulation within the purview of the federal government.
Intransigent opposition to government-controlled healthcare quickly became “repeal and replace,” thus forfeiting the argument that government intervention in healthcare was outside its provenance and harmful to personal freedom. The subsequent healthcare reform bills which have come from Congress under the Trump administration have embraced the idea of federal oversight as a force for good in healthcare, thus making liars of those who argued against Obamacare on principle.
What’s more, the debate has narrowed; it is no longer about rights and power, but about the cost of insurance premiums. This places the locus of morality in the partisan debate in an arena that is wholly relativistic, and therefore much harder to defend. Without principled opposition to government-regulated healthcare as inappropriate, where do conservatives have to go if Democrats come up with a cheaper solution, or when the Congressional Budget Office debunks the claims that conservative propositions are cost-savings?
The right has backed itself into a corner. We are now supposed to believe that the amendment to the Senate bill, co-sponsored by Mike Lee and Ted Cruz, is a brilliant conservative solution, which fulfills the promise to repeal and replace, reduces costs, reasserts the free market and restores individual control. Vice President Mike Pence went so far as to declare, during an interview with Rush Limbaugh, this solution is “what freedom looks like.” So, what is this apogee of conservatism?
It’s a compromise, which leaves the fundamentals of Obamacare in place, which allows insurers to carry plans that offer lower costs and options with less coverage, so long as they offer one plan that contains all the essential health benefits mandated by the Affordable Care Act.
But even this meager effort proved to be too much for the modern right. Immediately branded “extremist” by members of the Senate’s more centrist wing, most notably Susan Collins and eschewed by insurers who worried the provision would bifurcate and destabilize insurance markets, the amendment was pared back almost before its particulars were made known by publication of the bill. And the chief architect of this ideological betrayal, done for the sake of political expediency, was one-time conservative poster child Cruz, he of shut-down-the-government-fame, who once had the brazenness to effectively stage a coup against the coronation of Trumpism at the 2016 convention.
Cruz and Lee’s initial draft of the Consumer Freedom Amendment was not ultimately included in the doomed Senate healthcare bill. Collusion between Cruz and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweaked the language to prevent insurers from creating different risk pools. This done, Cruz announced his support from the bill. Lee, who was not privy to the changes, at least remained true to his principles and disavowed what had once been his amendment, on the grounds it no loner gave consumers sufficient freedom of choice. In the annals of political betrayal, this is fairly momentous. Lee stood with Cruz during the Obama era when his intransigence to the administration were drawing the ire of even his then-minority Senate colleagues. But he is also a shell of his former self. The appeal of Cruz for conservatives was his utter lack of disregard for political consequences. He was seen as a sole example of forthrightness in a party whose leadership had time and time again promised to push for a conservative agenda if only they would hold on and vote for moderates to build the numbers towards a unassailable majority. Conservatives largely complied, and now those promises are being defaulted on, largely through the efforts of former right-wing heroes suddenly concerned with tactical politics.
Conservatism in the Trump era is directly in contradiction with the conservatism of eight years ago. Conservatism then embraced the Tenth Amendment; conservatism now is fine with government regulation so long as it is efficient. Conservatism then embraced free markets; conservatism now embraces “fair trade”, meaning government can dictate terms of practice to private business. The conservative definition of “freedom” used to be grounded in individual sovereignty. Now, it still is, but with a caveat that government has some right to define what this looks like in order to make it more attainable.
This is why the question of whether Donald Trump is conservative is more than academic. This is why having a definition of the term that is flexible to different interpretations but retains some core identity is crucial, contrary to statements Mike Lee, the symbol for right-wing purity, recently made suggesting the conservative movement’s leadership is more a function of procedural politics than epistemology.
Equivocation is the death of truth. This is plain in the decline of the conservative ideology; it now embraces positions which a mere eight years ago were anathema. By abandoning absolutism, by becoming concerned with electoral victories, the right has parsed the meaning out of conservatism.
Also published on Medium.