The reaction to Trump’s acceptance speech was predictable but illuminating all the same. The Left is in a panic because they have evolved into a bizarre identity cult that no longer cares about the practical aspects of politics. Trump’s talk of jobs, trade and culture may as well have been in a foreign language. The so-called Right has evolved into a wish list of policy positions dreamed up by government spongers living in the Imperial Capital. All of the boys and girls of Conservative Inc. are shrieking in terror at the Trump speech, yelling some version of “See? He is no conservative!”
Because Conservative Inc. insists they own the trademark for “conservative,” they insist they get to define what is and what is not “conservative.” Conveniently, everything Trump says is defined as outside the bounds of conservatism, while everything they say is within the bounds of conservatism. Professional conservatives pretty much spend all their time proving they are inside the lines as currently drawn. The death rattle of every mass movement is when they begin to turn all their efforts to rule making and enforcement.
The one thing the Buckley-ites have right is that Trump is not one of them. He is no libertarian and he has no interest in kissing the ring of the identity politics crowd. Trump made clear in his speech that he thinks the globalist fantasies about the glorious future are nonsense. Trump is a nationalist in the old school sense. That is, he thinks separate countries, governed in the best interests of their people, is the right model. Those best interests are defined by the people and implemented by their representatives. Hardly anyone on Team Buckley holds these views.
That does not make Trump a conservative. In order to evaluate that, we need a better definition of conservative than what has evolved over the last three decades. The place to start for that is Russell Kirk. He is a good example to use when understanding what went wrong with conservatism. Kirk fell out of favor with the Fusionists that make up Team Buckley and he was detested by the neo-cons. As a result, he gets little run in conservative circles these days, outside of some geezer paleo-cons like Pat Buchanan and Paul Gottfried.
Despite having been thrown down the memory hole, Kirk’s conservatism is looking like it will be what survives the current ructions on the Right. Most Americans are what John Derbyshire calls “gut conservatives” in that they are instinctively attracted to tradition and skeptical of the latest utopian fads. Many reading this have been trained by our current elites to be skeptical of their neighbor’s judgement, but the everyday tasks that are essential to an orderly society are carried out by average Americans using their best judgement.
If you look through that list of ten conservative principles, you can make a fairly good case for Trump on a few of them. As is always the case when judging a man through the television, you end up projecting upon him things that say more about you than about him. For instance, Trump is not an Evangelical Christian, but he is not hostile to religion either. Whether or not he believes in a transcendent moral order is impossible to know. He has said nothing to suggest he does, but he has never said anything to suggest he does not believe it. We are left to guess and that means guessing wrong.
Similarly, it is easy to say Trump is imprudent. His critics claim he is proto-fascist because he speaks forcefully about what he will do as president. Maybe it is just ego or maybe he believes it, but Trump certainly does not seem like a guy in awe of his own limitations. On the other hand, his statements on foreign policy sound a lot closer to John Quincy Adams than anything we have heard since the end of World War II. As with his spiritual inclinations, his prudence is not particularly clear.
Determining whether or not Trump is a conservative in the Kirkian sense is further complicated by the fact that he is a natural pitchman. Trump is a self-promoter, in the old fashioned sense. He uses hyperbole freely and amusingly. You know he is polishing the apple and he knows you know he is polishing the apple. In the political realm, this makes it hard to pin him down on specifics. It’s an effective political tactic, in fact, it is a great tactic, but it makes it hard to know exactly how Trump will attempt to govern.
In all probability, Trump is a transitional figure, like Nixon in 1968. The still young Buckley movement was winning arguments, but not ready to win elections. Nixon should have been a bridge between the unhinged liberalism of the 60’s and a sober conservatism, but it never quite worked out that way. The New Right we see forming up in the form of the alt-right, dissident right and so on is not ready to be a full fledged political movement, but it can energize a candidate. Trump could be the shake down cruise for a restoration of the conservatism of Russel Kirk.