The unexpected rise and predicted fall of Donald Trump has many on the Right debating how conservatism can bounce back after the election. The odiousness of some of Trump’s supporters has made one common question some version of: How can Republicans, and more specifically conservatives, convince Group A and Group B that we care about them and that conservatism is good for them? One theme that has emerged is a desire to purge the more repugnant of those backing Trump from the ranks of conservatism, and sometimes this desire has spilled over to include purging those who say they will reluctantly vote for Trump in an attempt to keep Hillary Clinton from the presidency. The argument goes that as long as conservatism is viewed mainly as an ideology for rural white people, it can never be a viable political option for more urban and/or minority voting blocs. This argument seems to largely be made by white urbanites who, in their efforts to clamber over the carcasses of the political dead to become the thought-leaders of a new movement, lose sight of what conservatism means to many of those white rural types. Or at least what it used to mean.
Problems of definition are unavoidable. Over the decades some very smart people have attempted to define “conservatism” with varying degrees of success. For our purposes here what is needed is a fairly simple definition, recognizable to the average voter who identifies as a “conservative”: a desire to conserve the limiting system of representative governance of our founding documents; the belief that human agency is in the main hampered, not aided, by government interference and regulation; and the belief that human dignity is naturally desirous of, and even dependent upon, liberty and personal autonomy.
Obviously, by this definition, Donald Trump is no conservative. You’d be hard pressed to find a clip of him mentioning the Constitution, and most of his proposals actually increase the size and scope of the federal government. But this fact isn’t what upsets the Purgetariat. After all, it isn’t as if the last two Republican Presidents, or the nominees in ‘08 or ‘12, were actually much interested in culling the herds in Washington. Yes, Republican-controlled Congresses have passed a few reforms, but mainly they’ve only managed to slow the rate of bloat, and that only barely. What bothers the purgers is Trump himself, and his racist following. The argument over how to save “conservatism” isn’t actually about conservatism. It’s about a certain subset on the Right believing that government actually is the answer to a lot of problems, they just believe that they’re the people best suited to administer that government. They insist that the complaints of this or that group must be heeded, but they rarely if ever express the idea that the solutions to the problems aren’t to be found in any government policy, particularly at the federal level.
You don’t like racism? Congratulations. That’s a bold stance. You want to marginalize the white nationalists? I applaud that. But focusing on those things as the problem with conservatism as a political ideology is missing the truth that the Trump nomination has laid bare, namely that identity politics and reliance on government to be all things to all people has reached a tipping point on both sides of the aisle. The idiocy of the way primary voting works in a lot of states isn’t blameless for Trump either, and that’s the fault of the Republican party. The simple truth is that in most of the states containing the rural white rubes, Trump only received a plurality of the vote. Many were open primaries. That fact leads one to suspect that a great number of people who will cast votes for Trump in a few weeks do so out of a misguided party loyalty and an abiding hatred for Hillary Clinton. It means that Trump, with his walls and bans, wasn’t their first choice, or really even a choice for them at all until the rubber met the road and the prospect of a Hillary presidency actually stared them in the face. You can personally believe that Trump is so dangerous that a vote for Hillary is necessary. But assuming that many, maybe even most, Trump voters are Trump supporters is dishonest. This should give us hope, or at least a shield against total despair.
So what does conservatism need? Surely one thing is a leader, or leaders, on the national stage who can espouse the idea that self-government is to be desired by all Americans, not only rural white people; who can good-naturedly educate a new generation of voters on the idea that the answers aren’t to be found in Washington, and that a lessened Federal government is an opportunity for citizens to decide contentious domestic issues locally, amongst themselves, as the Founders intended; who can explain why the idea that a Congressman from a state a thousand miles from you should have any say in the affairs of your state on almost all of the issues Congress currently concerns themselves with is antithetical to the way our system is designed. I still believe most Americans, of all stripes, are open to these arguments, that most are open to the idea of the true American Dream: living your entire life with the only interaction you ever have with the federal government being in the voting booth.
*Personal addendum: no, I’m not voting for either of them. I want less government.
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