By Shiam Kannan | United States
Since his inauguration in 2016, President Donald Trump has governed rather conservatively with bona fides such as last year’s tax bill and the nomination of two originalist justices to the Supreme Court. This has proven popular with conservative voters, and has brought previously skeptical conservative politicians, such as conservative Senator Mike Lee, to see the President in a much more favorable light. Nonetheless, the cold, hard truth remains: Trump cannot be the future of the conservative movement, and American conservatism must move beyond him in order to preserve the values upon which the ideology rests. This may be shocking to hear for many conservatives, given Trump’s record of governance so far. However, when analyzing his effect on conservatism, we cannot only look at his actions as President; rather, we must also take into account his effect on the movement as a whole.
The Redefining of Conservatism
Perhaps the biggest danger Trump poses to American conservatism is the fact that he seeks to redefine it. Conservatism, in the American sense, is built around a core of classical liberalism in the Lockean tradition. It emphasizes natural rights, limited government, and exalts individual liberty above all, while simultaneously recognizing that liberty without moral order is not liberty at all. Put simply, conservatism is merely libertarianism augmented with social traditionalism. Promulgated by such prominent figures as William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Russell Kirk, and eventually Ronald Reagan, this marriage of social conservatism and libertarian governance, known as “fusionism,” has been the dominant strain of conservative belief in the United States—until now.
In the Trump era, the American right has been taken in a much different direction, embracing populism over ideology and abandoning many of its libertarian roots. Trump’s demagoguery, vitriolic attacks on the American media, troubled relationship with the truth, lack of humility or restraint, and blustering rhetoric all point towards the same conclusion: Trump is no conservative. He is merely the face of a tumor on American conservatism which has managed to hijack the movement, one which values style over substance and has no philosophy, no ideology, and no guiding worldview whatsoever.
The Lack of a Conservative Foreign Policy
Nowhere is Trump’s lack of a conservative worldview more clearly seen than in foreign policy. The most prominent issue that comes to mind is his trade policy. Trump has openly embraced protectionism, which is antithetical to the conservative belief in limited government and free markets. His misguided belief that trade is a zero-sum game is more in line with the beliefs of Bernie Sanders than those of, say, Ronald Reagan. His trade wars, not only with China but also with allies such as Canada, are an affront to the conservative philosophy, which embraces strong alliances and open trade with allies.
However, it is not only in trade policy where Trump flouts conservative orthodoxy. For all his talk of nationalism and his attacks on kneeling NFL players, Trump himself doesn’t seem like he believes in American exceptionalism. Indeed, he has no problem morally equating America with de-facto dictatorships such as Russia. For example, when asked by Bill O’Reilly why he supported Putin despite him being a “killer,” Trump’s reply was shocking: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” Clearly, these don’t seem like the words of someone who believes that America is a shining city upon a hill, a cornerstone of conservative philosophy.
Trump also rejects conservative principles when it comes to international relations, embracing isolationism over principled leadership. A healthy nationalism, which inspires the people to take pride in their nation, is a good thing and is something conservatives should strive to promote. On the other hand, Trump’s brand of neo-isolationism, masquerading as nationalism, is un-conservative, as it denies a role for American leadership in the world. Instead of affirming America’s unique status as leader of the free world, Trump has turned his back on our allies, even going so far as threatening to pull out of NATO. Trump’s strained relationships with Western leaders, such as Angela Merkel, Theresa May, and Emmanuel Macron, only further emphasize how he is contributing to the estrangement of the United States from the world around it.
This is not to say that Trump should embrace liberal internationalism, give up on his support for American sovereignty, and promote an interventionist foreign policy. But foreign policy isn’t a binary choice. A conservative foreign policy would assert American leadership on the world stage, strengthening bonds with Western powers and maintaining the trust of our allies, while at the same time being skeptical of unnecessary intervention and defending American sovereignty from entities such as the UN. After all, conservatism is the politics of realism, whereas both unbridled interventionism and isolationism are utopian ideologies: the former in its belief that American militarism can solve all the problems in the world, and the latter in its belief that the world can maintain order, stability, and a balance of power without American leadership.
The Lack of a Conservative Domestic Policy
On the domestic front, Trump has fared rather well on policy, but yet again, has failed on principle. While Trump is responsible for many conservative victories, like the tax cuts passed back in 2017, the way he has gone about pursuing other policy objectives, especially regarding immigration, are not conservative in the least. A conservative President would recognize his Constitutional limitations and defer to the Constitution’s mandate of separation of powers. Trump, however, does the opposite. For example, despite lambasting former President Obama for his liberal use of executive orders to circumvent Congress, Trump has had no qualms about using executive power to advance his own goals. Recently, Trump attempted to unilaterally change the rules for obtaining asylum in the United States, barring illegal immigrants from making asylum claims. While it is certainly both reasonable and conservative to ensure that people seeking asylum enter properly at ports of entry, we cannot forget that Trump is not king, and thus does not have unchecked power to make the law whatever he wants it to be. It is the job of Congress, as per Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution, to “establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization,” and if Trump were truly a conservative, he would respect Congress’s authority as America’s sole legislative body, and pressure them to pass the immigration laws he supports, instead of abusing the powers of his office.
If Trumpism cannot be the guiding philosophy of the future of American conservatism, then what can? Who will the torch-bearer be? We have many options. It could be Rand Paul, the stalwart defender of the Bill of Rights and unwavering fiscal hawk. It could be Ben Sasse, one of the few Republican Senators who are willing to stand up to Donald Trump. It could even be figures such as Ben Shapiro, who are spreading principled conservatism to a millennial audience. There are many principled Republicans who could run for President in 2024, or even 2020 (if we’re lucky), who could take the mantle of the GOP and restore it to being the party of individual freedom, American exceptionalism, constitutionalism, limited government, free markets, and personal responsibility which it has been for most of its history. However, Donald Trump is not one of them, and if we want conservatism to remain a prominent force in American politics, we must reject him as its standard-bearer.
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