Donald Trump has been varyingly called conservative, reactionary, populist, and a whole plethora of different (and more profane) terms. One thing is certainly true – this election will impact both America’s and the world’s perception of conservatism as an ideology.
As far as I can tell, Donald Trump is not a conservative; at least he is not a conservative as I define it. He is a radical and a populist reactionary, whose ideas seek to redefine many of the values that the United States has stood by for decades. This in itself doesn’t necessarily make Trump a bad candidate, that is to be judged by his actions and policies, and I am sure everyone reading this has made up their own mind on those issues. This is not, however, a discussion of those policies.
Let’s assume that Donald Trump is reactionary force in politics, seeking to roll back the tide of a nation built on the commixing of different cultures, peoples and ideas in favour of a new, nationalistic nativism not seen since the “Know Nothing” movement in the 1850s (a brief Wikipedia search will quickly demonstrate the modern parallels).
As a British conservative, I define conservatism within a broad philosophical tradition, but for me the most important tenets of that philosophy are liberty, community and the rule of law. When these things are in balance with one another, I believe we see the most effective furtherance of the individual – protected by functional laws which are there to uphold his rights and prevent others from hurting him, free to make his own decisions and choose his way forward in life under liberty, whilst being supported by a community of people who cooperate and work for one another’s benefit. This seems to me to be the logical conclusion of over 200 years of political thought. However, I mentioned balance, and so you might ask – what happens when these concepts fall out of balance?
Too much liberty itself means a lack of laws (or restrictions on freedom). Restriction on liberty is necessary for liberty itself to exist, and in anarchy nothing but immense social damage can follow. Anarchy is an extreme form of liberty, and in such a society morality and protection do not exist; society cannot further itself, and the individual lives in fear of his own life and possessions rather than thinking on how he can better himself. It is an animalistic way of life.
Have too many laws, and we swiftly descend into authoritarianism, which is what many seem to fear about Trump’s coming Presidency. The individual is not allowed to better himself, since that would be a direct threat to the authority of the state, and as we well know, those experiments in state-planned economy and government have only led to the worst kinds of poverty, social misery and tyranny.
Too much community? How can that be a bad thing? – Too much community and there is no individual – instead of members of a community supporting one another, there is a swift descension into collectivism, where free enterprise does not exist and wealth creation stagnates. In other words, by forcing everything to be done and shared collectively, the community remains collectively poor.
The Republicans have generally been considered the ‘conservative’ party of the United States, however, American conservatism is quite different to that in this country. American conservatism might be considered constitutional values combined with social conservatism and opposition to what are in contrast seen as ‘liberal’ policies such as pro-choice abortion and LGBT rights (though it should be remembered that this is not set in stone). Trump marks quite a dramatic shift away from the established way of things, and whilst the liberal conservative tradition dictates that change must be accepted as society itself changes, we are seeing a more radical shift towards a preference for a status quo ante, i.e. “things as they were in the good old days” (or, if I wished to be truly scathing “before the immigrants started coming”).
What can be done about this worrying trend in America? Well, American conservatism cannot be expected to conform to our standards; it never has been the same, and it would be churlish to expect it to be. First of all, we must accept the result, just as with Brexit, bemoaning liberals may bemoan, but ultimately, Trump will become America’s next President. It remains (do pardon the pun) to be seen how Trump will adapt to his new office, whether or not he will soften, or whether he will carry through with his more detestable policies. It is indeed amusing to ponder whether or not we will see a Hard Trumpet or a Soft Trumpet…
I am not sure whether we have dodged a bullet with Hillary’s hawkishness and penchant for military interventionism (which has always concerned me), or whether we are now to expect an Oswald Mosely style New Order. Facetiousness aside, time will tell exactly what Trump has got in store for us, but this much is true – conservatives both in Britain and America who do not align themselves with Trump’s policies must be prepared to hold him to immense scrutiny, criticise and ridicule him wherever possible, and ensure that we cooperate with both Trump’s supporters and opponents in order to ensure the America we fear may emerge does not do so.
We are all members of the free world, and since America is one of the largest parts of it, we have an obligation to watch with interest. Most importantly however, we must defend our ideology: conservatism is a rational and deeply compassionate human school of thought at its core, and we must not allow this event, whether you consider it bemusing or troubling, to tarnish its good name.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty