Donald J. Trump, President-elect of the United States of America, can be called many things. For decency’s sake, relatively few of these can be committed to paper. But one of the things he can’t reasonably be described as, despite his assertions to the contrary, is a conservative. As a conservative this is a relief. I’d hate to spend the next four years being associated with, and having to apologies for, Donald Trump.
Admittedly my argument is largely one of definition. If you define a conservative as someone who’s either resistant to change, or wants to restore the values and norms of the past, then you could reasonably define Trump as one. The problem with this definition is that it’s almost meaningless. You end up arguing that communist leaders in the USSR and Eastern Europe were conservative as they wished to preserve the communist economic model, and other such nonsense. If we are to define conservatism as an ideology, it has to mean more than this.
I would argue that the core of conservatism is the desire to protect and where possible expand Western civilisation, by which I mean societies ordered around liberal-democratic-capitalist values. Thus, in order to be a conservative, a basic requirement is that you back liberal-democratic institutions and norms and support the economy being based around the free market. To be more specific this means supporting free and fair elections, restraints on executive power, the rule of law, freedom of speech and the protection of private enterprise from both excessive state interference and monopoly capitalism.
Trump’s allegiance to these bedrocks of Western civilisation is somewhere between conditional and non-existent. During both the 2016 Republican Party primaries and the subsequent Presidential election Trump disregarded democratic norms with all the subtlety of a fireworks display. He repeatedly threatened to imprison Hillary Clinton, his chief opponent, and during one rally appeared to hint at her assassination. He refused to say he would accept the Presidential election result unless he won, and claimed entirely without evidence that the election was rigged whenever it looked like he would lose.
In addition, he spread unhinged conspiracy theories about his rivals, including that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination, whilst making aggressive assaults on the media a key plank of his campaign. In short Trump campaigned using the rhetoric of a Central Asian dictator, not an American conservative, and should be judged accordingly.
Trump’s disdain for democratic norms was matched only by his disregard for the institutions and alliances which protect the Western world. During the Presidential election he undermined the collective security guarantee which forms the basis of NATO, the alliance which has protected democratic Europe since 1949, by stating that he might not defend NATO members who hadn’t ‘fulfilled their obligations’ to America.
In a recent interview he went further, asserting that NATO might be ‘obsolete’, in comments which were swiftly welcomed by the Russian Government. Not content with challenging American security policy in Europe Trump has done the same in the far-East, claiming that America spends too much defending Japan and South Korea and even suggesting that these states should develop nuclear weapons to reduce their reliance on the US. Trump also recently attacked the UN, an important albeit imperfect forum for international discussion, accusing the institution of causing more problems than it solves.
As well as criticising those institutions which underpin the security of the liberal-democratic world Trump has delighted in praising their foes. In particular he has, for some time, been an outspoken admirer of Russian autocrat Vladamir Putin. In 2007 Trump told CNN’s Larry King that Putin was ‘doing a great job rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period’. He maintained this stance during the Presidential election, exchanging complements with the Russian leader whilst publically criticising traditional American allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. When it was alleged that the Russian state had intervened in the election by hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails Trump responded not by criticising the interference of a rival foreign power in America’s election, but by asking Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails as well.
Trump has ignored or attacked democratic norms, undermined those alliances which protect the Western world and praised rival authoritarian-nationalist powers. If you share my view that conservatism is principally about the promotion of the liberal-democratic-capitalist system of government then you can’t reasonably describe Trump as a conservative.
I hope this is as much of a relief to you as it is to me. Indeed, in some policy areas, he’s practically a revolutionary. And as a conservative I use the term ‘revolutionary’ in an entirely pejorative sense. American foreign policy has been based, since 1941, on protecting the liberal-democratic world. Trump has suggested he would like to change this. The Republican Party, the party of Reagan, used to be a great conservative institution. But it has been hijacked by a nationalist-authoritarian demagogue, and dragged away from its values. As such conservatives should not feel restrained when criticising Trump or his administration. He’s not one of us, he rejects most of what we hold dear and he needs to be resisted.
James is a liberal-conservative blogger. He graduated from Oxford University in 2014, and has a years previous experience of working in Westminster. You can follow him on Twitter at @JBickertonUK
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty