The Alcove

Conservatism in the Age of Trump

American Affairs offers a new vision of conservatism, but not a relevant one.

By Kevin Mattson

Tagged conservatismNeoconservatism

American Affairs is a relatively new political journal, supposedly espousing the tenets of Trump-era conservatism, which many now portray as the future of the movement. However, this is a conservatism much less of the words spoken by Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan, and more of a constellation of historically rooted ideas. In the journal’s more recent issue, for example, the editor, Julius Krein, argues “that the ideological categories of Right and Left are no longer relevant to the essential questions of the present.” Despite this oft-repeated cliché, the journal has been linked to Donald Trump’s presidency (by taking up themes of immigration, nationalism, and global trade).

The journal is apparently seeking a deeper level of discussion than the dry drivel of “policy wonks” aimed at pushing the Republican Congress toward intended policy goals (it’s alarmingly academic in its orientation). Thankfully, the journal also rejects some of the usual platitudes about the glories of free markets. There is even interest in rethinking economic trade policy and support for single payer health insurance. This more communalist (and nationalist) conservatism belies the individualist brashness of the Tea Party. Of course, the journal’s penchant toward economic nationalism keeps it tethered to what some perceive as an intellectual variant of Trumpism, if such a thing were even possible.

This same summer issue features an article, “What is Conservatism?,” by Yoram Hazony and Ofir Haivry. It is, likewise, notable because of its dissention from “conservative” thinkers such as William Kristol who have—in the face of Trump’s authoritarianism—come to the defense of “liberal democracy.” Although the article quickly delves into a long, dense work of intellectual history (in the print version it runs almost thirty pages), it does, in the end, manage to set out an alternative to those conservatives coming to the defense of liberal democracy. As they see it, conservatives shouldn’t backpedal into “liberal democracy,” but should set out a conservative intellectual tradition.

Hazony and Haivry do this by directing readers’ attention to “the Anglo-American political order: nationalism, religious tradition, the Bible as a source of political principles and wisdom, and the family.” The authors reject “Lockean liberalism,” which leaves out these elements. To their credit, there are quite a few intellectual sources for the “Anglo-American conservative tradition,” including Edmund Burke, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Hamilton, among other lesser-known names. There’s a strong focus, also, on the constitution, including on Fortescue’s (1394-1479) belief that “the English constitution,” at his time of writing, was “the best model of political government known to man.” Yet he also found it important to limit the power of the King or what “later tradition would call the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances” and the “English system of trial by jury.” None of this sounds terribly outside what liberal democracy is based around.

But the problem begins when the writers confront the exceptionalist logic of Fortescue. “Fortescue does not believe that either scripture or human reason can provide a universal law for all nations,” they explain. At this point, it’s hard not to hear nationalist prejudice entering the argument. “Fortescue argues that a nation that is self-disciplined and accustomed to obeying the laws voluntarily rather than by coercion is one that can productively participate in the way it is governed. This, Fortescue proposes, was true of the people of England, while the French, who were of undisciplined character, could be governed only by the harsh and arbitrary rule of absolute royal government.”

This is evidently an argument against universal human rationality—eschewing it for the language of tradition, manners, and customs. But the tradition did find a language of “rights” long before revolutionary Americans charted out the Declaration of Independence. Bringing up John Selden, the authors discuss “the divers rights and liberties of the subjects” of England, which are, notably, also balanced against a sense of order and structure. They are not based in what Selden termed “unrestricted use of pure and simple reason.” Haivry and Hazony explain, “If we were to create government on the basis of pure reason alone, this would not only lead to the eventual dissolution of government but to widespread confusion, dissention, and perpetual instability as one government is changed for another that appears more reasonable at a given moment.” Herein lies the conservative “logic” being espoused: Allowing “the people” to apply their own beliefs about universal (or hoped to be universal) values in order to create political order is a quick step into anarchism and chaos.

Though the authors reject the principles of universal rationality, they celebrate the ethic of historical wisdom. “By consulting the accumulated experience of the past, we overcome,” in this version of British conservatism, “the inherent weakness of individual judgment.” They champion “pragmatism” rather than bold, sweeping reform or revolution—a far cry from so many of today’s brash, “revolutionary,” and intensely ideological conservatives in their tone (see my book Rebels All! on this point).

So who overturned and ruined this supposedly sensible line of reasoning? John Locke, apparently. They dislike the contractual orientation that Locke pioneered in political theory. They dislike the use of “general axioms” rather than “the historical experience of nations” as the basis for political thinking. Though they admit that Locke was an empiricist in terms of his philosophy of knowledge (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding), they see him as an axiomatic thinker when it comes to government (Second Treatise of Government). Locke creates a contractual theory of political governance by rejecting “historical and empirical” thinking for universal, rational thinking.

By this point, readers might start to see some real connections between the ideological and philosophical underpinnings being discussed and real-life American politics. American historians have long debated just how “Lockean”—versus ancient, small “r” republican—the Founding Fathers were in their intellectual orientation. And here’s where the authors turn back to Alexander Hamilton who also claimed that: “the British government forms the best model the world ever produced.” And yet, of course, figures like Hamilton had to contend with the fact that what made the British system so effective was that it could not be easily duplicated by transplanted colonialists.

Finally, we get to the end of the piece, at which point Haivry and Hazony will doubtlessly already have lost many readers—especially any who might be secularists. For not only do they make their call for a return to conservative order and stability more explicit, but they also claim that religion—especially the Bible—should play an important part in helping to codify such order. In their warped view: “The state upholds and honors the biblical God and religious practices common to the nation.” Yet, at the same time, conservatives should have “wide toleration to religious and social views that do not endanger the integrity and well-being of the nation…” This naturally leads one to wonder: Who would make the decision about what religious belief endangers (vague term there) or doesn’t? On this, the authors offer little but sweeping statements. Nor do they account for the radical variant of conservativism espoused by so many evangelical and fundamentalist believers today—something that has lent itself more to fervid activism, such as support for the Tea Party or the cheering crowds at Trump rallies—than order and structure.

Unsurprisingly, the authors conclude with a lament about “the inability of countries such as America and Britain, having been stripped of the nationalist and religious traditions that held them together for centuries, to sustain themselves while a universalist liberalism continues, year after year, to break down these historic foundations of their strength.”

We liberals could find many things to fault with this piece. But first off, I would take issue with the very idea that “liberal rationalism” has “established itself in a monopoly position in the state.” George W. Bush and Donald Trump have not exactly been paragons of liberal rationality. And it’s really hard for me to imagine a bunch of young millennials rushing to justify the social order by reading the Bible and fifteenth century British political thinkers.

The historian and political scientist, Clinton Rossiter, once quipped that Russell Kirk—an American conservative who did much to defend a similar lineage of conservative thinkers in his book, The Conservative Mind (1953)—was not only born in the wrong century, he was also born in the wrong country. Though I was, in some ways, pleasantly surprised by the thinking that Haivry and Hazony have done here, especially because they have challenged some of the “monopolistic” free market ideas of the right by resurrecting pre-capitalist institutions like the family and religious faith, the conservative tradition they hark back to is far too antiquated to be applicable, in any real way, to our secular and individualist culture. Neither do I see any appetite, or at least any consensus, in this country, for a return to the Bible or to British political and judicial thinking. The authors close their piece by stating that “conservative must speak in our own voice again.” After reading this piece, I can’t help but think that what they’ll hear is their own echo.

Part of that echo would emanate from the Trump White House. No doubt, the language of family and nation might reverberate with Trump’s peculiar brand of conservatism. But constitutional thinking—especially that concerning the limits on the king’s power in British political thought—doesn’t pass the test of Trump’s blunderbuss temperament (let alone the “imperial presidency” charted by George W. Bush and Richard Nixon). The conversation Haivry and Hazony want conservatives to return to is an important one, but isn’t one likely to have much of an impact on the contemporary state of American politics.

Read more about conservatismNeoconservatism

Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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