There have seemingly been more 2016 Republican presidential primary postmortems written than there have been Palestinian-Arab schools named after genocidal Jew-killing jihadists. Today, over two-and-a-half years after movement conservative favorite Ted Cruz bowed out of the race in Indianapolis, we on the Right are still distilling, synthesizing, and attempting to chart a proper forward-looking political and intellectual course.
Was Trump victorious over his more traditional political foes due to free media coverage and sheer force of personality, or was it due to his more populist-inclined positions on foreign policy, immigration, and trade? Is “Trumpism” a substantive policy portfolio, or is it a merely attitudinal outlook? To what extent should conservatives reconsider their attachments to any purported excesses of libertarian/neoliberal market “fundamentalism?” What is the nature of the relationship between conservatism, classical liberalism, and nationalism?
Lamentably, there are no straightforward answers to these questions. But we do have clues to point us in the proper direction.
In the years leading up to the 2016 election, various thinkers on the Right agglomerated under the title of “reform conservatism” and began to push a more concretely middle-class substantive agenda. Tim Carney described a “libertarian populism” focused on ending cronyism and breaking down government-imposed regulatory barriers that serve only to protect the most powerful. Others, such as Yuval Levin and Ross Douthat, focused on combatting the pernicious social crisis of the economically and culturally disaffected. Today, in the era of Trump, we see similar ideas floated. Oren Cass’s new book, The Once and Future Worker, has spread like wildfire across the conservative intelligentsia with its challenge to libertarian/neoliberal orthodoxy on the ostensible fetishization of gross domestic product at the expense of the inherent dignity of labor. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), whatever one may think of him, has taken up the mantle of sounding the alarm on our crisis of mass despondency. Tucker Carlson’s viral recent Fox News monologue on the future of economics and politics in the United States, which Daily Wire Editor-in-Chief Ben Shapiro has criticized at length, served as a seeming apex.
At the same time as this debate has unfolded, there has been another debate in the background. Trump’s election and the Brexit vote in 2016 have awakened much of the political cognoscenti to the gravity of ascendant nationalist sentiment. Around the world, many other countries have followed suit. Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum has written about what he calls the “civilizationist” (in contradistinction to the media’s preferred smear of “far-right”) parties of Europe, and how they exist to combat out-of-touch Berlin/Brussels elitism vis-à-vis mass immigration and Islamization. In Brazil, the election of Jair Bolsonaro has extended the nationalist wave to the Southern Hemisphere. On the literary front, Yoram Hazony’s recent book, The Virtue of Nationalism, presents the most intellectually coherent argument in a generation for the post-1648 Westphalian nation-state system. Hazony, along with academics such as Adrian Vermeule and Patrick Deneen, have seriously questioned and challenged the Enlightenment and its claim to a normatively superior classical liberal, individual rights-oriented political order; Enlightenment enthusiasts such as Steven Pinker and Jonah Goldberg have resisted.
Such is the nature, alas, of our internally muddled intellectual moment. How to unsort the mess?
Let’s start with nationalism. The patron saint of the modern conservative movement, William F. Buckley, may have once quipped, “I’m as patriotic as anyone from sea to shining sea, but there isn’t a bone of nationalism in my body,” but it was no less a conservative icon than Irving Kristol (not to be confused with his intellectually adrift son) who said, “The three pillars of modern conservatism are religion, nationalism, and economic growth.” It seems intuitive and, indeed, quite obvious that the same principles undergirding the conservative belief in federalism—the subsidiarity principle of governance, a belief in political accountability and self-rule and self-determination—ought to undergird a similar belief in the nation-state system itself. Conservative criticisms of feeble-minded Eurocrats in Brussels and stridently immoral transnational overlords in Turtle Bay are as American as apple pie. Pedants can make a fuss over semantics all they might like, but the bottom line is that nationalism, properly defined, is indeed “virtuous” solely insofar as it better actualizes fundamental norms of republican self-governance than does the alternative order of transnationalism. Any viable modern conservatism ought to embrace this rudimentary fealty to the nation-state order. To the extent “Trumpism” is not merely attitudinal but also galvanizes a substantive shift toward a greater respect for nationhood and blunt realpolitik and away from the prevailing Bush-era status quo ante that often prioritized the hubris of “universal values” and moralistic interventionism gone awry, conservatives ought to be thankful.
The tension between ascendant populism and traditional libertarian/neoliberal sentiment is perhaps a bit trickier. As I wrote in my first-ever piece for this site, free enterprise is inherently moral insofar as it merely connects freedom of labor, freedom of contract, and private property protection to the natural right to liberty of which our Declaration of Independence speaks. We are a nation whose founding charter, the Constitution, exists as a tangible document to secure the eternal political truths promulgated in the Declaration. Those political truths succinctly state that man is born free with inherent natural rights, and that it is the duty of government to protect those natural rights. In responding to Tucker Carlson’s populist monologue, then, Ben is completely correct, as a matter of first principles, to state that “America guaranteed us adventure, not happiness.” It was not until the first transformative Progressive, President Woodrow Wilson, that the Left commenced in earnest its grotesque distortion of America’s founding creed from one of securing negative liberty to one of conferring positive liberty.
But what if an ascendant populism centered upon the plight of the lower and middle classes can be harmonized with or integrated into this intellectual framework? Here is Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), responding to Carlson:
There is no market principle empowering local zoning boards and school boards to artificially price working families out of good school districts. Or creating the occupational-licensure epidemic blocking low-skilled workers from promising careers. Or allowing border lawlessness and corporatist immigration policies to overwhelm America’s great assimilative melting pot…
The real problem is not market capitalism but the failure of our political class to adapt with it—its refusal to reform outdated public policies to harness the forces of globalization to the commonweal of all Americans. Correcting these inequities through reforms is beyond neither the scope of policy nor the wit of man…They simply require a reassessment of national economic policy in this new era of global economic competition.
The best path forward for Republicans, then, is for conservatives and populists to work together on a new synthesis—a reform agenda that would be more substantively useful and politically appealing than either side’s default platform.
The future of the conservative movement lies somewhere in this murky nexus. We can be unabashed nationalists, as long as we are very careful about what we mean by “nationalist.” And while we ought to always retain a default presumption in favor of the wonders of free-market capitalism—which is not just an inherently moral extension of natural liberty but has also tangibly eradicated more real, inflation-adjusted poverty than any other economic system in the history of mankind—we also ought to be open to rethinking outmoded orthodoxies whose abolition might help incrementally improve our metastasizing crisis of societal rot and a widening cultural chasm between the classes. Ours is not to foment a victimization mentality or to promote internecine class warfare. But ours is—and emphatically is—to do our best to incentivize the inter-generational inculcation of civic virtue, to champion the Tocquevillian mediating institutions of civil society, and to promote a generally more wholesome and less internally fraught politics. Conservatives ought to question the prevailing, post-1960s immigration status quo that lavishes Fortune 500 companies with abundant cheap labor whilst hardly paying attention to our calcifying assimilation crisis. A general preference for free trade is wholly appropriate, but it is also wholly inappropriate for conservatives to ignore away deleterious cultural effects of economic globalization as if they do not exist.
Perhaps above all else, it is conservatives—who maturely reject libertarian/Objectivist flirtations with radical individualism, recognizing it as fundamentally inimical to human nature—who ought to take the political and intellectual lead in better preparing the nation’s limitless localized, communitarian institutions to take a more pronounced lead role in Americans’ daily lives. Ultimately, while government has a role to play, the task of inculcating virtue and maintaining a virtuous citizenry is best left to what Edmund Burke called society’s “little platoon[s].”
Jonathan Bronitsky recently wrote at the Claremont Institute’s new American Mind site:
A number of conservatives, especially in their attitude toward President Trump, have shown themselves to be just as prone to partisan zealotry as progressives. This indeed appears to be a result of boredom and isolation stemming from the decline of faith and voluntary association and the not unrelated ascent of forms of communication that demur face-to-face interaction. What ever happened to the notion of the common good (the best for the most people)? That involved empathy, perspective, and compromise. Without a better grasp of what makes up the good life, those qualities have been eroded by a mentality of devout conviction that sees all human affairs as zero-sum and a loss, no matter how minor, as an apocalyptic failure.
If conservatives can channel their “virtuous” fealty to nationalism and promote policies that galvanize a moral spark for a disaggregated citizenry that begin to heal the wounds of our bitterly fractious politics, that is one possible distillation of the future of the conservative movement. So long as we do so without throwing the free enterprise baby out with the surrounding bathwater. Just because the republic has fallen far does not mean that free enterprise is not an indispensable tool, when correctly channeled, for assisting our needed national rejuvenation.
Ultimately, what we seek to conserve is nothing less than the Founding ideals of the American republic: A negative liberty-based moral order (as represented by the Declaration) that is America’s exceptional gift to the Western political canon, and a carefully delimited governmental structure that secures both that very moral order and the inherent sovereignty of the citizenry (as represented by “We the People” of which the Constitution’s Preamble speaks). America is both an abstract idea and a concrete nation with a distinct people, formed at a peculiar point in Western history under idiosyncratic circumstances.
The task ahead is daunting. Ultimately, however, we need not be fearful. Our principles are eternal—and eternal principles always eventually prevail.