Trump destroyed conservatism, or he may have saved it

Neither conservatism nor liberalism look anywhere near saved in the US – and there are parallels with New Zealand’s ‘left’ and ‘right’.

Arguments about what has gone wrong with conservatism in the United States (something started long before Donald Trump arrived in the White House), the obsession with opposing an enemy instead of promoting one’s own principles (if one remembers what they are), have pertinence in New Zealand politics right know.

We have increasingly trite politics and media, with shrinking circles of political crazies on the fringes, trying to claim exclusive rights to ideals. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the middle majority to take politics seriously.

Richard Brookhiser says that after the Trump presidency it won’t be possible to take conservatives seriously, since they have already traded their principles and compromised their conservatism in their support of Trump.

NRO: How Trump and His Admirers Destroyed Conservatism

…what has Trump done to conservatives?

One of Trump’s abilities, which he possesses at the level of genius, is finding and naming the weaknesses of enemies: Low-Energy Jeb, Little Marco, Crooked Hillary. Related is his ability to create weaknesses in his supporters. A weak man needs weak supporters; strong ones might make him feel insecure, or differ with him.

And so, whether from design, or simply because it is the way things work, Trump’s conservative admirers have had to abandon and contradict what they once professed to hold most dear.

The most egregious example is the religious Right. The religious Right is the latest version of an old model of American politics, variously incarnated by Puritans, abolitionists, and William Jennings Bryan. It, like its predecessors, has argued that America and individual Americans need to have a godly or at least moral character to thrive.

Now the religious Right adores a thrice-married cad and casual liar.

Admiring Trump is different from voting for him, or working with him. Politics is calculation; “to live,” Whittaker Chambers told Buckley, who quoted it ever after, “is to maneuver.” But to admire Trump is to trade your principles for his, which are that winning — which means Trump winning — is all.

In three years (maybe seven), Donald Trump will no longer be president. But conservatives who bent the knee will still be writing and thinking. How will it be possible to take them seriously?

The short answer is, it won’t.

But…Henry Olsen, American Greatness: Trump May Have Saved Conservativism, Not Killed It

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference is upon us, and its speakers list has caused some longtime conservatives to bemoan the state of the movement.

Noting the invitation of French National Front leader Marion LePen, former UKIP head Nigel Farage, and others whose provenance lay soundly in what Steve Bannon called the “economic nationalist movement,” these disaffected conservatives wonder what has happened to their movement. National Review senior editor Richard Brookhiser goes so far to say “the conservative movement is no more. Its destroyers are Donald Trump and his admirers.”

Well. Far be it from me to question someone whose first piece for the movement’s intellectual flagship appeared 48 years ago, when I was a mere lad and the author was only 15. But I have been active in the movement since the mid-1970s and it seems to me that if the movement is dead, it was destroyed from within, not by Trump and certainly not by his admirers.

That’s not to say there are not serious questions about Trump as a man and as a president. I share many of the qualms Brookhiser and others have about him, although I suspect I see him more positively now than do they. Rather, where we differ is on what the movement’s health was before his arrival.

The sad truth is that movement conservatism has been dying from sclerosis for years.

A strong movement would have engaged in intellectual inquiry as deep as that which marked its founding. Rather than build a confederation whose strength came from the fear of a strong enemy, the movement could and should have moved towards a more perfect union, focusing more on what it was for than on what it was against. But it did not take that course.

Instead, the movement fell back on what unified it, opposition to the enemy. Liberalism, always the foe, became the only source of unity for the movement. Increasingly what marked movement conservatism was its implacable opposition to whatever could be characterized as “the Left.” The era of “the shouters” of movement conservatism had begun.

I don’t mean to denigrate those on the right who were able to irrigate the arid desert of center-left media dominance with new voices. But too often, these new megaphones were used merely to drive home a drumbeat of opposition to liberalism. So long as the Left, and especially its political incarnation, the Democratic Party, was opposed, all else could be forgiven.

Examining the underlying premises of the American center-right was not a particular pre-occupation of the entertainment and ratings-driven right.

Today Trump stands triumphant and many of the same attendees who cheered Ron Paul will cheer Farage, LePen, and Trump himself. This seems incongruent until one recognizes that each person possesses the one virtue that unites today’s movement: they all drive liberals crazy.

Trying to drive political opponents crazy is not confined to conservatism, is it Robert.

Trump worship thus understood stands not as the rejection of the movement but rather as its apparent fulfillment.

Brookhiser calls for rebuilding the conservative movement, and I stand with him in that desire. But that cannot be done unless the movement decides not just whom it is against, but what it is for.

Similar questions are being asked of National in their leadership contest right now – what does the National party stand for?

And it has been a common question asked of Labour as it struggled to recover in the post-Clark years. It was ironic that under an ex-union leader, Andrew Little, Labour was headed for electoral oblivion.

That in turn requires going back to first principles and arguing with each other about justice, the good, and the role of the state in achieving such things, all conducted against the backdrop of current challenges and current opinions. Doing this requires real courage and a real and a practical commitment to ideas. Above all, it means acknowledging our failings and resolving to overcome them.

Real courage and a real and a practical commitment to ideas is likely to struggle to compete with the barking at every passing opponent, and the drive to be noticed in a media hell bent on trivia and click baiting.

What does Labour stand for? There is a growing obsession with the impending labour of Jacinda Ardern, and I expect the frenzy to increase after PM junior is born. At least a few workers may benefit – those who run the printing presses of women’s magazines (unless robots have taken over in that industry too).

Trump has given every element of the conservative movement what they want, save one. He has never given the movement intellectuals what they want, a coherent argument for his vision that meets their approval and a demonstration that he is a serious man.

Has any of National’s leadership contenders given a coherent vision? Has Ardern? Or soon to be acting Prime Minister, Winston Peters?

They all seem to have tunnel vision – winning the next media cycle with trite sound bites.

Renewed conservatism would place the individual, not faith in ideology or creed, at its center. Most importantly, such a renewal would take Trump and Trump supporters seriously as an authentic expression of the modern American right.

Trump an authentic expression of the modern American right? That seems to totally contradict his argument of vision.

Conservatives who support Trump seem to think he drives liberals crazy, and that’s all they seem to really care about.

If conservatives succeed in driving liberals crazy, and liberals succeed in driving conservatives crazy – mirrored in right versus left and left versus right in New Zealand political activism – all you end up with is a bunch of crazies.

And fueling this fire is the click bait crazy media.

Conservatives failing to remember or examine what they really stand for in one corner, and liberals failing to remember or examine what they really stand for in another, seems crazy to me in the modern world.

What we should really be doing is examining how we can move forward in an increasingly secular, non-partisan world that the majority of people exist in.

We need general, sensible principles that aren’t claimed or owned by one side or the other. We need common purposes, we need cooperation in seeking common good. But we lack leadership on this.


  1. Joe Bloggs

     /  February 27, 2018

    Conservative America’s embraced trump because he’s made it culturally acceptable to be openly ugly to “the other,” not merely suspicious,

    • Corky

       /  February 27, 2018

      Who was the template for ugly liberals? Or is that an innate quality, needing no pointing in the right direction?

    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  February 27, 2018

      If you look at the US political history, the Left have been openly ugly to the right for many years if not decades.

  2. David

     /  February 27, 2018

    Lets leave the vision and plans to North Korea,s leadership please. I dont want a person who will temporarily manage the place in a very similar way to the previous lot to lurch my country into some weird direction to satisfy their ego.
    Both major parties agree on 95% of things, 85% of the population then vote along the same lines. Conservatism is dead, left wing ideology best left to Venezuela and the great neo liberal status quo thats proven so successful will endure…just a younger prettier face on it at the moment.

    • Gezza

       /  February 27, 2018

      I’m pondering whether Jacinda is really a Blairite, plus a bit of child povidy & inequalidy spin.

      She worked for the Blair administration.

  1. Trump destroyed conservatism, or he may have saved it — Your NZ – NZ Conservative Coalition