This week, Public Discourse is running a symposium on the 2020 presidential election. We’ll hear from authors with a wide variety of perspectives on the difficult prudential question of how social conservatives should vote this November. Although they come to very different conclusions, these authors all share a core commitment to Biblical and natural law morality. We hope the essays serve to inform your own decision. –The Editors
As Donald Trump’s first term comes to a close, what is the state of conservatism in the United States today? How has Trump changed the Republican party?
To answer these questions, we have to acknowledge that American conservatism of the late twentieth century was not really conservatism so much as it was anti-communism, separated into loosely connected parts.
During the Cold War, American conservatives largely sorted into five categories: national defense conservatives, who focused their energies primarily on defeating the Soviet threat; libertarians, who extolled the virtues of the free market and limited government; Burkean conservatives, who placed great stock in tradition both intellectually and temperamentally; religious conservatives, mainly devout and activist-minded evangelicals and Catholics, who prioritized the pro-life cause above all else; and finally, constitutional conservatives, who sought to preserve the constitutional order of the American Founders.
Today, the old coalition has fractured according to its fears. Now that the threat of communism has waned, the embrace or rejection of Trump appears to depend largely on whether one has a greater fear of woke secular progressivism or nationalistic tribalism and fundamentalism. Consider white evangelicals, for example. Although they didn’t back Trump during the primaries, they did demonstrate their high level of support for Trump in the 2016 election. Many recognized the threat that the continued advance of the sexual revolution poses to their educational institutions, social service nonprofits, and churches, and they saw Trump as a way to hit the brakes. In other words, fear of the secular progressives drove their decision to support Trump.
We could outline similar analyses for each part of the former conservative coalition. Some conservatives fear Trump’s effects so much that they have resigned themselves to supporting the Democratic party. For those who remain within the conservative movement, is the marriage of convenience that loosely unites the GOP nothing more than a way to resist the advance of the left, or is there more to it? In short, should conservatives vote for Donald Trump in November?
How Trump Has Reshaped the American Right
In the Trump era, the single biggest change in American conservatism has to do with economic nationalism. Before Trump, it was a matter of center-right orthodoxy that free trade is almost unambiguously good, because it improves economic efficiency, develops markets, and increases prosperity. In the Trump era, that view has receded considerably. Many on the American right now agree that free trade has destroyed smaller towns and cities, led to outsourcing of jobs, and caused problems that manifest in drug abuse and deaths of despair among the white working class.
The financial crisis of 2008–2009 damaged faith in free markets and raised the specter of much greater regulation. But China may have been the biggest failure of all. Normalization of relations and expanding trade made China economically strong, but without turning oligarchy into democracy and transmitting the western package of rights and freedoms. Fear of China plays a special role in the case against free trade and globalization. Even in mainstream news outlets, it is possible to discern a subtle but threatening narrative about China building its wealth, manufacturing capability, and technology at the expense of American prospects. We get cheap goods, but are they worth the true cost? Are we ceding productive capability, both physical and human, as we build an unsustainable consumer’s paradise that dooms its denizens to decline?
Traditionalist conservatives might add another layer here, pointing out that this evaluation of international trade doesn’t take environmental costs into account. Does it really make sense to have giant container ships, burning non-renewable fuel, to push goods halfway across the earth that could have been manufactured domestically? Aren’t we failing to take account of the exhaustible nature of fossil fuels, much less any negative impact they have on climate?
These points aren’t new, of course. Back in the 1970s, economist E. F. Schumacher, author of the influential book Small Is Beautiful, argued that we should prioritize domestic production for the sake of employment. Somehow, it sounded quite a bit more appealing from him than it does from the bombastic real-estate-tycoon-turned-president.
Trump’s take on immigration has required another turn for American conservatism, which tracks with the nationalist shift in economics. While it is doubtful that many sensible persons would abjure basic border controls, Americans of the center right often looked at an emphasis on halting illegal immigration at the southern border as something lightly distasteful. Though talk radio host Sean Hannity has been one of Donald Trump’s greatest advocates and defenders for the past four years, a listener closer to the turn of the millennium would have heard him resisting a tougher approach to illegal immigration. But in 2016 and beyond, Trump has united extreme rhetoric and policies on immigration with nationalist economics, appealing to conservatives who want to protect blue-collar American workers and save the nation from being changed radically by rapid, unrestricted immigration.
How He Did It
To rise to power, Donald Trump gathered the embers of an abandoned political position and blew on them—hard. In earlier decades, the Democrats and the private-sector unions were seen as the protectors of working-class Americans, which required controlling immigration and imposing tariffs to protect domestic businesses. But as private-sector unions declined, public-sector unions grew, and their prospects are undaunted by immigrants or foreign competition. As a result, Democrats shifted to protecting and expanding entitlement programs and taking the side of the left in the culture war.
What the Democrats left behind, Donald Trump picked up. He had always appreciated the protectionist case and recognized that it offered an underexploited path to political power. With this largely abandoned agenda, he was able to use his other advantages to pull off a hostile takeover of the Republican party and of the conservative movement.
As he did so, he also transformed the affect and posture of the American right. Before Donald Trump, American conservatives wanted to emulate Ronald Reagan’s sunny disposition and light touch with humor. He could occasionally be aggressive or confrontational, but Reagan had the actor’s sense of the right moment. By contrast, Trump is almost all aggression all of the time. His behavior can be incredibly off-putting, but it may resonate with many in the wake of the George W. Bush presidency. Through much of his two terms, Bush seemed unable to defend himself from criticism, preferring to take the high road and let surrogates carry on the debate for him. Although the real issue may have been an increasingly untenable policy in the war on terror rather than one of tone, his approach cultivated an impression of weakness, and many conservatives were left craving a politician who could fight after tasting his own blood. If Trump is anything, he is a fighter.
Conservatism after Trump
Of these changes in the priorities of the American right, which will survive Trump and set an agenda going forward?
Perhaps the best way to summarize the change in the American right is in its approach to the nation’s role in the world. Pre-Trump, much of the American right had tremendous confidence in the U.S. as the guarantor of the post–World War II order. It is no accident that people like Max Boot and William Kristol are among those who have opposed Trump most bitterly. Part of the resentment is that he demonstrated the conservative intelligentsia mattered far less than they thought they did, but the other is that he fundamentally challenges the idea of the U.S. as the country that underwrites the stability of the whole international order.
In the twentieth century, most on the right saw the United States as a historically special nation. Whether that belief meant that the U.S. was unique as a propositional nation, that it was the greatest contributor to freedom and human rights, that it was literally chosen by God to play a decisive role in history, or something else along those lines, American exceptionalism has undergirded America’s outsize role and influence on the world stage for a long time.
Trump’s spin on the idea is to affirm that the United States is a wonderful, powerful nation (the best! USA! USA! YUGE!), but also to add that we are unappreciated, that we should no longer be expected to bear unusual burdens, and that we should act more like a “normal” country internationally. That is to say, we should look out for our interests. If one argues that we have always been looking out for our interests, Trump’s response might be that we have done so in a way that has benefited elites, but not ordinary Americans, and certainly not the blue-collar kids who sometimes lost life and limb. When Trump complains that European nations “haven’t paid their bills” to NATO, it is a passive-aggressive way of alluding to the fact that Western Europe was able to build its systems of entitlements, such as universal health care, because of its ability to free-ride on American military protection.
The Case for Trump
So, given all of this, what exactly is the case for Donald Trump?
The answers are fairly straightforward. President Trump seeks to recast the United States’ role in the world so as to force prosperous nations to more equally share the task of maintaining order and deterring threats. He introduces additional tension into the relationship with China in a way that helps expose the failure of conventional foreign policy wisdom. More importantly, Trump offers his own spin on Rooseveltian optimism about what American government can accomplish.
As I wrote in response to his most recent State of the Union address, Trump clearly believes the answer to America’s tragedies in the past is a bright future explicitly for Americans, including African-Americans. His version of that future involves American citizens working to produce American goods, rather than legions of disenfranchised persons living on a universal basic income with a highly developed knowledge of why capitalism is racist, predatory, and destroying the environment. The vision is more fundamentally positive—despite the belligerence of the messenger—than it is negative.
The sustainability and advisability of the pivot toward more government is an open question, but if Trump can offer a more attractive vision of big government (not the anti-patriotic, anti-religious version that dominates the left), then he may entice Americans to pay for it over time. The new ingredient here is that the bigger government will be one that embraces American ideals, American history, and American religion rather than tearing it down in pursuit of some post-religious, techno-secular utopia. The idea is that, as a good and blessed country, America can provide for the safety and well-being of its citizens. It doesn’t have to be steeped in critical theory to do it.
For evangelicals and Catholics, Trump continues to appeal because of the unremitting hostility of the secular left to their pro-life views and their strong commitment to a Biblical view of human sexuality. Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop survived his bout with the Colorado Human Rights Commission because its members did such a poor job of hiding their contempt for him and his beliefs. Similar bodies will become more adept at forcing religious people into corners and out of business. Donald Trump presents the same proposition to devout Christians that he did in 2016, but with one important difference. In 2016, there was considerable doubt as to whether he would even consider honoring the deal he offered to nominate conservative jurists who could continue progress toward rolling back Roe and reinvigorating religious liberty. Circa 2020, one thing is clear about Donald Trump. While he bears almost no resemblance to the stadium-filling Promisekeepers of the 1990s, he has kept his political promises more faithfully than just about any politician in recent memory.
The Thucydidean threat of an ascendant China, the growing boldness of cancel culture, and the enervating philosophy of the “woke” proselytizers present growing dangers for the success and cohesiveness of the American project. In an alternate history, a Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Ben Sasse would hold up the banner of opposition emphasizing limited government, constitutionalism, and Christian social thought. We have President Trump, instead. With Trump, the questions are clear. Does his undermining of political norms present such a threat that he must be defeated, no matter the short-term cost? Or does this crude figure roaming the stage of American political life have something to offer, especially given the programs of the opposition?
Given the alternatives we face, it still seems to me that the balance tilts toward the latter.