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
I was recently awakened in the middle of the night to the irksome sound of Donald Trump’s voice. Someone had left a television on, and a new documentary on the Biden vs. Trump choice was replaying the ridiculous insults that the candidate for the Republican nomination had hurled at Senators Rubio and Cruz (“Little Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted”) in 2016, followed by a collection of his cruel references to the physical features of various female rivals. “Can this appallingly immature and vicious person really be my president?!” I thought, as I rubbed my eyes.
But then, now more fully awake, I remembered that this by all appearances reprehensible—or at least ridiculous—person is now the candidate I support for reelection. How is this possible? How could I vote for, and even publicly support, such a vulgar, ill-mannered human specimen?
The shortest answer would be: Consider the alternative. Trump is not running against Abraham Lincoln but against Joseph Biden and the left-lurching party to which Biden has tied his fate. Even before the apparent decline of his faculties, Biden was the emptiest of empty suits, and his selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate confirms the fact that as president he would need to satisfy radicals and socialists. A more complete and satisfying reason for supporting Trump’s reelection is simply that his flouting of the authority of the ruling media and educational establishment (and, yes, of the “deep state” that accords with this establishment), however ill-mannered, is profoundly justifiable and in fact urgently necessary.
Some high-minded friends of the republic will protest that the unattractiveness of the alternative cannot diminish the intrinsic evil of conservatives’ associating themselves with a man who freely insults his rivals and panders to gross populist passions, and whose personal morality is thoroughly revolting. I admit that the future of conservatism may well be compromised in some sense by its alliance with a flawed character like Donald Trump, and it is not too early to start thinking about how to separate the wheat from the chaff of the Trumpist insurgency.
But our ability to do this will depend on understanding just what the “wheat” in the movement is—that is, just what conservatism has to learn from Trumpism. The beginning of conservative wisdom today is in fact to recognize the necessity of such learning. If Republicans had fully understood and proved ready to assume and to address the profound alienation that fuels populist support for a brash real estate mogul and reality TV celebrity, then we would not be in the predicament we are in today. If the Republican establishment had taken account of these powerful feelings, then Trump’s earth-shaking wake-up call would not have been needed.
Trump vs. the Woke Elite
Our new ruling class has reached such ascendancy in recent years in education, media, and entertainment that the ambient culture constantly assaults us with reminders that views and sensibilities like mine are utterly negligible, literally beneath contempt. Every minute, our woke-friendly culture makes it crystal clear that people like me, people who do not embrace the progressive vision of life and society, are simply of no account. As a social and moral force or constituency, we non-progressives, in the estimation of our cultural rulers, might as well not exist. We have reached the point at which, for the most part, the elite class believes it can safely assume we conservatives or traditionalists have been decisively defeated. When our existence is recognized, it is only as the butt of jokes or the target of derision.
There is one notable exception to the status of conservatives as beneath contempt: the president of the United States. Despite the initial elusiveness of many of his policy positions, from the beginning of Trump’s presidential candidacy, he has clearly demonstrated his utter disregard for the cultural policing that we used to call “political correctness.” In truth, that term is far too mild to convey the increasingly totalitarian thought control that is now being imposed under threat of irreparable damage to one’s name and career. Any non-progressive whose livelihood depends on academia or corporate America now understands perfectly well that to openly resist the avant-garde is to expose oneself to grave financial risk. As Daniel J. Mahoney has pointed out in these pages (citing Rod Dreher’s Live Not by Lies), we are already far down the road to a society in which ideological power imposes mendacity as a spiritually suffocating way of life.
Donald Trump’s attachment to the truth may not be as firm as we might wish, but at least he is in possession of the attribute most essential for preserving access to the truth in our times: he is utterly unimpressed by the prestige of our proto-totalitarian radicals and their establishment “liberal” enablers. This miraculous spiritual independence from our would-be ruling class, which can only appear to the ruling class as an abysmal vulgarity immune to the righteousness they represent, is by itself alone a fully sufficient reason to support the president’s reelection. As Lance Morrow has pointed out, while Trump is a serial fibber and boaster, his ideological foes lie systematically about the nature of the human person, the history of our country, the choice-worthiness of revolutionary ideology, and, as with transgenderism, the very nature of reality.
Trump’s Conservative Accomplishments
To complete the case for Trump, one could specifically document the significant institutional and policy accomplishments that we owe him, beginning with what we may hope is now his third successful nomination to the Supreme Court: a brilliant, young, and authentically constitutionalist judge, who is also a devoted wife and mother. Only God can search hearts and plumb the blending of vanity and expediency with lately acquired conservative principle in Donald Trump’s political soul; but the plain fact is that, in many essential respects, he has governed and is campaigning as a conservative. His manifestly sincere opposition to abortion (especially partial-birth), his resistance to attacks on religious freedom, and his rejection of the creeping totalitarianism of government agencies and higher education should be enough to win the president some clemency. His recent banning of “critical race theory” reeducation programs in federal agencies is evidence that true friends of liberty have in him an indispensable ally, one who understands in his bones what most threatens American freedom.
When and how Donald Trump came by this understanding is, again, a mystery. If he ran for the presidency out of sheer personal vanity, and was himself perhaps surprised to win the contest, then it is our good fortune that this self-regard was somehow deeply bound up with his contempt for “politically correct” elites. This is Trump’s visceral attachment to populist resentment, and American populists’ visceral attachment to Trump. Without admiring this resentment as such, conservatives in fact have something essential to learn from it.
Liberalism has now outsourced its morality to a woke radicalism, by which the most privileged elements of society seek spiritual expiation by cheaply signaling solidarity with the desperately resentful underclass produced by the social engineering of the last fifty years—people who have been cut off from essential sources of individual and familial self-respect. Liberal idealism has been severed from the virtues of liberalism, leaving only a thin and brittle cosmopolitan husk. Liberalism has become morally dependent on a vague, borderless, and ineffectual humanitarian sentiment that nourishes contempt for all traditional, particularizing attachments and loyalties—a sentiment that is paradoxically but powerfully coupled with the desperate and bottomless constructions of identities built on victimhood.
Traditionalists in Search of a Tradition
It is prudent to be concerned about the power for evil as well as good of a potentially volatile middle-class reaction against this powerful alliance. But the reaction is not only understandable; it is in itself a healthy sign of a residual capacity to stand up for something. Millions of ordinary Americans, inchoately traditionalists in search of a tradition, need the friendship of a counter-elite to bolster their confidence in a good community that defends a place for their legitimate interests and self-respect. President Trump clearly defined a rallying point for such a counter-elite in his Mount Rushmore speech, the most full-bodied statement of patriotism heard in decades: “For the sake of our honor, for the sake of our children, for the sake of our union, we must protect and preserve our history, our heritage, and our great heroes.”
CNN’s Chris Cillizza speaks for our present establishment when he mocks this patriotic statement simply by calling attention to the words “Our heritage.” No intelligent and enlightened person, Cillizza assumes, could possibly join together these words, ignorantly linking what is our own with what is good! But this bond is precisely what conservatives now need first to nurture and then to refine. No amount of high principles or decorous manners can exempt conservatives from the responsibility to continue the work that Donald Trump has begun. President Trump somehow has attached his robust self-love to a love of our country. He can use help articulating the meaning of this country, but he knows what it doesn’t mean, what it is opposed to: the pincer movement of cosmopolitanism and identity politics. Recognition of this threat is the one thing needful at this moment, for the conservative movement and for the United States of America.
Conservatives too refined to build on this minimal but essential foundation of “our heritage” should at least be aware of the stakes of our present cultural-political turmoil. If, in the no longer distant future, your daughter has to choose between losing her job and enrolling your grandchildren in a government-backed Gender Fluidity Summer Camp, you won’t have Donald Trump to blame.