The Claremont Review of Books has always been more tolerant of the Trump phenomena than the deep thinkers at the National Review. This was particularly evident last week at Claremont’s “Recovering American Conservatism” panel.
Where Trump is concerned any discussion among chin-pullers must first establish where he fits on the political spectrum. For leftists this consists of determining what kind of oven-building, totalitarian dictator Trump is and how soon the roundups will begin.
For conservatives the soothsayers try to pin down what variety of conservative Trump is or if he’s a conservative at all.
Charles Kesler, Claremont’s editor, has a reassuring observation for those on the right who are still wary. He contends Trump must be “some kind” of conservative “because the left has poured vitriol on him they don’t use on moderates.”
For me, though, a more pressing question is: Are Republicans conservatives? Christopher Caldwell, senior editor of the Weekly Standard, observed, “Over the past few years conservatism has grown really distinct from the GOP.” Which, when you consider what Paul Ryan considers a “conservative” Obamacare replacement bill, is putting it mildly.
While Mark Bauerlein, senior editor of First Things, views Trump as a “liberation of conservatism” that “violated some profound taboos that are thoroughly entrenched.”
And that was before the Billy Bush tape.
Even Trump supporters don’t find it easy to categorize the president. Kessler explains, “(Trump) has not shown much interest in turning himself into an ‘ism.’” Which doesn’t matter to Kessler because he believes Republicans have been stalemated.
They’ve kept the light on for Ronald Reagan, who isn’t coming back, instead of articulating a coherent philosophy of government and acting on that philosophy in Congress. That’s why in the Senate GOP curator Mitch McConnell avoids a direct confrontation with Democrats. He doesn’t have any confidence that what he promises on the campaign trail will work in actual practice and it shows.
Whatever Trump’s variety of conservatism — Kessler leans toward positioning Trump “along Coolidge lines” — our new president has the potential for continued electoral success by returning to former Republican policies followed during the ’20s.
Those policies include high protective tariffs, immigration tied to assimilation, tax cuts for infrastructure and the defense of American interests.
Personally, I’m not sure tariffs are the answer to the country’s competitive problems. I still remember what it was like to buy a car in the ’60s before Japanese and German competition forced Detroit to put a priority on quality instead of chrome. Protected industries have a tendency to become parasitic industries.
It’s Kessler’s belief those policies will allow conservatives/Republicans “to connect with millions of middle class voters previously ill-disposed to us.”
Before America can move back into Nirvana, there’s that pesky definition problem. The left can’t make up its mind and the right isn’t willing to take “yes” for an answer. At an earlier event Kesler pointed out the left has two contradictory avenues of attack on Trump. On one hand “he’s a buffoon, a clown, an over-active third grader off his Ritalin, who is by temperament and experience unfit to be president.” Or on the other “he’s a monster, racist and tyrant in waiting.”
Kesler’s wry judgment is “the two arguments are, however, in some tension.”
What no one foresaw was the chance the left would settle on the tyrant definition and establishment Republicans would embrace the clown characterization. Leaving Trump adrift, attacked on one side and heckled on the other, with only voters as his base of support.
One thing Kesler believes is that populism, as academics use the term, is not the best description of Trump’s philosophy. “Instead of ‘America First,’ it seems to be ‘Americans First.’ What he’s talking about is actually thinking of Americans as the sovereign masters of their own country who must be consulted ... and not the subjects of government benevolence.”
This is an important distinction to Kesler. “Consent of governed is part of constitutional democracy. It’s not necessarily populism.” If Trump is consistent there is the real possibility conservatism could be “liberated from the ideological debates that have grown stale over many decades and lead it back into a directly and positively American form of conservatism.”
Aside from Democrats who hate him and Republicans who loathe him, Trump faces systemic obstacles that may leave his American conservatism stillborn unless he puts forth a heroic long-term effort.
Here Kesler and the panel are not optimistic. First is the politically correct left with “zero tolerance” for him. The administrative state that’s declared war on him. And finally, a culture with 40 percent out-of-wedlock births producing federal spending that is labeled “insouciantly uncontrollable and the people ability to govern themselves seems to be in long-term decline.”
Michael Shannon is a commentator and public relations consultant, and is the author of “A Conservative Christian’s Guidebook for Living in Secular Times.” He can be reached at email@example.com.