Going on 4 months since the Inauguration, self-professed conservatives who backed Trump for the Presidency have a lot of explaining to do. To say that Hillary Clinton was and is a menace to liberty (not to mention decency) while true enough just doesn’t cut it, for at least four reasons. First, Trump, like Clinton, is a menace to liberty and decency. No difference there. Second, Trump handily won the Republican primaries with the support of self-proclaimed conservatives. Third, for the general election the lesser of two evils argument just doesn’t stand on its own merits; there were plenty of alternatives, including write-ins. Fourth, and most importantly, in defending Trump an awful lot of “conservatives” have gone all-in, defending the indefensible.
It is one thing to defend a policy with which you agree in spite of the man proposing it. But it is another thing altogether to defend a policy you have consistently professed to abhor—because of the man who is proposing it. That is where a lot of “conservatives” are right about now.
Conservatives used to defend global free trade; we don’t hear a lot of that anymore. Instead we have Trump slapping tariffs on Canada (Canada!) with nary a peep from conservatives. Conservatives used to argue for limited government. But when King Donald of 5th Ave presumes to instruct private firms as to where they will and won’t build manufacturing facilities, we don’t hear any conservatives telling him it’s none of his business. Conservatives used to defend federalism as an antidote to all-encompassing federal power. But somehow they don’t object when Trump illegally threatens funding for sanctuary cities. Conservatives used to argue in defense of fiscal sobriety. But they don’t seem to care that outstanding debt, now $20 trillion is headed for $30 trillion over the next decade—to say nothing of the more than $100 trillion (and probably much, much more) in unfunded liabilities due to entitlements.
But that is not the worst of it. The harm, possibly irreparable, that Trump is doing to American political institutions is at least as damaging as his penchant for economic interventionism. The irony is that while Trump is routinely tagged as a conservative, he is anything but, either by temperament or by policy inclination. He considers himself to be a pragmatist, not an ideologue, and he thinks (if you use the word loosely) in grandiose terms. This is far more reflective of John Dewey’s progressivism than it is of conservatism.
And even that is not the worst of it. The worst of it is the way Trump, with his conservative enablers, has imported some of the worst features of the popular culture—incivility, crudity, moral relativism, and just plain ignorance, into American political discourse. More than anything else, it is this continuing degradation of the culture that threatens the institutions of civil society that are necessary but not sufficient for human freedom and flourishing.
Consider what Edmund Burke had to say about the importance of culture in Reflections on the Revolution in France: “Manners are of more importance than laws. The law can touch us here and there, now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation like that of the air we breathe in.”
Trump is the poster boy for behavior that is crude, corrupting, debasing and barbarizing.
Conservatism, like its progressive counterpart, is rapidly descending into mindless tribalism. Conservatives when they defend Trump the man, Progressives with their adoption of identity politics. If the Republican Party continues to defend the antics of PT Barnum in the White House, the Party will have earned the defeat it is almost certain to face in 2018.
Assuming Trump has not been impeached and convicted by then.