Is Donald J. Trump a Conservative?

At the moment former President and current Republican presidential nominee Donald J Trump is the defendant in a books-and-records criminal trial in lower Manhattan. Serious people doubt that the books-and-records charges should ever have been brought, much less blown up into 34 felony counts. In fact the argument goes, the Manhattan DA lacks the necessary jurisdiction to prosecute the case. That is because the predicate crime used by Mr Bragg (the elected Manhattan DA) to turn a misdemeanor into a felony and thus avoid a statute of limitations problem, is a federal offense over which he has no jurisdiction. 

But nobody seriously doubts that Mr Trump is lying through his teeth when he denies that (a) he had a sexual encounter with porn star Stormy Daniels and that (b) he ordered his fixer Michael Cohen to pay hush money (not illegal in itself) to cover-up this story (and others).  

I bring the trial up because it is germane to the question under examination, namely, is Donald J Trump a conservative?

He is routinely referred to as a conservative in the mainstream press. Sometimes he is referred to as being “far right” which in today’s popular usage roughly means being “very” conservative. 

Why is all this relevant to Mr Trump’s political posture?  It is relevant because conservatism in America has tended to  claim that it is founded on what we might call traditional values.  It has championed family, community, local governance, civil society, religion and limited government. It favored incremental change. It abhorred central planning and bureaucratic top-down commands from on high. Above all, character and culture mattered to conservatives. 

So the question must be asked: How does this rough description of the broad outlines of American conservatism align with either: (a) Mr Trump’s behavior or (b) his policy proposals?

The quick answer is: It doesn’t. 

It is simply beyond any doubt that Donald Trump is, essentially, a libertine. That is close to the opposite of a conservative. The idea that he would show any restraint in pursuit of what he considers to be in his personal interest is beyond risible. The man, like Bill Clinton, is a walking appetite. 

Further, his supporters have adopted the Clintonesque facade of separating his “personal life” from his public persona. They argue that he is a fighter who cares about them. That he is a disrupter who will clean the swamp. In short, he and his supporters have (probably unknowingly) adopted key underlying cultural precepts of progressivism. For Donald Trump, the personal is the political. 

Consider, for instance, the laughable claim that the 2020 election was stolen. There are only two possibilities here: (a) the highly unlikely possibility that Donald Trump actually believes this or (2) the far more likely possibility that he is lying, as usual. If he actually believes the election was stolen he is simply delusional, although it is much more likely that he is lying, again like Clinton. Either Clinton, come to think of it.

Consider the implications. In either case, the governing postulate is the idea of “my truth” which is to say Donald Trump’s “truth”. Not The Truth. Which is to say that the actual truth doesn’t matter. Because there is no such thing as Truth. That is a sentiment routinely voiced by progressive intellectuals, or as Nietzsche put it, “There are no facts only interpretations”. It is a sentiment fully embraced by Donald J Trump, even if unknowingly.     

Let’s get away from the personal for the moment and examine Trump’s policy proposals. One of the best places to look for a presidential candidate’s policy proposals is the convention platform. That presents a bit of a problem though because in 2020, the Republican Party didn’t bother to adopt a platform. Which says something about Trumpian egomania. So much for avoiding the personal; it’s all about him. 

Nevertheless we can suss out Trump’s policy inclinations from things he has said. But it is important to keep in mind his erratic and unpredictable behavior in any attempt at analysis. A couple of key issues: it is clear that Trump is hostile to a global free trade regime; he is a fan of industrial policy; he is antagonistic toward NATO and like Joe Biden, he loves spending giant wads of other people’s money that he doesn’t have, particularly for entitlements. 

None of these attitudes even remotely reflect a conservative policy outlook. Conservatives have been championing free trade at least since the Reagan years and arguably before. It is only recently (to their credit) that some liberals have come around to the benefits of free trade. Progressives— who tend to see the world in zero sum terms—are still hostile to free trade. They prefer using trade as a vehicle for industrial policy—as does Mr Trump. 

Support for NATO—and other allies—has mostly been an area of agreement between liberals and conservatives in the post WW2 era. But Donald J Trump has campaigned against what he terms “forever wars”; has threatened to walk away from our NATO treaty obligations, and has shown a remarkable liking for strong men abroad. These positions are hardly what conservatives—especially those in the Ronald Reagan mold—would support.  

Now consider fiscal policy. Mr Trump—along with President Biden—has pledged not to touch Social Security. To put this in perspective, keep in mind that Social Security benefits totaled $1.4 trillion in 2023. By way of contrast, the military spent $820 billion in 2023. The trustees of the Social Security System estimate that the so-called trust fund will be depleted by 2034, necessitating a 20% reduction in benefits. 

Entitlement outlays, which constitute the bulk of federal expenditures, are the main driver of spending in a federal budget that is already wildly out of control. Refusing to reform the system, continuing to add over a trillion dollars a year to debt  accumulation and effectively setting up a guaranteed reduction in benefits is hardly a conservative policy stance. 

So when it comes to his personal behavior or his policy inclinations either in foreign or domestic policy Trump can hardly be called an American conservative. But there is a sense in which he can be called conservative in another context. That context is the conservatism of continental Europe of the 20th century. 

Continental European conservatism, as distinguished from Thatcherite British conservatism, was distinguished as an altar-and-throne type of conservatism. It often featured a monarchial system backed by the Catholic Church. Spain under Generalissimo Franco was a perfect example of that. And truth be told, Continental European populist conservatives are making a bit of a comeback. 

There is, for instance,  Viktor Orban in Hungary. Giorgia Meloni of Italy gets a nod. Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands have recently seen strong electoral showings by right wing populists. 

In America Catholic Integralists, who display some similar characteristics, are starting to make a mark. Public intellectuals like Patrick Deneen, a political scientist at Notre Dame rose to fame with his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed. Adrian Vermeule, a professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law has voiced support for Catholic integralism. Sohrab Ahmari, op-ed Editor of the NY Post is one of the more visible spokesmen for Catholic Integralists. 

But mainstream conservatives in America have kept their distance. In fact, Bret Stephens, a mentor and friend of Ahmari recently scorched him as Ahmari (who has gone through numerous ideological transformations) went from an “urbane, intelligent and unfailingly good-humored” mainstream conservative to exhibit the kind of personal nastiness that many on the right now seem to value. 

So what can we conclude?  That Donald J Trump is no conservative–at least by American standards–either with respect to his personal behavior or with respect to his policy inclinations. It would be more accurate to describe him as someone who has unknowingly adopted the philosophical beliefs of progressives and combined them with attitudes typical of European strongmen.

 JFB

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