In recent months, pundits and journalists have attempted to make sense of Donald Trump’s popularity. Familiar narratives have emerged involving the dislocation of the white working class by the forces of globalization, immigration, and the collapse of the traditional family. These narratives are instructive and have much to say about the state of the nation. They also admittedly explain much about Trump’s success and suggest his supporters should not be written off as mere bigots or racists.
However, the Trump phenomenon can also be explained in part by the decline of fusionism, causing a split within the conservative mind itself. Historians of the right have mostly described a familiar history of conservatism in America: the conservative movement was formed in the mid 20th century by an amalgamation of traditionalists, classical liberals, and military hawks in opposition to the existential threat of international communism. For much of the 20th century, fusionism seemed impossibly successful, culminating in the election of President Reagan. Signs of division occasionally emerged, like Pat Buchanan’s populist revolt in the 1990s, but the consensus remained fairly strong. Most disputes within the movement were handled internally, at times at the expense of certain factions over others (neoconservative opposition to the nomination of Mel Bradford to be Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities comes to mind).
In contrast to previous disputes, Trump’s candidacy has uniquely exposed the fault lines within the movement. Although most classical liberals and hawks seem fairly lockstep in their opposition to Trump, a surprising number of traditionalists have been sympathetic to his cause. In recent months, several prominent paleoconservatives have voiced their support for Donald Trump or some of his policies. Trump’s support among traditionalist Christians remains surprisingly high.
Despite the best of intentions, this traditionalist support for Trump is misguided and stands to do real harm to conservatism in the 21st century. While Trump’s positions on immigration and trade are understandably appealing to paleoconservatives, the man and his beliefs are incompatible with any definition of traditionalism properly understood.
The irreconcilability of Trump and traditionalism is most evident in returning to the first principles of traditionalist conservatism. While conservatism has never aspired to an ideological status, various thinkers have articulated the fundamental principles of the movement. In America, Russell Kirk is perhaps the most famous exponent of these principles. In particular, I’d draw attention to two of Kirk’s principles that are antithetical to the Trump campaign.
“The conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.”
A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society – whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society – no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.
To the extent that Trump believes in an enduring moral order, his worldview seems to more closely approximate the laws of the jungle than traditional Christianity. As Russell Moore has brilliantly observed, to follow Trump “would mean that we’ve decided to join the other side of the culture war, that image and celebrity and money and power and social Darwinist ‘winning’ trump the conservation of moral principles and a just society.” Trump’s worldview is a pagan one and is at war with the enduring truths handed down from one generation to the next. This worldview clearly manifests itself in historic and recent policy positions supporting abortion, war crimes, and hostility to immigrants.
“The conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and human passions.”
Again quoting Kirk, “Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restrains upon will and appetite – these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order.”
The implicit theme of Trump’s campaign often seems to be efficiency. He offers himself as a man of action committed to restoring the greatness of America. In doing so, he has shown that he has almost no knowledge of his constitutional role or of the role of the judiciary. Many of his policy proposals would significantly expand the size and scope of the federal government, including his calls for increased tariffs and greater border control. A Trump administration could witness an unparalleled aggrandizement of executive power.
Trumpism is a fundamental betrayal of the traditionalist spirit. While traditionalists may have had their voices and concerns ignored by movement conservatisms in the past, it would be a mistake to destroy the movement by supporting a man diametrically opposed to their core values. Traditionalists of all stripes would be prudent to remember the admonition that a “house divided against itself shall not stand.”