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.”

Quoting Kirk:

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.”

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8 COMMENTS

  1. I have in my circle of acquaintances, friends and mentors men who are to a man “traditionalists,” although I cede that the term is itself elusive. Almost to a man, these men support Mr. Trump. They understand that he is not one of them, not some shade of conservative; but, he is no ideologue. He is less likely to get us into a nuclear war with Russia; he is less likely to involve us in nation building and in regime change which lead to an almost endless cycle of wars; he is more likely than others to at least slow down weaponized immigration; and he is likely to take measures in the area of trade to preserve what is left of the middle class, at least put the brakes on the decline. The traditionalists with whom I run understand that the Constitution has been dead for 150 years and that the separation of powers has all but ceased to exist. Therefore, to the Constitution Mr. Trump can do no damage, particularly since the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are simply two heads of the same monster made up of stock jobbers, bankers, bureaucrats, corporatists with just the right mix of left and right wing ideologues to give them “moral” cover.

    • Your point is well-taken, and traditionalist support of Trump can certainly be rationalized. Rod Dreher at TAC has written several excellent posts on this point.

      I’d likely make two points in response to your traditionalist friends:

      1. In the vast majority of cases, we simply don’t know how Trump’s policy preference will materialize. Yes, he may bring some needed realism to American foreign policy, but it seems equally plausible that he will not. Let’s not forget that Trump is on the record in 2002 supporting the Iraq invasion.

      2. I think your friends underestimate the significance of Supreme Court appointments. Yes, separation of powers looks very different than it did prior to the New Deal. However, the death of Justice Scalia stands to be one of the greatest setbacks to traditionalism in recent memory. It is imperative that he be replaced by a conservative. Scalia’s replacement could do much on the issues of religious freedom and executive overreach. Again here, there is no guarantee that Trump would nominate a conservative replacement. Trump’s view of the role on the judiciary is fairly primitive and in many instances, simply wrong.

      • Mr. Hydrick,

        There are indeed no guarantees with Trump. It is what the other side and by “other side” I do not mean Democrats but Republicans does guarantee, including Cruz: more of the same.

        Trump is not an ideologue.

        Trump is not beholden.

        Trump seems understand the threat of weaponized immigration although he likely does not apprehend its deep history going back to 1965.

        Trump understands that the middle class is being systematically destroyed by trade policies, monetary policies and taxes.

        Trump at least indicates that he is willing to have rational discussions with President Putin.

        On the other hand, Trump is not a conservative; he is not a “constitutionalist;” and he has gone on record as favoring water boarding which I had hoped we had behind us.

        For “the traditional conservative,” who would prefer a sturdy lifeboat made by Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver, Trump is the last straw of a drowning man. He may prove to be a mere shadow on the surface of the water of no substance as the water rushes into the lungs; he may prove to be an torpedo which, when grasped, explodes; or he might prove to be an old long with just enough buoyancy to get us to some shore which itself might be more hostile than we might wish.

  2. It needs to be remembered that fusionism arose in a very specific historical context: the cold war. The USSR wan an anti-theist, economically statist, expansionist empire. In this situation, an alliance of free market advocates, religious traditionalists, and foreign policy hawks made a great deal of sense. In today’s political climate, it seems much harder to find compelling reasons why these three disparate groups should remain aligned.

    While Trump’s personal crudeness is repellent, some of his policies may actually point the way forward for the GOP. In particular, his support for a more modest foreign policy and his concern for blue collar workers hurt by current trade deals seem to be political winners.

    Fusionism seems to be dying a natural death. The question now is what will be its replacement.

  3. How can you break what’s already irreparably broken? The Constitution is a dead letter in any meaningful sense, the voluntary union it was designed for dead in all but form only.

    No, I’ll never punch a button for Trump, but I understand the desire to ” . . . at least put the brakes on the decline,” perhaps buying us some time in what remains of real America for What Comes Next.

  4. I agree that a traditionalist case can be made for Trump. Rod Dreher at TAC has written some excellent posts on the subject. Nonetheless, I think it is a weak case.

    Two thoughts for Trump’s traditionalist supporters:

    1. We simply don’t know what policies Trump will implement as President. Yes, he may support a more modest foreign policy, but we shouldn’t forget that he is on record supporting the Iraq invasion in 2002.

    2. While the meaning of the Constitution has been radically interpreted over the past century, it would be a mistake to underestimate the significance of Supreme Court appointments. With Scalia’s passing, the balance of the court is threatened. A conservative replacement could ensure significant gains for traditionalists in the realms of executive power and religious liberty. Again, there is simply no guarantee that Trump will appoint conservative judges. In fact, he has demonstrated surprising ignorance about the role of the judiciary.

  5. How can you (Peters and Smith) say so lightly that the Constitution is dead? This is a failure to appreciate how much worse it could get. It’s dangerous to reason that we should simply throw out what we have, because it’s not good enough.

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