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Is Trumpism the New Reagan Conservatism?

Robert Coleman

You will often hear it said that Donald Trump is no “Reagan Conservative.” I have never understood what a Reagan Conservative is, other than a person who likes Ronald Reagan. On the other hand, I have a decent understanding of what is meant by “conservative” in modern American politics. I say modern American politics because its meaning is not constant. To some degree, it is a worldview that resists an unchanging principle.

Conservative Roots

In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk did yeoman’s work in tracing conservative back to Edmund Burke and summarizing the vital elements of Conservatism.

If I may summarize his life work in a few lines, Kirk defined a conservative as one who believes in a moral order and adheres to convention and time-tested social tradition. Moreover, a conservative insists on the virtue of prudence, restraints on unjust power, and a society built on property rights and voluntarism.
The conservative and the socialist both use force to garner adherence to their preferred moral beliefs.

To someone with libertarian leanings, that last bit is inviting.

But notice, Kirk does not merely say that a conservative is a classical liberal. Otherwise, we would just call them “classical liberals.”

In his essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” F.A. Hayek said that conservatism is, “a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change.” Hayek and Kirk both observe the role conservatives played in opposing the radicalism and social upheaval of the French Revolution. Hayek further explains that because the American tradition emerges from the American and French Revolutions and is essentially built on classical liberal ideals, conservatism in America took a different shape than it did in Europe.

Across the Pond

In Europe, a conservative would have stood with the ancien régime. Edmund Burke and American Federalists were, by and large, liberals who opposed the excesses of the French Revolution. Yet, they are the political ancestors of American conservatives. To further confuse the issue, American radicals (or Progressives) have adopted the term “liberal” as their own.

Still, Hayek rejected conservatism, even as understood in the American context. To Hayek, individual liberties are not merely valuable because of tradition, but because they are principled ideals. The conservative tendency to err on the side of tradition and authority and to fear social change renders it unprincipled, and often incompatible with individual liberty.

For 30 years, seeking the presidency as a Republican meant making burnt offerings at the altar of Reagan.

By unprincipled, Hayek did not mean that conservatism was devoid of morals. Rather, the conservative, having strong moral convictions, cannot conceive of a society in which he collaborates with others holding different morals. Thus, lacking political principle, the conservative tends toward moral coercion. In this way, Hayek considered the conservative and the socialist to be similar, in that each uses force to garner adherence to his preferred moral beliefs.

Conservatism is not merely an anti-big-government philosophy, as it is often portrayed. Hayek noted that conservative opposition to government is “not a matter of principle,” but situational. The example he used to demonstrate this was economic protectionism: “Conservatives usually oppose collectivist and directivist measures in the industrial field, and here the liberals will often find allies in them. But at the same time conservatives are usually protectionists and have frequently supported socialist measures in agriculture.”

Hayek also critiqued the conservative position for its “nationalistic bias.” Although Hayek did not oppose “patriotism,” he observed that nationalism, when defined as hostility toward “what is strange and different,” becomes a “bridge” between conservatism and collectivism – and ultimately with the nationalization of industry.

Although Hayek did not say so specifically in his essay, this is an entry point to fascism.

Reagan the Libertarian

Ronald Reagan said the heart of his own philosophy, and the heart of conservatism, is libertarianism. But lest we treat politicians as philosophers, Reagan’s actual record in office must be contrasted with his rhetoric. Libertarians did not always like that record, as federal spending, government employment, regulations, and the deficit, all increased dramatically during the 1980s.

One day I will watch GOP candidates bend over backwards to prove themselves dyed in the wool “Trump Conservatives.”

Then again, it was not all bad news. Although military spending exploded in the 80s, Reagan’s foreign policy was far more restrained than the Neoconservatives, and he was an unambiguous opponent of communism. He was, by and large, pro-market and pro-trade. Reagan conservatism, for what it is worth, was often a better friend to classical liberalism than succeeding presidential administrations.

One of the most amusing aspects of the 2016 GOP Primary – and there was a lot by which to be amused – was the gratuitous posturing of candidates trying to claim the legacy of Ronald Reagan. For 30 years, seeking the presidency as a Republican meant making burnt offerings at the altar of Reagan.

Trump Conservatives

As millennials (who were not alive or aware during the 1980s) finally came of age, we puzzled over this odd, Baby Boomer mystery cult. It must have occurred to me as far back 2004 that if Republicans intended to win the White House again, they were going to need to a new song.

Lo and behold, as the other candidates were falling over themselves trying to be the next Reagan, Donald Trump decided to be Donald Trump. Had I gambled everything I own on Trump’s GOP victory, I would be a rich man today.

But is Trump a true conservative?

Well, he is a self-declared nationalist, he endorses economic protectionism, and his foreign policy harkens back to a bygone era of GOP platforms. He speaks of a law and order society and promises to put the brakes on the transformational policies Barack Obama ushered in – including his radical overhaul of the healthcare industry.

Conservatives are optimistic about Trump – or maybe, they are just momentarily blinded by relief that Barack Obama is no longer the president.

I have no reason to believe Trump will not govern as a conservative president. I will even predict that I will one day watch GOP candidates bend over backwards, proving themselves dyed in the wool “Trump Conservatives.”

However, if you support classical liberalism, Trumpism portends to be a mixed bag – much like Reagan Conservatism.

On the one hand, his rhetoric about promoting American industry makes us insecure – does this mean tariffs on industry? Or, does it simply mean slashing taxes and regulations, and allowing American companies to compete with foreign companies? And yet, he declares that America will be pro-trade. And, yet again, he speaks of building up infrastructure spending, and military spending. And, yet again, he speaks of slashing bureaucracy, and peaceful relations with foreign nations.

No More Personality Cults.

One of his early successes may have been to inadvertently tear conservatives away from the personality cult of Reagan conservatism.

As Hayek agreed, conservatism can be a necessary reaction to radical upheaval. And while I tend to think Trump shows clear signs that he will govern as a conservative (for better or worse), it is comforting to know that many conservatives are not drinking the Kool-Aid just yet.

Conservatives are optimistic about Trump – or maybe, they are just momentarily blinded by relief that Barack Obama is no longer the president.

Deal me in, on that.

But since self-described conservatives are also uncomfortable calling Trump a true conservative, perhaps this will immunize them from falling head over heels for the cult of Trumpism.

If nothing else, may we all walk into the Trump era with eyes wide open.

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