Many conservatives have rejected Trump on the ground that he is not a conservative. But what is conservatism? Is it merely a doctrine, or even a dogma, to be upheld intellectually, as the antidote to liberalism? Or is it the political defense of a certain way of life that derives much of its authority from the past? If conservatism means anything, it must require a defense of the good as established by a tradition that has preserved the best of the past. At its political peak, it came to be understood in terms of the traditional defense of civil and religious liberty. That is what the American Founders and Lincoln understood constitutionalism to be. Yet modern Progressivism is established upon a rejection of the good of the past. And it has established the intellectual and political ground of both liberalism and conservativism.
It is not surprising that many now wonder if they can conserve anything meaningful from the past, including constitutional government itself. They have experienced the wholesale destruction of the regime of civil and religious liberty; one that was built upon a moral tradition that was established in the course of a two-thousand-year-old civilization. It may still be possible to preserve a conservative doctrine, but it is not unreasonable to ask whether it is possible to live a traditional or conservative life. In reality, it is the traditional moral and political defense of civil and religious liberty that has been undermined by liberalism. American citizens, who want to live by the virtues established by that tradition, have no real public means of defending their way of life. The Washington elites have succeeded in transforming the moral foundations of contemporary political and social life behind the backs of the American people, and without their consent.
Many conservatives have rejected Trump on the ground that he is not a conservative. But what is conservatism?
By mobilizing a constituency outside of and against the Washington establishment, Trump seized the opportunity to revitalize politics in a manner that may, at least potentially, make a revival of the political separation of powers possible. The administrative state had concentrated all economic, social, and political power in the central institutions of government. Trump sought to bypass the organized interests in order to make a direct political appeal to the electorate—one that would have been difficult for anyone from within the Washington policymaking establishment to make. Politicians have had to appeal indirectly to the organized interests, and to the centralized media, not to or on behalf of the political constituencies themselves. The representatives of organized and centralized interests, and the media, had become the mediators between government and the people—but the brusque Trump cut through that layer.
Because the political representatives have represented organized public and private interests en masse, it has been difficult to establish a governing coalition on behalf of a public interest. Modern professional elections have exacerbated the problem by dividing the electorate and appealing to discrete demographic groups. Nonetheless, the officeholders have alienated themselves from the political electorate. Under these circumstances, the Washington establishment itself became a political target. Only an outsider could have benefitedfrom the hostility of the American electorate and their acute awareness that the federal government was no longer able to pursue, let alone establish, a political common good.
Trump seized the opportunity to revitalize politics in a manner that may, at least potentially, make a revival of the political separation of powers possible.
Trump was unable to unite his party after the nomination. And he was unable to do so after the election. Indeed, after nearly a year in office, his support within his own party remained lukewarm at best. That has made it difficult for Republican candidates to embrace Trump, thereby depriving them of the energy of potential Trump voters. And it has made it difficult to expand his own base. In addition, that lost year makes the midterm election more difficult than what is normally a difficult first appeal to the electorate after being elected. Will candidates embrace Trump? Will Trump campaign on behalf of those bold enough tosupport him? Must he recruit wholly new candidates in states that are sympathetic to Trump but have representatives who are not? Are there still forces in society and the electorate that remain hidden or unforeseen? If so, he has the opportunity to establish a new political landscape, one that is not yet recognizable. There is little question that the new partisanship he has brought to bear will be at odds with many of the organized interests in Washington. It goes without saying thatthose interests will defend themselves and their alliances with the oldpolitical elites, the organized interests, and the bureaucracy.
Nonetheless, Trump must establish a governing coalition, and this requires the cooperation of a legislature that has been the anchor of the administrative state. He does benefit from one major asset: the political electorate he has mobilized. He will likely enjoy greater flexibility in dealing with Congress if his policies begin to work and are recognized as beneficial. He cannot count on establishment generosity in terms of mobilizing public opinion on his behalf. That hostility will cease only if he succeeds politically. If that happens, he may well bargain with members of Congress in both parties, establishing a governing coalition on a new ground of partisanship not yet visible. The field is open for him to lay the groundwork for a political realignment, perhaps of a magnitude not seen since FDR. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that Donald Trump can or will prevail against the organized forces that inhabit the administrative state.
Before he was elected, many conservatives attacked Trump because he was not a conservative. Yet, after nearly a year in office, he seems to have done what conservatives have advocated for years.
The great difficulty Trump faces is the lack of respectable intellectual defenders, those who help shape and inform public opinion. As a Republican, he could have expected support from leading conservative intellectuals. It has not been forthcoming. Before he was elected, many conservatives attacked Trump because he was not a conservative. Yet, after nearly a year in office, he seems to have done what conservatives have advocated for years. Despite this accomplishment, many conservative pundits have failed to acknowledge this success. It is as though the fake, unqualified Trump is still more real in the minds of those who oppose him than the real Trump and his actual accomplishments. If he is not judged by what he has done, it is almost impossible to assess factual reality as it relates to Trump. It is not surprising that those who see Trump in terms of his personality, rather than his politics, judge him personally and not politically. Even after a year in office, many of the opinion leaders, liberal and conservative, have denied the legitimacy of Trump’s election despite the judgment of the electorate. Although they have not sought to undermine the election by turning from ballots to bullets, they have substituted words, or volatile rhetoric, as a means to accomplish that task.
Trump may or may not succeed in transforming the landscape of American politics in a manner that makes it possible to reestablish political rule once again. All of those who have a stake in preserving Washington as it now exists are his enemies. The public that is drawn to him is almost wholly unorganized. The ability of the established order to manipulate and control public opinion rests on the authority and respectability of the social, economic, and political elites, nearly all of whom oppose Trump. Trump has built his constituency in opposition to those elites who have denied his legitimacy as president. He has denied that the press and media, which establishes the medium that links the government to its people, fairly and accurately portrays the reality of Washington to those outside of it. He is the first president to vigorously contest the motives and the objectivity of the press, even in terms of presenting simple factual information without bias. He decries fake news and creates his own method of communicating with his constituency.
It is as though the fake, unqualified Trump is still more real in the minds of those who oppose him than the real Trump and his actual accomplishments.
His success thus far has revealed the need to restore the political rule of the people as a whole. To do so, American public opinion must be reflected in the creation and mobilization of national political majorities. Constitutional government is not possible in the absence of the mobilization of such majorities. They are indispensable for establishing the legitimacy of law in a manner compatible with the rule of law and the common good. That requires revitalizing the meaning of citizenship and reaffirming the sovereignty of the people and the nation. It also requires restoring the link between the people and the political branches of the government, so that both can become the defenders of the Constitution as well as the country that has made it essential to its political existence.
Trump assumed the presidency directly after Barack Obama had succeeded in strengthening the power and reach of the administrative state. Trump questioned not only the legacy of Obama, but the whole of the Washington establishment that had arisen since the end of the Cold War. It seems that at every important juncture in the growth of the modern state, there have been those who have questioned the expansion of the powers of the administrative or regulatory state. In those perilous days of the 1930s, when contending ideologies “were fighting for the mastery of the modern world,” Walter Lippmann, in The Good Society, expressed his fear of the growing concentration of power in government.
He focused his criticism on those Progressive intellectuals who had developed great contempt for the achievements of the past. In that time, he noted, “Most men had forgotten the labors that had made them prosperous, the struggles that had made them free, the victories that had given them peace. They took for granted, like the oxygen they breathed and the solid ground beneath their feet, the first and last things of Western civilization.” In the aftermath of the Cold War, the victorious nations of the West seemed also to have forgotten the struggles of the past. They embarked upon a new, wholly self-created world oblivious of history and political reality itself.
Trump has built his constituency in opposition to those elites who have denied his legitimacy as president.
That intellectual turmoil, Lippmann thought, “reflected the fact that in the modern world there is a great schism: those who seek to improve the lot of mankind believe they must undo the work of their predecessors. Everywhere the movements which bid for men’s allegiance are hostile to the movements in which men struggled to be free.” In such circumstances, the practice of politics soon succumbed to the delusions of the intellectuals. In Lippmann’s words, “With man degraded to a bundle of conditioned reflexes, there was no measure of anything in human affairs: all the landmarks of judgment were gone and there remained only an aimless and turbulent moral relativity. . . . All the diverse prophets who knew the noble plan of realized reason in world history developed a magnificent contempt for any idea which, because it respected the inviolability of the individual, might justify resistance to these missions.” All that remains is the triumph of will.
Amid the moral confusion and intellectual chaos of that day, all that remained was contempt for “the inviolability of the individual.” Lippmann insisted that “these are the choices offered by the influential doctrines of the contemporary world. Those who would be loyal to the achievements of the past are in general disposed to be fatally complacent about the present, and those who have plans for the future are prepared to disown the heroic past.” He was aware that the defense of freedom was indistinguishable from the defense of constitutionalism, which required the protection of individual rights and the rule of law. In the end, Lippmann understood the fateful choice of Western man in the following way: “But still the question remained as to where, at what final rampart, a man must stand when he fights for human freedom. I could see that in the polity of a free society the regulation of human affairs was achieved by the definition and the adjudication of personal rights and duties, whereas in all unfree societies it was done by administration from above.” Is it possible to retain individual freedom in the absence of political, or constitutional, rule?
If the people are to understand themselves as sovereign, they must reestablish the political authority of the Constitution in a manner that makes it possible to restore the moral ground of civil and religious liberty. A government that does not recognize the sovereignty of the people cannot defend the rights of individuals in a constitutional manner. A constitution is a compact of the people, and the government is created on its behalf. The people grant it power, but only the constitution can establish limits on the power of government. In the modern administrative state, the power of government is unlimited, and the rights of citizens, and the rule of law itself, rests on a precarious ground. For if the government alone creates and confers rights, the Constitution can no longer limit the power of government, nor can it protect the civil and religious liberty of its citizens. It is still possible to reestablish limits on government, but only by restoring the political conditions of constitutionalism.
Walter Lippmann, The Good Society (New York: Little, Brown, 1937), ix.