Being a Donald Trump surrogate must be a testing job. While not as overwhelming as a potential nuclear disaster, those 3 AM phone calls trying to explain away his most recent blunder must be ceaseless and exhausting. When one considers the political gaffes of the last 16 years (Howard Dean’s “YAAAHH!” and Romney’s “47 percent” comments come to mind), these shallow mistakes feel tame in comparison to what the American public has witnessed this year. Those aforementioned candidate-ending statements appear like Universal horror films from the 30s to modern thrill-seekers: quaint and tepid compared to their modern counterparts.
As I have gotten older and entered the family stage of my life, I have noted a conservative inclination budding. Mind you, I continue to see social democracy as a preferred economic model and rarely find myself in a religious institution. Most of my favorite records and films remain far outside the realm of family entertainment and I have great difficulty watching Fox News or listening to right-wing talk radio. With all that in mind, how then can I consider categorizing myself as a conservative?
For some years, I have clung to Leszek Kolakowski description of being a conservative/liberal/socialist. This short excerpt from his 1990 book Modernity on Endless Trial is one many here at Ordinary Times will likely find agreement with.
The reality is that conservatism is not a political ideology, rather a temperament. Writing for National Affairs in 2014, Philip Wallach and Justus Myers did a commendable job defining American conservatism. They wrote:
As the right has formed into a relatively disciplined political coalition over the last half-century, philosophical conservatism in America has never managed to synthesize a single theory that unites its disparate strands. The lack of such a synthesis is unsurprising in part because of the nature of conservative ideas. Indeed, philosophical conservatives have in different times and places defended a variety of conflicting ideas and institutions, including, in the words of intellectual historian Jerry Muller, “royal power, constitutional monarchy, aristocratic prerogative, representative democracy, and presidential dictatorship; high tariffs and free trade; nationalism and internationalism; centralism and federalism; a society of inherited estates, a capitalist, market society, and one or another version of the welfare state.” Contemporary observers obviously and justifiably recoil at many of these ideas, particularly the illiberal ones. Thus, a coherent conservatism for the present cannot be derived from a catalogue of the institutions that self-described conservatives have defended in the past.
If there is a conservatism that can be profitably employed in American politics today, it is not to be found in a timeless set of positions, but rather in a disposition. In Peter Viereck’s words, conservatism is “an implicit temperament, less an articulate philosophy than the other famous isms.” Likewise, political scientist Samuel Huntington described conservatism as a situational and thus positional ideology, a response to a “distinct but recurring type of historical situation in which a fundamental challenge is directed at established institutions and in which the supporters of those institutions employ the conservative ideology in their defense.
I agree whole-heartedly with Wallach and Myers’ description of a conservative temperament. Where I find fault with their larger argument is in their attempt to define the political objectives of American conservatism. As they rightly noted, conservatism does not have an ideological perspective: one may be a committed monarchist, a Christian anarchist and soviet-era communist and still be a conservative. American conservatives may generally support free markets, civility and religious communal life, but this election has demonstrated just how few in the “conservative” movement hold those as their principles.
Enter Trump’s recent comments. Liberals may be right to note that those Republicans now fleeing the candidate had no problem endorsing him when he made other ugly proclamations over the course of last year. This is fair, but it also fails to recognize the core element of the conservative temperament: politeness in the public sphere.
What separates a conservative from his philosophical brethren is less about what he advocates and rather how he acts. In my radical youth, I felt a need to challenge the norms of debate set by adults in my community. Like many youngsters of the left, we wanted to define ourselves by not being our frumpy elders who seemed endlessly concerned with how they were viewed in the eyes of others. We rejected these norms overtly by wearing Crass t-shirts and patches demanding we “Smash Capitalism.” Yet, some of us still piloted our social interactions in conservative ways. We treated our teachers with respect, never cursed at or even near our parents and believed we could change people’s minds about the need to overthrow the state by speaking in calm, rational tones. While some of my comrades destroyed American flags or desecrated Christian religious images, I could never do such a thing even when I was publicly advocating similar “revolutionary” actions.
Trump, and the alt-right that has come to prominence under his candidacy, is the very antithesis of the conservatism noted above. Trump’s entire eminent rise has been at the expense of cordial debate. From taking half-considered racist positions on immigrants or birth certificates to publicly belittling and bullying other candidates on the debate stage, Trump surged as he tossed the assumed rules of conduct within conservative circles out the window. The quiet and clear spoken were smeared as “low energy” by the entertainer-in-chief, and the Republican electorate couldn’t get enough.
The trolls of the alt-right have made a name for themselves being the worst form of Internet microbes, untethered to the social norms of deliberation and dialog. No argument is too ghastly to be discredited; a carnival of the basest is celebrated. It’s not surprising that many of these Twitter handles rushed to Trump’s defense, deriding his critics as “cucks” and “pussies” who feel inferior in the presence of a true alpha male.
I found myself laughing at these poorly concocted defenses. The right has now abandoned chivalry and decency believing such things are the tools of liberals and globalists. This is a 80s frat masquerading as a political ideology. I imagine many ran to their copies of On The Genealogy of Morality looking for solace in these dark times for their candidate, but they should have spent a little more time reading Machiavelli’s The Prince. In it, he argued:
A leader doesn’t have to possess all the virtuous qualities…but it’s absolutely imperative that he seem to possess them.
Part of being a conservative is grasping the way in which we speak differs by audience and environment. I tell lewd jokes with my friends in the company of other men that I would never say in front of my grandmother. I address colleagues and students in a manner far different from how I discuss issues with my wife and children. Men, when within our own company, will speak more bluntly (perhaps more obnoxiously) than when participating in broader communal life. I assume women do the same, but having not been invited to those events, I can only guess.
I do not believe there is anything wrong with noting and accepting this social reality. Part of the reason I do not want to see the end of gender specific organizations is the cumulative trend towards a single, monolithic culture that fails to accept the dualities of our being.
Where I have a serious problem with Trump’s statements is the implied abuse towards women as a result of his financial and social status. I can say with authority that I have never had a conversation with male comrades that would even orbit Trump’s asides. I say this not to virtue signal but to demonstrate just how far he is from the conservatism many of us adhere to on a daily basis. Good God, it was only two weeks ago that candidate Trump (not his 2005 entertainer persona) was publicly slandering a Ms. America contestant in a way wholly unbecoming of the highest office! This is a man and a movement that cannot separate the public from the private, and thus, is inherently anti-conservative in nature.
Conservatism, if it means anything at all, is to uphold the morals embedded in respectful communal conduct. If the Republican Party wishes to stand for civility and honor in the public sphere, it must reject the alpha male allure. Sadly, this election has demonstrated that those moral proclamations have always been mask to hide their actual objectives that brought to light under Trump.
(Image: Jacques Autreau – Les Buveurs de vin)