Is Trump a conservative?

Below I put up a historically grounded reply to the WSJ article How Trump Has Changed the Republicans

At the outset, let us immediately set aside the absurd Leftist contention that conservatism is opposition to change.  The greatest change agents of recent decades were Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, undoubted conservatives.  The only changes conservatives regularly oppose are destructive changes proposed by the Left  -- the most recent example of which is "defund the police".

Unlike Ronald Reagan, Mr Trump is clearly not a libertarian and most of the writers mentioned in How Trump Has Changed the Republicans   are also sure that he is not a conservative.  But none of the writers below make the point that he takes his policies from both libertarians AND conservatives. So is he simply a "hybrid" president or is there more to it than that?  There is.

It is well-known and obvious that the Left have no abiding philosophy and principles. The way they have embraced the rioters who are at the moment trashing many American cities is surely proof of that.  

What is less recognized is that conservatives too have no fixed policies.  Both sides adopt ideologies from time to time but what they embrace changes over time.  So the real, basic, difference between Left and Right is psychological.

Broadly, Conservatives tend to be dominated by positive emotions: happiness, contentment and love of country in particular, while Leftists tend towards anger, dissatisfaction and hatred of the world around them, their own country in particular. Conservatives want to safeguard their country and its ways of doing things.  Leftists want to attack and undermine their country and its social system. Conservatives will embrace anything that seems good for their country and eschew anything that seems bad for it. Ideally, Leftists want a revolution.  Conservatives are loving, generous people.  The Left are haters and destroyers

Prominent English philosopher of conservatism Roger Scruton was particularly known for identifying patriotism with conservatism

And the torrent of hate that the Left have poured out at Mr Trump and his supporters clearly identifies hate as a major part of their makeup.

My contention that conservatives have no lasting principles will be cheered by Leftists but will seem contentious to many conservatives -- so let me take us through a brief history of conservative thought that will confirm my contention.

We find support for that contention in the conclusions drawn by some historians of the British Conservative party -- who find a certain realistic, practical and pragmatic outlook as the main enduring characteristics of Conservative thought (Feiling, 1953; Gilmour, 1978; Norton & Aughey, 1981; Standish, 1990) and theirs is clearly a theory about the wellsprings of conservatism rather than a description of what conservatives have tended to stand for. And it is not at all difficult to see why a realistic view of the ham-fisted and restrictive things that governments characteristically do has led to doubt about the benefits of extending such activities. So we again come to the view that there is a conservative psychology that explains and gives rise to conservative political positions.

But while the proposals of Feiling, Gilmour and others are perfectly reasonable, they do have a large philosophical problem: How do we define what is realistic, practical and pragmatic? So while I also think that realism is a large part of the psychology underlying a conservative stance and have advocated that view at some length in the past (in the introduction to my book Conservatism as Heresy), garnering evidence for its truth is a difficult task and certainly not one that I have found a way to investigate by the normal techniques of psychological research.

I do not think that this leads to any need for great vagueness about what conservatism is at the political (policy-preference) level, however, so would in part reject the view noted by Owen Harries when he says:

"In introducing his anthology The Conservative Tradition, R.J. White defensively (or perhaps smugly and archly) claims, "To put conservatism in a bottle with a label is like trying to liquify the atmosphere or give an accurate description of the beliefs of a member of the Anglican Church. The difficulty arises from the nature of the thing. For conservatism is less a political doctrine than a habit of mind, a mode of feeling, a way of living."

One must obviously agree with White that the habits of mind and ways of feeling are prior and causative  but I do not agree with White that the political policy-preferences they lead to are hard to define.

Noted American conservative thinker Russell Kirk starts out from a premise very similar to White's but draws quite different conclusions. He finds LOTS of policy-preferences that a conservative outlook leads to. He says here

"Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata.... Perhaps it would be well, most of the time, to use this word "conservative" as an adjective chiefly. For there exists no Model Conservative, and conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.....

In essence, the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night. (Yet conservatives know, with Burke, that healthy "change is the means of our preservation.") A people's historic continuity of experience, says the conservative, offers a guide to policy far better than the abstract designs of coffee-house philosophers. But of course there is more to the conservative persuasion than this general attitude."

What I think Kirk partially overlooks, however, is that conservatism is not limited to those "who find the permanent things more pleasing". Such people will of course be conservative but most people who adopt a cautious attitude to social change do so for a more practical reason -- because they see that as serving their basic aim of a better life for the individual. Almost all of the most influential conservatives (e.g. Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan) were in their earlier years Left-leaning, so their conservatism can hardly be attributed to an inborn preference for permanence or a dislike of change as such. They became conservative for a good reason -- to promote and conserve what they saw as best for their nations and their peoples -- and that included  respect for the individual and for individual liberties. 

Another theory about the psychological origins of conservatism is related to the "realism" theory but is a lot less sweeping than it. It is one that is very often quoted and finds its principal exponents in Burke (1790), Hayek (1944) and Oakeshott (1975) -- though the two former thinkers in fact described themselves as "Whigs" rather than as conservatives. This theory also traces policy to a style of thought -- or a "habit of mind" as R.J. White put it (see above). The theory basically is that there is an underlying wariness and skepticism in conservatives (particularly about human nature) that makes them question ANY political policies whatever -- including policies that call for change. Conservatives need good evidence that something will work well and have the intended consequences before they will support it. And for this reason conservatives prefer "the devil they know" and want any change to be of a gradual and evolutionary kind -- progressing by small steps that can easily be reversed if the intended outcomes are not realized. And there has never been any doubt that conservatives do indeed think that way. Note the following comment on one of the enduring heroes of American conservatism:

"In Have You Ever Seen a Dream Walking, William F. Buckley Jr. mobilized a group of writers to set forth certain ideas about the conservative movement for which he and they played such a decisive and animating role. It is telling that they did not seek to enumerate a list of issues on which conservatives must agree. If anything, Buckley, Meyer, Chambers, et al. argued that conservatism is neither an ideology nor an exercise in litmus tests. Buckley spent as much time reading fringe groups out of the conservative movement as he did defining what it was, precisely because he knew that conservatism is as much about temperament and tendencies than it is about a specific position on a given issue".

So the actual policies pursued by both conservatives and leftists can be much better predicted from their psychology than from any set of principles.  There is some consistency in the rhetoric on both sides but it flows from the psychology of the two sides.  Leftists have long preached about poverty and conservatives have long preached about liberty.  But The Left these days  prioritize environmentalism -- an immensely destructive gospel -- over the poor and the working man.  And conservatives have often preferred tariffs over free trade and see liberty as a non-consideration when it comes to abortions. Killing babies is a most hateful act and conservatives want no part of it. Leftists have no problem with it.

So I think it is clear that Trump is in fact a traditional conservative.  He is working not from any set of principles but from a pragmatic view of what he sees as good for his country. 

So he pleases libertarians by de-regulating business and pleases ordinary Americans hard-hit by free trade by imposing tariffs.  And he displeases the Left by being a patriot, while patriots flock to him. 

The polarization that Trump has brought to America in response to his slogan "Make America great again" is rather vivid evidence for Scruton's contention that patriotism -- love of one's country, its history and its characteristics  -- IS conservatism

But while patriotism may be the heart of conservatism, current conservative policies can be supported for other reasons.  Upper class people, for instance, do tend towards support for Leftism of various sorts.  It suits their authoritarian inclinations. But there was very little evidence of that during the Soviet confrontation.  The elites tended to support conservative policies at that time. Why?  Because a Communist takeover threatened them explicitly.  They would be the first to be shot or  expropriated.  

And conversely, many patriots voted Democrat because Democrat promises would put more money in their pockets.  So we need to distinguish people's basic attitudes from what they vote for. Lipset (1959) s well known for arguing that the working class is conservative even while they mostly voted Democrat

In the age of Trump, however, conservative feelings and conservative vote have largely come together. Trump is a vocal patriot and there are no strong reasons for patriots to vote against him.  While that is also every reason for the haters of the Left to vote against his successful defence of a praiseworthy American identity and socio-political system.  In the age of identity politics, Trump has a very attractive identity to promote, an American identity.


Burke, E. (1790) Reflections on the revolution in France. Any edition.

Gilmour, I.H.J.L. (1978) Inside right. London: Quartet.

Hayek, F.A. (1944) The road to serfdom. London: Routledge

Lipset, S.M. (1959) Democracy and working class authoritarianism. American Sociological Review 24, 482-502.  

Norton, P. & Aughey, A. (1981) Conservatives and conservatism.  London: Temple Smith

Oakeshott, M. (1975) On Human Conduct. Oxford: Clarendon Press

1 comment:

  1. Respect for the individual and libertiesAugust 31, 2020 at 1:57 PM

    Some conservatives do have lasting principles and they come directly from or can be traced back to Christianity.

    If the heart of conservatism is love for (people in) their country, then a cautious attitude is the head since people in their country are all sorts of men and women.

    Conservatives may be more at ease with positive emotions but only to a certain point and I find that they are generally not dominated by emotions (compared to leftists) and and generally tend to reason rather than react. While there is much joy and positive emotions to be found in good things, positive emotions as a value will have to find its proper place, like a good dog.


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