Ironically, not all conservatives are happy with the prospect of a President Donald Trump.
Alarmed by the realization that Trump has a credible shot at winning the GOP presidential nomination, the editors of National Review have authored an editorial inveighing “Against Trump,”1 and they’ve compiled denunciations of the wildly popular candidate by conservative luminaries from Glenn Beck to Thomas Sowell.2 Although these commentators speak at length about why conservatives and Republicans should dump Trump, they neglect to acknowledge that the conservative movement’s contempt for ideas and ideology over the past half century is what made Trump’s ascension possible.
The “Against Trump” editorial rejects the candidate as “a philosophically unmoored opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP.”3 Jonah Goldberg’s National Review article “No Movement That Embraces Trump Can Call Itself Conservative” argues that Trump’s past public statements contradict conservative views on issues such as abortion and immigration.4 “Conservatives,” Goldberg claims, “have spent more than 60 years arguing that ideas and character matter,” whereas none of that matters to Trump or his supporters.5 National Review editor Rich Lowry says Trump cannot be conservative because “If you truly are conservative, you believe in ideas and principles; it’s not just attitudes.”6
But do conservatives genuinely embrace ideas and principles? History shows they do not. From the middle of the 20th century onward, the modern conservative movement has explicitly rejected any affiliation with a system of ideas or an ideology. Russell Kirk—widely regarded as the godfather of modern conservatism—insisted that “conservatism is the negation of ideology.”7 Contra Lowry’s claim that conservatism is about ideas and principles, not just attitudes, Kirk explained that conservatism is precisely about a particular attitude and not about any system of ideas—the latter of which Kirk equated with dogma: “The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata.”8
Following in that vein, Daniel J. Flynn, a longtime contributor to National Review, penned an entire book, titled Intellectual Morons, denigrating the very idea of adhering to a principled system of thought. “Ideology deludes, inspires dishonesty, and breeds fanaticism,” says Flynn.9 Flynn’s book—which contains an entire chapter dedicated to smearing Ayn Rand’s rational, idea-driven approach to what government should and shouldn’t do—is, unfortunately, endorsed by Thomas Sowell.10 And the same Jonah Goldberg who calls Trump un-conservative for his lack of principles, himself said, years earlier, “Any ideology or outlook that tries to explain what government should do at all times and in all circumstances is un-conservative.”11
Absent “ideology,” what do conservatives reference for political guidance? The answer is: traditions—especially those in the Judeo-Christian mold.
Christian author C. S. Lewis—a celebrity among conservatives—writes that only religious tradition “provides a common human law of action which can overarch rules and ruled alike.”12 Religion, says Lewis, is more reliable than reason or science ever could be, and “the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth,” having failed to recognize “that the ‘natural object’ produced by analysis and abstraction is not reality but only a view.”13 In other words, reason and science cannot deliver true knowledge of reality but only a “view” distorted by our senses and our minds. Real truth, on this account, is not about the “natural object” as seen by reason but about the supernatural object—“God”—as known by faith.
Goldberg agrees that God is the real source of truth, and that faith is essential to conservatism; he adds that whatever guides conservatism should not be confused with logic or consistency: “The beauty of the conservative movement . . . is that we all understand and accept the permanence of contradiction and conflict in life. Christians and Jews understand it because that’s how God set things up.” Thus, explains Goldberg, conservatism is ultimately “comfort with contradiction.”14
In support of this view, Goldberg cites William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review, who explains that conservatism is so vaguely defined that it can serve as a big tent to “accommodate very different players, with highly different prejudices,” and that one cannot “know what conservatism is,” only “who a conservative is.”15
This brief overview of prominent conservatives’ own views of the nature of conservatism gives the lie to the claim by Peter Wehner (a White House staff member under Ronald Reagan and both Bushes) that since the 1980s the Republican Party has been “the party of ideas.”16 It also shows the absurdity of conservatives claiming that Trump isn’t a conservative because he’s disdainful of ideas. The truth is that Trump’s disdain for ideas makes him a poster boy for the attitude conservatives have advocated for decades.
In light of the foregoing, it is ironic that Wehner warns, “If Mr. Trump wins the nomination, the G.O.P. will become the party of anti-reason.”17 The GOP has long been the party of anti-reason. Trump is simply cashing in on decades worth of conservative disdain for reason, ideas, ideology.
Ayn Rand long ago identified the essence of the problem with conservatism. To the degree that conservatives reject the system of ideas or ideology that supports a free society, they “stand for and are nothing; they have no goal, no direction, no political principles, no social ideals, no intellectual values, no leadership to offer anyone.”18
What, then, do anti-ideological conservatives have to offer? We need not speculate. The answer is right before our eyes: a candidate such as Donald Trump.
That said, perhaps National Review’s discomfort with the glaring problem conservatives have created is the beginning of an important realization among leaders of the conservative movement. It is to Goldberg’s credit that he has begun to reflect publicly on whether Trump’s popularity indicates that “conservatism had lost its philosophic coherence” over the past quarter century,19 though it would be more helpful to rethink the assumption that it was coherent in the days of Buckley and Kirk. Maybe the ascent of Trump—which is clearly a consequence of the anti-reason, anti-ideological essence of conservatism—will be enough to spark a rebellion away from religion, away from comfort with contradictions—and toward reason and contempt for contradictions. In other words, maybe Trump will help the more rationally inclined conservatives to see the problem with conservatism as such. Time will tell.
In the meantime, advocates of rational ideology should let conservatives and Republicans know that the ascent of Trump as the figurehead of their movement is what they get for being anti-reason.
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1. The editors, “Against Trump,” National Review Online, January 21, 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/430137/donald-trump-conservative-movement-menace, accessed January 21, 2016.
2. Glenn Beck et al., “Conservatives Against Trump,” National Review Online, January 21, 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/430126/donald-trump-conservatives-oppose-nomination, accessed January 21, 2016.
3. The editors, “Against Trump.”
4. Jonah Goldberg, “No Movement That Embraces Trump Can Call Itself Conservative,” National Review Online, September 5, 2015, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/423607/donald-trump-conservative-movement-jonah-goldberg, accessed January 17, 2016.
5. Goldberg, “No Movement.”
6. Appearing on Fox News’s YouTube Channel, “Is Donald Trump a ‘Menace to American Conservatism’?,” clip from The Five, January 22, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bciMOxtCvTE&feature=youtu.be&t=32s, accessed January 24, 2016.
7. Russell Kirk, “Ten Conservative Principles,” adapted from his book The Politics of Prudence (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1993), http://www.kirkcenter.org/index.php/detail/ten-conservative-principles/, accessed January 18, 2016.
8. Kirk, “Ten Conservative Principles.”
9. Daniel J. Flynn, Intellectual Morons: How Ideology Makes Smart People Fall for Stupid Ideas (New York: Crown Forum, 2004), p. 2.
10. Thomas Sowell, “Give the Gift of Books!,” Jewish World Review, December 17, 2004, http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/sowell121704.asp, accessed January 18, 2016.
11. Jonah Goldberg, “What Is a ‘Conservative’?,” National Review Online, May 11, 2005, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/214416/what-conservative-jonah-goldberg, accessed January 18, 2016.
12. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, originally published 1944 (New York: Touchstone, 1996), p. 81.
13. Lewis, Abolition of Man, pp. 78–79.
14. Goldberg, “What Is a ‘Conservative’?”
15. William F. Buckley Jr., “Notes on an Empirical Definition of Conservatism,” pp. 211–26, in Frank S. Meyer, ed., What Is Conservatism? (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964).
16. Peter Wehner, “Why I Will Never Vote for Donald Trump,” New York Times, January 14, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/14/opinion/campaign-stops/why-i-will-never-vote-for-donald-trump.html?_r=0, p. A27, accessed January 18, 2016.
17. Wehner, “Why I Will Never Vote for Donald Trump.”
18. Ayn Rand, “Conservatism: An Obituary,” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, (New York: Signet, 1986), p. 217.
19. Jonah Goldberg, “After Years of False Alarms, the ‘Conservative Crackup’ Has Arrived,” National Review Online, January 27, 2016, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/430324/donald-trump-conservative-crackup-here, accessed January 29, 2016.