Donald Trump and the Anti-Reason Essence of Conservatism


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.

Related:

Endnotes

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.

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10 Responses to Donald Trump and the Anti-Reason Essence of Conservatism

  1. ecofibre@gmail.com'
    Ed LeCore February 2, 2016 at 1:12 am #

    Nice work, a bit optimistic at the end though I fear.

  2. mv92071@gmail.com'
    JeffersonRand February 3, 2016 at 2:49 am #

    This is the best analysis I have read explaining the unlikely rise of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and why his popularity among Republicans is directly tied to the foundations of modern conservatism.

    For additional analysis of modern conservatism’s bankruptcy, read Ayn Rand’s classic, “Conservatism: An Obituary,” from her book Capitalism:The Unknown Ideal. Additionally, two other extensive, carefully researched analyses of modern conservatism and why it cannot defend freedom from the leftist
    attacks are: “Neoconservative Foreign Policy: An Autopsy” by Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein (The
    Objectivist Standard, Vol. 2, No. 2) and “The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism” by C. Bradley Thompson (The Objective Standard, Vol. 1, No. 3.)

    • dhyatt100@gmail.com'
      Dean March 25, 2016 at 12:18 pm #

      I commented to my son-in-law last fall that Trump’s slogan Make America Great Again was simply the Republican version of Obama’s Hope and Change, and just as empty of content. Trump is the result of both Obama’s duplicity and Republican incompetence and duplicity. I visit sites dominated by conservatives that love to call Obama stupid and incompetent which fails to explain why he has achieved most of what he wanted. When I point that out and blame it on Rep and conservative incompetence, they occasionally go crazy.

  3. gmgodrich@gmail.com'
    Patrick Black February 10, 2016 at 4:51 pm #

    Nicely done Stuart. It is interesting to come across this today as I just read on the editorial page in the local paper, I believe it is a syndicated column, an article by Susan Stamper Brown that ended with a claim that liberals substituted reason for religion, among other things, which led to “a broken education system, destruction of the nuclear family and self-serving people with no moral compass.”

    I don’t agree that liberals have replaced religion with reason, rather it is being replaced by emotion, but comments such as this can certainly be seen as an instance of anti-reason on the part of conservatives. The author is plainly saying, “If only we didn’t rely on reason so much everything would be better.”

  4. soup831@gmail.com'
    TeaParty1776 February 14, 2016 at 7:06 pm #

    Liberals and Leftists have long advocated the concrete-bound, Pragmatist irrationalism for which Donnie “Blurt It Out” Trump is the poster boy.

  5. jason_from_nyc@yahoo.com'
    Jason P February 27, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

    Excellent review of the foundation of conservatism.

    On slight correction: The GOP has long been the a party of anti-reason.

  6. gweilo444@gmail.com'
    Gweilo March 18, 2016 at 5:22 am #

    So many people just don’t understand what a conservative is. Most seem to believe that a conservative is just the opposite of a liberal, but that is at best an over-simplification and often just completely wrong.

    It also explains why so many can’t understand Trump’s popularity. Trump isn’t a conservative, although he is forced to claim to be one because of the confusion mentioned above.

    A conservative wants to maintain the existing system and establishment, and doesn’t want change. If that system represents a liberal worldview, in political, social and cultural terms, then the liberals are the real “conservatives”.

    That is why the hard line communists who opposed Boris Yeltsin in the last days of the Soviet Union were known as conservatives, despite having extreme left-wing values.

    This isn’t just a matter of semantics.

    Trump is a nationalist and a populist, who puts his own country and people first. He doesn’t want to conserve the existing system, which is why the existing establishment hate him, regardless of whether they are Republican or Democrat establishment. It is also why he is so popular with the vast majority of people who don’t belong to the establishment, and why his popularity increases with every establishment attack.

    Trump is a revolutionary, at war with both the Republican and Democrat establishment, and their minions in the legacy media.

    This election is not a battle between Republicans and Democrats. It is a revolutionary battle between the establishment and the people.

    • dhyatt100@gmail.com'
      Dean March 25, 2016 at 12:29 pm #

      Trump’s criticism of the status quo comes down to he would manage it better. HIs criticism of special interests continues to ignore that they are the natural and even necessary result of government interference in the economy and lives of otherwise freemen. However, his visceral patriotism and nationalism does threaten the Rep/conservative pose and power. The duplicity of elected Reps and conservative supporters is shown that they are willing, maybe even committed to defeat Trump at the cost of continued Dem control of the administration. However, I am also hopeful that the people are fed up with the demonstrable failure of social democracy and coupling that with the organized attacks on the electoral policy along with daily demonstration of progressive illiberalism may start an American revival that could pull us out of what is clearly a post-American era.

  7. dhyatt100@gmail.com'
    Dean March 25, 2016 at 12:10 pm #

    Great article and a valuable reminder of the specifics of Rand’s critique of conservatism. I am frequently arguing on websites dominated by conservatives and primarily the Muslim problem. Time and again I get the same and occasionally vile attacks after I reveal that I am an atheist and lay the blame for progressive successes over the past century on the feeble defense of American ideals on conservatives. They continue with the same arguments and objections that have continuously failed during that period and can’t stop to consider if their alleged principles have any coherence.

  8. fred@thepegasus.us'
    Fredrick Rehders April 7, 2016 at 3:31 pm #

    I am not a philosophical match for the author, but I am a Constitutional Conservative and to me that implies conserving The U.S. Constitution, as written and legally amended, as provided for, therein. The author, as so many others do, cites The Religious Right, groups and magazines, attempting to broaden their appeal, by co-opting the term “Conservative”. Thomas Sowell is an economist with a syndicated newspaper column. He is a champion of Capitalism and a star student of Prof. Milton Friedman, the Nobel Laureate that took apart the theories of Socialist John Maynard Keynes. Trump is a Crony Capitalist and certainly not a Conservative. Ted Cruz is probably the best Senator we have ever had from Texas, at least far as his Conservative Voting Record is concerned. I am personally conflicted, because if he were a native born citizen, he would be my choice, hands down! I cannot, in good conscious vote for a Demonrat and realize the far reaching consequences of not voting for the GOP nominee. Whoever is pulling those puppet strings has only given us one decent choice in my lifetime and I am an old man, now! Go Figure!

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