The most significant political occurrence of the last few years has been the development of Donald J. Trump from narcissistic bigoted windbag to narcissistic bigoted windbag who controls what is by some margin the most powerful military in the world. This transition, and it gives me absolutely no pleasure to admit this, would not have been achieved without the aid of conservatives. And yet Trump himself is no conservative – not by any remotely reasonable definition of the term. He represents a form of authoritarian nationalism which is utterly incompatible with core conservative doctrines. Trump is a cuckoo, or be it an unusually orange one, who has made an unwelcome intrusion into the conservative nest. Conservatives need to proclaim this loudly, both to avoid providing political cover for Trump’s authoritarianism and to prevent our movement being collectively tarred by his behaviour.
To argue that Trump is no conservative I must first define what I think one is. Quite often the term is used to suggest hostility to change and/or a desire to restore the glories of some past era. Alas this definition is so relativist that it’s useless for describing a coherent political doctrine. An orthodox communist in late 1980s Russia, an authoritarian nationalist in 1930s Spain and a liberal-democrat in the present day United Kingdom could all be deemed conservatives as they broadly desire to maintain the status quo. So instead let me offer an alternative definition, based on what we usually mean by ‘conservative’ in a Western context. A conservative is someone who wishes to protect, and where possible expand, the liberal-democratic-capitalist (or Western) system of organising human society. This means an economic system based around the free market, rule of law, the selection of law makers via free and fair elections and the protection of a whole range of basic individual freedoms (speech, association, property rights etr).
Trump supporters rally ahead of the 2016 Presidential election
Trump’s commitment to these core conservative values varies between questionable and non-existent. Let’s start with democracy – surely the most fundamental characteristic of the Western model. Trump’s attachment to democracy is, in a way that can’t be said of any other American President in living memory, conditional. He is of course prepared to accept democratic results when he wins, as he did in November 2016. This proves nothing. Only a fool or fanatic objects to democratic results which benefit them. But when Trump loses, or looks like he might lose, he invariably cries foul.
When Ted Cruz beat him in the first Republican caucus, in Iowa, Trump claimed entirely without evidence that this was the result of ‘fraud’. During the Presidential election campaign he maintained this line, regularly claiming that the election was being fixed. In October 2016 he tweeted that the election was ‘absolutely being rigged’ by both the media and at ‘many polling places’. This was a point he was to repeat many times over, both on social media and at public rallies. During the weekend of 15-16 October alone he posted eight tweets claiming the election was being ‘rigged’ or ‘stolen’. At no point did Trump provide any substantive evidence whatsoever to support his grave accusations, which if true would have amounted to the American democratic system being a sham.
If you are in any doubt about Trump’s response to loosing elections recall his response to Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election. Trump tweeted ‘This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!’ He later added ‘We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty’ and ‘We should have a revolution in this country’. In short Trump’s response to Obama’s 2012 re-election was what could quite easily be interpreted as an open call for rebellion. Had this been a red line for American conservatives, as it most certainly should have been, the country’s politics would currently be in a much better place.
Respecting electoral results wasn’t the only democratic norm Trump violated with all the subtlety of a rampaging gorilla. He also repeatedly vowed to imprison his chief opponent, Hillary Clinton, on what were essentially trumped up charges based on her admittedly very short-sighted use of a private email server. Trump also broke the absolute taboo against Presidential candidates endorsing political violence. During the campaign he said of a protestor ‘I’d like to punch him in the face’ and later claimed he was considering paying the legal fees for one of his supporters who attacked an opponent at his rally. Trump combined this with a campaign which attacked critical media outlets to an unprecedented extent, with attacks on the ‘lying’ and ‘fake news’ media forming one of the key planks of his rhetoric. He did this to such an extent that it was no surprise when Trump defended Vladimir Putin from accusations that he’d murdered journalists by saying ‘Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also’. Given the venom behind some of the attacks it’s entirely reasonable to ask whether, if he had the power to do so, Trump would seriously curtail American press freedom.
A true American conservative – President Ronald Reagan
Even Trump’s attachment to capitalism is somewhat conditional. This may seem odd, given that Trump first achieved prominence as a successful businessman, but he’s not wholly in favour of free markets. One of the strongest planks of Trump’s 2016 Presidential platform was his protectionism. Mexico was ‘killing us with trade’, China ‘raping’ us and the NAFTA trade deal was a ‘disaster’. Trump seems to believe that a significant trading imbalance between two countries is fundamentally exploitative. Those countries which sell more to America than they buy in return are gaining at her expense. This is a fundamentally opposed to the free marketer view that free trade is, in the long run, mutually beneficial for those countries taking part. A small adjustment to Trump’s view, so that trade within as well as between countries is inherently exploitative, leads pretty clearly to socialist conclusions.
In short Trump is no conservative. His brand of nationalistic authoritarian demagoguery is both incompatible with, and opposed to, core conservative principles. He refuses to obey democratic norms, namely that you should conceded defeat if you loose and shouldn’t claim foul play without strong supporting evidence. In his attacks on the media, and apparent promotion of low level political violence, Trump goes well beyond what is healthy in a democratic society. Meanwhile Trump’s protectionism means his support for free markets is strictly limited. Ideologically Trump has far more in common with other authoritarian nationalists, say Hungary’s Viktor Orban or Turkey’s Tayyip Erdoğan (minus the Islamism), than orthodox American conservatives. It’s time for conservatives the world over to stop supporting or defending Trump and recognise him for what he is, a direct threat to our values.