There is much to praise and agree with in National Review’s cover editorial, “Against Trump.” Donald Trump is no friend to limited government proponents. Indeed, his flip-flopping on key issues of concern to libertarians and conservatives make it unclear whether a President Trump would govern from his current perspectives or be the Trump who is a dear friend of the Clintons. But National Review misses a key part of the Trump phenomenon. It isn’t an aberration, but is a natural outgrowth of conservatism abandoning its core values of limited government and a strict national interest foreign policy during the Bush years. It may even be an expression of an underlying worldview of fear and defeatism present in conservatism ever since National Review led the Cold War break with the antiwar, anti-New Deal Old Right.
Trump isn’t killing conservatism. It already died over a decade ago. It died in the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib, on the battlefields of unnecessary and counterproductive wars, in the secret meetings that created an unprecedented domestic surveillance program, and in the spending spree to pay for it all that turned a budget surplus into record deficits. It clung to life support on some domestic economic programs, but died again when political capital that could have been spent on Social Security reform went to promoting war instead. It died every single time the Bush Administration pursued policies contrary to American values and the principles of limited government – and it died whenever Bush’s cheerleaders in what passed for the conservative movement championed his policies.
At the time, a handful of principled conservatives and libertarians spoke out against the Bush Administration’s big government, Wilsonian policies. But rather than engage in principled debate over what conservatism meant in a post-9/11 world, National Review found a Bush speechwriter to write a cover screed condemning the “Unpatriotic Conservatives” who opposed the invasion of Iraq. Of course, those supposedly unpatriotic conservatives turned out to be right about Iraq and National Review turned out to be utterly wrong. But don’t hold your breath waiting for a retraction, even thirteen years later. Much of conservatism has never made a clean break with the Bush Administration’s anti-conservative failures.
Therein lies part of the problem. Can the remains of Bush-era conservatism be expected to mount an effective opposition to Trumpism? National Review’s anti-Trump symposium features a list of names straight out of the Washington Times op-ed page circa 2003. Many of these contributors have long peddled ideas that aren’t that different than ones you might expect to hear at a Trump rally. For example, the first contributor, Glenn Beck, has promoted the bizarre conspiracy theory that limited government champion Grover Norquist is a secret Islamist. Further down, you can find Cal Thomas, who recently praised Ben Carson’s condemnation of a theoretical Muslim president. Once again, we see the same sloppy blurring of the lines between jihadism and Islam in general promoted by Trump. Is the only problem with Trump that he hasn’t been as consistent about these views as Carson?
The difference between these viewpoints and Trumpism seems to be one of degrees and tone, not fundamentals. After years of the apologists for Bush’s wars blurring the difference between Sunni extremism, Shi’a Iran and its allies, secular dictatorships like Saddam’s Iraq, and even Islam in general, is it really surprising that a candidate who wants to slam the door shut to all Muslims would earn fanatical support?
The problems with the National Review approach to Trumpism may run even deeper, with underlying assumptions about the world that aren’t very different than those of the average Trump supporter. National Review’s mission of “standing athwart history yelling stop” is a reverse Whig theory of history wherein history moves in a discernible direction but the good guys are on the wrong side of it. This pessimistic underlying assumption was famously encapsulated in Whittaker Chambers’ statement that in leaving the Communist Party he was “leaving the winning side for the losing side.” Ideas have consequences and a consequence of such extreme defeatism can be an endorsement of any means necessary to forestall history for as long as possible. Early in his writing career, Buckley noted that faced with the “thus-far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union…we have got to accept Big Government for the duration – for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores."
Totalitarian bureaucracy – not very compatible with liberty, but harmonious with the assumption that extreme forms of state power are necessary to hold off an existential threat that is close to victory. Carry this forward to the present day and the Trump movement. If radical Islam is an existential threat that we have been thus far powerless to check, why not create a totalitarian bureaucracy that will prohibit any Muslim from entering the country “until we can figure out what’s going on” and close down mosques? If 11 million illegal immigrants represent the destruction of American national identity, why not use a totalitarian bureaucracy to remove them? Batten down the hatches, because history is moving in the wrong direction.
A pro-liberty approach to these problems looks very different than Trumpism, what passed for conservatism during the Bush era, or classic National Review assumptions about history’s direction. Take seemingly insurmountable foreign threats as one example. During the Cold War, free market economists who were not blinded by defeatism predicted the collapse of Soviet communism based on its economic incoherence. Today, crippled by high taxes, inflation, and unemployment, ISIS territory is turning into another textbook example of a centrally planned economy. As brutal as ISIS might be in the areas it rules, its economic incoherence will cause it to fall under its own weight just as communism did. We don’t need a totalitarian bureaucracy and generation-long war to accomplish that. We just need to wait them out.
Of course we should be “Against Trump.” But let’s also be against the Bush legacy and the defeatism that leads us to accept big government at home as the only solution to threats abroad. In fact, let’s stop defining ourselves by what we’re against and remember what we’re for. For a future of liberty, peace, and free markets.
Andrew Walker lives in Los Angeles and is a doctoral candidate in psychology.