Monday’s Mtg (5/7/18): What does American conservatism stand for now?

Is this the future of political conservatism in America: Right-wing? For the moment, President Trump has made the Republican Party and the movement conservatism that dominates it anti-immigrant, openly corrupt, contemptuous of governing norms and legal restraints, and oddly schizophrenic on foreign policy.

Our questions for this week are two.  How real is all of this; i.e., has Trumpism taken over the conservative movement in substance or mainly in style? And how lasting will it prove?  Is Trump transforming U.S. conservatism or has he just borrowed it for a while?  To do this we will need to look at both what conservatism in America has been and what the Trumpists are trying to make it become.

Traditionally of course, American conservatism has been described as a coalition of interest groups and voters with a range of substantive needs and philosophical and ideological beliefs. Among these were the Religious Right and other culture warriors, big business, supply side-loving ideological elites, libertarian voters, and a mix of small town working class and upscale Whites. Over the last two decades several other major players have joined the conservative movement, notably the right-wing infotainment complex of talk radio, Fox News, and internet; and billionaire dark money donors like the Koch Brothers.

YMMV, but I found these distinctions less and less useful for understanding the conservative movement even before Trump. There is almost a universal consensus that in the last 20 years American conservative has grown increasingly united and ideological.  I think it is largely because of the growing dominance of those last two groups above, but there are other possible reasons.

So, maybe on Monday we could begin by trying to look at today’s conservatism (and thus tomorrow’s too) from some perspectives that might be more illuminating than just interest groups and ideology. Specifically:

  1. Psychological type and world view.
  2. Status in society, cultural as well as economic.
    –>  FYI, we can save some of this for next Monday’s mtg on status anxiety.
  3. Philosophy and ideology.
  4. Policy preferences.

This may seem like a tall order. But, as with progressives the Venn diagram of these four groups overlap quite a bit and, IMO, does a lot to explain the direction conservatism seems to be moving in. Of course, we must be careful not to reduce conservatism (or any other political belief) to a mere byproduct of its adherents’ cognitive makeup. Yet, I hope that thinking about conservatism in this way (political beliefs flow from cultural beliefs and worldviews as much as from material interests) will help us to shed more light than shadow on this topic.

This will be a busy, vibrant meeting. Thank you in advance for your self-restraint and empathy for your humble moderator. Mr. Humble will start the meeting with a short introduction that explains some of these different ways of thinking about what American conservatism is and what it “stands for.”


Yesterday’s conservatism –

Today’s conservatism –

Tomorrow’s conservatism –

NEXT WEEK: Status anxiety as a social and political force.

5 responses

  1. James H Zimmerman | Reply

    To describe Trumpism as “conservative,” is simply a distortion of language.
    Overwhelmingly, Trumpists express doubt about his character, but support for what he is trying to do. However, there seems to be no other figure, other than Trump, who can bring them together at 30+% of the electorate.
    What might happen to this “coalition” after Trump is anybody’s guess.

  2. I think these words from historian George H. Nash will help illuminate Monday’s discussion.

  3. Hi all,

    Unfortunately, I can’t make it tonight, but I really wanted to, because I think I can contribute something to this conversation. I will be watching my daughter while her mother is at work. Her bedtime routine starts at 7:00. She’s never been a good sleeper, but we’re making some progress. I’m reluctant to break the routine now.

    With that said, let me cowardly share a few things before signing off.

    – I don’t think there is a consensus that conservatism has grown more united or ideological. That’s certainly not true from inside the conservative movement. Before Trump was elected president, National Review released an entire issue titled “Never Trump.” Traditional movement conservatives such as Ben Shapiro and the editors of NR are constantly very critical of Trump, while “Trumpists” such as the editors of, dismiss movement conservatives as feeble cucks.

    I’ll even go as far as saying that support for Trump is based less on ideology than his personality. If that were pure conservatism republican voters were looking for, they would have rallied around Ted Cruz in 2016 and dismissed Trump for his various ideological sins, including but not limited to, his support for eminent domain, his atavistic stance on free trade, and his unpredictable takes on taxes and abortion. If Trump had Mitt Romney’s personality, he would be called a fake sellout.

    This isn’t to say that Trump hasn’t changed the GOP. But it would be more accurate to say he’s replaced conservatism with populism, rather than he’s changed conservatism.

    – I distrust attempts to type conservatives psychologically, if only because the academic literature reduces conservatism to either some type of authoritarianism or a simplistic defense of the status quo. This has been true since at least 1950, when Levinson, et al., released The Authoritarian Personality. Cynical attempts to pathologize conservatism has harmed the legitimacy of psychological research. In 2012, the Journal of Political Science published a study which claimed there was an indirect correlation between conservatism and authoritarianism. In 2015 they had to publish a correction saying that the study actually found the opposite results. To be clear, I’m not convinced that political beliefs on either “side” can be reduced to third-hand psychoanalysis.

    – I also don’t think it’s helpful to reduce conservatism to status anxiety. There is something to be said about Trump’s appeal among the white working class. It’s a big reason why he won the swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But framing political phenomenon as a matter of group consciousness is generally a polemical exercise. This conversation is one step away from dismissing conservatives as white men who are trying to preserve their power at the expense of minorities and women. Maybe I’m succumbing to the slippery slope, but it would have been interesting to see how that played out tonight. Maybe next week.

    – As far as criticisms of conservatism go (trying not to make this a magnum opus), I think it’s correct that just opposing leftism is not alone a viable governing principle. Modern Conservatism has a rich performative history, where self-styled entertainers such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Milo Yiannopoulos remind us that it’s okay to mock progressive ideas just as it’s okay to satirize everyone else’s precious mythology. But I feel as if it’s gone too far. EVERYONE is trying to be the next Ann Coulter, and conservatism is suffering from that. Jon Favreau is right in suggesting that Donald Trump is a manifestation of this, but I think he places too much blame on sinister big media figures and not enough on the real people those figures depend on. Either way, Trump’s appeal chiefly rests on his willingness to troll people and dismiss progressive mores from arguably the most influential executive position in the world.

    – Finally, I think the future of conservatism is up in the air. Will it be defined as it traditionally has? Or will it look more like European economic populism for the rest of my life? I think the answer depends on Trump’s legacy. Contra Frank Rich and co., I don’t think there are many people in line who can replace Trump. Trump’s personality is too unique. Pat Buchanan is closest thing we’ve had to Trump in the past few decades in terms of ideology, but he wouldn’t be nearly as successful running for president, even today. But if Trump goes down as a mild success among conservatives, we will be more likely to unite around a controversial figure like him in the future. On the other hand, if he accidentally screws up our economy or starts WWIII, then obviously conservatives won’t want to repeat his mistakes.

    1. Really good stuff. Tony. I will raise these points. I hope you can join us sometime.

      Everyone is just trying to figure out how, if conservatism is what we thought it was, varying strands aside, how did Trump happen?

      1. I think some of the answer may lie in there being a sharper than we thought difference between the views of conservative elites and regular voters.

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