Analysis 12-07-2018

The Changing Face of
American Conservatism

This week was a milestone in the history of American conservatism. President George H. W. Bush died. He was the one who promised a “kinder gentler” conservatism when he became president. Yet, he led the first Gulf War and established the principle of interfering in Middle Eastern Politics – a foundation stone of the Neoconservative movement (neocons).

It was also announced this week that the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard is scheduled to close soon. The Weekly Standard was a strong voice of the neocon movement and was anti-Trump, even though they claimed to be conservative.

After months of searching for a buyer, the Weekly Standard’s owner MediaDC has decided to expand its other conservative publication, the Washington Examiner – a pro-Trump publication.

The Weekly Standard was founded in 1995 by Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes. During the presidency of George W. Bush, it was widely considered to be aligned with the administration and larger forces of neoconservatism.

Under Hayes’ leadership, The Weekly Standard has remained steadfast in its criticism of Trump. Supporters of Trump have lashed out at The Weekly Standard and its influence in Republican circles has dwindled, along with its subscription base.

The demise of the Weekly Standard is proof that the once popular neoconservatism of the past few decades has died, and President Trump’s definition of conservatism has triumphed for the moment.

But conservatism has gone through several changes since World War Two. In the 1950s, there was the intellectual conservatism of William F. Buckley and the National Review. That was supplanted by Reagan conservatism of the 1980s – to be followed by the neo-conservatism of the 1990s and 2000s.

Today, those have all been defeated by Trump Conservatism.

Of course, some say Trump isn’t a conservative. Earlier this year, in a speech to the National Press Club, Sen. Jeff Flake made a charge that has become common among disillusioned “never Trump” Republicans: Donald Trump is corrupting “true conservatism” with his authoritarian style, neo-isolationist foreign policy, lack of fiscal discipline, and opposition to free trade.

What Sen. Flake and other “Never-Trumpers” fail to realize is that Trumpism is only the latest mutation in a long history of conservative evolution that goes back to the early 20th century.

The Father of modern American conservatism was William F. Buckley (November 24, 1925 – February 27, 2008). He was a conservative intellectual, author, and commentator. In 1955, Buckley founded National Review, a magazine that became the flagship of the conservative movement in the late-20th century United States. Buckley hosted 1,429 episodes of the public affairs television show Firing Line (1966–1999).

George H. Nash, a historian of the modern American conservative movement, said Buckley was “arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century. For an entire generation, he was the preeminent voice of American conservatism and its first great ecumenical figure.” Buckley’s primary contribution to politics was a fusion of traditionalist conservatism, and classical liberalism; that fusion laid the groundwork for a rightward shift in the Republican Party, as exemplified by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. As a Catholic, he also started to inject religion into the Conservative mainstream.

Buckley and National Review defined the boundaries of conservatism and excluded people, ideas or groups they considered unworthy of the conservative title. For example, Buckley denounced libertarian writer Ayn Rand, the John Birch Society, George Wallace, racists, white supremacists, and anti-Semites.

At the same time, American conservatism was taking another turn – one that Buckley started. The late 1960s saw conservatives begin to champion religious causes, such as Bible reading and prayer in public schools. This caused great consternation among old-guard conservatives and their reaction to this “religious turn” in conservatism mirrors the current response of many George W. Bush neoconservatives to Trump’s “isolationist policy.”

Many have mistakenly assumed that the 1980 election of the avowedly conservative President Ronald Reagan meant that America had shifted “to the Right” after Goldwater’s loss. It was conservatism itself that had shifted toward America. By changing from a narrow-limited government economic ideology to a broader anti-Communist and religious one, conservatism had become attractive to demographics that had previously identified with the liberal side. Reagan’s election did not indicate that America had become more conservative, but that conservatism had changed to become more mainstream.

As much as they disliked some of Buckley’s ideas, establishment Republicans did admit that Buckley had changed American politics. In 1991, Buckley received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George H. W. Bush.

But Buckley differed dramatically with the changing standards of conservatism – especially neoconservatism. Regarding the War in Iraq, Buckley stated, “The reality of the situation is that missions abroad to effect regime change in countries without a bill of rights or democratic tradition are terribly arduous.”

In a February 2006 column published at National Review Online, Buckley stated unequivocally that, “One cannot doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed.” Buckley has also stated that ” … it’s important that we acknowledge in the inner councils of state that it (the war) has failed, so that we should look for opportunities to cope with that failure.”

About neoconservatives, he said in 2004: “I think those I know, which is most of them, are bright, informed and idealistic, but that they simply overrate the reach of U.S. power and influence.”

And, although he never knew Trump as a politician, in 2000 he described him as a “demagogue” and a “narcissist.

If there was a president that did fulfill the promise of modern conservatism, it was Ronald Reagan, who was a reader of National Review and Buckley’s books. And, it was Reagan, who turned modern conservatism into the mainstream thought of the Republican Party after the defeat of the moderate candidate George H. W. Bush in the 2000 Republican presidential primary.

Although Buckley was a Reagan supporter and a personal friend, he informed the President-elect that he would decline any official position offered to him. Reagan jokingly replied that was too bad, because he had wanted to make Buckley ambassador to (then Soviet-occupied) Afghanistan. Buckley replied that he was willing to take the job but only if he were to be supplied with “10 divisions of bodyguards.”

The era of Buckley/Reagan conservatism was only 8 years. George H. W. Bush changed course as president and favored a more moderate, pro-government Republican philosophy – a political change that alienated Republican voters, who stayed away from the polling booths in 1992 and allowed for the election of William Clinton.

Although President Bush had been defeated, his one major change to American policy was neoconservatism. With Bush’s win in Kuwait, a breed of conservatives sprung up who advocated exporting American ideals overseas – especially the Middle East. The result is the American entanglements like Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

Conservatism continued to evolve. By the time of the Iraq War in 2003, foreign policy hawkishness had moved to the center of conservatism and limited government had been pushed to the margins. George W. Bush, who expanded the size of the federal government more than any president since FDR, was considered “conservative” while Bill Clinton, who oversaw a slight shrinkage of government, was considered “center-Left.” (Both worked with a putatively conservative Republican Congress.) In 1940, it would have been unthinkable for a president to expand the federal government to the degree Bush did and still be considered “conservative,” but such are the evolutions of conservatism.

While neoconservatism was popular with many conservatives, William Buckley saw the danger in forcing American values on others and favored a withdrawal, even if it might be seen as a defeat. Ironically, in 2008, before he died, Buckley supported the candidacy of the arch neoconservative Senator John McCain.

Trump’s candidacy has changed American conservatism again. It eschews American involvement overseas – a major belief of the neoconservatives. Since there remain many neoconservatives in the party who want to advance neoconservative ideas like defeating Syrian President Assad, US policy has become a mish mash of policy initiatives like officially opposing Assad, but not making that the major goal of US military intervention in Syria.

If there is one principle that runs throughout most conservative thought since WWII, it is the idea that big government is a problem. Buckley broke with Nixon over the growth of American welfare legislation. Reagan said government was the problem, not the solution. And Trump calls government the “swamp.”

If anything, Trump is bringing conservatism back to its roots of limited government.

However, it is a mistake to see Trump as the ideal conservative. Although he has been strongly endorsed by the National Rifle Association and says he supports the Second Amendment, he is preparing regulation to outlaw the possession of “bump stocks” on rifles.

So, what is conservatism? And how has Trump impacted it?

Today’s conservatism has gone back to its roots in terms of being for limited government – unlike the policies of George W. Bush. It’s also less interested in foreign involvement, even though the remaining neoconservatives are fighting Trump on this policy.

Trump’s view of limited government is more aggressive like Reagan’s. Trump – like Reagan – is more likely to take drastic steps like Reagan did when he fired the air traffic controllers.

The fact is that conservatism has evolved thanks to Trump and his defeat of Clinton. Yet, in many ways, it has the same roots that energized William F. Buckley 60 years ago. But it will continue to evolve and will look different in the future.