On April 13, 2016, I’ll be moderating a discussion on “Reagan, Trump and the Current Status of Conservatism” for the Federalist Society at The Capital Grille in Hartford from 5-7. Bunch of guys and gals sitting at a bar trying their best to straighten out the current silly season in American politics. All the information is here.
The subject we are to discuss is the status of conservativism as it relates to current events, and it occurs to me that a bar may be a perfect venue for such a discussion. If for some reason a bar-brawl should break out, it probably would closely resemble the current condition of our politics.
I have in mind especially the Republican presidential debates. Mr. Trump, you may agree, came off as the best brawler in those cage-matches. As he piles up convention delegates, there are some moves afoot to deny Trump the Republican Party nomination at the convention; others hope against hope that he might be able to show the nation a kinder and gentler face long before then. It’s never too late to learn, and one should always remember Hillaire Belloc’s “Advice to the Rich” – “Get to know something about the internal combustion engine and remember, soon you will die.” The world would be a much saner place if, waking up in the morning, the rich should remind themselves of their occasional political stupidity, their fallen nature and their mortality. Trump is, as he never tires of reminding the rest of us, stupendously rich.
There is no need for us to wonder what Bill Buckley, regarded by some as the father of the modern conservative movement, might have thought about these “debates.” I think he might have said that the line of political oratory from Lincoln to Trump demonstrates that Darwin’s theory of evolution, according to which life gets dandier with each succeeding generation, is fatally flawed.
On the Democratic side of the presidential nominee barricades, we have Hillary Clinton, the Dorian Grey of Jacksonian politics, and Bernie Sanders – socialist.
Communism may – or may not – have died out when the Soviet Union came tumbling down several decades ago, but socialism is a hearty bloom. It was Otto von Bismarck who said “Even a fool can learn from his own mistakes; but it takes a truly great man to learn from the mistakes of others,” such as, to pick one of many failed socialist Latin American strongmen, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and his replacement – Chavez was not as long-lived as Fidel Castro -- President Nicolás Maduro, who was a bus driver before he completed the ruin of a country once thought of as the Paris of Latin America.
Bernie Sanders assuredly is not a “great man” in the Bismarkian sense. We don’t know if Mr. Sanders plans to visit Venezuela. He did visit Nicaragua during the glory days of the Sandinistas and managed, on returning home, to say some very complimentary things about the Ortega brothers’ search for equality, fraternity and liberty. President Obama has visited Cuba; and what followed his visit was a dearth of critical commentary on the Castro brothers. Visitors to Venezuela are taking with them rolls of toilet paper. Following a couple of decades of applied socialism, the country is running out of necessities. There are some rolls left in the pricier hotels, but then socialism in Venezuela has not yet been perfected.
The Democrats are leading an assault against Wall Street on behalf of Main Street, Bernie Sanders playing the part of Robespierre, while Clinton, fearing to upset the progressive juggernaut, has been, somewhat diffidently, going along for the ride. My guess is that Clinton may see some justice in Lady Thatcher’s notion that the problem with socialism is that, sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money. Some see Clinton moving center-left after she has dished Sanders. Right now she’s Madame Defarge – knitting… knitting… as the tumbrils full of conservatives, Democratic moderates and bribable businessmen roll towards the guillotine.
I hope no one here expects me to make complete sense of all this nonsense. I’ve tried and failed, numerous times. Let me give you an example of what it is like to be writing about politics in the current silly season: Trap doors are everywhere.
I was asked by a radio talk show host – one of those – whether I had planned to vote for Mr. Trump if he were to become the Republican Party nominee for President. I adroitly escaped the noose but felt I should have answered her in the accents of the reclusive Emily Dickenson when she was asked by one of her infrequent visitors why she didn’t have more people over the house. She said, “Because they talk of hallowed things aloud, and frighten my dog.” So does Trump. Some conservatives have said, perhaps brashly, that they would decide not to vote for Mr. Trump under any circumstances for two very good reasons: He is not a conservative, and he may not be a Republican. Most polls consistently have shown Trump losing to Clinton, and he also has a murderously frightening cast of mind.
She asked what other American politician would you compare Mr. Trump to? Huey Long. I was thinking of Long’s braggadocio, not that there’s anything wrong with that. On the way home, I was certain I had missed an opportunity. Had I said Lowell Weicker, I might have hit the bell and won a stuffed lizard. A point by point comparison of Weicker and Trump is highly instructive.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Weicker, both sons of millionaires, are fabulously rich. Both have had about half as many wives as Henry VIII. And neither seems capable of putting together in public a coherent sentence because in so doing they might alienate the populists who support them. Both millionaires manage to sound as if they had just come from punching the clock on the docks of New York, but most of this is just shameless campaign posturing. Both graduated from prestigious colleges. When Mr. Trump pointed this out and said, “I know words,” comedian John Simon responded, “Well, sure he does. The longest word in the sentence ‘I know words’ is the word ‘words.’” Both fly under false flags, the Republican banner. During his last year in office “Republican” Senator Weicker’s Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) rating was 20 point higher than that of U.S. Senator Chris Dodd. A Jacob Javits Republican, Weicker used the Republican Party as a political foil to ingratiate himself with Democrats, and my best guess is that a President Trump would follow the same politically profitable course.
Just as ideas have consequences, so do campaigns have consequences, too frequently, these days, unintended consequences, ruinous consequences. Conservativism quickly rallied against the disastrous Obama Presidency; it likely would rally once again against a somewhat less disastrous Hillary Clinton Presidency. But what of a Trump Presidency? To be sure, Conservativism is in the battle for the long haul; it will not be vanquished -- because a good idea can only be vanquished by a better idea, and the Democratic Party, long captured by special interests, is out of ideas that are productive of good. Nothing good can come of Bernie Sanders, a 1960’s Woodstock-Nation expat-socialist from Burlington Vermont. Nothing good, only something less bad, can come of an eight year presidency of the wife of serial molester Bill Clinton. I find myself waking out of out a nightmare sometimes -- screaming “WHEN WILL THE 60’S BE OVER!”
So, finally we come to the question we will attack during our discussion: Given a President Trump or a President Clinton, whither conservativism? Let me put the question this way: Was the Presidency of Ronald Reagan an aberration, a temporary stop on the road to a resurgent progressivism? It was Teddy Roosevelt who started the progressive presidency rolling. Socialist Eugene Debs, Sanders’ alter ego, ran for president several times, as did Socialist Norman Thomas. My answer – a hopeful one, I hope – is No. Just as the Obama era was heading towards the ash heap of history -- just as conservatives, many of whom have serious problems with benighted Republican moderates, were about to tie a knot in the thread to prevent it slipping through the eye of the needle – just then along came Donald Trump, who untied the knot, causing the thread to slip the needle’s eye.
It’s important here to stress that conservativism is not an ideology; it is an intensely practical praxeology. Reagan was an adherent of Russel Kirk’s brand of conservativism and so, to a certain extent, was Bill Buckley. Kirk, the author of The Conservative Mind, was an anti-ideologue in the same sense that Edmund Burke, who wrote against the ideological purists of his day – French revolutionists with knives in their brains – was an anti-ideologue. Conservativism is a cast of mind, an open-eyed posture towards reality and the eternal verities, a mandate to preserve what is best in history and humankind. Socialism, communism, fascism, progressivism, totalitarianism, all the utopian, ultimately inhumane and failed “isms” of the most blood-drenched century of the modern world, are ideologies. Utopias of these kinds always lead to a Hell-on-earth presided over by strongmen saviors – the mention of which leads me back to Trump.
Trump either will or will not have a sufficient number of delegates in his corner to secure the Republican Party nomination on a first ballot. Suppose he has not a sufficient number of delegates to cinch the nomination. It's true that delegates pledged on the first ballot may be released from their pledges on the second; there are some exceptions to this rule in some states. But the notion that a white knight, a third contender who has not participated in the primaries, will arrive on the floor and be acclaimed the nominee is impractical; that path easily could lead to a lost general election. Rule 40B, which says that those formally nominated from the floor must have won eight states in primaries, could conceivably be changed by the Rules Committee. That number, presently eight, could be lowered, but the Committee cannot, without doing violence to right reason, abrogate the rule. And, to say the truth, the rule applies only to formal nominations. After the pledged vote has been completed, floor delegates may vote for whomever they wish -- even persons not formally nominated from the floor.
Consider the second Republican convention of 1860 in Chicago. William Stewart had far more delegates, a third of the 233 votes to win the nomination, than did Abe Lincoln when the convention opened. Lincoln, Illinois’ “Favorite Son,” commanded only the 22 votes of his home state. Lincoln’s strategy was to acquire sufficient votes to come in second on a first ballot, then line up additional delegates on a second ballot to demonstrate momentum. His convention agents arranged matters so that Sewart’s New Yorkers were separated from other critical delegations with whom Lincoln might collaborate. Lincoln’s convention handlers printed and distributed hundreds of counterfeit tickets to Lincoln supporters, instructing them to show up early, thus displacing Seward’s supporters, a bit of a dirty trick. On the second ballot, Lincoln trailed Stewart by only 3 votes, 184-181, surpassing him on a third ballot. When the third ballot votes were tallied, Lincoln had 231 and a half votes--one and a half short of those needed for the nomination. Anything can, and sometimes does, happen on a convention floor.
The larger and more immediate question is not -- will Trump be the nominee; it’s possible -- but rather a) What will Trump do as President? and b) How many Republicans and conservatives will enthusiastically support a nominee who is c) not a conservative and d) not a Republican? These are questions that have not been sufficiently ventilated.
Assuming Trump emerges as the Republican Party Presidential nominee, my best guess is that he will be supported in the general election by Democrats turned off by Hillary, the anti-establishment establishment (Limbaugh, Coulter, Hannity, Scarbourough, Savage et al), Trump’s usual troupe of malcontents, and -- this should surprise no one -- the moderate grey heads in the Congress against whom a number of genuinely conservative anti-establishment candidates (Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz)- have been inveighing for the last few years. A Trump nomination, supported by moderate Democrats and Republicans indifferent to conservative/libertarian imperatives, will temporarily kill the operative conservative insurrection in Congress if – big “if” – he manages to prevail over Clinton in the general election.
If Clinton prevails in the general election, she will carry one or both of the houses of Congress with her. And the Connecticut General Assembly, it should be recalled, traditionally assumes the coloration of winning Presidential candidates.
Recently, Hugh Hewett interviewed Mike Murphy, a long-time Republican consultant. Murphy led Jeb Bush’s Right To Rise super PAC during the primaries which, as you know, was not able to deliver the White House to Jeb. He is not, therefore, a neutral commentator, which does not necessarily mean that his comments are so freighted with bias that they may be discounted as unreliable.
“Finish this sentence,” Hewitt said to Murphy, “Nominating Donald Trump in 2016 would mean ________. Now, explain.”
“Murphy: ... a lost decade for American Conservatism. Trump would be an absolute train wreck. We’d lose the presidency in a landslide as well as lose vital Senate and House seats. Our Republican brand would become even more toxic to general-election voters. Our conservative cause would take years to recover, and a Clinton presidency would be an American version of the U.K. in the 70’s under Labor governments: a grim cocktail of stagnation, decline, misery and pain.”
Peter Wehner spoke to the same point in a Commentary piece:
“Mr. Trump refers to himself as favoring a foreign policy of ‘America First.’ He is a fierce protectionist, opposing free trade agreements and favoring a 45 percent tariff on Chinese exports. He considers NATO obsolete and sees little value in maintaining U.S. military commitments in the Asia-Pacific region. He has admiration and expresses sympathy for Vladimir Putin, wants the United States to be ‘neutral’ in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and advocates war crimes. Mr. Trump is an outspoken opponent of entitlement reform, favors eminent domain, and is sympathetic to Planned Parenthood. During this campaign he has spoken favorably of a single payer health care system and the Obamacare mandates. As the Washington Post’s Dan Balz puts it, ‘Trumps views on issues… represent a fundamental break with many of the conservative ideas that have been at the party’s core for years.’
“A political party is not the same thing as a philosophical movement, but the former can give a political home to the latter. That has been the case with the Republican Party and conservatism for generations. It explains why conservative are overwhelmingly Republican.
“If Trumpism were to prevail, that link would be severed, at least temporarily. Conservatism would not have a political home. The party would become secondary to the cause, and in some respects at war with it. What this means is Mr. Trump could do to the Republican Party what Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders could not – reinvent the party of Lincoln and Reagan and deliver a historic setback to conservatism.”
All this is very frustrating I know. Conservativism itself will survive the suicidal impulses of the 21st century for the reasons I’ve stated above. Whether the country will survive an eight year extension of Obama’s ruinous progressive insurgency, an effort to change permanently the DNA of American politics, is another question. To be successful, conservatives must engage in the struggle. We are at a point in American history in which doing nothing is itself a political act. Final advice: Conservatives have only their chains to lose, and a world to win. Be not afraid.