You don’t need to study history to realise that some people, when their interests dictate it, are capable of extraordinary acts of treachery. Recent politics has furnished us with a betrayal which, in its scale and audacity, would make even Brutus blush. The American Republican Party used to be one of the greatest champions of Western, by which I mean liberal-democratic, values and civilisation. Following its near total capitulation to the demagogue Donald Trump, this is no longer the case. It’s not that Trump is a conservative; he has actively undermined several key principles of Conservatism. By falling in behind him the Republican Party, or at least a majority of it, have abandoned core conservative values and decency itself. It’s a betrayal which will live in infamy.
At this point it is necessary to incorporate a definition; conservatism is the desire to protect and promote liberal-democratic-capitalist civilisation. This means supporting democratic values and institutions, freedom of political activity, the rule of law and an economy largely based on the free market.
If you accept my definition of conservatism I don’t think you can reasonably define Trump as a conservative. On the contrary, he appears to be a foe of conservatism. Trump has disregarded liberal-democratic principles with all the subtlety of a drunken rhinoceros. During the Presidential election he threatened to imprison his opponent, launched extraordinarily aggressive attacks on both ‘the media’ and individual journalists, and made utterly unsubstantiated allegations that the election was being rigged whenever it looked like he might lose. He repeatedly refused to confirm he would concede if he lost the election and condoned his supporters engaging in violence against protestors at his rallies.
Despite Trump’s wealth and background, his American nationalism means he is only a qualified friend of business. He has said that he wants to hit imports from certain countries with tariffs, and attacks companies which relocate jobs from America. His protectionism means his commitment to market economics is restricted. Unless you believe that ultimate power will temper Trump’s authoritarian impulses, which seems rather unlikely, I don’t expect the Presidency to change Trump’s beliefs or behaviour.
To be fair to the Republican establishment, they did attempt to stop Trump; they rallied around first Jeb Bush, then Marco Rubio and then ultra-conservative, Ted Cruz. To a significant extent their failure to stop him, and that of much of the traditional conservative media, was the result of their weakness. In an era before widespread primaries it’s almost impossible to imagine that Trump would have become the Republican candidate. But once efforts to block him failed most mainstream Republicans capitulated.
Some were particularly craven, notably New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who endorsed Trump in February 2016. But after Trump became the party’s official Presidential candidate at the July 2016 Convention almost all Republicans bent the knee. Key Republicans like House speaker Paul Ryan and Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz all urged the American people to back Trump in the Presidential election, despite having seen more than enough of him to ascertain his character and judgement. We should expect politicians from a party as steeped in liberal-democratic values to identify, and spit out, a demagogue like Trump when they see one. In this they spectacularly failed.
Mainstream Republicans accepted, and thereby supported, Trump for two main reasons. Neither of these is an acceptable excuse for abandoning conservative values. Firstly they were worried about their careers. They figured they needed Trump’s support base to secure re-election, and that if they opposed Trump they would face future primary challenges from the right of the Republican Party. In addition whilst Trump remained popular with Republican voters, opposing him was toxic. Paul Ryan’s approval rating amongst Republicans fell dramatically after he said he would no longer actively campaign for Trump, following the controversy about degrading comments Trump was recorded making about women.
The second reason, essentially, is that they entered a pact with the devil. They supported Trump as a means to advance certain, often specifically American, conservative policies, even at the cost of weakening the foundations of the liberal-democratic system. Trump’s Presidency means they expect to get another conservative on the Supreme Court, handing the right a majority, significant tax cuts, and more restrictions on abortion. For quite a few Republicans it seems this is an acceptable price for backing Trump, despite his disdain for the basic American norms and institutions. Perhaps they even think they can control him, in which case they are likely to be sorely disappointed. Republicans should be cherishing liberal-democratic values and institutions, the heart of Western civilisation, not undermining them for limited policy gain in other areas.
The painful truth is that the Republican Party, with a handful of noble exceptions, has abandoned conservatism by accepting Donald Trump. Trump is not a conservative. He shows near total disregard for the liberal-democratic-capitalist, or Western, values which conservatives, by definition, are pledged to defend. That he often shows a similar disregard for basic human decency is, at this point, very much a secondary concern. Sensible Republicans, who want their party to be more than a vehicle for authoritarian demagogues, are going to have to fight hard over the next four years to retain some of the original Republican Party’s soul. If they fail, if the Republican Party gradually assumes the values of Trump, it will cease to be a conservative party or stabilising force in world affairs.
Read more by this commentator.