A Clarifying Moment for Conservatism

Published August 14, 2015

Commentary Magazine

In a compelling column, George Will – who knows a thing or two about conservatism – makes the conservative case against Donald Trump. Mr. Will refers to Trump as an “unprecedentedly and incorrigibly vulgar presidential candidate” who is coarsening our civic life. He labels Trump “a counterfeit Republican and no conservative.” And he argues that Trump is an affront to anyone devoted to the legacy of William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of National Review and a giant in American conservatism. Just as Buckley excommunicated the John Birch Society from the conservative movement in the 1960s, so should conservatives today stand up to Trump and Trumpism.

Fortunately there are conservative commentators who are doing just that, including Bill Bennett, David Brooks, Mona Charen, Charles C.W. Cooke, Michael Gerson, Jonah Goldberg, Victor Davis Hanson, Charles Krauthammer, Matt Lewis, Rich Lowry, Michael Medved, Paul Mirengoff, Dana Perino, John Podhoretz, Karl Rove, Jennifer Rubin, Kevin Williamson, regular contributors to this web site (among them Max Boot, Noah Rothman and Jonathan Tobin), editorial page writers for the Wall Street Journal and others.

These individuals, while differing on various matters, understand the difference between angry populism and conservatism. They don’t believe crudity is a conservative virtue. And they don’t want conservatism stained by an unprincipled interloper and cynical opportunist, which is what Mr. Trump is. (It’s been well documented that until a few years ago, Trump was a registered Democrat, a large financial contributor to leading liberal politicians, and held liberal positions on a wide range of issues.)

In that sense, this is a clarifying moment for conservatism. Those on the right who have become Trump defenders have, I think, made a serious error in judgment that is the result of a rather profound misunderstanding of conservatism (for more, see here). You can cherish and champion conservative principles, or you can support and praise Donald Trump. But you can’t do both.

(It hasn’t gotten enough attention, but Trump has consistently opposed conservative reforms to entitlement programs, changes that are absolutely essential if we are to address our massive fiscal imbalance, prevent a collapse of these programs and re-limit the welfare state. How can those who claim to believe in limited government cheerlead for a man who supported a single-payer health care system and to this day attacks Republicans who want to reform our entitlement system in order to align with demographic realities?)

Mr. Trump has more appeal and staying power than I anticipated. The hollowness at the core of the man hasn’t (yet) led to a significant loss of support for him. I hope it will and over time I think it will; but whether it does or not, it’s important for conservatives to enter this debate about Trump, which is really a debate about what conservatism means in our time.

In the New Testament, we’re told that love covers a multitude of sins. Some on the right believe that, when it comes to Donald Trump, vulgarity and intemperance cover a multitude of past political sins. The more crude and insulting Trump is, the more dispensation he’s granted. The lower he goes, the uglier he gets, the louder they cheer. (Fortunately there have been some exceptions.)

It’s regrettable that some figures on the right now view politics in this way, to the point that ideas don’t seem to matter, but (boorish) attitude and affect do. The Conservative Mind is passé; the conservative id is in.

Conservatism will survive and thrive long after Trump has been relegated to a bizarre and rather distasteful footnote in our political life. But what is likely to last longer is the puzzlement over those on the right who held up Donald Trump a model we should emulate.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

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