Donald Trump, George Will, and the Crisis of Conservatism

If every cloud has a silver lining, we can say that the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump has—whatever his detractors may say—served some useful purposes. Those most critical of Trump speak of his followers as delirious, as if they were in the grip of some dreadful political fever. Nevertheless, a fever can be useful to the extent that it warns us of the underlying disease.

What political diseases has Trump fever brought to light?

First, it has revealed the political errors of those who rule the Republican Party. Here, we may usefully turn to the great political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, famed author of The Prince. Machiavelli was, of course, a frank amoralist (in politics, at least) and therefore an imperfect guide for American conservatives. Still, he was also a very astute observer of human nature. If conservatives cannot embrace Machiavelli’s principles, they still must attend to his all-too accurate account of the facts of political life.

According to Machiavelli, a prince who faces a popular rebellion has proven himself to be an incompetent prince. If he had known his business, he would have been able to keep his people contented. The people, Machiavelli observed, are generally passive and therefore decent. They are not inclined to make trouble unless they have been provoked. The “great”—the wealthy and powerful—are troublemakers, because they tend to be ambitious and have the means to advance their ambitions. In contrast, the people do not want to oppress anyone; they only want not to be oppressed. If they are agitated and disobedient, it is a sign of misrule.

America is now facing a kind of rebellion. It is not a rebellion of the whole country but of Republican voters, and it is not a violent rebellion but a political one revealed by polls. Donald Trump—a first-time candidate for any public office—is, for the time being at least, decisively ascendant over men who have served for years in positions of high political responsibility.

As bad as that sounds, the reality is actually worse. Those Republican candidates who are clearly rebels against the Republican Party—Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Ted Cruz—are currently winning, according to the national surveys, almost half of the support of polled Republican voters. Thus have the rank and file members of a great political party decided to fly off from their natural leaders—governors and senators. This could not occur unless these voters believed that their own leaders were indifferent or hostile to their interests and convictions. Republican leaders should ask themselves candidly how their own voters could come to believe this.

Conservatives’ Moral Bankruptcy
Trump’s candidacy is also useful to the extent that is has brought to light another very important phenomenon, one perhaps related to the first: the moral bankrupcty of a certain kind of contemporary intellectual conservatism. His electoral star might burn out, as his rivals hope, but for the time being, it sheds light on the inadequacies of not only conservatism’s men of action but also its men of reflection.

We encounter such a morally vacuous conservatism in the recent remarks of George Will, one of America’s most celebrated conservative commentators and one of Trump’s most vigorous critics. Reacting to Trump’s economic nationalism, Will declares that Republicans must be “the party of growth, or they are superfluous.” Democrats, he suggests, exist to redistribute wealth—“allocating scarcities” through the “administrative state.” In contrast, Republicans should avoid such thinking and instead simply focus on growing the nation’s economy.

In Will’s view, apparently, the Republican Party should have no domestic policy agenda beyond an economic one, and that agenda should involve nothing beyond promoting economic growth. This, surely, is the import of his use of the word “superfluous,” which implies that in the absence of an economic growth platform there would be no important difference between the Republicans and Democrats. This in turn is as much as to say that the only real political issues are economic issues.

Will’s vision is utterly unworthy of a great political party and wholly inadequate to the politics of America or any other nation. It is a vision on the basis of which no party could successfully govern or even win elections in order to get the chance to govern. The basic purposes of a political party are to win power and then use that power with a view to the common good. A party that followed Will’s advice would be able to do neither.

Appealing to Principles
Democrats’ calls for redistribution of wealth may be misguided. They may in some cases even be cynical—mere means of appealing to the self-interest of voters under a moralistic guise. Such calls do, however, require the Democrats to make appeals to essential public principles such as justice, and the obligations of the citizen to the community and the community to the citizen. Will’s approach, on the other hand, eschews such principles entirely. This is a strange approach for a conservative, since questions about these principles—and the moral vision of politics on the basis of which such questions can arise—have been characteristic of the politics of all civilized communities.

A party single-mindedly committed to Will’s politics of growth would not even be adequate in the realm of economic policy. Anyone can see that economic growth, which is certainly to be desired, may not benefit the whole community. A nation may enjoy even very robust economic growth while some regions or classes of people continue in a state of economic backwardness, stagnation, or decline. No decent or competent ruling political party would ignore such phenomena and boast that its economic policy was a pure success merely because the economy of the whole had grown. In general, economic growth, while important, is a rather lowest-common-denominator way of measuring a country’s well-being. Communist China, for instance, has enjoyed impressive economic growth over the last thirty years.

A political party concerned only with economic growth would have nothing to say about the great moral questions that have agitated American politics for years. What is marriage? What lives should be protected by law? No country can ignore these questions, nor can it answer them with reference only to their impact on economic growth.

Pressed on the deficiencies of a shallowly materialistic politics of economic growth, Will might respond that his public philosophy’s moral content is supplied by the principle of personal autonomy or individual liberty. Thus Will denounces the Supreme Court’s rulings upholding the Affordable Care Act, but embraces the Court’s decision to redefine marriage for all fifty states. More recently, Will has come out in favor of a “right” to physician-assisted suicide. Will, once the most traditionalist of all conservative commentators, is now simply a libertarian ideologue. This is a remarkable transformation for the popularizer of Burke who once wrote a book to instruct conservatives that “statecraft” is and must be “soulcraft.”

Nevertheless, Will’s focus on individual autonomy provides no more adequate guidance to a serious political party than does his fixation on economic growth. A commitment to individual autonomy, once again, cannot adequately answer the important moral questions that we will continue to face. Individual autonomy cannot tell us how to define marriage, because the definition of marriage determines what sorts of unions society chooses to recognize, a decision that leaves everyone uninterested in that recognition to live as he or she pleases. Individual autonomy cannot safely settle the question of physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill, because individual autonomy, unguided by any other principle, would justify an unlimited right to suicide for anyone and for any reason.

As these issues remind us, politics is about governing—deciding what the community will honor, what it will permit, and what it will forbid. Those questions cannot be answered adequately by appeals to economic growth or individual liberty. Because of its inability to address such questions, a Republican Party organized as Will advocates would be unworthy to manage our nation’s affairs. In addition, it would probably not get a chance to do so, since it probably would not be able to win any elections.

The Electoral Impotence of Amorality
To understand the electoral impotence of an amoral party focused only on economic growth and individual autonomy, we return to Machiavelli. Machiavelli does teach that the prince cannot afford to be moral: he must be willing to be good or not good as the necessities of political life require. Nevertheless, Machiavelli insists that the prince must always appear moral. This appearance is necessary, Machiavelli suggests, because while “the great” may be amoral power seekers, “the people” really do believe in morality. Hence, Machiavelli’s advice that the prince must take care always to appear always just, pious, humane, and faithful.

Translated into modern electoral politics, Machiavelli’s teaching reminds us that the people—voters—will not be moved to support a candidate or party by nothing but a raw appeal to self-interest. They also expect, even demand, an appeal to their sense of justice and righteousness. This is not to romanticize the people. They have no very precise notions about how to secure the common good, and they are certainly self-interested, as are all human beings. But the people are generally too decent to vote on the basis of nothing but self-interest. That is surely as true of the American people as it was of any people that Machiavelli had the opportunity to observe.

Such an appeal to something higher than self-interest is especially necessary in presidential elections, when the fate of the whole country appears to be at stake. Few voters are so small-minded and self-absorbed as to fail to have some sense that the country is something greater than their own personal interests. The strength of Democrats in such elections arises from their appeal to a moral vision of political life. That vision may be simplistic, misleading, or even wrong. Nevertheless, you can’t beat a flawed moral vision with no moral vision. This is not idealism but hard political reality.

This brings us back to Donald Trump. His campaign slogan—“Make America Great Again”—is obviously lacking in specific content. Yet it clearly carries a certain moral weight, appealing to a patriotic love for the country that cannot be reduced to an interest in economic growth.

The success of this slogan tells us something about the aspirations of the campaign’s supporters. The disappointment that has led large numbers of Republican voters to embrace Donald Trump is no mere personal disappointment. It is based on the sense that Republican elites have not just failed to secure their constituents’ interests but that they have failed, even betrayed, the country itself by failing to defend the principles—such as the rule of law and the right of self-government—that have made the country worthy of our admiration. Such voters will not be lured back but insulted by an appeal to their interest in economic growth. A party that counters such a shallow appeal to voters’ sense that the country is in decline will fail—and it will deserve to.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared September 9, 2015 on Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute and is reprinted with permission.

Carson Holloway

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Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press) and, most recently, Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press).

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