Watching the 2016 election season unfold, I’ve become a bit tired of two things in particular about the media, and Donald Trump. In the first instance, Trump is wholly unwilling to discuss details of his plans, and the media dutifully accepts his empty rhetoric in an unquestioning manner almost as thorough as some of his supporters. In the second instance, Mr. Trump is lying, and it’s a big lie that we conservatives must debunk. It could be that Trump is just ignorant, so that when he spews his lie, he’s simply the parroting of talking points emanating from the rabid left and the DC establishment. Either way, a lie is a lie, whether it originated from Trump’s own mind, or he’s merely passing it along unthinkingly. So what’s this big lie? On Thursday, Trump tweeted that conservatives are to blame and that conservatives have failed the country. This couldn’t be further from the truth, but once again, debunking it requires the examination of a few salient details. His throngs of supporters won’t be moved by this, just as they won’t be moved by any other rational argument. By and large, they’re proving immune to facts, reason, and details. It should come as no surprise to conservatives that in one respect, I think there’s a nugget of truth that makes Trump’s lie seem superficially plausible, but it’s just a nugget. It’s time to deconstruct Trump’s lie.
The first thing one must consider in answer to Trump’s assertion is: “Who are the conservatives?” The truth in answer to this question is that actual, thinking, breathing, ideological conservatives constitute a minority of the Republican party. The truth is that there are almost no actual conservatives in Washington DC, and to have been the party to blame for the state of the country, that is where one would have needed to be, not simply in a geographical sense, but in the sense of political efficacy. Actual conservatives haven’t had any power to speak of in Washington DC for nearly two generations. From the time of the middle of Reagan’s second term, there has been little one could properly label as “conservative” in our nation’s capital. Where one can find any justification of Trump’s lie, despite the reality, is that for too long, we conservatives have let people who had no real attachment to conservatism pose as our representatives.
George H.W. Bush was no conservative. Bob Dole was no conservative. George W. Bush was no conservative. John McCain is no conservative. Mitt Romney is no conservative. I can extend this list to include current candidates like Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio to an extent, and any number of other conventional Republican politicians. Paul Ryan is certainly no conservative, but neither were his immediate predecessors, John Boehner and Dennis Hastert. Mitch McConnell and his caucus of establishment Republican cronies aren’t conservatives either, but the problem is that we have permitted them to claim conservatism, and we’ve allowed them to thereby define conservatism by the association with us. Most Americans simply don’t pay much attention to politics, and in their barely-informed state of political ignorance, they’ve accepted the following basic formula: Republican = Conservative. They may have accepted also: Democrat = Liberal. Both of these are tragically wrong, and I will suggest to my conservative brethren that we are at least somewhat collectively guilty for letting this stick.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve permitted this to happen. We’ve been so busy trying to expand the “big tent” of conservatism that we’ve permitted the party-crashers of the establishment to redefine what conservatism is, at least in the popular culture, by their constant association with us. It’s been going on since Teddy Roosevelt, who was a progressive in Republican clothing. For my part, here on this website, I’ve always endeavored to make clear the distinctions. One cannot go through the columns of these pages and make any mistake about the fact that the form of conservatism advocated and advanced here has no relation whatsoever to the Republican party, never mind its establishment.
Of course, the truth is far removed from Trump’s nonsensical allegation. Most actual conservatives, I’d nearly assert all, do not support the actions of the establishment, moderate, “center-right” wing of the Republican party. Most conservatives actually detest those people, and would replace them with actual conservatives if it was in their power to do. Every time conservatives have gone along with the GOP establishment in order to try to move things in the right direction, two things have been true almost without exception: The GOP establishment betrays us, and we wind up moving backward. A case in point is immigration: Those who call themselves “conservative” but are aligning themselves with Rubio in this election cycle have a very “YUGE” problem: Their guy is an amnesty-monger, having proposed the most exasperatingly un-conservative bill proposed by a Republican in quite a long time. The so-called “Gang-of-8” bill was a nation-destroying monstrosity, and it would never have attained launch, much less threatened passage, without the efforts of people who claim to be “conservative.”
This is the problem exposed by Trump’s lie: It’s only plausible because we conservatives permit others to define what is conservatism. We permit the misapplication of the term to people who may on occasion, for their own political expedience(and too frequently, ours) to associate with us and our body of political philosophy. Since the greatest number of Americans don’t really pay that much attention, and use generic labels in order to short-cut thinking, we have a responsibility as conservatives to define what that means, and to take great pains to differentiate conservatives from anything else.
The facts supporting Trump’s assertion dissolve the moment one asks: “What is a conservative?” The laundry list of non-conservatives mentioned above is just a sample, but it should serve as a decent basis for understanding the problem in its proper context. When Donald Trump talks about “the conservatives failed,” what he’s actually saying is that “Republicans have failed.” That’s demonstrably true. The problem is that conservatives haven’t failed, largely since they’ve never really held power in Washington, except for the briefest few years immediately after the ’94 “revolution” in the House of Representatives. Even its leader, Newt Gingrich, isn’t really a conservative, but some of the people around him were, and a few of the people who led early efforts in those environs were, but they were short-lived as was the influence of conservatism. To find substantial, muscular conservatism, one must return to the first term of Reagan’s presidency, which is why conservatives so thoroughly long for a Reagan-like leader. It’s also why the fakers, the so-called moderates in the GOP, can’t wait to bury Ronald Reagan in long-forgotten history of the Republic.
We conservatives must separate ourselves from the GOP establishment in a political and cultural sense. We must create clear separation from the party’s moderates because by failing to do so, we permit the broadest brush to be used in defining our cause, our philosophy, and our values. It won’t be easy to do, but I believe it must be done. The most promising of the current crop of GOP candidates, who may be able to draw this distinction, is probably Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX,) simply because on so many issues near and dear to the hearts and minds of conservatives, he bucked the political trends in Washington DC, abandoning even his own party at times, apparently on the basis of principle. It may be that for him to fully set conservatism apart from the muck of establishment GOP politics, he will find himself required to loudly and forcefully make the distinction clear, not merely in his words, but in the clear-thinking actions of his office, so long as he may be in it. Otherwise, Trump will succeed in painting him, and conservatism, as just more representative of the whole of the Republican party, and with such a faulty attribution of blame, conservatism label will continue to be the generic container into which the wider voting public will file all Republicans. I suspect Trump knows all of this, but his campaign isn’t one of nuance or detail. Quite to the contrary, his campaign is one of generic sloganeering, with thinly-veiled emotional appeals substituted in place of syllogisms.
It’s because I do believe that Trump knows the difference that I consider this attack on conservatism to be a lie on his part. There is some small chance that he is so thoroughly ignorant that he doesn’t understand the distinction, but I suspect that’s not the problem. I believe that Trump is gambling on and playing to the electorate in a disingenuous fashion, knowing that his prospective voters don’t understand the distinctions anyway, and won’t be motivated to discover them. Thus far, he’s been largely correct in this assumption, although it remains to be seen whether it will hold up through the entire campaign season.
The problem for conservatives is “Yuge” because they’re stuck in the same sort of problem, in almost exactly the same fashion, as is the basic reputation of “capitalism.” This is not coincidental. Capitalism continues to be blamed for all the evils of statism, in its various manifestations, because few are interested in learning the distinctions between what America’s actual economic system is, and why capitalism bears no actual resemblance. In much the same fashion that we haven’t even had approximately conservative governance in more than a generation, so too is it the case that capitalism was vanquished in America by the enactment of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Sherman Act is wholly antithetical to capitalism, and whatever economic system we may have had since, it is not and cannot be labeled as “capitalism.” Of course, once again, the propagandists for statism have managed to re-cast the meaning of the term in precisely the same way that “conservatism” has been redefined so as to include all “Republicans.” It’s nonsense, of course, but that fact does not stop them from doing it. One must be attentive to details, in a disciplined way. It’s an article of faith among those same propagandists that our system of government be referred to as “democracy,” but that bears little resemblance to the actual form of government our Constitution’s framers designed and ratified. The United States is, by definition of its organizing document, a “constitutional representative republic,” but too often, as a matter of ease and propaganda, folks drop that longer, much narrower description, and it is to the detriment of the body politic, unless you happen to be a propagandist or advocate for statism.
The truth Trump won’t tell you is that had conservatives had their way over the last three decades, we would never have approached the state of desperate gloom under which we now suffer. What he won’t tell you is that statism is the responsible political philosophy, in large measure because he has been among its practitioners and advocates. When he proposes solving the “student loan problem” with another government program, he’s advancing statism. When he proposes replacing Obamacare with what seems to be a Canadian or British-styled single-payer healthcare system, he’s proposing more statism. He’s doubling down. When he states that eminent domain is an important tool in private initiatives, he is declaring statism in big, broad terms, while he is defiling the good name of capitalism to do it. Donald Trump isn’t a capitalist, but instead a cronyist. He has greased palms and bought favors with campaign contributions as much as any person who has ever sought the office of President, and maybe more. His well-documented use of government officials and offices in the name of his private concerns is evidence neither of capitalism, nor conservatism, and that to date, he has gotten away with this mislabeling and slander is at least in part the fault of we conservatives.
After all, it’s the same thing: Jeb Bush calls himself a “conservative” and most of us won’t bother to debunk his claim. His brother called himself a “compassionate conservative,” but too few of us challenged his claim though it was obvious in most notable respects that his presidency was rife with the growth of statism, and the advancement of anti-capitalist measures.
Yes, Donald Trump is probably going to succeed in blaming conservatism for the sins of GOP establishment, moderate actions. His lie will stand mostly unchallenged because most of us will not even stand for our claimed political philosophy. While I can’t do a thing about that, I can and will continue to speak out about the lies of Trump in this regard: Conservatism is not to blame for the ills of this country, any more than one can blame capitalism, and for the same exact reason: We haven’t practiced either in so long that the terms have lost their true meaning. Trump knows this, and he’s gambling that his supporters won’t discover it either. It’s our job, the job of actual conservatives, to educate the electorate on the differences.