The stunning success of the Trump campaign has upended what has passed for conservatism lo these many years and opened up new vistas for the American Right.
Many if not most readers are familiar with the story of how the neoconservatives emigrated from the far left and colonized the conservative movement, hijacking what had been the party of Robert A. Taft and turning it into the party of Paul Wolfo witz. As I wrote in Reclaiming the American Right (reprinted in 2008 by ISI Books with an Introduction by the late George W. Carey and a critical essay by Scott P. Richert), the Old Right of Taft, Mencken, and John T. Flynn was displaced by a gaggle of ex-Trotskyites and former Stalinists gathered together by William F. Buckley, Jr., under the aegis of National Review.
Under Buckley’s tutelage, “movement” conservatism ushered in the New Conservatism, which for all intents and purposes was a nearly perfect inversion of what conservatives had previously believed. While paying lip service to the principle of limited government, Buckley showed his true colors in a 1952 article for Commonweal in which he averred that we had to tolerate a “totalitarian” regime in order to fight and eventually roll back the Red Menace.
Of course when communism imploded in the 1990’s, the “conservatives” didn’t get down to the business of rolling back the power of the centralized state. Nor did they abandon the global empire of bases and protectorates that had been constructed in the name of the Cold War.
Instead, they proceeded as if nothing of any consequence had happened. They continued to support the Welfare-Warfare State, trimming the welfare around the edges while expanding the warfare across the globe. A disastrous war in Iraq, a series of stunning electoral defeats, and the prospect of national bankruptcy didn’t wake them from their dogmatic slumbers.
And then came Donald Trump.
While Trump is very far from being a Burkean conservative, there is a distinct tendency in his public pronouncements to recall the wisdom of the Old Right: “Make America Great Again” distills the conservative longing for something that has clearly been lost. We were great, we aren’t anymore, and we need to reclaim what has slipped from our grasp.
More concretely, Trump has embraced “America First.” Confronted with the “isolationist” history of the phrase, Trump doubled down, telling some FOX News neocon that “My policy is ‘America First.’ It will always be America first.”
He then proceeded to reiterate his criticism of NATO, correctly noting that we pay the lion’s share of the costs while our European “allies” get a free ride. His proposal that we either transform the alliance or abandon it provoked howls of outrage from the neocons and their left-interventionist colleagues, and really was the final straw for the establishment, which proceeded to run their “Never Trump” campaign to new levels of ferocity.
By characterizing Iraq as a war based on a lie, and in attacking globalism in all its forms, Trumpism represents a complete break with Buckleyite “conservatism,” which has always been internationalist in every sense of the term.
Trump’s “America First” foreign policy subverts the very foundations of the American imperium in questioning the need for what Chalmers Johnson called our “empire of bases.” Asked by the Washington Post if he saw any value in maintaining U.S. military bases abroad, Trump flatly replied “No”—an answer that had the military contractors and the foreign-policy “experts” wondering if they’d be living on food stamps in the near future.
Trump’s views on immigration stand in stark contrast to the neoconservative notion that America is a “proposition nation” instead of an actual place. His views on trade, commonly misidentified as “protectionist,” are a recognition of the fact that the United States has been getting what he calls “a bad deal”: We “defend” South Korea and Japan in exchange for letting them hollow out our industrial base.
His domestic policies are centered on the insight that America today is basically an oligarchy—that our healthcare system is monopolistic, that crony capitalism rather than actual entrepreneurship is the only way to get ahead.
The neoconservatives, nurtured on the elitist doctrines of Leo Strauss, have always believed that the people must be ruled by their betters, who alone have the wisdom to guide the ship of state. This is why they hate Trump—for his politics, and for his very persona as a blue-collar billionaire who talks and acts like a real person rather than some establishment wind-up toy.
Defeated at the polls, the neoconservative vanguard is doomed, no matter what happens in Cleveland. The future belongs to those who proudly hoist the flag of America First.