Donald Trump, George Will, and the Crisis of Conservatism
By Carson Holloway
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.
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