The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Conservatives are still grappling with the Trump era. And many haven’t yet learned their lesson.

A supporter waves a "Make America Great Again" hat at a rally for President Trump in Grand Rapids, Mich., on March 28. (Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s election shook conservatism to its core. Rejected by the voters of a party they had considered their natural home, movement conservatives are now engaged in a long overdue conversation about principles and political strategy. A recent conference offered much solid advice about both what should and should not be done.

The event was billed as the start of a new American “national conservatism.” This title clearly tries to align the new thinking with the burgeoning sense of nationalism one sees throughout the world, but much depends on what the words mean. What constitutes the American nation? What should this conservatism seek to conserve?

The speakers differed a lot on how to answer the second question. Some speakers, such as the Hudson Institute’s Chris DeMuth and the Faith and Reason Institute’s Mary Eberstadt, sought to reintegrate priorities of the old conservatism — deregulation and social conservatism — into the new. Others, such as “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, sought to distance the new conservatism from the old movement’s dependence upon libertarian-infused thinking for its domestic policies.

This tension is healthy and natural for a reformed conservatism. Anything new cannot be wholly divorced from what preceded it, but to succeed, the new right cannot be the old right with new clothes. The old movement clearly missed something crucial about the national mood to have failed so utterly to prevent Trump’s nomination and election. Failure to come to grips with this and to be genuinely new in some way will produce the same political failure.

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Trump voters were angry because they believed that the national promise of liberty and equality for all was being shunted aside in favor of the interests and moral preferences of the educated, secular and urban regions of the country. Any new conservatism must grapple with this sentiment and integrate it with principles that also appeal to immigrants, their children and those in educated, urban classes who wish to live in harmony with all Americans. That conservatism must be distinctly less libertarian in its economics and distinctly less denominationally Christian in its social rhetoric to have any chance of success.

Unfortunately, too many of the speakers failed to understand this. Instead, they offered a vision of American nationhood that is both romanticized and highly inaccurate. As such, they misdiagnose what America both was and is and offer the new conservatism a poisoned chalice from which to drink.

This vision of America emphasizes the country’s past as a British Protestant nation, one where the vast supermajority of citizens took their moral cues from the Bible as the guide to its future. This may have been an accurate picture of the nation at its founding and into the 1840s. It has not been true for well over a century.

Since the 1890s, the country has successfully defined what it means to be American without recourse to denominational persuasion or British heritage. To argue, as conference organizer Yoram Hazony did, that “Christianity was the force that created America” and that belief in “God and scripture” with an emphasis on the Old Testament held the country together is to argue for modern America’s de facto dissolution.

These speakers also tried to write America’s belief in universal principles of human rights out of our national history. The Declaration of Independence’s claim that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” was shockingly ignored. Instead, speakers such as conservative writer Daniel McCarthy sought to locate the American national conservative tradition in the Federalist Party, a party so demolished by Thomas Jefferson that all political discourse since 1800 has essentially been a debate between Jefferson’s descendants. Others such as political theorist Patrick Deneen argued that even the conception of residents of the United States as “Americans” did not arise until the late 19th century under the influence of progressive thinkers. This would have been news to Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln’s idol, who called his economic plan “the American system” as early as 1832.

Yuval Levin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, offered the wiser counsel in his presentation, noting that American conservatism is inherently an interpretation of liberal, universal principles that offers liberty and freedom to all. He correctly notes that those seeking to preserve religious liberty will need to make arguments grounded in universal, liberal principles if they are to prevail in modern America. This conservatism recognizes the inherent, universal dignity of all individuals while maintaining that human happiness and flourishing requires unatomized individuals who form voluntary associations such as family, community, faith traditions and businesses. It is one that can unite Americans across their many differences and accordingly is one that can form the basis of a politically successful — and genuinely national — modern conservatism.

All human and political entities must bend, or they will break. Judaism or Christianity in the 21st century is not identical to 1st century Judaism or Christianity, even as they retain an essential connection to them. American conservatism faces its own moment to choose whether it will bend or break. If conservatism listens to more to people like Vance and Levin — and less to those who counsel a return to a pre-liberal, ahistorical religious past — it can meet the test and become what it has long proclaimed to be: the genuine political expression of the American people. If it listens to the siren songs of the ultras, then it will richly deserve the smashing and total defeat it will endure.

Read more:

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Fareed Zakaria: Why American conservatism failed

Anne Applebaum: Conservative intellectuals are at a turning point: Normalize Trump or resist him?

Paul Waldman: What the demise of NRATV says about conservatism today

Max Boot: What comes after Trump may be even worse