Looking on the bright side, perhaps this election can teach conservatives to look on the dark side. They need a talent for pessimism, recognizing the signs that whatever remains of American exceptionalism does not immunize this nation from decay, to which all regimes are susceptible.
The world’s oldest political party is an exhausted volcano, the intellectual staleness of its recycled candidate unchallenged because a generation of younger Democratic leaders barely exists. The Republican Party’s candidate evidently disdains his credulous supporters who continue to swallow his mendacities. About 90 percent of presidential votes will be cast for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, refuting the theory that this is a center-right country. At the risk of taking Trump’s words more seriously than he does, on some matters he is to Clinton’s left regarding big government powered by an unbridled presidency.
His trade policy is liberalism’s “industrial policy” repackaged for faux conservatives comfortable with presidents dictating what Americans can import and purchase at what prices, and where U.S. corporations can operate. Trump “wouldn’t approve” Ford manufacturing cars in Mexico. He would create a federal police force to deport 450,000 illegal immigrants a month, including 6.4 percent of America’s workforce in two years. Yet the 25 million jobs he promises to create would require more than doubling the current rate of legal immigration to fill them, according to economist Mark Zandi. Of the Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo decision diluting property rights by vastly expanding government’s powers of eminent domain, Trump says, “I happen to agree with it 100 percent.” Even Bernie Sanders rejects Kelo.
When Trump says “people are not making it on Social Security,” he implies that people should be able to “make it” on Social Security for a third or more of their lives, and that he, like Clinton, is for enriching this entitlement’s benefits. He will “save” the system by eliminating — wait for it — “waste, fraud and abuse.” Trump is as parsimonious with specifics regarding health care (“Plans you don’t even know about will be devised because we’re going to come up with plans — health-care plans — that will be so good”) as regarding foreign policy (“I would get China, and I would say, ‘Get in [North Korea], and straighten it out.’ ”).
“Charismatic authority,” wrote Max Weber in 1915, seven years before Mussolini’s march on Rome, causes the governed to submit “because of their belief in the extraordinary quality of the specific person . . . . Charismatic rule thus rests upon the belief in magical powers, revelations and hero worship.” A demagogue’s success requires a receptive demos, and Trump’s ascendancy reflects progressivism’s success in changing America’s social norms and national character by de-stigmatizing dependency.
Under his presidency, Trump says, government will have all the answers: “I am your voice. . . . I alone can fix it.” The pronoun has unlimited antecedents: “I will give you everything. I will give you what you’ve been looking for for 50 years. I’m the only one.”
Urban without a trace of urbanity, Trump has surrounded himself with star-struck acolytes (Mike Pence marvels at Trump’s anatomical — “broad-shouldered” — foreign policy) and hysterics (Rudy Giuliani: “There is no next election! This is it!”). When Ferdinand VII regained Spain’s throne in 1813, he vowed to end “the disastrous mania of thinking.” Trump is America’s Ferdinand.
The American project was to construct a constitutional regime whose institutional architecture would guarantee the limited government implied by the Founders’ philosophy: Government is instituted to “secure” (the Declaration of Independence) preexisting natural rights. Today, however, neither the executive nor legislative branches takes this seriously, the judiciary has forsworn enforcing it, and neither political party represents it because no substantial constituency supports it.
The ease with which Trump has erased Republican conservatism matches the speed with which Republican leaders have normalized him. For the formerly conservative party, the Founders’ principles, although platitudes in the party’s catechism, have become, as former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “a kind of civic religion, avowed but not constraining.”
The beginning of conservative wisdom is recognition that there is an end to everything: Nothing lasts. If Trump wins, the GOP ends as a vehicle for conservatism. And a political idea without a political party is an orphan in an indifferent world.
Pessimism need not breed fatalism or passivity. It can define an agenda of regeneration, but only by being clear-eyed about the extent of degeneration, which a charlatan’s successful selling of his fabulousness exemplifies. Conservatism’s recovery from his piratical capture of the conservative party will require facing unflattering facts about a country that currently is indifferent to its founding.