The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How conservatives learned to love big government

The intoxicating appeal of a strong central government

A reflection of the U.S. Capitol's dome. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Conservatives have a paradoxical relationship with state power.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, right-wingers sounded the alarm about the imperial presidency. Conservatives lined up to contest Obama’s numerous executive orders, calling the president a “king,” a “dictator” and an “emperor.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz characterized Obama as a “lawless president.”

A few short years later, however, conservatives have reversed themselves. None voiced objections when President Trump issued 55 executive orders during his first year in office, more than Obama signed in any one year. Two years later, amid the longest government shutdown in U.S. history and surging Democratic resistance, Trump is threatening an even more dramatic expansion of his authority: using his “right to declare a national emergency” to fulfill his campaign promise to build wall separating the United States and Mexico.

This reveals an ideological inconsistency within modern conservatism. At its core, conservatism espouses a small-government philosophy. “That government is best that governs least,” as Henry David Thoreau put it. Yet time and again, conservative presidential administrations and Congress members have greatly expanded, and at times abused, state authority. This paradox is not an aberration of the Trump era, however — it was woven into the very fabric of modern conservatism.

In 1935, libertarian thinker Albert Jay Nock wrote an anti-government treatise titled “Our Enemy, the State.” In his book, Nock described a “blundering, wasteful, and vicious” state dominated by a nebulous cabal of “collectivists.” Roughly a decade later, as fascism ravaged the European continent, Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek extended Nock’s argument. Hayek contended that an enlarged governmental bureaucracy — an elastic term that conservatives stretched to mean anything from New Deal liberalism to Nazi fascism — put society on an inexorable road to serfdom. Numerous right-wing authors, including Ayn Rand, Richard M. Weaver and Russell Kirk, made similar anti-government arguments.

Despite this philosophical foundation, conservative politicians readily wielded state power against liberal opponents. U.S. representative Martin Dies Jr., a far-right Texas Democrat, formed the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the Great Depression to target the growth of domestic fascism. The committee soon expanded its mandate to investigate New Deal programs and labor unions for traces of communism. The fact that some communists existed convinced Dies and his ilk that liberalism provided a gateway for subversive communism. Through HUAC, Dies bequeathed a statist blueprint for intimidating political adversaries.

After World War II, anti-communist hysteria created the perfect environment for widening Dies’s strategy. Liberals, derided by conservatives as “soft on communism,” signed off on anti-communist policies, and HUAC continued hunting, and occasionally finding, witches. But it was senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) who proved the most eager to exploit Dies’s schema.

McCarthy depicted liberalism as a gateway for communist subversion, and he went so far as to claim presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower and even the U.S. Army obfuscated a grand communist cabal, though he never proved any of his allegations. So deluded were McCarthy’s conspiracies that the Senate censured him. But conservatives stood by him: William F. Buckley Jr., the intellectual leader of post-World War II conservatism, even co-wrote a book defending McCarthy’s willingness to deploy state power against left-wing enemies.

Richard M. Nixon, a former HUAC investigator himself, was both the darling of the “law and order” crowd and the president who most violated the rule of law. After the Watergate scandal broke, Nixon authorized the use of state power to cover it up, going so far as to ask the CIA to stop the FBI’s investigation. White House counsel John Dean revealed that Nixon kept an “enemies list,” which included numerous politicians and private citizens who Nixon planned to “screw” by ordering the IRS to audit them. At the time of his resignation, Nixon embodied the imperial presidency: a tyrant manipulating state power for political gain.

Even the more ideologically conservative Ronald Reagan, who governed as a conservative in many ways, embodied this contradiction. He cut taxes, deregulated multiple industries, contested unions, retrenched welfare programs and adopted an aggressive stance toward the Soviet Union. Yet Reagan also favored an expansive use of state power. As California governor, he became a household name for unleashing police forces, particularly the FBI, upon Berkeley antiwar protesters and the Black Panthers. During his presidency, Reagan poured money into the military-industrial complex and proposed budget-busting programs such as the Strategic Defense Initiative. Deficits soared, even as conservatives championed fiscal responsibility. Reagan, like his conservative successors, also made common cause with social conservatives, who desired to use state power to impose their will on moral issues ranging from abortion to gay rights.

Roughly a decade later, George W. Bush’s administration pushed state expansion into overdrive. Bush slashed taxes and constricted the welfare state while boosting defense budgets to obscene levels. And the surveillance state flourished under Bush. After 9/11, Bush signed the Patriot Act, giving federal authorities vast search and seizure powers to ostensibly fight terrorism. Years later, Bush endorsed an amended version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), through which the NSA established a massive digital dragnet (PRISM) that swept up the information of American civilians.

Yet while conservative Republicans nurtured federal power, the husk of anti-statism remained. At the 2012 Republican National Convention, Rep. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), the party’s vice presidential nominee, declared, “The choice is whether to put hard limits on economic growth, or hard limits on the size of government. And we choose to limit government.” Other Republicans agreed, such as Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), who yearned for a return to conservatism’s libertarian tradition. But it was precisely Republicans such as Ryan who supported the Patriot Act and FISA system, illustrating how right-wingers conveniently vacillate between statist, neoconservative solutions and libertarian inclinations.

Republican conservatives have developed an effective ideological two-step. When Democrats control the government, right-wingers highlight their libertarianism and issue dire warnings about state tyranny. Then, after the political pendulum swings back their direction, they brandish and expand state power when it suits their interests or benefits their coalition. The reality is that, for conservatives, anti-statism is often political strategy masquerading as a commitment to ideological purity.

The growing power of the U.S. government, abetted by both Democratic and Republican politicians, set the stage for a president with well-documented authoritarian tendencies. Trump openly admires autocratic regimes in Russia and North Korea and disdains the democratic traditions of European allies. Though Trump maintains some facets of conventional conservatism (see: tax cuts and deregulation), he has sought to rule by fiat. His threat to declare a spurious national emergency while holding the government hostage epitomizes the radicalization of the modern Republican Party.

Even more alarming is how quickly many of Trump’s fellow Republicans abandoned their anti-statist moorings. In 2014, Sen. Lindsay Graham (S.C.) fumed that Obama’s “unprecedented” executive order on immigration “tramples on the concept of constitutional checks and balances.” Now, with their party in control of the White House, Republicans support an iron-fisted executive branch. Graham, who was once deeply critical of Trump, recently tweeted, “Mr. President [Trump], Declare a national emergency NOW. Build a Wall NOW.”

Many Republicans share Graham’s sentiment. Yet conservatives don’t view themselves as obstructionists. Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.), the leader of the far-right Freedom Caucus, tweeted, “If [the Democrats] won’t compromise . . . he should declare a national emergency. It’s time.” In other words, capitulate to the president’s petulance or face the wrath of state power.

At this critical juncture in American history, conservatism is permutating, fracturing its anti-statist foundation in favor of the siren’s song of authoritarianism. But this should not come as a surprise. This anti-statist paradox has been baked into modern conservatism. The irony is that state power has become the skeleton key to unlocking right-wing political victories.