Reclaiming Conservative Rhetoric in the Trump Era

“Can I think?” asked Mr. Trump during an interview with Anderson Cooper. Readers may decide whether he was asking permission or pondering his intellectual limits.

Perhaps more problematic than the possibility of Mr. Trump’s thinking, however, is the thoughtless rhetoric that has allowed many conservative voters to “think” he is in their camp. When some people believe that Trump is a conservative, it is because they have no idea that conservatism is more than angry sound bites about President Obama, ObamaCare, and our broken immigration system.

The wheels for Donald Trump’s candidacy were greased long ago by radio personalities, bloggers, and other spokespersons who prioritized immediate messaging victories over the permanent truths conservatives have spent generations articulating. Trump has merely harvested the low-hanging, rotten fruits of that cheapened discourse.

Future conservative viability, with or without a Trump presidency, requires reclaiming rhetoric. Rhetoric, according to Aristotle, is about persuasion: helping people to come to see truth through their own rational faculties. It is not merely about getting people angry about a bad law, motivating activists to call congress, or rallying voters to a candidate.

Conservatives from Russell Kirk and FA Hayek to Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman relentlessly made the case for conservative truths such as the dignity of all human life, the universal desire to find and express truth, the joy of creative labor and voluntary exchange, the endless possibilities of unplanned community, the moral good of human freedom, and the destructive tendencies of centralized power.

When conservatives communicate those truths, they offer a framework for thinking clearly about politics and how we should draft laws. Unfortunately, those truths have been quickly tossed aside by pundits who either cannot or will not do the hard work of persuading their audience.

The use of cheapened rhetoric is particularly evident in the demands for immediate, sweeping change, such as repealing Obamacare with a slim Republican majority in Congress and President Obama in the White House.

Most informed pundits knew this could not happen, but that did not stop many of them from promoting Senator Ted Cruz’s shutdown. The shutdown message played to real problems with the law, but it taught people to forget about separation of powers and the Constitution’s limits on sweeping change.

Conservatives know that the work of building a free society takes many years. Patience is a fundamental virtue, and our unique system of government hampers would-be tyrants by thwarting rapid change. Discarding patience and constitutional restraint in the service of immediate policy victories suggests that conservatives do not have a principled end game. Yet conservatives do have a principled end game — and America needs them to keep fighting for it.

Even if Obamacare remains indefinitely in the federal code, conservatives have a crucial role standing up for the dignity of all human life, limited government, and ordered liberty.

People need to know that the purpose of our political movement is not just about repealing the bad law passed six years ago. They need to hear our case for the larger goods we understand and appreciate.

However, it is hard to talk about larger goods when some allies turn every political disagreement into #WAR.

Political adversaries, for the conservative, are fellow human beings, endowed with dignity and inalienable rights from their creator. Conservatives want all people to enjoy and live full, rich lives. When government is limited, more people have the potential to do so.

A love for our fellow man, rather than a bloodlust for crushing enemies, is what motivates the advocate for limited government and ordered liberty. Rather than hating liberals for their flawed ideological assumptions, conservatives persuade them to recognize their own unique dignity, pursue opportunity, and enjoy freedom.

Conservatives have the ability to reclaim rhetoric. However, persuading people to see truth means no longer resorting to appeals to fear, anger, and short-term thinking. And that means shutting off the voices which masquerade in conservative clothes.

We owe it to ourselves to be informed and not listen to those who undermine conservatism’s core claims, even if they bring about the occasional political victory.

Yes, this means it is time for quite a few talk show hosts, cable news anchors, and “reporters” to find new employment. They will, if enough of us look for truth in our news outlets rather than quick answers.

Our next President may not be able to think, but conservatives can. And the rest of the country needs thinking conservatives to remind and persuade them of the things that truly make America great.