Trump, Flake, and New Conservatives

How a now-obscure group from the 1950s may serve as a template for anti-Trump conservatives.

Trump critic Jeff Flake gives a speech on the Senate floor, October 2017. Citation: The Daily Beast

The Trump presidency has resulted in a raft of opposition from disparate corners of American political life. His obvious opponents are those on the left who oppose his racial demagoguery and conservative economic policies. But a sizable contingent on the right has also opposed Trump from the beginning of his candidacy. They view the president as a boorish oaf whose presidency betrays the ideals of conservatism. According to National Review senior editor Jonah Goldberg, Trump’s presidency is a cult of personality that will eventually disintegrate the Republican Party. But these Never Trump conservatives have been hampered by their continuing allegiance to party politics. Conservatives criticize Trump but then attack his liberal critics and vote for policies that strengthen the president. Is there an alternative to partisan attachment that can help these conservatives achieve the validity and authenticity of their rhetoric?

My suggestion for these Never Trump conservatives is to look to the historical record for an alternative to Republican-based conservatism. The mid-20th century New Conservatives, a group of writers and intellectuals from the 1940s and 1950s, provided an outline of conservatism that accepted the basic outlines of the welfare state while criticizing modernity and socialism. Most importantly, their rhetoric and ideas bypassed party politics, allowing them to work outside of the strangling partisanship that holds back so many earnest conservatives today.

These New Conservatives (not to be confused with later groups that used this name) traced their origins to a 1940 Atlantic Monthly article by Peter Viereck, later a history professor at Mount Holyoke College. In “But Wait — I’m A Conservative,” Viereck laid out a definition of conservatism that focused on ideals and morals over partisanship and economic ideology. Viereck wrote that common sense was the basis of conservatism, that it referred to “the common and universal sense of mankind, the common values basic to every civilized society and creed. These human values are the traffic lights which all (even ‘mass movements’) must obey in order that all may be free.” Political partisanship and ideology should be abandoned if they violated those common values.

Many of Viereck’s values, including free speech and the rule of law, have long been associated with conservatism. But one, the value of fair treatment of the poor and downtrodden, transcended the conservatism of both Viereck’s contemporaries and today. Describing the Liberty League, an anti-New Deal group, Viereck wrote that its members accepted democratic inequality but “give us only the negative liberty to starve and be unemployed.” Viereck also opposed the support of laissez-faire economics and anti-communism by later conservatives such as Robert Taft and William F. Buckley, Jr. He supported Adlai Stevenson for president in 1952 and 1956. In a New Yorker interview late in his life, Viereck said that his goal was to open minds “to the idea that to be conservative is not to be satanic.”

The New Conservatives followed Viereck’s emphasis on values over partisanship. Their writings pilloried conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats alike for violating the values they attributed to conservatism. They criticized liberals for their moral nihilism and conservatives for curbing civil liberties and opposing non-socialist welfare programs.

The New Conservatives’ consistency in basing their political decisions on values, not party loyalty, was a source of strength that today’s anti-Trump conservatives can tap into. Numerous conservatives were shattered by the collapse of McCarthyism in the 1950s. Peter Viereck, Clinton Rossiter, and the other New Conservatives survived because of their commitment to consistently upholding key American values.

Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, Ben Sasse, and any other conservative who wants to work effectively against Trump need to base similar political decisions on their values. They need to vote with Democrats in committees to help further investigations against Trump. On the Senate floor, they must vote against Trump’s policies if they believe those policies violate their values, or if a vote for Trump would give him political capital to violate their values in other areas. Otherwise, the public will view them as craven politicians who say one thing and then vote for the opposite under pressure. They will become what Hillary Clinton was turned into: a politician who became known more for her attacks on Bernie Sanders and her decision about an email server than her sound, sensible rhetoric.

If today’s conservatives want to survive their own demagogue, they should look back to historically proven strategies and look beyond today’s partisanship, or have their political fates forever tied to a leader they despise.