Donald Trump and Conservatisim vs. Hillary Clinton and Liberalism
The following is a lecture I gave on October 18th for the Daytona State College WISE series.
A year ago it was my intention to discuss the Miracle of Philadelphia. Yet we are currently in the midst of a historic presidential election, where both major political parties view the opponent’s candidate as an existential threat to the existence of the Constitution itself. Therefore, like any good politician, I will answer my own question and address the current presidential election. I hope you will indulge me in shifting my topic.
Our country is at a pivotal moment in history. Whether we realize it or not the current presidential debate is about the fundamental questions of our constitution, we are debating the meaning of our political community. We are debating the next president of the United States. We are, by extension, questioning, molding, and challenging the vision of our framers. Maybe then my question isn’t too far afield my original topic.
Let me lay out my more specific topic and set of questions. I would like to address two major issues. The first is nearly cliche: what does Donald Trump as a candidate and/or president mean? What fissures has — or will — a Trump presidency rend into the garment of the Republican Party. It has been the compelling story of the current election.
In a word my first question is: what is Donald Trump? Yet I don’t mean this in an individual, or specific way, I mean what is Trump as an ideological expression? What does Trump mean for Conservatism?
Defining conservatism is no easy or small matter. The question of defining conservatism alone could be an entire lecture in and of itself. So back to the question: what is a conservative?
Part of the inherent problem is that conservatism is opposed, on ideological grounds, to general or abstract theory. As Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey remarked on Edmond Burke, “To summarize Burke’s political thought in a series of abstract propositions, therefore, is inevitably to distort the perspective in which he originally expressed it.”1
Conservatism arrises from the historical and the practical, yet, it is necessary to think about it in abstract form to understand it as an ideology. Like Strauss and Crospey on Burke, we must necessarily distort conservatism to digest it. We must think about it systematically to understand it, even if that systematic understanding is in opposition to the ideology itself. Conservatism is opposed to thinking of itself as a systematic ideological position.
What then is conservatism? It is an ideology that eschews ideology, because it views itself as emerging from actual circumstances. It views itself as the inductive form of political reasoning. One might turn to Russell Kirk in his definition of the movement:
Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogma, and conservatives inherit from Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the time. As a working premise, nevertheless, one can observe here that the essence of social conservatism is preservation of the ancient moral tradition of humanity. Conservatives respect the wisdom of their ancestors; they think society is a spiritual reality, possessing an eternal life but a delicate constitution: it cannot be scrapped and recast as if it were a machine.2
Conservatism, due to its nature then, is not an easily definable matter. Kirk himself laid out the propositions which he argued bound conservatives together. Conservative are: (1) primarily concerned with tradition; (2) the community of the past, present and future; (3) the organic nature of the state; (4) belief in the transedent and spiritual order of life; (5) the importance of prescription; (6) the dangerous nature of change; and, finally, (6) the importance of property in the conception of liberty.
Such a political ideology and such propositions as are advanced by conservatism are difficult precisely because they defy the engrained view of the United States. It has long been true — and it continues to be — that conservatism is not the ideology of the contemporary age. Conservatism is the true ideological opposite of liberalism, in all its variants, and therefore has little place in a country in which liberalism is the default political position.
The mainline tradition of the United States comes more from liberalism, both in its classical and modern forms. Where conservatism begins with humanity as it is with a respect from the ancient tradition from which it came, the liberal begins with the individual. But I will turn later to my discussion of liberalism.
Early conservatives, liberals and social contract theorists of all stripes are very different from our own age. The difference lies in another modern phenomenon: relativism. It is this postmodern phenomenon, relativism, that Paul Johnson argues comes from the 1919 experimental confirmation of Einstein’s theory of relativity. In the popular mind this confirmation undid the possibility of an ancient moral order:
But for most people, to whom Newtonian physics with their straight lines and right angles, were perfectly comprehensible, relativity never became more than a vague source of unease. It was grasped that absolute time and absolute length had been dethroned; that motion was curvilinear. All at once, nothing seemed certain in the movements of the spheres. ‘The world is out of joint,’ as Hamlet sadly observed. It was as though the spinning globe had been taken off its axis and cast adrift in a universe which no longer conformed to accustomed standards of measurement. At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.3
The focus here is not pure philosophy, but the political implications of philosophy. Relativism can fit nicely with the individualism inherent in liberalism. It does not fit well with conservative thought, because conservative thought is about deeper, necessarily longer lasting truths. The truth of tradition, class, and religion, hold little sway in a world where there is no fixed point of morality. The idea that our morality is guided by a community of individuals, who together consent to a specific morality, in a specific time and place, fits together with both classical and modern liberalism. Before we turn to liberalism, let me turn to the Republican Party and to the the phenomenon of Donald Trump.
The Republican Party
What then is the Republican Party? Like all catch-all parties there is ideological fuzziness, but it seems safe to say that it has evolved to have three major wings. One are the actual conservative forces themselves. I have discussed their forces extensively. A second wing is libertarian, or classically liberal, wing of the republican party. The third is the evangelical wing of the party.
All three of these wings, for some time, have found relative common ground in the party. American conservatism, with its focus on property and freedom, has often overlapped pragmatically with the goals of libertarians. Evangelicals could partner with libertarians to the extent they agree on fiscal issues. Evangelicals are in some ways a subset of conservatives, so they of course found common ground. Yet the fissures were never far below the surface. None of these wings can survive alone, yet none can continue much longer with the others. Each election cycle is another round closer to forcing the ultimate ideological questions to come to the fore and thereby end the tentative truce. Enter Donald Trump.
Let me now return to Trump. The man of reality TV and The Art of the Deal. A man who, I wish to argue, embodies the ultimate expression of the modern age. He is the confirmation of Johnson: he is the relativity candidate. He is the embodiment of reality television come to the realm of politics.
The difficulty Trump’s opponents had in the primary, and now Hillary Clinton in the general election, have ultimately had with his campaign is the inability to nail down what it is. Trump daily, hourly, moment by moment, revises and alters his positions. The pundits seem surprised. Pundits can’t seem to understand why his base is immune to his flip-flopping. His supporters, the implication is, are deranged. They are a “basket full of deplorables” in the words of Hillary Clinton.
I would like to argue this is a flawed paradigm for viewing Trump as a movement. Reality television, like relativism, doesn’t need narrative consistency. In fact, it shuns such consistency on principle. It isn’t that Trumps’s backers don’t see his inconsistent positions, they are actually comfortable with those inconsistencies because they don’t view inconsistency’s as a bug: inconsistency is a feature. It might even be the central feature of his campaign.
In this way Trump is actually the anti-conservative. There is no ancient order because there is no meaningful narrative connection to yesterday. What he shares with conservatism is a lack of abstract principle. What matters are the issues on the ground. What he jettisons from conservatism is any connection to tradition those specifics make.
You can’t argue issues with Trump. You can’t argue issues with his supporters. Issues are a fluid thing. The consistency comes from the personality. It comes from image: an image of strength. How we are going to face down Putin or build a wall with Mexico is meaningless. The fact Trump is talking about it is the source of strength in and of itself. It is the “big beautiful wall.”
Trump is an emotional brand. You connect with it, you don’t think about it. Any candidate who attempts to attack the movement on reason, positions, or narrative is bound to fail. Hillary Clinton will fail if she continues this strategy. In the same way reality television dominated the airwaves, so too will Clinton find herself facing an impossible battle if her goal is to out detail Trump. A scripted television show isn’t going to beat our Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
The Future of Politics and The Republican Party
Pundits keep thinking that some moment — plagiarism, inconsistency, advocating for rape (I never thought I would utter that phrase about a presidential candidate) etc. — will define the fall of Trump. It won’t. His acceptance speech was the centerpiece of reality television come to political life. He is the expression of forces already at work. He has tapped into a world which doesn’t understand things like science, vaccines, and global warming.
Those who adhere to the democratic principle keep thinking that voting will stop Trumps. Pundits, sociologists, and even my own political scientists have missed the truth: voters have already spoken with their dollars. What do people buy? They buy Kim Kardashian. They binge watch Netflix. In short they have already voted a thousand times before for Trump under different names. The only difference is this time they are voting for him at the ballot box. Reality television won out over bookshelves long before Trump was a candidate.
Individual campaigns don’t change the political environment. Political scientists have long demonstrated that campaign effects are rather minimal. Campaigns are the outcome of larger structural changes, rather than the catalyst for change themselves. In short, Trump is the result of ongoing political and social forces, not the beginning of a radical change. He is the result of long standing forces, not the vanguard of something new.
The Republican Party is undergoing a profound shift. The Republican Party is no longer a conservative party. It is a nationalist party that focuses on security and closed borders (both fiscally and physically). The positions of the Republican Party today are not tied to an ancient moral regime. The are tied to the idea that for too long the United States hasn’t been first. It isn’t great. It is less than it could be if we turned inward. We can be great again.
Let me turn away for a moment from my first topic, Trump and Conservatism to introduce my second. Liberalism and the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. The so-called inevitable candidate. The candidate we are told must win. Of course she was the inevitable candidate before in 2008 when she lost to a little known, first term senator who ran for the presidency named Barak Obama.
Hillary Clinton has long been in the spotlight in one form or another. In fact, she has been in the political realm for as long as I have been alive (if I can be allowed to date myself). She is an old face in the Democratic Party, but she too is pivotal. Her rise too must be placed in ideological context. Only instead of speaking of Conservatism, we must speak of Liberalism.
Conservatism is about the ancient tradition. Liberalism, in all of its forms, is about building rational societies starting from the point of view of the individual. Further, unlike conservatism, liberalism not only views itself as systematic, it is purposefully universal. It is transcendent, not limited to a single geography or era.
Either as a thought experiment or as a true state of affairs the liberal argues man can, and has, existed outside of the state. Individuals in this situation then give up — either eagerly (Hobbes), carefully (Locke), or unwittingly (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) — some of their individual rights to enter into a political community (i.e. a state). For the liberal a political society is nothing more than the consent of any number of freemen capable of a majority. For Burke and the conservatives, the political community has a spiritual essence that connects it to an ancient tradition.
The grandfather of Liberalism is Thomas Hobbes while John Locke’s writing would be the underpinning of early liberalism in the United States (going so far as to be the underpinning of our own Declaration of Independence). Both would be part of what is known as social contract theory. Understanding social contract theory is central to understanding liberalism.
It would be Hobbes who would first use the heuristic fiction of the state of nature borrowed by all subsequent social contract theorists. The idea is that to understand the state, to understand political community, one must first understand human nature. Specifically human nature sans the authority of government. This idealized starting point he called the state of nature.
While Hobbes and Locke would differ widely on what they thought the state of nature was (that is, they disagreed about human nature), they shared a common starting point: the individual. For Hobbes the state of nature was a place of anarchy and chaos. Perfect liberty led to an intolerable position for all individuals. So we exit the state of nature to find security. We exit the state of nature by creating a government, or according Hobbes create a social contract. All social contract theorists follow this template. They begin by understanding man sans the state, then based on their idea of human nature humanity enters for differing reasons into a social contract thereby creating the state.
Locke too is a social contract theorists. One with whom we are more familiar because of his connection to our own American system. For Locke we leave the state of nature to better pursue life, liberty and property. The phrase should be familiar because it is the for Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote of “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” There is a fascinating story in the word change from property to pursuit of happiness, but we can not pursue it today.
Locke sees the reason for leaving the state of nature primarily in economic terms. We leave the state of nature to create currency. In leaving we enter into a political community, but we do not divest ourselves of liberty to an overarching government. Rather, we give up specific liberties to the majority so that we can better pursue our life, liberty and property. It is a two-way contract.
For both Locke and Hobbes individuals have natural rights, which come not from an ancient tradition, but from reason. They are bestowed on an individual because they are an individual. What makes an individual? They can reason. For Hobbes and Locke the standout feature is that people are individuals who interact with others for self-interest, but that self-interest benefits society.
Our own political community would be born from liberalism. The United States was founded by individuals who fled the feudal ethos of Europe and brought with them the liberal ethos of Locke 4. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out:
“The great advantage of the Americans is that they have arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution; and that they are born equal, instead of become so.” 5
Liberalism comes in two major forms. The first is classical liberalism, what we often today know of as libertarianism. Classical liberals are concerned with the rights of humanity in relationship to the state. They see the state is either an evil necessity, or simply evil. The individual must be free to make uncoereced choices. Those choices, when left alone, will not always be the absolute best theoretically individually, but collectively they will offer us the best realistic possibility. Let us buy and sell as we will, and the best outcome possible will emerge from the result. Not the best outcome, but the best outcome achievable.
Many of these liberals, classical liberals or libertarians, have long abandoned the Democratic Party in favor of the Republican Party. They partnered with American conservatives who were, for differing reasons, also concerned with the size of the state and in favor of local state power. Thus would begin the uneasy alliance between libertarians and conservatives in the United States. However, as social issues have grown more prominent, libertarians have deserted the Republican Party for either their own candidates (like Gary Johnson / Welds) or come to the Democratic Party.
Libertarians, however, are not what most people think of when we say liberalism in the United States. In the American context we are generally referring to modern liberalism. For the modern liberal freedom is only possible because of the state. Civil rights, voting rights, marriage rights, are only possible because of positive state action. The market is the thing to be feared for the modern liberal. It should be allowed, as Hillary Clinton chided Bernie Sanders, but it must only be allowed within boundaries defined by the state for the protection of the people.
Modern liberals are defined by a modern social contrast theorist named John Rawls. Rawls argued that justice required a state which would provide a basic minimum for its population. No one would enter into a social contract if they thought they might be left to die. It would be the classic philosophic argument for the welfare state. Allow a market, but fetter it and supplement it in such ways as to provide a proverbial basement of living.
The Democratic Party is not a single ideological party. While there are three major wings in the Republican Party fracturing, there are two major wings in the Democratic Party which are fracturing. The modern liberals are being flanked by a new era of overt democratic socialists.
Another ideological movement inside the Democratic Party is the labour movement or, more precisely, democratic socialism. Unlike the socialism of Marx, who advocated for the overthrow of society through violent means (in fact such an overthrow was inevitable and determined by history) democratic socialism comes from the fabian tradition in the United Kingdom. It argued that socialism could be voted into office by slowly increasing the electorate to include more and more people. These people would vote in their self-interest and, over time, socialism would be enacted through democratic means.
For the democratic socialist the market is neither good nor something to be confined, it is something to be discarded. Business should be run democratically. Sales should be managed. The commanding heights of the economy are to be controlled directly by the state, democratically, for the people.
Under the banner of progressivism these two wings have for a long time united under the assumption that society can be made better via use of the state. What separates democratic socialists and modern liberals from conservatives: the state and society are not like a body, they are like a machine. They can be analyzed and fixed. They can be perfected.
Liberalism, Democratic Socialism and the Democratic Party
It is here a rift is emerging in the Democratic Party. It is a rift that has been a long time in the making. Back in the 80s and 90s leftist parties in the U.S. and abroad (especially in the U.K.) began to shift. They saw the Democratic Socialist element in their nature as deeply problematic. It was the reason they were losing elections (like to Reagan). It was time for a new left.
That new left was embodied in Clinton. Only this time I mean Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton led the wave of the New Democratic Party — the party which purposefully abandoned the idea of socialism in favor of a moderate path during the 90s. Bill Clinton’s election shifted the Democratic Party to the right. Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party was the party of NAFTA, of the Defense of Marriage Act, it was the party of the modern liberal. It was the attempt to overcome the prior decade of Reaganism trouncing socialism.
Bill Clinton was for free trade (again, think NAFTA). He was for a market. He was a modern liberal yes, but to be palatable to the general public he decided the Democratic Party needed to ditch the long dying (in his view) socialists behind. His election would seemingly confirm his instinctual shift (as would Tony Blair’s in the U.K.).
Democratic socialism didn’t completely die. It hung around in the Democratic Party in the corner. It was on the vanguard of the gay rights movement. It was embodied in young politicians without a chance of winning — like Bernie Sanders. In recent years it has made a resurgence and it was felt like a shockwave throughout the Democratic Party’s primary this year in 2016.
The primary would be defined by Bernie Sanders, who took on the mantel of Democratic Socialist openly and nearly felled his opponent Hillary Clinton, who took on the mantel of her husband’s new left.
Where does that put Hillary Clinton? For the second time Hillary Clinton is trying to navigate a path to presidential victory. She is the embodiment of modern liberalism and an extension of the policies of her husband. Strong military presence abroad, free trade agreements, combined with a social safety net. The Trans Pacific Partnership was the “gold standard”, to be measured against other winners like NAFTA according to Hillary Clinton.
The rift in the political party has put Hillary Clinton in a difficult position. She was assailed from the left by Bernie Sanders and has, subsequently, moved her positions further left. She voted for the war in Iraq, which was good until it was bad. She was for NAFTA and the defense of marriage act, until they were bad. More recently she was part of TPP, until Bernie Sanders came roaring with a huge movement of people who were willing to be openly called socialists.
Clinton was the face of Democratic Party’s modern liberal wing, but now she must try and appeal to democratic socialists as well. She is trying to sit on the fault line. She needs both of the major wings of the party to unite behind her to win. Even if she does it, it seems unlikely that a future candidate will be able to hold the same space.
The fissures of the Democratic Party in 2016 have grown beneath the feet of Clinton. Democratic socialists are no longer content with the “inevitable” candidate. They no longer want to tolerate modern liberalism, they want true Universal Healthcare. They want a new state and they want it now. It was only due to unique election rules (read undemocratic) in the Democratic Party giving outsized power to superdelegates that Clinton was able to maintain her position.
If Donald Trump is the postmodern candidate, on the vanguard of change in the Republican Party, Hillary Clinton is the face of modern liberalism, an ideology which is declining in the Democratic Party. Her first debate with Bernie Sanders highlighted the differences. Clinton laid out how the market, for all of its problems, had produced the country we now live in and should not be discarded.
Clinton, therefore, stands in a difficult space. She is historically (and via marriage) the candidate of a new left, now an old left, a moderate left. She is a modern liberal, but she must appeal to a younger set of voters who are open to the name socialism. She sits in a party which is, in its own way, trying to find its new identity.
Clinton v. Trump
We are now deep into the general election. We have two candidates who are sitting on the cracks of their respective parties. Understand me carefully, I am not suggesting that the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are going to melt away. Nor, despite my own ideological preferences, do I think that a new party will become electorally viable. Instead, I think that our children will associate very different ideologies with the two major parties.
I predict The Republican Party will soon be the nationalist party. Libertarians have already abandoned it and the few left are leaving. True conservatives thought they could find allies among social conservatives, but social conservatives left more moderate candidates in favor of Trump.
Further I predict the Democratic Party will no longer be the party of modern liberalism, it will be an increasingly overtly democratic socialist party. Hillary Clinton, win or lose, is the downfall of the modern liberalism wing. If she wins, her lack of enthusiastic support of the socialist agenda will be seen as the reason for her failure. If she loses, it will demonstrate why the party should have elected Bernie Sanders. Either way the democratic socialist base will be excited to new heights.
The shifting of parties will make for some interesting allies. If you look at Bernie Sanders’ supporters, they have some pragmatic, although not ideological, alliances with Trump supporters. Trump has long been against trade deals (no NAFTA, no TPP) in a way that Clinton has not. Will some Sanders supporters shift to Trump? Maybe.
Which brings me to my conclusion. You have patiently waited for it during the entire speech. You have indulged my political philosophy and history long enough. Now you want to know: who will win the 2016 presidential election?
I hope that the proceeding conversation has made something clear: elections are not primarily won or lost during the campaign. They play out under a confined set of possibilities by the structural factors that are coming to fruition long before any candidate throws their hat in the ring.
The truth is, as much as we fixate on election cycles, a specific campaign has very little likelihood of being the singular event that “decides” the next president. As a matter of fact, the polls have nearly returned to where they were one year ago in January.6
I think that Hillary Clinton is doing phenomenally poorly. Her inability to simply end Donald Trump is the result of both Clinton fatigue and her need to straddle the line between modern liberalism and democratic socialism. Clinton’s biggest downfall is her lack of principled stand, so the necessity to shift leftwards has only been — and will only continue to be — highlighted as a weakness.
As for Donald Trump, he has simply run at perfect moment in history. Nationalism is on the rise globally. He is the American Brexit. The tenets of liberalism, both classical and modern, are in retreat. Consevatism is in the midst of an identity crisis. Nationalism is the contemporary ideology..
Trump is also, as I already noted, the politician of the future. The fruition of postmodernity in combination with nationalism will not soon go away. Such is the winner of the 2016 presidential election: nationalism and postmodernity.
- Strauss, Leo and Joseph Cropsey. 1963. History of Political Philosophy. p. 601 ↩︎
- Kirk, Russell. 1978. The Conservative Mind. ↩︎
- Johnson, Paul. 1983. Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties. ↩︎
- Ingersoll, David. (Ed), The Philosophic Roots of Modern Ideology 3rd. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall), 2000, p. 50 ↩︎
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2 Vols, trans. Henry Reeve (New York: Schocken Books), 1961, Vol. 2, p. 122. ↩︎
- http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/us/general_election_trump_vs_clinton–5491.html ↩︎