William B. Turner
There is an interesting thread over on Twitter by Jane Coaston, who is a senior politics writer at Vox, on the question of the so called president’s relationship to “conservatism,” in its degraded, modern, U.S. manifestation.
She points out that many liberals see Trump as the apotheosis of U.S. “conservatism,” and thus disdain those “conservatives” who try to take a “never Trump” stance, which obviously proved unavailing in the 2016 election.
As usual, the liberals are right on this point. To understand the question fully, we have to remind ourselves that there have never really been any true conservatives in the United States. True conservatives are monarchists, in the context of western political theory. The current dichotomy, between “liberals” and “conservatives,” dates to the Glorious Revolution in England, when the English chased James II from the throne for being Catholic and installed the Protestant William and Mary in his place.
Conservatives insisted that the king rules by divine right, even claiming he was descended from Adam, the original man of the bible, and therefore any defiance towards him was equal to defying god, a much more consequential act in most people’s minds then than it is now.
John Locke, who’s Second Treatise of Government defines western liberalism and who had an enormous impact on the culture of the English colonies in North America, our political ancestors, argued that the divine right of kings was rank flummery and that all legitimate political authority derived from the governed, who retain always the right to evaluate the form of their government and the people who are running it, and change them more or less at will. This is the core idea in the Declaration of Independence, which horrified all good conservatives, prompting them to decamp from this upstart new republic in 1776 and move to Canada, or back to England if they could. Thus, there were few, if any, real conservatives left in British North America by the time the Revolutionary War got well under way, certainly none who had any real power by the time of the writing and ratification of the Constitution, a distinctively liberal document.
Except those most conservative of liberals, the slave owners. It is only a mild exaggeration to say that the core difference between conservatives and liberals is their attitude towards slavery. Conservatives, either the real ones or the faux, degraded, U.S. kind, have no solid intellectual ground from which to condemn slavery. They believe in automatic deference to authority, even if the authority figure claims to own you.
Liberalism, as Locke defined it, rests on the axiom that all humans start out free and equal, to quote the Declaration of Independence, “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,… among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Locke said, “life, liberty, and property.” Jefferson changed it. We don’t much use the word, “inalienable” any more, so it’s worth defining – that means you can’t give them away, even if you want to. Your rights are yours whether you want them or not.
For Locke, slavery is only permissible as the just punishment one person metes out to another for a violation of natural rights before the institution of government, which exists solely as a practical mechanism for defending natural rights. Locke posited a “state of nature” before government existed, in which every human was free to do as s/he wished. The problem with this was that, while we all had the same natural rights then that we have now, humans being humans, we had a nasty habit of infringing on each others’ rights by stealing from each other and killing each other. So a given group of humans, presumably within some confined geographical area, would agree to pay some of their own number to serve as police with the power to prevent violations of rights before they occur, and to punish persons who committed such violations. The increase in safety and reliability more than compensated for the diminution in absolute freedom that creating government caused. Or so Locke argued, and so the Founders mostly agreed.
One can poke holes in this theory. The feminist legal theorist Martha Fineman points out that it assumes able bodied, rational adults, who do not spring into being from nowhere, but who require cultivation and nurturing for many years after their mother births them, and so Locke’s theory has the pernicious effect, which we see everywhere in the United States, of discounting to nothing the critical role that parenting generally, and mothering specifically, play in human existence, regardless of political theory.
But, like it or not, it is the prevailing political theory that our Founders used to justify fighting the British and in writing and ratifying the U.S. Constitution, which, in theoretical terms, is a very Lockean document. “We the people” indeed.
In some important sense, conservatism is always relative to the culture it exists in. Conservatives typically want to preserve and respect the organic practices and meanings of the culture they live in. This presents an immediate, obvious problem. One blindingly obvious feature of the culture of the United States is racism, grounded in the practice of race-based chattel slavery that was an important source – the source – of the nation’s wealth and ever shall be.
Once the good liberal impulse to condemn slavery and recognize, at least formally, the axiomatic equality of all humans — including slaves, meaning the end of slavery — prevailed, “conservatives” in the United States have been in a pickle. They actually did not much feel any chagrin for the first one hundred years after the end of slavery because the forces of conservatism in the form of former slave owners reasserted their power quickly and effectively nullified the liberal sentiments in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.
The descendants of the slaves, and a few of their white sympathizers, appealed to the principles of liberalism consistently enough that they eventually carried the day with the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts, which formally prohibited the pernicious practices of racial segregation and racial discrimination. Those problems did not magically disappear, of course, any more than did the underlying attitudes. Racism, unfortunately, is still very much with us.
Our good, U.S. “conservatives” defended segregation and racial discrimination, as one would expect. William F. Buckley, the most visible “conservative” in the U.S. in the twentieth century, wrote in the late 1950s and early 1960s to defend racial segregation. That leading “conservative,” Barry Goldwater, ran for president in 1964 on a platform of condemning the 1964 Civil Rights Act as an entirely unjustified expansion of federal power.
Goldwater lost badly, but his ideological progeny, Richard Nixon, won in 1968 when he found a clever way to appeal to people who had their doubts about the steps the nation was taking to make some amends for the historical errors of slavery and segregation, but did not want to look overtly racist. He ran on behalf of the “silent majority.” In 1968, protest was widespread in the United States, or so it seemed, whether on behalf of African Americans and their rights, or against the Vietnam War, and Nixon appealed to all those ordinary people who were sitting in their living rooms, watching television, not protesting anything.
Nixon pursued some distinctly liberal policies. He signed the legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). But he was entirely cynical in doing so. He was a dedicated cold warrior and wanted to focus mostly on foreign policy, so he gave liberals what they wanted in domestic policy to have a free hand in foreign policy.
But he also instituted the first affirmative action program in hiring in the United States, in the skilled building trades, which he did specifically to drive a wedge between two major components of the Democratic electoral constituency, and it worked frighteningly well. African Americans benefited from the affirmative action program, seemingly at the expense of white, working class people. This is not much different from the overt racism of the late 19th century that good “conservatives” used to thwart the (real) Populists’ efforts to organize both black and white farmers. Getting working and poor white people to ally with them on the basis of racial solidarity at the expense of class solidarity is a standard “conservative” trick that has worked all to well since the end of slavery.
Nixon used it. Reagan used it. George W. Bush used it less, but he had the psychologically gratifying, to “conservatives,” substitute of demonizing LGBT people instead. He also had the benefit of forty years of his Republican forebears cultivating in their followers’ heads the pernicious idea that federal benefits only accrue to black people at the expense of white people, which is false and idiotic, but far too easy for too many people to believe. And now Trump uses it.
Racism is the thread that ties all of U.S. “conservatism” together. The never Trump “conservatives” deplore Trump, not because they oppose racism, but because they much prefer Nixon’s dog whistle racism that doesn’t show itself quite so baldly because they know that overt racism is a loser in the U.S. in the long run. It is enjoying a recrudescence with Trump, as it always does any time African Americans score a victory – after LBJ got major civil rights legislation passed, we got Nixon. After our first African American president served his alloted two terms, we got Trump. The line from Nixon to Trump is direct. Trump is Nixon on meth, down to the specific crime he has most notoriously committed.
Our liberal republic will survive, and “conservatives” will continue to fulminate. Life goes on.