Kevin Williamson Gets Conservatism Wrong

If the Donald Trump campaign has done nothing else, it has revealed some serious fault lines in the American movement that calls itself conservative. Trump advisor Stephen Miller correctly assessed that the rise of Trump (and to some degree Bernie Sanders) has made this election about globalism both left and right vs. nationalism. Therefore, one such fault line on the right is between what I’ll call cosmopolitan conservatives whose primary loyalties are toward abstract principles and ideals and a growing group of what I’ll call nationalist conservatives who are actually interested in conserving something concrete, like their own country. Imagine that.

A museum quality specimen of the cosmopolitan conservative outlook was this recent article, “The Buchanan Boys,” by National Review’s Kevin Williamson. The article reads like Williamson’s plea for an invite to Davos. (If he’s already been invited to Davos, my apologies for underestimating his stature as a cog in the globalist machine.)

First of all, it says just about all you need to know about Williamson that he thinks Buchanan is an epithet. Had the GOP listened to Buchanan and elected him in ’92 or ’96, then maybe the party wouldn’t be on the verge of demographic irrelevance due to immigration and we would have avoided the disastrous war in Iraq which dimmed Republican electoral prospects for several election cycles. A history of supporting Buchanan, as I did, should be a badge of honor.

But the flaw in Williamson’s article is more fundamental than his telling distaste for Pat Buchanan and his supporters. Williamson states his essential premise when he writes, “American conservatives are rooted in classical liberalism, and their political philosophy is universalist: free enterprise and the rule of law for everyone.” The problem for Williamson is that this statement simply isn’t true. He is describing a brand of liberalism. Universalist appeals have always been the purview of liberalism. The Utopian nature of Williamson’s formulation should be readily apparent to anyone even remotely grounded in classical conservatism. This kind of “conservatism” is nothing more than the flip side of Marxism which also claimed the universal nature of its vision for the world. You know, that whole “Workers of the world unite,” thing.

Let’s look back at the origins of our conception of left and right. The left were the Revolutionaries in France who were crusading under the banner of the universalist abstractions of liberty, equality and fraternity and sat on the left side of the French Parliament. The right sat on the right side of the French Parliament and supported the maintenance of France proper against the radical designs of the Revolutionaries. Where would Williamson’s rhetoric place him?

Williamson isn’t the only one who makes this mistake, although he is among the most obnoxious. Much of the National Review anti-Trump issue was made up of ramblings about conservative “principles” and “values.” Perhaps the NR boys would like to point to something concrete they and their kind of conservatives have actually managed to conserve, other than employment possibilities for Conservative Inc. functionaries.

Back when National Review was a serious intellectual enterprise, before it was handed over to lightweight hacks, a gentleman by the name of Russell Kirk used to write there. Even Williamson might be familiar with that name. Kirk reminded us that conservatism, contrary to what Williamson and his cosmo pals would have us believe, is not an ideology. Rather, it is a desire to conserve something and skepticism toward change, particularly rapid change.

This admittedly can get a bit murky because conservatives want to conserve (or in some cases restore) something in particular, so conservatism in any given place and time is not content free. This is a subject for another essay, but we must also resist the other extreme of people who want to turn Burkean/Kirkian conservatism into a synonym for moderation.

So an American conservative, properly understood, wants to conserve (or restore) a particular political order but not just a particular political order, much less impose that order on the whole world. He also wants to conserve a particular country, his own, and a particular people. The Framers established a polity for themselves and their posterity, not all the people of the world. Such universalist formulations are attempts to impose modern conceptions in hindsight on men who were the product of their time.

The cosmopolitan crowd appears increasingly frustrated by its inability to move the masses of Trump supporters with its claim that Trump is not a “real” conservative because he doesn’t precisely parrot movement conservative dogma.  But Trump is appealing to these masses because he is not peddling donor class approved conservative dogma such as “all will be right with the economy if we have open borders, free trade and capital gains tax cuts.” The first two are positively hostile to their interests and the third they don’t care about because they are struggling paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet, not worrying about liquidating their capital gains.

Williamson and the rest of the Conservative Inc. gatekeepers are correct that Trump is not a check all the boxes movement conservative ideologue. His politics are best described as Middle American Radical even though he happens to be really rich, but Trump’s issue cluster that is resonating with much of the GOP base clearly places him on the nationalistic conservative side of the divide. His support of immigration restriction and rejection of globalist trade deals as well as his use of nationalistic rhetoric is conservative in effect and in the most basic sense of the word. It is much more so than all the babbling about conservative principles and universalist nonsense being done by the cosmo boys or their candidates of choice, predominantly Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

What good will the cosmos’ conservative principles and universal ideals do the average Trump supporter (or generic conservative for that matter) if the country turns permanently Blue from immigration and the middle class, upon whose shoulders the whole enterprise rests, disappears?