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The conservative intellectual case for Donald Trump, explained

Donald Trump Holds Rally In Wilkes-Barre, PA (Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Ever since Donald Trump won the Republican presidential nomination, conservative intellectuals have been grappling with how this could have happened. What happened to their party, they ask, that resulted in this monster becoming its leader?

What you’ve seen less of are conservative intellectuals actually making the case for Donald Trump. It’s a testament to the degree to which Trump, and the movement behind him, is a product of a popular movement entirely distinct from the elite-led conservative movement that has dominated the GOP for decades. It’s part of why a number of elite Republicans were so quick to use the infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” tape as an excuse to jump off the Trump train.

All this is why the recent publication of a pro-Trump symposium, in something called American Greatness, is so interesting. In the article, 25 self-described “scholars and writers for Trump attempt to make the “intellectual” case for Trump: to define an intellectual vision for the GOP in an age when it is led by a reality TV star with zero time for real policy ideas.

Most of the entries treated Trump as if he were a conventional Republican and talking about things like the Supreme Court — essentially the argument made by congressional leaders Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan (before Ryan stopped defending Trump). But the most interesting essays were written by authors who admitted that he isn’t a typical Republican. Trump is a radical — and necessarybreak from what we’ve done in the past.

America is broken, the authors write.

American leaders, liberal and conservative alike, have lost touch with the values that once made the country great. National doom is certain unless someone like Trump can successfully chip away at political correctness and other ideas that have separated American elites from the voters.

This is a troubling theory in a lot of different ways. The racial overtones, in particular, are quite concerning. But it’s a lot more in touch with the party of Trump than what most Republicans are saying. That means we have to pay attention if we want to understand what Trump’s rise means for America.

The symposium points to the conservative movement’s decline

Paul Ryan speaking at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July 2016 (with a huge TV-screen projection of Paul Ryan in the background). Both real Paul Ryan and huge-projection Paul Ryan are pouting comically. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

American Greatness is new. It started earlier this year as a Blogspot blog, pretentiously called The Journal of American Greatness, founded by a group of anonymous writers. The goal was to make a case for Trump that they thought wasn’t being heard in mainstream conservative outlets. The project was explicitly insurrectionist, a challenge to a conservative consensus that the authors believed was out of touch with the reality of Trumpism.

“Trump himself — no man of ideas, to say the least — is unsuited to the task of thinking through what his popularity means or how to build on it,” Publius Decius Mus, one of the pseudonymous contributors, wrote at the time. “To this task, our current crop of mainstream conservative intellectuals is not merely unsuited but wholly useless.”

Since then, the publication has grown. Now called American Greatness, it has a masthead with non-anonymous editors and contributors. These people all have links to the Claremont Institute, a think tank based in Claremont, California. The institute is a hub for an intellectual movement called West Coast Straussianism, an esoteric school of conservative thought.

This symposium, published with a list of 125 pro-Trump thinkers, is an attempt to move beyond this small group of Californians, trying to bring a much wider group of intellectuals openly and proudly under the Trump banner.

Obviously, a symposium on an obscure website isn’t the kind of thing that sways swing voters in Florida — or even anything most Trump voters probably care about. So what’s the point of it all?

The reason has to do with the modern structure of conservatism itself — and how it reacted to Trump.

Modern American conservatism is defined by three ideas: a limited role for government in the market, a defense of “traditional” social values, and an interventionist foreign policy. But this kind of conservatism isn’t just a slate of ideas — it’s also a social movement. This “conservative movement” first articulated the slate of ideas we now call “conservative” in the 1950s, and then launched a campaign to try to bring the Republican Party in line with them.

Movement conservatives believed that the mainstream American media and intellectual establishment were hostile to conservative ideas. They set up a set of alternative institutions, publications like National Review and think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, to develop the new conservative vision for America.

And they were successful. The Republican Party is so thoroughly dominated by “movement conservative” ideas that we generally equate “Republican” with “conservative” in our popular discourse.

Until Donald Trump. Trump’s ideas, such as they were, ran directly counter to movement conservative orthodoxy: His skepticism of trade, seeming indifference to issues like same-sex marriage, and outright skepticism of regime change abroad defied everything the movement stood for. All of a sudden, the conservative movement was once again separated from the Republican Party.

The response of most movement conservatives was, unsurprisingly, shock and horror, the “how could this happen” approach you’ve seen play out in mainstream op-eds and magazine articles; National Review fruitlessly devoted an entire issue to stopping Trump during the primary campaign. That’s an understandable response to seeing the ideas you stand for publicly rejected by the party you belong to.

But that created a void. Trump himself seemed uninterested in defining the intellectual underpinnings of Trumpism, or Trumpist conservatism. Hence American Greatness. It’s an attempt to build a new conservatism outside of the movement, to set up an intellectual architecture to define Trumpism and make it sustainable.

This symposium, then, shouldn’t really be seen as an attempt to help Trump win the election. It’s best understood as a shot in the intra-conservative war: to persuade conservatives that shunning Trump is wrong, and embrace him and what American Greatness contributors have decided he stands for.

Trump or die

GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Holds Election Night Gathering In Manhattan (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The two kinds of arguments made in the symposium are perhaps best boiled down to what an anti-Trump conservative once told me about the two kinds of arguments for Trump supporters: There are dumb ones and scary ones.

The “dumb” contributions are the ones that treat Trump as if he were a movement conservative. In these authors’ telling, Trump isn’t a rejection of conservative movement ideals. He’s the Republican, and thus will do things like appoint the right people to the Supreme Court. The Trump movement is nothing special; ergo, vote Trump.

“Only a Republican Congress can resist [liberals], but that can be done only with a Republican president to sign its Acts into law,” Hadley Arkes, a professor emeritus at Amherst College, writes. “Donald Trump is the only one who can be right now that Republican President.”

Except Trump isn’t a conventional Republican. That’s the entire premise of the publication these authors are contributing to.

Moreover, he’s a unique candidate in a lot of not especially great ways. He has proposed a series of strange homebrew policies, like stealing Iraq’s oil. He has bragged about committing sexual assault. He’s more ignorant of basic facts than any candidate in modern history, even on his core issues like trade. He has a demonstrated penchant for lying and being easily provoked, a dangerous quality for someone in charge of nuclear weapons.

These Trump-as-movement-conservative cases address none of this. They just deny the reality of Trump, much like Mike Pence at the vice presidential debate. Unlike Pence, they’re intellectuals rather than political actors, and thus have no excuse for making a fundamentally absurd case. These entries say much more about the human capacity for self-delusion than they do about Donald Trump or America.

The “scary” symposium pieces, by contrast, are much more revealing. In making a positive case for Trump, they tell us just how radical some “conservative” visions for America really are.

You see, this case for Trump starts from an extreme premise: America is sick, and even at risk of death, if we don’t radically change course.

‘“[There is] a drastic and perhaps even terminal threat to the democratic republic created by our Founders,” Roger Simon, the co-founder of PJ Media, writes. “The sense that the United States is becoming Germany grows almost daily,” Tiffany Miller, an associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas, adds.

Which policies or ideas endanger the United States so much isn’t quite clear, but the most commonly cited grievance is “political correctness.” Concerns about hate speech and discrimination, they argue, are actually tools of social control, justifications for the state’s attack on freedom and repression of conservative thought.

It’s the soul of America, understood as a government that’s in touch with its people and respectful of its liberties, that is sick. This is the sense in which the United States is in danger. The authors believe there is a certain set of cultural values that keep America strong and prosperous. These are the values of the heartland, of Sarah Palin’s “real America” and Richard Nixon’s “silent majority.”

This is what they believe has been lost through waves of progressive change. Though change may not lead to the literal “collapse” of the US government, the republic is sure to fail one way or another.

Movement conservatives have made similar arguments. Think of the many Republicans who have called Obamacare tyranny, or Ronald Reagan’s dire warning before the passage of Medicare: "We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free.”

But the Trumpists think the movement has, at best, paid lip service to what needs to be done. They believe the entirety of the political establishment, Democrats and Republicans alike, is out of touch with “ordinary” Americans. That both parties have bought into damaging ideas like “political correctness,” and wedded themselves to an expansive federal government. They are incapable of reforming themselves.

Hence Trump.

Only someone as radical and transgressive as Trump, these authors argue, can speak the truths that are obvious to the average American (“common sense,” as one contributor terms it). Though Trump comes from the ruling class, he is not of the ruling class, coming in with a wholly different and more authentic set of ideas.

“Trump’s candidacy has already done the nation a great service by giving voice to the nagging, sometimes urgent, concerns of ordinary people imperiled by ruling class hegemony,” Chris Buskirk, the publisher of American Greatness, writes. “They said only Nixon could go to China so perhaps only a billionaire could name the peril posed by the globalist ruling class.”

This is something of a mantra among pro-Trump conservatives. Our friend Publius Decius Mus wrote an essay, for the Claremont Review, expanding exactly this theme. The piece compared the election to the choice made by passengers on Flight 93, the fourth 9/11 plane, to rush the cockpit. They were going to die if they did nothing; they had to take a chance if they wanted even a shot at living. Trump is rushing the cockpit: a gamble that’s necessary given the inevitable consequences of doing nothing.

This essay struck a chord. Together with the symposium, it’s a testament to the sense among a certain set of conservatives that the United States is essentially broken: that its basic institutions are illegitimate and out of touch with what the country should stand for.

The symposium fills a hole

Former VP Al Gore Campaigns With Hillary Clinton In Miami (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

There’s a certain strangeness in the “Trump or die” case — and not just the idea that America is dying when it quite clearly is not.

Donald Trump is disliked by a larger percentage of Americans than any other major party presidential candidate in history. By any metric, President Obama, who was elected by large majorities of the American voting public twice, is more in touch with the concerns of “ordinary people” than Trump — unless “ordinary” is code for “white.”

It might be! The idealized “ordinary American” values, after all, appear only to have existed in a world where women didn’t work and African Americans used separate bathrooms. And a lot of Trump support, especially among conservatives, is the result of deep racial resentments.

The pro-Trump intellectuals seem to willfully downplay this, not care about it, or (in a few cases) even sympathize with the racially resentful as a symptom of some other “economic” problem. This is a major, major problem for the pro-Trump cause, and shouldn’t be downplayed.

Trump has bucked the traditional conservative line on issues like military intervention and trade, and gone way beyond what conservatives are generally comfortable with in terms of bashing Mexicans and Muslims. Whatever the values of the base are, the conservative movement clearly doesn’t stand for them.

“The great message of Trump is that there really are not that many movement conservatives,” Samuel Goldman, a professor of political theory at George Washington University, told me in a September sit-down. He continued:

There is an infrastructure of journalists, intellectuals who are vested in a conventional combination of limited government, a relatively hawkish foreign policy, and a sort of religiously inflected public morality. There are a few hundred such people, and they all know each other. But it turned out that there aren't that many voters who actually care about these things — or at least care about them in quite that combination.

That’s the context in which to understand the “intellectual” support for Trump. They are anti-elitist because they are aiming at tearing down a specific elite: the mainstream conservatives who have defined right-of-center politics in the US for decades.

But what to replace it with?

None of the symposium contributors have a good answer for these questions. What they’re doing here, instead, is taking a shot in the dark, trying to define the essence of Trumpism and develop a mode of thinking that fleshes out “make America great again.”

What they’ve got — tear down political correctness and put the country back in touch with “ordinary Americans” — isn’t really much. And it comes with some pretty troubling racial overtones.

But from their point of view, this isn’t just a Flight 93 election for America; it’s a Flight 93 election for conservatism. Maybe Trump can save conservatism, and maybe he can’t. But whatever he is has to be better than the moribund mainstream consensus.

“I [see] in Trump someone who could rescue what is living from what is dead in conservatism,” F.H. Buckley, a professor at George Mason, writes. “And by dead I mean what passes for the higher thinking of today’s conservatism.”