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What Donald Trump understands about conservatism

“I think now we’ve proved that I’m a conservative, right?”

US President Donald Trump Returns To The White House Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

On February 23, President Donald Trump took the stage at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. CPAC, as it’s called, is the conservative movement’s premier event, and Trump had, in the past, felt dismissed by its leading lights. It was a slight he had no intention of letting his audience forget.

“Do you remember I started running and people would say, ‘Are you sure he’s a conservative?’” Trump said. “I think now we’ve proved that I’m a conservative, right?”

Their rapturous response was proof of his claim. Conservatism, writ large, has embraced Donald Trump. He is a conservative. But what, then, is conservatism?

In his book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump, political theorist Corey Robin offers a very particular definition of conservatism. It is, he says, “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” In this telling, the core of conservatism is an attachment to a certain social order and an assault against those who would seek to upend it. Robin writes:

People who aren’t conservative often fail to realize this, but conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something. It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner. The loss may be as material as money or as ethereal as a sense of standing. It may be a loss of something that was never legitimately owned in the first place; it may, when compared with what the conservative retains, be small. Even so, it is a loss, and nothing is ever so cherished as that which we no longer possess.

This is the way Trump is a conservative. On any given day, he may or may not express the policy views associated with the American right — he will muse about raising taxes on hedge funds, or passing gun control into law, or slapping deep tariffs on foreign steel.

But Trump always and everywhere speaks for the experience of having power, of seeing it threatened, and of being determined to win it back. His project is not to make America great; it is to make America great again, to return to a past moment when he and the people at his rallies felt like they were winning. This is the core of his conservatism. And there is a reason it is flourishing now.

America in flux

In 2015, the Census Bureau estimated that for the first time, a majority of US infants were nonwhite. America’s foreign-born population has risen from less than 5 percent in 1970 to almost 15 percent now. And while projections about the demographic future are always difficult, if current trends hold, America will be a majority-minority nation by 2044.

Demographic change drives political and cultural change. In the past decade, America has seen its first African-American president, the constitutional recognition of a right to same-sex marriage, and a new discourse on gender identity and workplace harassment. Movies like Black Panther and Get Out are celebrated, the new Star Wars made a point to have a diverse cast and a female lead, and cultural products are criticized for being too white and too male.

All of this generates a backlash among those who liked the distribution of power the way it was and fear where it’s going. A 2011 survey found that “whites believe that they have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America.”

And yet it’s important not to overstate how much has changed. The racial wealth gap has grown in recent decades, the gender wage gap remains deep, and the commanding heights of both the business and political worlds are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. The sense of power being lost is real, but so too is the sense of privilege perpetuating itself at the top.

American politics does not have a rich language for competitions over cultural status and political power. We know how to talk about money, about wages, about taxes, and so, like the proverbial drunk who only searches for his keys beneath the lamppost because that’s where the light is brightest, we sanitize discomfort over the changing face of America by recasting it as economic stress.

We are much less surefooted talking about the anxieties and resentments that emerge from demographic change, the reasons a political movement might make less legal immigration its core demand, or find its next president in the swamps of birtherism.

And so we pull the conversation onto terrain we know how to navigate. We are comfortable with the idea that stagnant wages and weak growth generate anger, and that anger can be harnessed by demagogues. But the causality can run the other way too. A feeling of dislocation, of loss of power, can color the public’s view of their economic condition.

Gallup found that Republican perceptions of the economy jumped by almost 90 points between the week before Trump’s election and his inauguration, and it’s held there ever since.

Gallup

The rise in Republican perceptions of the economy came before Trump took office — which is to say, it came before any new policy was enacted.

The fact that you could fix Republican perceptions of the economy without actually changing the economy suggests there’s much more going on here than financial distress. But then, of course there is: It’s rational for people to feel better about the economy when they perceive their tribe to be in charge of it, and vice versa.

But that should at least shake our faith that improved economic performance, even if it could be assured, will overwhelm demographic fears as the country continues to change over the coming decades.

“Today, no group in America feels comfortably dominant”

In her book Political Tribes, Yale law professor Amy Chua argues that America is entering an extended period of political instability, driven by demographic change that leaves no group comfortably empowered and all groups afraid of losing what status they hold:

We find ourselves in an unprecedented moment of pervasive tribal anxiety. For two hundred years, whites in America represented an undisputed politically, economically, and culturally dominant majority. When a political tribe is so overwhelmingly dominant, it can persecute with impunity, but it can also be more generous. It can afford to be more universalist, more enlightened, more inclusive, like the WASP elites of the 1960s who opened up the Ivy League colleges to more Jews, blacks, and other minorities — in part because it seemed like the right thing to do.

Today, no group in America feels comfortably dominant. Every group feels attacked, pitted against other groups not just for jobs and spoils but for the right to define the nation’s identity. In these conditions, democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition — pure political tribalism.

We’re in an era when the core conflict between conservatism and liberalism is between a whiter, older, and more male coalition trying to hold on to its power against a younger, more diverse, and more female coalition that is nearing a durable political majority for the first time. This isn’t a clash over any one policy, but over political, cultural, and economic power going forward.

Trump viscerally understands contemporary politics in those terms and connects to his coalition on that level. And this is why his form of conservatism triumphed over the visions offered by his establishment Republican challengers. What the conservative base feels is being lost has nothing to do with tax rates or regulations. It’s a cultural war, and Trump, unlike many other Republican politicians, is willing to fight it.


Podcast: Ezra Klein talks political tribalism with Amy Chua