Among the wreckage wrought by President Trump is the death knell of the classical conservatism advanced by Barry Goldwater and William Buckley a half-century ago.
In high school, I was captivated by the vision elucidated by Goldwater in “The Conscience of a Conservative”: Limited government. Local control. Respect for the Constitution and rule of law. Protection of privacy and individual autonomy. Opposition to totalitarian ideologies which stifle individual enterprise and the human spirit. “The enemy of freedom,” Goldwater wrote, “is unrestrained power” — including corporate power.
So I reveled, too, in conservatism’s thought leader William Buckley. Not least was his civility: his delight in friendship — and open debate — with his ideological opposites.
Equally compelling was his intellectual discernment. Of Ayn Rand’s Nietzschean netherworld, he wrote, “her desiccated philosophy’s conclusive incompatibility with transcendence, intellectual and moral,” adding that Rand’s insistence “that altruism was despicable, and only self-interest is good and noble . . . risks giving capitalism that bad name that its enemies have done so well in giving it.” With bracing clarity, Buckley read the John Birch Society and its rabid conspiracy theories out of the conservative movement.
In college, I concluded that the world was messier, human needs more complex, than their philosophy allowed. But I ever valued the consistency and rigor which informed conservative thought.
Such superior thinkers still exist — David Brooks, Max Boot, Bret Stephens, George Will, Ross Douthat, Charlie Sykes. But conservativism’s supposed practitioners have become soulless power seekers who exploit unreasoning and counterfactual outrage while feeding at the trough of special interests. The effect on the body politic was captured by John F. Kennedy: “We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
The exemplary megaphones of unreason are, of course, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News — at times, there is little to choose from between Fox and Limbaugh and the Birchers deplored by Goldwater and Buckley. Their animating purpose is pouring vitriol on any idea they perceive as liberal, while espousing any notion which captivates their irate audience.
Or, in the case of Trump, any president. Limbaugh admits that Trump is not a conservative but exults in the distress he inflicts on liberals. Fox has discovered the virtue of economic nationalism, anti-globalism, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Trump enthusiasms which would have repelled Goldwater and Buckley.
Trump, notoriously, is a human petri dish for odious conspiracy theories. So is Fox, as exemplified by Sean Hannity’s reprehensible suggestion, offered without proof, that Seth Rich — a young DNC staffer killed in a robbery attempt — was executed for leaking the DNC e-mails in fact stolen by Russia. Alienation and anger, not ideas, have made Trump president and Limbaugh and Hannity rich — to imagine them as heirs to the decent and civilized Goldwater and Buckley is to trace conservatism’s moral and intellectual downfall.
Inevitably, this degraded ethos corrupts conservative thought. From Edmund Burke, conservatives have advocated prudence and stability; Goldwater called for fiscal probity and balanced budgets. But the Tea Party drove us to a credit-corroding governmental shutdown while embracing budget-busting tax cuts for the rich.
Professing fiscal conservatism has become a fig leaf for profligacy and plutocracy. Trump’s new fiscal plan is cynicism’s apotheosis, promising catastrophic deficits papered over with preposterous growth estimates — an economic parlor trick dating back to Ronald Reagan’s embrace of supply-side fallacies to argue that tax cuts for the wealthy pay for themselves. Now alleged conservatives promise us another debt-ceiling fight without anything that resembles an actual budget.
Goldwater conservatives rejected isolationism and protectionism in favor of internationalism, free trade, and a post-World War II international order — based on alliances like NATO and initiatives like the Marshall Plan — designed to foster stability and democracy. The Trump GOP disdains our alliances and trade agreements like the TPP while embracing protectionism, xenophobia, and the murderous anti-Western autocrat Vladimir Putin. Not just Buckley and Goldwater, but Reagan, would be appalled.
Sadly, and somewhat paradoxically, so-called Christian conservatives have played a crucial role in elevating Trump and destroying principled conservatism. Evangelical Christians entered politics advocating intrusions on personal privacy and autonomy, invoking governmental power to bar abortion, thwart gay rights, and erode the constitutional separation of church and state. The libertarian Goldwater was fiercely opposed to the religious right on all these issues — which, of course, put him at odds with the ardent Catholic Buckley.
But that social issues squelch concern for privacy within the evangelical GOP is, perhaps, the least of it. However marbled with misogyny, at its best the abortion debate has an irreducible moral component regarding how we define and value life. But in all too many areas, evangelicals sully the morality they profess, degrading conservatism in the process.
Despite their insistence on traditional moral behavior, evangelicals overwhelmingly supported the self-professed groper Trump, apparently believing that putting social conservatives on the Supreme Court required electing a president whose behavior mocked what traditional conservatives embraced — standards of moral restraint. As their fury at Bill Clinton suggests, evangelical morality is increasingly situational — and political.
Far from an aberration, this is becoming a pattern. With respect to Putin’s Russia, many evangelical leaders have embraced an autocrat who murders his opponents and invades his neighbors. The ostensible basis is the nationalist Russian Orthodoxy with which Putin dresses up his regime, invoking Christianity in the service of an oppressive state. This contrasts depressingly with conservatives like Buckley, who valued the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe for its courageous opposition to the Soviet Union, the former KGB agent Putin’s true moral antecedent.
Then there is the environment. “While I am a great believer in the free enterprise system and all that it entails,” Goldwater wrote, “I am an even stronger believer in the right of our people to live in a clean and pollution-free environment.” Elsewhere, he said, “There can be no doubt about it. We are in trouble on this earth in our continuing efforts to survive.” Similarly, Buckley’s favorite conservative thinker, Russell Kirk, wrote that “only the unscrupulous or shortsighted can defend pollution and degradation of the countryside . . . Nothing is more conservative than conservation.”
But not for evangelicals, who have become foot soldiers for selfish economic interests opposed to environmental protection. Why? Partly because the fundamentalist embrace of creationism puts them in conflict with science. In potent combination with a social resentment of environmentalists they perceive as secular liberals, this leads many evangelicals to see climate science as an affront to their Christian worldview.
Here fundamentalism fuses with unfettered capitalism. As a coal magnate and climate denier proclaimed, “I thank my Lord, Jesus Christ, for the election of Donald Trump.” This advances the campaign by fossil fuel kingpins like the Koch brothers — Ayn Rand’s avatars — to flood the political system with money in the service of climate denial.
While one can reasonably debate the best means of combating climate change, it is irrational to scorn the scientific consensus. But, together, evangelicals and the Republican donor class have made anti-environmentalism a litmus test for Republican politicians, thereby enabling Trump’s know-nothing policies — a stark repudiation of classical conservatism’s concern for conserving the planet many believed that God had put in our care.
This moral and intellectual degradation renders contemporary conservatism unworthy of the name. To be sure, politics is a messy business, and it is often hard to tell what vision liberalism offers us beyond opposition to the right. But too often so-called conservativism has been reduced to a yawp of protest without principle, hijacked by a president who attacks the rule of law, lies incessantly and flagrantly, blatantly offends ethical norms, and caters to an oppressive foreign power which attacked our democracy.
When Richard Nixon’s transgressions became clear, Goldwater and two colleagues went to the White House and told him he must resign. It is hard to imagine that happening now. To our collective loss, “The Conscience of a Conservative” has devolved to conservatives without conscience.