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A Return to Tradition: Creating a Post-Trump Conservatism

The survival of the American Republic might just depend upon it.

· 14 min read
A Return to Tradition: Creating a Post-Trump Conservatism
Photo: Gage Skidmore (Flickr)

Men cannot improve a society by setting fire to it:they must seek out its old virtues, and bring them back into the light.
~Russell Kirk

The conservative movement is in crisis. During the storm and stress of the Trump years, critics in the media and elsewhere have painted its voters as xenophobic know-nothings, its politicians as unscrupulous power-mongers, and its intellectuals as hypocrites and cowards. All its reverential talk about limited government, respecting the Constitution, and the importance of character, its detractors claim, has been exposed as a pleasant-sounding patina disguising an ugly, reactionary Id of bitterness and fear.

Although this characterization is not entirely fair, conservatives share significant blame for the lamentable state of the movement, for many of them have either actively defended or silently submitted to the Trumpification of the Republican party. And Trump is neither conservative nor principled. Now that his tumultuous four years are mercifully over, and the GOP collects itself in his wake, it is imperative for conservatives to rediscover and recommit to their own once-venerated precepts. If they do not, then the ongoing pageant of a populism more comfortable trolling liberals than promoting conservative policies and principles may further alienate Americans, especially young Americans, from the Republican party, leaving it a permanent minority coalition of the aggrieved.

Primordially, conservatism is a temperament—a proclivity that favors slow, judicious change and looks for guidance to the future from the wisdom of the past. In this sense, conservatism has existed since the dawn of human civilization, for every civilization has sought to preserve itself by adhering to the wisdom of hallowed ancestors. Ideologically, conservatism was born from the tempests and vicissitudes of the Age of Revolution in Europe, and its founding father was the great British whig, Edmund Burke. True, there were prominent precursors such as Richard Hooker and David Hume, but this simplification does not disfigure history.

Burke’s thought was not systematic. He was a statesman engaged in the rough and tumble of politics, not a dispassionate philosopher. But certain themes consistently recur in his writings and were picked up and elaborated by later thinkers such as Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck, William Buckley, and Roger Scruton. Conservatism, of course, is an expansive ideology that adapts to the challenges of its environment. Its manifestation was different in 18th century Britain than in 20th century America.

Nevertheless, behind its variegated forms, each attuned to different challenges, are the timeless truths and principles at the heart of conservative ideology: (1) Humans are flawed creatures; (2) Reason is powerful but limited and prone to error; (3) Utopian thinking is dangerous, especially when combined with ideologies that promote concentrated political power; (4) Humans should respect tradition and custom; and (5) Intuition is an important guide to social policy. Modern Republicans, standing among the ruins of the Trump presidency, should turn to these principles, elaborated below, to rebuild a robust and unified coalition that can appeal to all ages and ethnicities.

Humans are fallen

In the Christian tradition, this is called original sin: Humans are flawed, frail, and fallible creatures whom society, despite devoted efforts and sincere desires, will never perfect. Whereas progressives, influenced consciously or otherwise by Rousseau, believe that most of humankind’s sins are caused by the iniquities of a corrupt civilization, conservatives believe that most of humankind’s sins are intrinsic, a legacy of their evolutionary history, and that from such a flawed creature, we can only expect excellence with the discipline and constraint that civilization provides.

Conflict and competition are not the unique failings of the West or of market capitalism; they are an ineradicable feature of any society because they are an ineradicable feature of human nature. The best that a healthy socioeconomic system can hope for is a channeling of human competitiveness in such a way that it results largely in positive outcomes. This, indeed, is exactly what a well-regulated market system does and it is why conservatives generally applaud free-market capitalism, even while worrying about its phenomenal power to transform society. Replacing capitalism with socialism does not eliminate competition; it only transforms it and makes it less productive and more wasteful.

Similarly, violence and exploitation are not unique failings of the West or of a bigoted patriarchy. So long as humans live together, they will seek to bully, harass, and manipulate each other if they believe they can do so with impunity. Religious teachings and moral ideologies may soften their callousness, but even in the most ethically and spiritually enlightened communities, some form of criminal justice system will be necessary. Calls to abolish the police are therefore a dangerous fantasy; and if well-trained officers were removed from society, the need for safety and protection would be satisfied by unscrupulous and poorly trained opportunists who would fill the void.

Policymakers and philosophers who ignore human limitations are like engineers who ignore physics: their proposals are not only often wrong, but they are also often dangerous. And yet, this should not be taken too far. Humans are flawed and sinful, but they are not evil. Conservatism is not relentlessly misanthropic. Progress is possible, and cooperative and relatively peacable societies, although difficult to achieve and always precarious, are not rare, especially in the West.

Reason is powerful but prone to error

Few capacities have been more celebrated than reason. Its champions contend that it is the singular characteristic that most clearly separates humans from the beasts and grants them dominion over the Earth. From geometry to philosophy to modern science, from agriculture to automobiles to jet airlines, it has allowed humans to rise from the abject poverty of the primitive past to the astonishing prosperity of the post-industrial present. Indeed, those who most celebrate reason fantasize about a world in which humans, disciplined by years of formal education and training, are capable of setting aside intuitions, prejudices, hunches, and passions in favor of the impersonal computing power of rational cognition.

Conservatives are not unimpressed with reason, but they are struck by certain less appealing features that its ardent proponents generally ignore—chiefly that it is slow, fallible, and able to ignore real-world constraints and limitations. Most of us take for granted the ability to add five plus five or to complete a syllogism or to make an appropriate deduction. But these are skills that take considerable learning and practice. And even after many years, they are often laborious and riddled with errors. Few humans would score 100 percent on any test of logic or reasoning. And if they were compelled by nature to rely upon reason alone to navigate the world, they would quickly perish. Thankfully, nature has not left survival dependent upon something as feeble as reason and has equipped humans with instincts and intuitions.

More politically consequential than reason’s vulnerability to error is its ability to abstract from and transform reality. This, of course, is part of what makes it so powerful. It allows humans to conduct experiments in their imaginations instead of in the world. They can ask and try to answer, “What would it be like to climb this mountain?” before actually climbing the mountain. And they can even ask questions about impossible worlds such as, “What would it be like if a unicorn fought a flying pig?” When applied to science fiction or fantasy, this can be charming; but when applied to human society, it can be calamitous.

It is not hard, for example, to imagine a crime-free community that is wholly cooperative and communistic. And nothing about reason blares an alarm declaring, “This is impossible!” After all, such a progressive paradise, however implausible to those who believe in original sin, does not violate any laws of logic. Five plus five equals 10 whether they are cashews purchased at a supermarket or honey fruits plucked from a communal garden. Thus reason can contemplate idyllic societies that seduce the intellect and appeal to innate desires for fairness and justice, compelling devoted believers enthusiastically to promote their vision of paradise. In most cases, this leads to a few embarrassing undergraduate papers and a dalliance with Marxism or some other quasi-utopian ideology that is mercifully outgrown like a fondness for sophomoric hijinks. But in some cases, it leads to appalling tragedy.

The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism
The locus of many conservative criticisms of postmodernism seems to be twofold.

This does not mean that conservatism is a romantic ideology that searches for some kind of unreflective harmony with nature or community, eschewing rational thought altogether. Quite the opposite. Conservatism is anti-romantic and promotes the virtues of discipline, restraint, and an unsentimental acceptance of reality. But it is also skeptical of abstract schemes to improve society that seem to ignore ineradicable features of human nature.

Utopian thinking is dangerous

The tragedy of original sin is not just that humans are flawed creatures, but that they are flawed creatures who can imagine (and reason about) perfection. They are thus doomed forever to experience a painful chasm between their moral ideals and their moral reality. And this means that they are constantly tempted to bridge that chasm, to transform the purgatory of actuality into the paradise of the imagination. In fantasy writers and filmmakers, this longing may provide an enjoyable escape from the grim realities of the world; but in philosophers and politicians, it may provide a dangerous hope for a utopia that ignores the constraints of humanity.

Indeed, one of conservatism’s most important functions is to curb enthusiasm about such a transformative vision and to urge caution, restraint, and an appreciation for the status quo. This is not because the status quo is always right, but because the alternative is often worse. For, however many ways there are to create social order, there are infinitely more to destroy it. Utopian thinking encourages disappointment and even disgust with the status quo, which inevitably pales in comparison. Worse still, it often motivates and justifies painful sacrifices. The wheel of progress, after all, might have to crush a few butterflies on its way to a better tomorrow.

Rioting is a good and common example of this impulse in action. The riots over the summer, for example, cost billions of dollars and more than 20 lives, but they were seen by the progressives who promoted and defended them as a necessary attack on the status quo to give birth to a new, more just multiracial democracy in which demographic groups would have largely equal outcomes in all desirable domains. The appalling riots at the Capitol, encouraged by Donald Trump, followed a similar logic, but here the utopian thinking was reactionary: It yearned for a lost past that Trump said he was battling to reclaim from a corrupt status quo headed by cosmopolitan elites who stole the election in a desperate effort to defend their privileges.

Utopian thinking is especially dangerous when coupled with a push for concentrated political power. It’s not hard to see why utopians often become attracted to centralization: Their vision of a more cooperative, peaceful social order requires rational intervention from educated elites who can manipulate the levers of social and political power to incentivize the right behaviors while punishing and ultimately eliminating the wrong. It is precisely this combination of utopian thinking, rational abstraction, and centralized power that led to the horrific tragedies of communist revolutions around the globe.

Conservatives favor decentralized power not because they gratuitously disdain the government, but because they are skeptical that remote experts have the ability to guide society. However, this does not mean that they universally reject experts or expertise or believe that all hopes to improve society are dangerous fantasies that will lead to calamity. Experts serve irreplaceable roles in local and national political life, and there’s nothing particularly conservative about the antipathy populists express for them. The important thing is to balance the need for experts and good governance with a healthy diffusion of power and respect for the autonomy of local communities.

Humans should respect custom and tradition

Humans evolved for culture. They have big brains not primarily because those brains allow them to contemplate the laws of the universe or to manipulate other humans, but because they allow them to absorb and create culture. And while they are not the only animal that can do this (chimpanzees, dolphins, and other species can as well), they seem to be the only animal that can create an unambiguously cumulative culture. Each generation builds from the last, tinkering with ideas, artefacts, and institutions, preserving and potentially improving them for the next. Thus, at any time, one generation has access to the vast wisdom of its ancestors; it does not need to rediscover the wheel or fire or how to make glass or how to conduct electricity.

Although many imagine that culture changes primarily through rational analysis and criticism, the truth is almost certainly less deliberate: Culture changes by accident and is disciplined by the exigencies of survival and competition. Culture, in other words, evolves. And for this reason, conservatism argues that tradition and custom should be respected and revered. If practices and policies have survived for many hundreds or even thousands of years, they probably serve a useful function, otherwise they would have been eliminated or radically altered. Tradition therefore is an indication that something is working. The progressive is often irritated by this deference, especially if it appears irrational. And he views the argument that “we’ve always done things this way” as a dereliction of reason.

Some of this is understandable. Institutions and traditions can become sclerotic or outdated and constructive, sometimes withering, criticism can impel citizens to discard and update. And “we’ve always done things this way” can indeed function as a shield that protects a pernicious or utterly anachronistic policy from the obsolescence it deserves. On the other hand, the wisdom of tradition is often hidden from individuals. Cultural evolution, as noted, does not require deliberate manipulation or rational understanding. Humans don’t need to know why a ritual, a custom, an institution works to preserve it and pass it on. In fact, they don’t even need to know what it does. Grandmother’s recipe for eggnog is a simple example. Most people have no idea why the ingredients work or what some of them even do. They judge the recipe by the taste and if the recipe works, they are generally wise not to experiment too much with it.

Conservatism thus argues that a default deference to tradition is a good heuristic, not a fixed law. Conservatives do not want to freeze society in time like a fly in amber; they want to protect and preserve traditions while promoting slow, judicious change. Traditions that no longer promote human flourishing should change or die. But humans should not attack traditions rashly, nor should they use abstract utopian fantasies to provoke contempt for customs or institutions that, although imperfect, serve crucial social functions. The conservative’s response to abolish the police is revere but carefully examine and don’t be afraid to tinker with the police.

Intuition as a guide to behavior and social policy

Intuition is a rapid, non-deliberative judgment or attitude. It encompasses everything from prejudices (good, bad, or neutral) to immediate and unreflective feelings about a piece of music, a city, or another person. Progressives often focus on the danger of intuition, and contend that it is inferior to reason. Intuition, after all, is what enables and promotes bigotries of all kinds: it is the unthinking hatred that motivates anti-gay, anti-black, anti-woman, and anti-trans attitudes and policies. But this is an incredibly limited and tendentious understanding of intuition, one that fixates on its shortcomings without appreciating its virtues. Properly regarded, intuition is a powerful tool to be dismissed at society’s peril.

Humans acquire intuitions in at least two ways. First, they are naturally ready to develop them. These intuitions are innate in the sense that they develop rapidly in response to often brief encounters to appropriate stimuli. For example, humans are prepared to find certain things—vomit, open wounds, feces—disgusting. As parents know, very young children may not have these intuitions; but they tend to develop quickly and are universal (or near universal), likely because they compel humans to avoid potential sources of disease. And second, they learn them more slowly, perhaps by attending to patterns in the world or through formal instruction. For example, a person who has taken the appropriate classes will intuit that four plus five is nine or that George Washington is good and to be revered or that water is H2O.

The first type of intuition contains the wisdom of biology; and the second, the wisdom of culture. And together they contain a kind of wisdom that does not require rational deliberation, which is often slow and feeble. As with tradition, the wisdom of such intuitions is often not immediately obvious; sometimes, indeed, it is almost completely mysterious. The utility of a disgust of pustulating wounds, for example, was not known until relatively recently. Conservatism contends that intuitions deserve deference, precisely because they often contain a kind of wisdom that is hidden from reason.

Again, this does not mean that every intuition deserves unqualified submission. Sometimes a natural intuition is mismatched to the modern world; and sometimes a learned intuition is wrong or hateful and pernicious. But those who mock intuitions and deride them as unthinking, unreasonable responses to the world are misguided. Furthermore, even if some portion of society has determined that an intuition is outdated and more harmful than beneficial, it has to live with other people who still have and possibly revere the intuition. Yelling “bigot” at everybody who disagrees about gay marriage or transgenderism may satisfy one’s rage or sense of self-righteousness, but it’s not likely to make the world more just. Moral progress requires judicious change, not a relentless culture war that seeks to replace once-venerated intuitions with hitherto unknown insight discovered by modern academic ethicists.

Rejecting the populist Right

These principles do not lead to a clearly defined policy platform. Two people who embrace all of them can still disagree vehemently about modern politics. But a strong endorsement of them does point to a different future for the conservative movement than the one envisaged by proponents of Trump-inspired populism. Primarily, these principles encourage a politics of prudence and an appreciation of the fragility of the American Republic. The rule of law, respect for freedom, protection of private property, promotion of democratic institutions, and creation of wealth that we take for granted are not inevitable fruits of nature; they are hard-won fruits of struggle and sacrifice. Our civilization is a gift passed from our forebears for temporary protection before we, too, pass it to the next generation. We are stewards, not owners.

This means that we should reject the anger and bitterness that characterize so much of the modern Right. For these emotions and attitudes fuel the engine of extremism; and extremism is a threat to civilization. Those who voted for Trump and who enthusiastically support his anti-establishment attitude and disregard for political norms have legitimate grievances, of course. But responsible conservative politicians and intellectuals who recognize the precariousness of social order should work diligently to address reasonable complaints while calming the passions that often accompany them. And they should refrain from promising too much. Conservatism, after all, is an ideology of limits. Progressivism often fails to recognize these limits and offers impossible visions to its followers. Conservatives correctly criticize this. But many populists do the same, replacing the Left’s fantasy of a radically diverse and police-free socialism with an idyllic landscape of small, homogenous communities surrounded by thriving industries.

Still, there is little reason to believe that conservatives can or should return to the ideology of Reaganism. Populism might be the wrong future for the Republican party, but populists have made many compelling criticisms of modern conservatism. For too long, many conservatives were content to promote a corporate-friendly platform that warmed the hearts and fattened the bank accounts of the super-rich, but which alienated the working class. A return to tradition does not mean a repudiation of working-class politics or nationalism. In fact, it should lead to an embrace of both, for few vehicles of social organization have been more successful than the nation state and few things are more important for its continued stability than a prosperous middle class. Conservatism must therefore steer a path, guided by its own venerated ancestors, between the extremes of the radical Left and the discontented Right without retreating into a corporate-friendly libertarianism. The survival of the American Republic might just depend upon it.

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