For the most part, the term “checklist conservative” is used to imply that the person criticizing a Trump Supporter is an Establishment Conservative. But is this new insult justified?…
A new political insult has emerged in recent months: “checklist conservatism.” It is a charge leveled at all kinds of self-identified conservatives whenever they accuse members or supporters of the Trump Administration of behaving in an un-conservative manner. It is a rather odd insult, in its way and, while it points to some genuine problems with establishment conservatism, there is a danger it will be used by people who seek to actively undermine limited government and traditional values in the name of a “nationalism” that functions as mere cover for yet more political centralization.
For the most part, “checklist conservative” is used to imply that the person criticizing a Trump Supporter is an Establishment Conservative. (The capitalization is intentional, meant to convey the power ascribed to these relatively new categories.) Employees and officers of beltway think tanks, lobbying firms, and establishment Members of Congress are (rightly, in my view) criticized for attacking President Trump and his supporters for not talking more specifically about conservatism, and especially for undermining putatively free-market programs and initiatives. Trade policy is the area of most obvious conflict, but Mr. Trump’s seeming lack of concern to modify and scale back entitlements also comes in for criticism of this sort.
It is understandable that supporters of President Trump (including yours truly) would reject criticism from committed globalists to the effect that globalism no longer has a champion in the White House. The return of concern for the national interest (beyond the faux national interest in paving other nations as a step toward rebuilding them as cheap copies of our own) is an important conservative development. It constitutes recognition that, as traditional conservatives like Russell Kirk pointed out decades ago, human beings are situated persons, whose characters and personalities are developed within communities, and not monadic inputs into global production machinery.
But there is more to the charge of checklist conservatism. The term’s implication is that critics of Trump Supporters are all establishment conservatives or old fogeys who refuse to get with the program of Making America Great Again. But many of us who have been traditional conservatives for all our shockingly long adult lives have managed the not-so-difficult feat of both supporting President Trump and finding the goals and arguments of some who claim to support him to be troubling. We came around to voting for Mr. Trump and in many cases have become enthusiastic supporters precisely because we saw in him a man who would stop the assault on our communities emanating from a bipartisan Washington establishment that holds working people, their norms, and their faith in contempt. Unfortunately, some putative populist followers of Mr. Trump mistake Making America Great Again with making the federal government great again. And, while the federal government needs to do some things (like protecting our borders) better than it has, for America to be great again the federal government must do many things less, or not at all.
Some prominent Trump supporters, like F.H. Buckley of George Mason Law School, writing for National Review and the New York Post, seem convinced that the “conservative” way “forward” is to reject traditional conservatism altogether. Casting aspersions on traditional conservatives’ character, Mr. Buckley promotes a sanitized vision of the liberalism that gave us Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. He urges us to embrace the welfare state and to work, not to deconstruct the administrative state (as Trump advisor Steve Bannon proposes), but instead, a la Richard Nixon, to fill it with the “right” people.
There also is the pseudonymous “Tom Hagen,” writing at the online journal American Greatness, who insists that conservatism itself is elevated to “a place of importance that it does not deserve.” Mr. Hagen sees today’s establishment conservatism as the direct and logical successor (or remains) of the fusionist movement championed by William F. Buckley. That movement reasonably can be said to have died with the end of the Cold War, when traditional “values” conservatives found themselves cast adrift by neoconservative expansionists and financiers intent on imposing the bureaucratic machinery of managed markets on a nascent global economic system. The catastrophic consequences of their pursuit of a neoliberal fantasyland during the George W. Bush Administration brought us the most radical President in American history and the utter collapse of the Republican Party, making room for Mr. Trump. Aside from some dishonest rhetoric, none of this had much to do with conservatism, save to the extent that social conservatives began sitting out elections, especially after their Tea Party organizers were fed to the media wolves. Politically, this neoliberal “conservatism” was a bust. Philosophically it was an act of staggering hubris, duplicity, and utter fecklessness.
Mr. Hagen refuses to acknowledge the distinction (for which many traditional conservatives sacrificed their careers) between the philosophy of conservatism and the political machinations of those who find the term “conservative” of use. Then again, Mr. Hagen dismisses conservatism itself as mere political trimming, of no use in the United States of today. In its stead, Mr. Hagen offers what he terms “constitutionalism,” by which he means “protection of natural rights, equality under the law, and a written constitution that sets down limits on the powers of government.”
The list of “constitutional” goods is intended to be received as self-evidently and unassailably good. Unfortunately, the checklist, here, is nothing more than the reductionist vision of neoconservative stalwart Harry Jaffa. For Jaffa, the Constitution itself is nothing more than a means by which a few sentences from the Declaration of Independence, taken as civic religious truth, might be put into action. Edmund Burke, whose thought and legacy Mr. Hagen dismisses out of hand, defended self-government among peoples (e.g. the American colonists) as necessary for peace, order, and the development of virtue. Jaffa called for a nation-state that would do far more than protect its borders and the citizens within them. His nationalism posited ideological phrases (“equality” being the chief god-term) the Constitution existed to serve. Thus, the nation-state, as the locus of constitutional power, became itself a civil religious symbol binding together a people devoted, not to their traditions, their communities, and their religious faith, but to a political creed. That political creed demands an ideological uniformity by nature fatal to the mutual respect based in normative, cultural consensus called for by conservatism.
Nationalism is not conservatism. Sovereignty clearly is a necessary concept and policy, properly understood. It entails essential national goals in control of one’s borders and the determination not to cede authority to international elites. This kind of national sovereignty can and should be strengthened in opposition to those who would rule Americans (and others) through international trade, agreements—or for that matter environmental agreements. But the centralization of power is by nature dangerous, and a newly centralized administrative and welfare state, while it might for a while bring electoral success (until, that is, we go bankrupt), remains a danger and, more fundamentally, is itself the negation of liberty.
Ironically, the problems here do not come primarily from President Trump, who so far is governing as a conservative in the only meaningful sense—calling off the hounds of political correctness protecting our borders and working to reduce centralized, bureaucratic control over American lives. Conservatives have a duty to maintain a “checklist” against which to measure governmental conduct; it simply should not be the neoconservative checklist of foreign intervention or the establishment checklist of globalism. The conservative checklist eschews specific programmatic demands in favor of a tendency of policies to serve the cause of self-government under law. This means the Constitution, including its limitations on power, its separation of powers, its checks and balances, and its federalism must be protected and reinvigorated. It also means we should support deconstruction of the administrative state and, yes, a more aggressive approach to “welfare” programs like socialized medicine and policies that discourage work and reliance on local communities for public assistance. Most important, it means we must support greater protection for communities of faith from our aggressively anti-religious, anti-traditional elite institutions and bureaucrats.
This is a checklist for ordered liberty. And President Trump has been doing a rather good job by its standards. Perhaps some of his supporters should stop attempting to impose a program on his administration that mistakes for populism the mere centralization of power in the federal government. Instead, they might work to “check off some boxes” in returning actual power to the actual people in America’s actual, concrete communities.
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