The never-Trumpers are having an interesting debate over the question, Is it time to leave the Republican Party? George Will and Steve Schmidt say yes: The Trumpian rot is all the way down. Bill Kristol says not so fast: Once Donald Trump falls, the party could be brought back to health, and the fight has to be within the party as well as without it.
My instinct is that we can clarify this debate by returning to first principles. Everybody in the conversation is conservative. Where do conservative loyalties lie? How can we serve those loyalties in these circumstances?
Conservatism, as Roger Scruton reminds us, was founded during the 18th-century Enlightenment. In France, Britain and the American colonies, Enlightenment thinkers were throwing off monarchic power and seeking to build an order based on reason and consent of the governed. Society is best seen as a social contract, these Enlightenment thinkers said. Free individuals get together and contract with one another to create order.
Conservatives said we agree with the general effort but think you’ve got human nature wrong. There never was such a thing as an autonomous, free individual who could gather with others to create order. Rather, individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations. The order comes first. Individual freedom is an artifact of that order.
As Scruton put it in his bracing primer, “Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition,” “The question of which comes first, liberty or order, was to divide liberals from conservatives for the next 200 years.”
The practical upshot is that conservatives have always placed tremendous emphasis on the sacred space where individuals are formed. This space is populated by institutions like the family, religion, the local community, the local culture, the arts, the schools, literature and the manners that govern everyday life.
Membership in these institutions is not established by rational choice. We are born into them most of the time and are bonded to them by prerational cords of sympathy and affection. We gratefully inherit these institutions from our ancestors, we steward them and pass them along to our descendants.
Over the centuries conservatives have resisted anything that threatened this sacred space. First it was the abstract ideology of the French Revolution, the idea that society could be reorganized from the top down. Then it was industrialization. Conservatives like John Ruskin and later T.S. Eliot arose to preserve culture from the soulless pragmatism of the machine age.
Then it was the state. In their different ways, communists, fascists, social democrats and liberals tried to use the state to perform many functions previously done by the family, local civic organizations and the other players in the sacred space.
Conservatives fought big government not because they hated the state, per se, but because they loved the sacred space. The last attempts to build a conservatism around the sacred space were George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and, in Britain, David Cameron’s Big Society conservatism.
They both fizzled because over the last 30 years the parties of the right drifted from conservatism. The Republican Party became the party of market fundamentalism.
Market fundamentalism is an inhumane philosophy that makes economic growth society’s prime value and leaves people atomized and unattached. Republican voters eventually rejected market fundamentalism and went for the tribalism of Donald Trump because at least he gave them a sense of social belonging. At least he understood that there’s a social order under threat.
The problem is he doesn’t base his belonging on the bonds of affection conservatives hold dear. He doesn’t respect and obey those institutions, traditions and values that form morally decent individuals.
His tribalism is the evil twin of community. It is based on hatred, us/them thinking, conspiracy-mongering and distrust. It creates belonging, but on vicious grounds.
In 2018, the primary threat to the sacred order is no longer the state. It is a radical individualism that leads to vicious tribalism. The threat comes from those two main currents of the national Republican Party. At his essence Trump is an assault on the sacred order that conservatives hold dear – the habits and institutions that cultivate sympathy, honesty, faithfulness and friendship.
Today you can be a conservative or a Republican, but you can’t be both.
The new threats to the sacred space demand a fundamental rethinking for conservatives. You can’t do that rethinking if you are imprisoned in a partisan mindset or if you dismiss half of Americans because they are on the “other team.”
When I look at places that are successfully nurturing beautiful communities, which seem most “conservative” in the true sense, I find great pluralism. Burlington, Vermont, is doing it, and so is Salt Lake City. I find beautiful communities in places that consider themselves deep blue and places that consider themselves deep red.
The next conservatism will be built on the back of these real-life communities, and the way they nurture good citizens and healthy attachments. It will be based on new alliances, which have little to do with your father’s GOP.