By Dan Phillips
Rare recently published this article by Daniel McCarthy, Editor of The American Conservative (TAC) magazine. It is a thoughtful defense of a vote for Trump that I largely agree with. I will not say I’m completely surprised. I could have seen McCarthy going either way. I will say that I am pleased.
Some background is in order for those who may not be familiar with the intricate details of certain intra-right dynamics. TAC began as a project of Pat Buchanan, Taki Theodoracopulos and Scott McConnell. It was an effort to create a credible magazine that reflected Buchananism or paleoconservatism, especially on foreign policy, that would serve as a counterbalance to the typical mainstream and neoconservative party line from such magazines as National Review and the Weekly Standard. Since the time of its founding, former Buchananites and paleocons have maintained something of a love hate relationship with the magazine.
It is fair to say that the magazine was never the bastion of orthodox paleoism, a more politically and policy oriented version of Chronicles for example, that many who saw Buchanan’s name attached to it hoped it was going to be, but Buchanan and Taki eventually left the magazine, and it has arguably drifted since that time in ways that are hard to precisely characterize. I’ll avoid details for the sake of brevity. The current manifestation of TAC remains at least loosely committed to the paleo triad of immigration restriction, skepticism of free trade orthodoxy and especially foreign policy restraint, but in an overall framework of “reasonableness” and dare I say moderation. This overall framework often leads TAC and it’s writers to take positions (or fail to take positions) that don’t please orthodox paleos, but modern TAC and orthodox paleos are still kind of stuck with each other because there aren’t a lot of other games in town.
With that context, I have long thought that The American Conservative and its stable of writers were missing the boat by not acknowledging the potential of Trump’s campaign to advance our suite of issues. Trump has long been right on trade deals. Trump was against NAFTA when it was originally being debated in the early ‘90s long before opposition to trade deals was “cool” in certain segments of the right. (The voting base of the party has always been skeptical of trade deals in contrast to official movement conservatism and the Republican Party leadership.) Trump’s everyman economic nationalism has been the consistent and defining feature of his public political proclamations from the beginning, so there is little reason to doubt his sincerity on the issue.
On immigration, Trump has been less consistent on the issue throughout his life than he has been on trade, but he has been the best of any candidate in a long time on the issue since the start of this campaign despite some missteps and subsequent backtracking. Whether he mostly stumbled into the issue or was genuinely coming around before his announcement speech, is speculative, but it is encouraging that he seemed to be taking advice from Sen. Jeff Sessions and presumably Stephen Miller as he was making plans for a run. Also, Trump’s 2000 campaign book when he was considering seeking the Reform Party (so much for the claim that he is a lifelong Democrat) nomination was pretty solid on immigration. This prompted VDARE writer Matthew Richer to proclaim that Trump might actually be the best candidate on immigration, and this was in April 15, well before Trump’s announcement speech which made immigration a centerpiece of his campaign whether he intended for it to or not.
On foreign policy, surprisingly to many, Trump has a history of opposing the current hawkish status quo. In 1987, when he was considering seeking the Republican nomination in 1988 (again, so much for the claim he is a lifelong Democrat), Trump took out a full page ad in the New York Times criticizing America’s extensive commitments abroad. While Trump is not a doctrinaire non-interventionist, the ad indicated that he believed that the US was bearing a vastly disproportionate share of the cost for the defense of our allies and believed that other wealthy nations, like Germany, South Korea and Japan, were essentially freeloading off the US for their defense. This is indisputably true and should be unobjectionable to anyone but hawkish defenders of the status quo. And keep in mind that this was in 1987 before the fall of the Soviet Union when this position would have been riskier to take. This position is credibly authentic because Trump spoke in terms of the US getting a bad deal on foreign policy and the other countries taking us for a ride, which meshes perfectly with his rhetoric on trade and trade deals. While Trump has disappointed non-interventionist with his tough talk about ISIS and against the Iran deal, this is probably the price you have to pay to be competitive in a GOP primary, at least for now.
So on the three issues that distinguish paleocons from mainstream conservatives, Trump is solid on two and about half way there on the third. Also, regarding TAC ‘s overall framework, what is unrecognized by many partisans on both sides is that the Trump phenomenon is arguably a manifestation of the Radical Center rather than the right or far-right. Many of Trump’s earliest and most enthusiastic supporters are not doctrinaire conservatives but Middle American Radicals (MARs), a relatively large and well described demographic group that is not well represented by either party. Most on the left can’t see this centrist aspect, which McCarthy recognizes and describes well, because they are too PC brain addled by their virtue signaling, hating on whitey narrative to think straight. Many of Trump’s conservative critics recognize this essential centrism but interpret it as Trump being just another liberal and a stealth Democrat, which he is neither, because they can’t think outside the organizational narrative that supposedly defines our current political dynamic.
Yes, Trump is a flawed vehicle. His politics appear to be intuitive. This has allowed him to avoid the unhelpful dogmas of ideological movement conservatism, such as free trade, and resonate with the average American who is not ideological either, but it can leave him anchorless at times. Yes, he has flip-flopped on some issues – abortion, gun control, health care – but he is not the first candidate to suddenly get right with the base of the party whose nomination he seeks on certain issues, and he won’t be the last. Does the name Mitt Romney ring a bell? Yes, he has given money to Democrats. While these donations are understandable from an influence buying standpoint, they are unfortunate. Yes, he is thin skinned, boorish, and a loose cannon at times. Yes, he has not lived an exemplary Christian life.
But Trump is who he is and is who we have always known him to be. Trump’s critics on the right tend to exaggerate both his flaws with regard to these latter persona and lifestyle issue and their own outrage. If you’re really “shocked, just shocked” that a billionaire celebrity has not lived the life of a monk, then you need to get out more. I sense a lot of feigned outrage that is primarily for show and what I have called sophistication signaling, a close cousin of virtue signaling. “I’m way too sophisticated to vote for that uncouth ruffian Trump!” The outrage comes off as manufactured because so many of Trump’s harshest critics on the right do not signal nearly as hard about the very real ethical and temperament issues of Hillary Clinton.
Regarding the former policy issues, it strikes me that a lot of the criticism of Trump from the ostensible right is really more about defending the modern “conservative” three-legs-of-the-stool paradigm than it is actual concern about Trump’s proposed policies. Some of these three-legs true believers are sincere because they have bought the current paradigm, but as I have said repeatedly, much of the professional conservative defense of movement conservative orthodoxy is based on the fact that they want popular conservatism to remain as an ideological cover for status quo globalist neoliberalism, and they recognize Trump’s populist economic nationalism as a genuine threat to it.
The problem with focusing on Trump’s flaws, especially with regard to his persona, is that, as our newfound Claremontista friends pointed out when they initially established The Journal of American Greatness, Trump’s persona is both a bug and a feature. With just the policy distinctions without Trump as the messenger, we would not be witnessing the nationalist and populist uprising that we are seeing today. You can’t have the one without the other.
A few likeminded paleos and I actually spent a lot of time in emails and blog posts discussing potential paleoish candidate who could possibly run before Trump got in. Much of this was prompted by dissatisfaction with Rand Paul on the trio of issues discussed above that we wanted represented. We even discussed agreeing on a consensus candidate we could write in on online polls because the crop of likely candidates was so dismal. The problem we had is that the paleo bench just isn’t very deep. The potential candidate had to have some stature and be solid on immigration, opposed to globalist trade deals and a relative non-interventionist on foreign policy. I can tell you, that isn’t a very long list. Rep. John Duncan (R-TN), Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) and even first term Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) were some of the few names that consistently came up. In fact, I even made a college try to talk up a Rep. John Duncan candidacy.
Let’s say that John Duncan or Walter Jones had thrown his hat in the ring. It’s possible he would have outperformed expectations because there is a lot of real estate to fill between what the base desires and the party delivers, especially on immigration and trade, but he would not have been filling stadiums in Alabama shortly after he announced, and he almost certainly would not have won the nomination. That only happened because the messenger was Trump, the bombastic billionaire and reality TV star. You don’t have to like it, but there it is.
Daniel McCarthy’s analysis is balanced and sound and much welcomed. Scott McConnell, while critical of Trump, appears to recognize the overriding dynamic of status quo globalism vs. resurgent nationalism and the uniquely horrible nature of the Democrat nominee. Pat Buchanan, who is no longer technically with the magazine but they still run his columns, recognized the potential of the Trump campaign early on and has been a defender of Trump and Trumpism throughout. Rod Dreher, who I have already commented on, is a lost cause. He is a textbook example of the faux outrage set, and is beyond hope. I remain genuinely confused and disappointed by Daniel Larison’s seeming reluctance to more fully and clearly embrace Trump. Yes, Trump is imperfect on foreign policy, but he is a step in the right direction and has changed the debate and dynamic in a profound way. Trump has made the Democrat Hillary the foreign policy hawk in the general election. That is why so many neocons and other status quo foreign policy establishment types have embraced Hillary. This was unthinkable pre-Trump.
For paleoish sorts who are still reluctant to embrace Trump, I ask “Who ya got?” What’s your plan? Are we going to start working on Jimmy Duncan 2020? Trump is what we’ve got and who got us this far, like it or not. I seem to recall an old saying about having to dance with the one who brung ya? If not Trump, who is your dance partner? It’s past time to stop quibbling and get on board the Trump Train. Your country and your issues need you.