Conservatism in the age of Trump

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

On April 5, the Yale Center for the Study of Representative Institutions at the MacMillan Center hosted a panel discussion with James Ceaser, William Kristol, Eliana Johnson, and Ross Douthat on “Conservatism in the Age of Trump,” chaired by Yale’s Steven B. Smith. Each panelist is a noted conservative commentator. Three come from the news media: Douthat writes a weekly column in the New York Times and is a fellow at the Elm Institute in New Haven; Kristol is the founder and editor-at-large of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard; and Johnson is a former Fox producer and National Review editor who currently covers the White House for Politico. Ceaser is the Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia.

The panel began with fifteen-minute remarks by each panelist on conservatism in the modern era.

Johnson was the first panelist to speak, and her remarks focused on how Trump’s difference from his predecessors make his iteration of conservatism different as well. Trump, she said, was the first conservative candidate in the modern era to articulate a political vision before there were people and a movement to back it up. Trump’s political agenda came prior to the formation of a coalition to back up that agenda. Trump’s “special personality traits” allowed him to turn the typical political formula on its head, Johnson said. “You can’t compare Trump to previous occupants of his office,” she said. “You have to compare him to humans, because he’s so dramatically different from any other occupant of that office.”

Johnson concluded her remarks with a discussion of the role of the media, and how its tone and tenor has changed throughout the first year of the Trump presidency. “It does seem to me that there’s a lot of hysteria surrounding everything Trump does, and very little attention paid to the context of his actions and what the precedent is for them,” she said. She noted that this is not much different from how the media has treated Republican politicians in eras past whose actions were, perhaps, less concerning than Trump’s. “The level of hysteria then was similar for Republican candidates who are now embraced by the media as pillars of the Republican establishment that they would much prefer to Trump,” she said.

“When we actually got someone who was unprecedented and worrisome in real ways, voters did not actually pay attention because they’d heard all these things before,” she concluded.

Douthat of the New York Times opinion page was the second panelist to speak. Rather than focus on Trump, Douthat chose to trace the intellectual history of the modern conservative movement from Goldwater to George W. Bush. A good way to explain the jumbled coalition that now falls under the tent of American conservatism, he said, is to understand modern conservatism as “an attempted defense of American exceptionalism.” It is the idea, he said, that there are “certain things about American politics and our role in the world that are distinctive and have been good things for us—not perfect things, not things that necessarily work in every time and place, but good things that are worth fighting for and preserving.” At its best, Douthat said, conservatism has sought to defend these things. But, he continued, Trump has repudiated all of these aspects of conservatism—he is not religious, he is not a foreign policy idealist, he is not concerned with the size of government, he is a crony capitalist. “His ideology outran the people who would staff an administration that would agree with it.”

Douthat then offered his own explanation for the rise of Trump: conservatism failed. Trump’s election was a symptom of a long-term failure of conservatism to do what it had said it could. Rather than translate the high-minded ideals of conservative intellectuals to the broad American public, what it gave America in governance, he said, was “a lot of electoral victories joined with cultural defeats—conservative governments presided over the long-term decline of the American family, the steady secularization of American life, a growing individualism and ultimately social atomy.” All of these failures, he said, means that it might make sense for people to abandon American exceptionalism and try something more defensive—a “pagan president as a protector against aggressive secularism,” for instance. “I do think that the diagnosis that conservatism has failed is generally correct,” he concluded. “I think in general it is entirely reasonable for people who consider themselves to be on the right (perhaps the term conservative isn’t even useful now) to be open to more radical political experiments that aren’t American exceptionalism.”

Douthat’s remarks were followed by Bill Kristol, one of the champions of American exceptionalism and intellectual conservatism, who chose to focus his remarks “more on conservatism and less on Trump.” He countered Douthat’s assertion that conservatism had failed—rather, he said, “as political movements go, it’s pretty impressive.” As one of the architects of modern American conservatism, he launched a staunch defense of intellectual conservatism. American conservatives, he argued, are the only conservatives “that really tried to be serious about shaping society in a certain way, replacing what was worth replacing, being open to reform” without yielding to democratization or populism, he argued. He then said that he thought the conservative movement as a whole had fought “the racists in the party” effectively. “No grown-up person ever thought that out of x many Republican voters there wouldn’t be 5 or 10 or 20 million who wouldn’t be racists,” he said. “I would on the whole defend the conservative movement within the limits of what a political movement is supposed to look like…It preserved what was important about classical liberalism in America and preserved what was important about classical conservatism.”

He concluded with a discussion of what intellectual conservatism still had to offer in the age of Trump. An aspect of conservatism that has been lost in recent years, he said, was “not bowing to either the tyranny of the majority or the tyranny of the fashionable elites.” In the age of vox populi and obsession with electoral victory, he said, some conservative intellectuals have forgotten that “just because someone won an election doesn’t mean he deserved to win an election, and just because some ideas are popular doesn’t mean that they are right.”

“At the end of the day, you do have the responsibility to say that certain ideas and principles are better for the country and better for people, and certain facts are true and others aren’t,” he said. “The critique of conservative elites for not ‘getting with it’ by accommodating some popular fallacies and prejudices I’m somewhat unmoved by,” he concluded.

The final panelist was Ceasar, an academic at the University of Virginia, who focused his remarks on the institution of the presidency. “To study the presidency, you have to study presidents,” he said. “Donald Trump has deliberately and ostentatiously eschewed presidentialism.” He continued to talk about how America—unlike many countries—does not have a separate institution which functions as head of state. The president is both a political and a ceremonial figure, he said, making the office a continual “political balancing act.” He noted that many notable Republicans and intellectual conservatives have abandoned their party in the wake of Trump’s election. “Republicans and conservatives have been driven by their view into apoplexy,” he said. “Intellectuals have left their party and made successful careers at the New York Times and the Washington Post. They heed progressives’ constant injunction to speak out.”

“Conservatism is supposed to be concerned with presidentialism even more than progressivism,” he said. “It’s part of conservatism itself to stand for the forms of the constitution.” Trump, he said, has decided that presidentialism is unnecessary. If you ask the question “what has Trump done for conservatism now?”, Ceasar said, it is that he has brought the middle of the country—the “basket of deplorables” in between the East and West Coast population—solidly into the conservative camp. “These were the people who the Democrats once represented, or claimed to represent,” he said. “During the course of the campaign, these people broke from Cruz and went to Trump. We saw that these ideological strictures probably weren’t really what was guiding this movement. It was a nursery of disappointment about being passed over and ignored…it was a cultural problem, a feeling that the nation had passed them by and turned in another direction, that the great universities in particular were totally alien.”  

Ceasar concluded with a discussion of Trump’s policies—which are, he said, largely conservative. He noted Trump’s deregulations, his decrease of federally-owned lands, his repeal of Obamacare. But, he said, “Trump doesn’t think or operate like a conservative politician.” “He mostly operates in the realm outside of ideas—by instincts,” he said. But his policies, he argued, are still conservative. “And so far, despite all prediction, he has not shown himself to be an actual authoritarian.”

The panel concluded with a question-and-answer session with the audience. The session touched on topics around the spectrum of what was discussed during the panelists’ remarks, including whether conservatives should take jobs in the Trump White House, whether the Republican party is salvageable, and what it might mean for intellectual conservatives to engage with the Republican or Trump base in good faith.

The panel came at an important moment for high-brow American conservatism as it continues to reckon with the challenges and controversy brought about by Trump’s administration. As many of the panelists noted, conservative intellectuals have come to understand that they did not fully apprehend the Republican Party that many of them were so instrumental in building.  


Written by Olivia Paschal, Yale College Class of 2018.