Against Trump (Again) And Why I’m Not A Conservative
However, the last four years have apparently taught many of us nothing, and a re-hashing of the old argument that was so prominent on Twitter back in 2016 is necessary. Why not support Trump? It’s a simple answer really, but let’s begin with another more pressing question: Why not be a conservative?
To answer this, I must compare the values I held in 2016 with the values I hold in 2020. An easy enough affair, comparisons of values. I still support justice, equality, fairness, character, a proactive foreign policy which emphasizes diplomacy and peace over sable-rattling (though I did, and do, recognize foreign policy occasionally requires a deal of sable-rattling), and most importantly forward-thinking policies which emphasize where we want to be in the future rather than appeals to nostalgia. However, I think it can emphatically be said that if the modern conservative movement really supports any of those, it’s the ideal of justice. It’s a perverse justice if anything; it has become justice for the few as the movement has embraced fully the idea of grievance politics.
Of the other values that I held in 2016 and the ones I hold in 2020, conservatism — or at least American conservatives and increasingly those throughout the Anglophone world — has decided to abandon. Especially where the means of living up to our values are different, and the argument really is over values themselves. To the modern conservative, or at least those in the media sphere, the question is not how policies will impact the American people, rather the question is a macabre mix of “how will this particular policy harm my enemies?” and “how will this particular policy harm my enemy’s morale?” In short: “owning the libs”. This wasn’t always the case, but it was the reason that many who would consider themselves formerly of the right and staunchly in the Never Trump movement were very worried about the rise to prominence of pseudo-intellectual grifters like Charlie Kirk, Ben Shapiro, and others.
The advance of “own the libs” politics is another reason that I can no longer say that I’m a conservative, of any degree. It’s not because the values I’ve held have changed, even if since 2016 the means I prefer to live out those values have changed. It’s because the values of conservatism have changed. Contrary to the opinion of some, there is no intellectual conservatism, anymore than there is a vein of intellectual progressivism. There is intellectual liberalism — the idea that we ought to be open to research that advances the knowledge of mankind-but ascribing ideology to intellectualism is wrong. We can engage in the semantics of political theory until we’re blue in the face, but intellectualism is not the intelligentsia, no matter how long we debate it.
This leads to one of two conclusions then, if we reject the premise of intellectual conservatism and we accept the premise of a value shift. Either: 1) we accept that the conservative movement has indeed changed in fundamental ways and that it rejects the basic tenet of intellectual liberalism because conservatism consciously rejects working for all of us. Or 2) we choose to continue identifying with the underlying ideology because of our prior association, and thus ignore the worst demons and the idiocy that the intelligentsia have fallen prey to. In the first conclusion, one can only say emphatically that they are not a conservative, even if they want to say “I didn’t leave conservatism, conservatism left me”. In the second, one falls prey to the delusion of a return to normal, of a return to the idea of intellectual liberalism, and to the idea that one day the intelligentsia will not just acknowledge the idiocy and the demons, but actively fight them instead.
I don’t particularly feel as though the phrase “I didn’t leave conservatism, conservatism left me” is all that appropriate for this situation. It grossly underestimates the shifts that have happened. While many of us continue to fight for the basic values of human rights, decency, character, fairness, equality, and the truth, even if we have differing means of getting there (i.e., policy), conservatism has chosen to abandon that fight in the advance of grievance politics, substituting equality for all to equality for the few.
This shift can be profoundly felt on the topics of immigration, history, and trade.
Let’s begin with perhaps the most uniquely relevant of the topics, history. Conservatism has a propensity to wax historical. For good reason; I ascribe to the maxim that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it and I think, generally, forgetting how and why we arrived at a particular problem is a good way to ensure that said problem will be revisited on future generations.
However, there is a difference between the collective memory and memorialization and it is here that we see conservatism fighting perhaps most profoundly for grievance politics. Collective memory is merely our remembrance of events and people past. We don’t have statues in the Americas to King George III and yet Americans remember, even vaguely, the reasons for the Revolution. We have comparatively few statues to John F. Kennedy and we remember him. We have comparatively few standing monuments to Union heroes and Union fighting men, battlefields generally tend to be kept as battlefields and not gaudied up as museums, yet there isn’t a collective memory hole for who won the Civil War, at least tactically.
When conservatives do their utmost to ensure that Confederate statues, of Robert E. Lee (on Monument Avenue in Richmond in my home state of Virginia) and of other Confederate generals and fighting men, and keep the “Confederate flag” flying there is a very clear intent that should be called out for what it is. The collective psyche of Americans is not going to forget the major figures in the Civil War — after all, look at Grant and Sherman — but insisting that memorialization be kept in place is something which serve no discernible purpose other than to advance “owning the libs” and to placate a certain group with grievances against the status quo.
Secondly, modern conservatism has abandoned any pretense to anything approaching decency on the question of immigration. I disagree with those who would say that border security goes directly against this. I may prefer a more liberal immigration system (in this instance, just more people immigrating period), but I do not think that simply wanting to ensure that our borders are well protected is indeed against the idea of giving humans agency or treating them as, well, human. I do, however, think that building a wall on our southern border, making it almost impossible to receive refugee status or asylum, and all but suspending high-skilled immigration into the United States is indeed a denial of human decency. It treats nationality as an inherited right, it treats citizenship, and a pathway to it, as a club, and it treats America not as some shining city on a hill in the context of Augustine, but rather a shining city on a hill in the context of Calvin.
Simply put, modern conservatism views on immigration have come to rely too much on the pretense that all immigration is a zero-sum game, or at the very best a game with only one victor. Of course, immigrants take up much more than unskilled work; they teach our students in our universities (this past semester I had a Russian Russian history professor and a Taiwanese professor of comparative politics), and they contribute to our economy. While there may be some jobs lost to immigrants, though I find it hard to believe this number isn’t negligible, modern conservatism seems to believe, or at least its proponents haven’t refuted, the belief of the pseudo-intelligentsia grifters: that any immigration is a net loss because the opportunity could go to an American. Treating America as a shining city on a hill where only the pre-destined are allowed isn’t just toxic and antithetical to human decency, but it transforms the point into one of grievance.
Finally, modern conservative views on trade have also come to rely on the pretense that any gain which is not wholly in the benefit of the American market and American companies directly works against them. While, of course, this was not true, else NAFTA, CAFTA, and the TPP wouldn’t have made it off the negotiating table, let alone within a mile of adoption, this once again misses the forest for the trees and states emphatically that the idea of equality is not a value conservatism fights for. Conservatives often accuse liberals of working for equality of outcome, not for equality of opportunity. In this instance though, conservatives very emphatically work for the former and not the latter. They don’t give our companies a level playing field, and while the rest of the world attempts to integrate their markets and to see mutual prosperity, conservatives insist that the only real equality is inequality: that America First must mean that American only must benefit from her foreign dealings, no matter how noxious a reading of the value of equality that is.
So, that doesn’t answer the question of why this article is named “Against Trump (Again) And Why I’m Not A Conservative”, or at least not the first part. It’s the abandonment of these values and more by conservatives, and especially by Donald Trump that lead me to staking out this position, once again, in 2020. There will certainly be some on November 3, or before, who decide they can’t in good conscience support either major candidate. If this may be you, first, I’d like you to consider the following. For the record, my vote prior to November 3 (I have to vote absentee) will not emphatically be a vote for Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. My vote, rather, will be a vote against Trump.
Imagine, for one second, that some family’s home is being targeted by an arsonist. The arsonist, escaping any intervention, manages to set the home on fire. Before the home can sustain major damage, the town fire department shows up. Our house is on fire, both from a Constitutional crisis as an ineffably corrupt and incompetent president was exonerated wrongly by a senate derelict of its Constitutional duty and from a crisis of moral international standing as the president approves the systematic torture and killing of ethnic minorities in China and refuses to stand up for democracy abroad.
Put simply, when the house is on fire and the fire department shows up, the town folk do not choose to root for the arsonist.
When the choice is between an arsonist and the fire department, there is no moral basis for choosing the arsonist. Not if the house is built in a style we don’t like, not if the residents hold values antithetical to our own, and certainly not if the persona of the past gives the arsonist an air of respectability or “the common touch”. Far from rejecting this binary, as many Anti-Anti Trumpers think those of us who continue to avowedly say “Never Trump” in 2020 are doing, we’re actually doing quite the contrary. We’ve decided that our values lead us to the conclusion that even if our values are better represented elsewhere (in an election where less was at stake, I would easily write in Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker for President), and even if the means that one side uses are not our favored means of living out our values, that the metaphorical house is worth saving. We also think that the consequences of cheering on the arsonist to do the deed are so utterly dire and catastrophic that to give him the latitude to burn the house down would forfeit any claim we have to stand for what we believe in.
All of us know that both sides could adapt this sort of motivation to their reasoning; however, one thing stands out. Those of us in the Never Trump movement view 2020 as a list ditch effort to get rid of a man who didn’t just abuse the values of the conservative movement, but fundamentally shifted them.
I don’t the conservative movement is irredeemable in its entirety. Large parts of it are. The base of voters that decided to kowtow will need to be abandoned, if indeed the values the conservative movement held then are values they hold now. However, there is also — in some corners — a turn to reject grievance politics and anti-intellectual liberalism. But it is too small a movement to really be called anything other than a blip on the radar of the wider set. This group passionately espouses the values pre-2016 conservatives held, and for the conservative movement not to become unquestionably the vehicle for largely white, Protestant grievance politics, it will need to return to those values.
So, in sum, why am I not a conservative? Not because the values I held have changed, but because the values the movement held changed. If we genuinely are to believe those who identify with conservatism who say that Trump is an aberration, we must not waste this chance to get rid of him, so that conservatism will have a chance to return to its once proud self. I will not be able to join them for a good long time yet. However, getting rid of Trump and restoring the means debate over the values debate, is the best chance conservatives have at ever getting young folks like me to come back through the door.