In 1992, the great classical liberal economist Friedrich Hayek wrote his famous essay Why I am not a Conservative. Hayek wrote that conservatives can be described as having “a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such… to use the powers of government to prevent change…”, but he also wrote a caveat. American conservatism was “…what in Europe was called “liberalism” was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense.”
Hayek was right, as the post-war conservative movement emerged under the guidance of William F. Buckley, Frank Meyers, and others it became obviously fusionist. Fusionism was a synthesis of traditionalism, libertarianism, and anti-communism promoted by Myers and Buckley. It was pro-tradition, pro-market and anti-communist. In short, it was dedicated to conserving the American founding and its liberal ideas.
But the fusionism Hayek praised is no longer the sole strain of conservatism in America. It isn’t even the dominant strain. As the unipolar moment in conservative politics has faded, fusionism was joined by national populism and, more recently, Trumpism.
National populism and Trumpism are two related but distinct strains of conservatism. National populism is the wall, mercantilist trade policies, isolationism, culture war, etc. It’s the “America First” slogan. It emphasizes policies which appeal to American workers.
Trumpism, on the other hand, is less about policy and more about the person, Trump himself. Yes, it claims to hold the same policy prescriptions as national populism, but it is just about the figure. Recent research from Michael Barber and Jeremy Pope shows that Trumpists “behave like party loyalists by accepting the Trump cue—in either a liberal or conservative direction.” Those who got “liberal Trump” statements were more likely to support liberal policy while those who received “conservative Trump” statements were more likely to support conservative policies. This held for all ten questions and was only for Trump. Trumpists claim to be guided by principle, but their loyalty “is the stronger motivator of opinion than are any ideological principles.” I think Allahpundit got it right when he defined Trumpism as “Trump cannot fail, he can only be failed.”
The reason I think the Trumpists are related to and not totally independent from the national populists is that the Trumpists do have a base tendency to support national populism and that tendency is what sparked them to support Trump but once they latch onto him it becomes less about the wall and more about the person.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to both as national populism here on out unless I clarify otherwise.
Even before Donald Trump, you could see the nationalist-populist flavor of conservatism emerge after the Reagan administration. Winning causes dysfunction and with conservatism being the dominant ideology, it became less and less defined as everyone got their own flavor. Pat Buchanan ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in 1992 and 1996 as a paleoconservative. He also ran as the Reform Party candidate in 2000. Ron Paul took up the torch in 2008 and 2012 with his own unsuccessful Republican Party runs. While both went 0 for 5, their outsider campaigns were starkly reminiscent of Trump’s 2016 campaign.
The great irony is that national populism has a clear authoritarian streak, but its advocated often try to dress their beliefs up in pro-liberty language. Their shtick revolves around, as Hayek put it, a “nationalistic bias”. It isn’t an accident their favorite punching bag is kneeling NFL players. It isn’t a surprise that they always end up opposing immigration and trade. It isn’t a surprise that they want the government to regulate social media, protect the entitlement state or burn our alliance system. To quote Hayek, “I will merely add that it is this nationalistic bias which frequently provides the bridge from conservatism to collectivism: to think in terms of “our” industry or resource is only a short step away from demanding that these national assets be directed in the national interest.”
The conservative movement isn’t the movement of Barry Goldwater, William F Buckley, Russell Kirk, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and others. Those iconic figures would find themselves on the outside of a movement they once lead. Instead of Ben Sasse figure being its modern standard bearer, it is led by Donald Trump. Instead of Young Americans being its youth wing, Turning Point is. Instead of National Review being its publication, Breitbart is. Instead of being a movement about ideas and principles, it’s becoming a movement about “winning” and “owning the libs”. Instead of embracing its ideas and American roots, the majority of the movement has chosen to embrace a figure and an outlook more evocative of European politics than American.