Without question, the presidential elections of 2015-2016 seemed to be a highly contentious point in modern American history, producing two candidates who were arguably the most divisive and unpopular in their time by any observable standard. The nomination and election of Donald Trump incited excessive criticism from those on the conservative side, along with multitudinous onslaughts on his conservative credentials. After all, Trump was a Democrat his entire life, lived and behaved as a Hollywood elite, showed little regard for personal decency to those who quarreled with him, and did not have a reputation for marital fidelity and personal adherence to “conservative family values”. Furthermore, his campaign rhetoric seemed to neglect conservative Republican orthodoxy at every turn. Campaign Trump would regularly slam “free trade” agreements, arguing that they were “unfair” to workers, and often would undermine the importance of American global leadership in favor of isolationism. Candidate Trump, in the middle of a primary debate unapologetically asserted that Bush “lied” us into the Iraq war, despite the expected disapproval of the audience. Amazingly, this candidate was elected from the original pool of 17 Republicans, and rode toward victory in the general election with his political base intact. Even after a year of his presidency, President Trump has continued to enjoy high approval ratings among Republicans.
But is he actually a Conservative?
A classical Conservative like Edmund Burke would surely have advised Republicans against voting for Trump in the Primary and General Elections, with a genuinely compelling conservative argument. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a man with redundant conservative credentials, made such an argument with lavish admonitions of Trump’s campaign rhetoric. However, it turns out that most of these assertions that conclude Trump is not a Conservative are invalidated by the policy of his presidency. Even by the standards of Conservatism outlined by his critics , Donald Trump can be called a conservative because of the macro standards that his presidential administration effectuates.
The founder of Classical Conservatism, Edmund Burke, developed his idea of Conservatism largely around the principle of prudence and an incremental approach to “innovation” or change. With consideration of the primary influences of Burke’s conservative philosophy, this general idea may have been an expected development. Burke witnessed the horrors of the French Revolution and saw the national disaster that ensued from a thirst for radical and paradigm-shifting change. Burke believed that discrete “reforms” were safer than larger scale changes, and that revolutions have the potential to yield unintended consequences with magnitudes that were consistent with the stakes of the revolution. Considering the outlandish campaign rhetoric espoused by candidate Trump, it seems that Edmund Burke would most likely be skeptical of Trump’s inclinations to cripple global institutions and agreements such as NATO, NAFTA, and the United Nations. Furthermore, Trump’s domestic policy to severely curtail illegal immigration along with dramatically increasing deportations, is something that Burke would likely associate with a general dissolution of local cultures, or “little platoons”. These “little platoons” to Burke, are partially what constitutes an enduring social fabric that is necessary to society.
But what has been executed by the Trump administration?
President Trump has continued to reassure NATO, the UN, and American allies that the United States will remain committed to the mantle of leadership in the global endeavor of peace and righteousness. Although Burkean Conservatives may argue that Trump has “attacked” our institutions, his presidency has only strengthened the fervor of our legal processes, and raised the bar for how attentive and informative news outlets must be. Moreover, Burke would likely approve of Trump’s move to temporarily halt the immigration of refugees, and cap the annual refugee intake at 50,000. Burke would have seen Hillary Clinton’s proposals of increasing migrant acceptance by 500 percent and warned against its possibly concomitant ramifications. Lastly, with the recent passage of the Republicans’ signature tax reform, Trump seems to loosely abide by the Burkean idea of the “Natural Aristocracy”. Given that wealthy people pay a largely disproportionate amount in taxes, but also wield a disproportionate volume of the economy, Republicans argued that tax cuts would leave money in the hands of those savvy enough to expand the economy. The policies of Trump quite fit the parameters of the classical Burke.
Classical Conservatism is a branch of a broader conservative domain, that surely incorporates the general political flavor of the Trump administration. Russell Kirk, the author of The Conservative Mind and Ten Conservative Principles, sets criteria for the “sentiments” that guide Conservatives, arguing against the idea that Conservatism is bound by ideological “dogmata”. Although many of his criterion overlap with the ideas of Burke, Kirk includes new depictions of what Conservatives in the United States share in common. Kirk argues in his fifth explication of conservative thought: “Conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety”. He continues, “For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at leveling must lead, at best, to social stagnation”. This, in a macro sense, can refer to the conservative adherence to Capitalism. Kirk contends that Conservatives observe inequalities and label them as natural and necessary “varieties”. Donald Trump upholds the system of Capitalism, that at least in theory, vows to promote the talents and abilities of anybody who is willing to work hard. Such a system creates a social “variety” that other populists like Bernie Sanders would find repulsive. In fact, even Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail never particularly advocated the for the reversal of economic disparities. Unlike Trump, progressive Democrats often prioritize issues of socio-economic disparity like “income inequality” and “felony disenfranchisement”. These are simply non-sequiturs to Trump, who has practiced policy that combats such attempts to close social gaps. Finally, in his fifth iteration, Kirk states that conservatives uphold “voluntary community” while opposing “involuntary collectivism”. President Trump unsuccessfully attempted to repeal Obamacare several times upon his arrival into office, rejecting its damaging pursuit to further collectivize the healthcare system. Certainly, very few of Trump’s domestic policy endeavors can be considered out of the bounds of normative Conservatism, and well within the framework of its broadly defined manifestations.
As aforementioned, candidate Trump did well to stray away from mainstream American Conservatism during the rhetorical showdown of the 2016 election. Nobody better than Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona knew this and wrote about it in his book Conscience of a Conservative. Flake heavily criticized Trump’s hard immigration stances, his populist trade prescriptions, and his nationalist appeal. He states that conservative principles include “peace, order, education, hard work, initiative, enterprise, cooperation, community spirit, patriotism, fair play, service to one’s country, and honesty”. Flake also admits that he believes liberals also seek these political ends, which is why a Conservative has a primary distinction. The “idea of government, and its intersection with the lives of a free people”, says Flake, is the most important characteristic of conservative thought. Even by this standard, Donald Trump is easily encompassed by the conservative definition. Besides explicitly labeling himself the “law and order” President, a champion for those who serve our nation, and a patriot, Trump’s worrisome policy stances are now much more in line with Senator Flake’s flavor of Conservatism. According to FiveThirtyEight, Senator Flake has voted with Trump at least 85 percent of the time, which is still lower than his 92 percent Trump conformity rate in 2017. How about on immigration? While it’s true that Trump continues to push for the creation of a wall on the southern border, Trump’s deportation rates in 2017 lag behind those of his predecessor. And while it’s true that Trump took an ax to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, recent word from the white house suggests that the United States may be joining the trade deal after all. As a matter of fact, Trump has supervised the outsourcing of more jobs than Obama due to free trade. The campaign rhetoric that was so heavily berated by his Arizonian critic, ended up taking minimal effect. Likewise, Flake has empirically harmonized to the Trump agenda by using his power as a senator to affirm the vast majority of his endeavors.
Likely one of the most important tenets of Conservatism to many traditional Conservatives is the defense and promotion of “family values”. Anti-feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly vehemently endorsed Donald Trump for President on the grounds that he would stand for family values, American patriotism, and school choice. It’s clear by his cabinet pick for Secretary of the Department of Education, that Trump fulfilled his promise to take a school choice stance on education policy. As it happened, less than five months into his presidency, the Trump White House announced his reversal of the Obama-era regulations on school lunches. But what about Trump’s adherence to family values? Clearly, his personal life is not an illustration of monogamy and fidelity to a single marriage. While this is absolutely true, it does not mean that Trump has not utilized the rhetoric on family values as a core part of his political package. Trump’s 2017 speech in Warsaw, Poland aimed to define Western Civilization with religion and family. "We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives," Trump said to a Polish crowd. Furthermore, his inaugural address was one that mentioned God and the Bible as essential guiding forces for America: “The Bible tells us, how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” Someone who was not a modern Conservative would never have such words at their political disposal. And even if not in personal practice, Trump seems to stand for the traditions that appeal to Conservatives everywhere.
Although it is incontrovertible that Trump lacked a real conservative appeal during his campaign for president, it is also clear by his presidency that his political initiatives are in line with the many of the most significant iterations of Conservatism. Trump ran as a national populist, but governs with a Reaganesque brand of Conservatism that even conciliates his harshest conservative critics. In his own life, he may not be a quintessential classical Conservative, or a Burkean champion of prudence. But even considering the strictest conservative limitations, Trump can still fit the parameters. The presidency of Donald Trump seems to consolidate around the conservative perspectives of Senator Jeff Flake, Phyllis Schlafly, Russell Kirk, and even Edmund Burke. With such an encompassing political sphere that Conservatism influences, the idea that President Donald Trump does not appropriately fit seems unlikely. Even if just by his political policy, Trump influences the society to edge closer to the conservative principles of those who criticize him.