One of the odder phenomena in the fraught recent history of American conservatism has been the strong overlap on the political right of the pre-2016 intellectual movement known as “reform conservatism” (and its proponents, “reformicons”) and the ranks of outspoken conservative critics of Donald J. Trump. It’s odd because if you ignore all of the terrifying optics associated with the 45th president, in some respects he was the answer — if perhaps a funhouse-mirror kind of answer — to the questions reformicons like Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and David Frum were asking before his arrival on the scene. By and large, reformicons complained that Republican elites were not responsive enough to the cultural views and economic interests of their own white working-class base. Trump, in his own inimitable and inarticulate way, expressed the same critique. I commented on this strange convergence even as Trump was beginning to move toward the Republican presidential nomination:
[L]ike a very bad joke … along came a presidential candidate who represented what many in the white working class really wanted: not just a GOP Establishment figure who paid their economic interests lip service, but someone who violently opposed liberalized immigration policies along with the pro-trade, “entitlement reform” orthodoxy of wealthy GOP elites, and articulated a fear of cultural change and national decline that most well-off Republicans, continuing to prosper during the current economic “recovery,” could not begin to fathom. Worse yet, it seems Republicans’ best idea for “taking Trump down” was to show he is not a “true conservative” on economic issues. As Reformicons could have told them, neither are most white working-class Republican voters.
To their credit, most leading reformicons did not make their peace with Trump’s conquest of the GOP (unlike most conventionally conservative Republicans) despite their common disdain for the old regime. But Douthat, at least, seems to worry retroactively about what went wrong, and how white working-class Republicanism became associated with Trump’s disreputable habits and prejudices. What’s bugging him presently are the president’s tweets suggesting that four nonwhite members of Congress get the hell out of the country if they don’t like the MAGA regime. Trump, he suggested, originally offered a refreshing dissent from the usual rah rah “American exceptionalism”–based Republican refusal to accept the country’s flaws:
[T]he conscious un-exceptionalism of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, his willingness to poor-mouth America, to bemoan the ways we’ve lost ground to our competitors, to promise to restore lost greatness and blame both parties for decline — all of this was actually much more suited than the Romney-Ryan message to the actual socioeconomic conditions faced by many Americans. And in the shadow of that Trumpian un-exceptionalism a far more interesting debate about what ails America has opened up on the right, one that acknowledges more of the failures that exceptionalism encouraged (misguided military adventures, above all), and the problems of stratification, stagnation and social breakdown that it often overlooked.
But then Trump’s imperial ego got in the way:
[O]nce nationalists control the government, they feel tempted to insist that they have succeeded in restoring greatness long before any restoration is accomplished. In Trump’s case this temptation is a compulsion: In a little over two years we have gone from “American carnage” to yesterday’s tweeted proclamation that America “has never been stronger than it is now — rebuilt military, highest stock market ever, lowest unemployment and more people working than ever before. Keep America great!”
In other words, the problems that brought me to power can’t be problems any more now that I’m in charge — which requires, in turn, that anyone who insists that there actually are still problems must be the problem themselves. It’s in this spirit that nationalists-in-power often end up scapegoating some group of malcontents or critics within the nation, implying that they are saboteurs and wreckers, that their complaints are treasonous, that they should be expelled …
Love it or leave it, in other words, with a bigoted edge — which is not a populist corrective to exceptionalism, but exceptionalism’s dumbest form.
In the end, Douthat thinks the reconsideration of American exceptionalism is worth its perversion by a president he calls “an exceptional disgrace.” But I’d offer a different interpretation of the actual tradition Trump represents.
Trump never objected to “American exceptionalism”, in the sense of calling for a frank reassessment of the idea that the country bears inherent and unique virtues. Like other right-wing figures dating back to the pre-World War II isolationists, he objected to the conflation of America’s destiny with the sort of universal liberal values that constrained or directed the use of the country’s power. That’s why he deplored limits on the torture of prisoners and rules of engagement to protect civilians as much as he opposed “misguided military adventures.” And like blood-and-soil nationalists everywhere — with whom Trump feels an instinctive kinship — he views “globalist” elites as traitors who have undermined American sovereignty for the same treasonous reason that they’ve sapped our economic strength out of loyalty to alien concepts like “free trade” or liberal immigration policies.
Trump’s contempt for the status quo before he became president was not some sort of openness to debate or willingness to criticize one’s own country, but the same basic impulse that led twentieth-century authoritarians to despise the “weak” regimes that wedded unpatriotic and parasitical elites to subversive immigrants and freeloading socialists, all robbing the national patrimony. You don’t have to believe that Donald Trump is an actual fascist to recognize that he shares the fascist’s tendency to identify the nation’s destiny with his own rejection of international or domestic norms. But this was predictable well before Trump took office. That the GOP’s white working-class base rallied to this sort of leadership, dragging the politicians and the business community along with them, is a testament to the eternal power of tribalism, untamed by liberalism and Christianity alike. There was never any silver lining to Trumpism, or an alternative path along which the 45th president might have been benevolent. Those conservatives who have resisted his brutal charms, like Ross Douthat, should understand that best.