There are several types of conservatism in the United States. They differ in what sorts of principles and values they consider to be the moral basis of conservatism.
The first branch to consider is small-government conservatism. This includes libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and other ideologies favorable to laissez-faire free market policies. The underlying values and principles have to do with liberty, individualism, responsibility, and self-reliance. They judge people as friends or enemies depending on how willing they are to impose rules on each other. When this philosophy reaches a toxic extreme, you get philosophies like objectivism, in which caring for other people is anathema. But the mainstream of this type of conservatism is the most common one you will usually find in intellectual discourse: it has a rich body of abstract philosophy supporting it, and often attracts highly intelligent people. But I don’t think it’s a majority among American conservatives.
How compatible is this type of conservatism with the rhetoric of Donald Trump? Not very. He tends to easily mix hands-off ideas in one area with interventionist ones in the next.
A second branch is religious conservatism. This group is okay with intrusive government when it’s applied to godless people and practices. And sometimes it’s not unwilling to support public charity for people facing difficulty, depending on circumstances. The guiding morals are those of the bible and similar religious teachings, which on the one hand can be strict and punitive and undemocratic, but on the other generally support a compassionate outlook, and charity in all senses of the word. They judge people as friends or enemies based on whether they support morality or sinful license, and in less fortunate cases, by sectarian disagreements. The membership of this faction is large, but perhaps not a majority.
Needless to say, there is little compatibility with Donald Trump among those who take religious teachings seriously. He is not a godly man in even the faintest degree.
A third branch is capitalist, or rather corporatist, conservatism — the philosophy of the wealthy and the greedy. It superficially resembles libertarian conservatism, and tries to steal its philosophical credibility from that crowd. The difference is that though they rail against any kind of state interference which costs them money, they welcome any sort of interference which is of financial benefit. Instead of defending personal liberties, they concentrate on deregulating businesses. The actual policies pursued by this group are often mean and harmful, such as lowering people’s wages or starting wars, and when asked for their justification, you don’t get reasons, you get flimflam and bullshit. They have no shame whatever about hypocrisy or corruption. They judge people as friends or enemies purely on whether their actions promote or hinder profit. This is the most prominent type of conservatism represented in the national media, but the actual membership of its constituency is limited to a fairly small set of profiteers, with their hired shills and some gullible suckers — not a large portion of the population.
Donald Trump won the election with a line of rhetoric which directly challenged the established agenda of this type of conservatism, so no, he doesn’t seem very compatible with it, at least as a candidate. However, his actual governing policies may turn out to be much more to their liking. People in this group would have supported Trump’s election only to the extent that they believed him to be lying about what he would do.
Finally, we come to the fourth major branch of conservatism… the scariest one. These are people who don’t particularly care about either individual liberty, religious morality, or corporate profitability, but who side with those that do care about those things, simply because they have a lot of the same enemies. This is the group recently labeled as the “deplorables”, because it includes the racists, xenophobes, and misogynists. Their philosophy is a farrago of lies and paranoia and wishful thinking, entirely unmoored from objective reality. They judge people as friends or enemies based on resemblance to themselves. They often don’t agree with each other on whom to hate, but they agree entirely on the necessity of hating.
I’m afraid their numbers may be very large indeed, and that Donald Trump is all too completely compatible with them. What’s worse, they are apt to bring out the worst in Trump himself, because they are not interested in a government which is founded on democracy and universal human rights. They want a state which supports their hatred, and are all too willing to embrace authoritarian means to that end, and to chant “Hail Trump” as a path to that goal.
Some principled conservatives don’t consider these fascist types to be conservative at all. But in our two-party system, they have joined the same team as the other conservatives.
So the four groups can be designated as the libertarians, the moral traditionalists, the corporatists, and the fascists. One thing we can ask is, which of these groups has really been steering the Republican party?
For a long time, all the media attention was on the Religious Right — their agenda was at the center of public debate. But when it came down to it, policies usually followed a much more corrupt corporatist line. More recently, the moralists have been losing ground on the philosophical front to the libertarians. Since that philosophy doesn’t generally confront anyone on non-economic issues, it’s been even easier to bend into a corporatist parody of itself when it came time to decide policy. The fascist element has mostly been in the background, embarrassing the other conservative groups whenever their toxic behaviors came into the public spotlight, but affecting policy when it could do so without being overtly identified.
If you ask conservatives what philosophy they subscribe to, they will almost always claim to be either libertarian or moralist, or some blend of the two. Almost nobody comes right out and identifies themselves as a corporatist or a fascist. And yet the corporatists are clearly the ones who’ve been calling the shots in practice, and the fascists have clearly been influential.
And now the fascists are emerging as possible rivals to corporatist control, as the corporatist faction has seen its own center of power shifting from business owners to bankers, who are of course far more unpopular. The corporatists aren’t scared yet, but maybe they should be… anger at banks has often been useful to fascism.
Corporatism was already a moral challenge to conservatives, as it embodies practices which are superficially compatible with their moral philosophies but in practice antithetical to them. But you could excuse a lot of conservatives for failing to pass this test, because it takes care and attention and a sharp eye to see through the lies and realize how big the difference is.
But fascism is another matter. Whether libertarian or moralist, almost any American conservative will swear that they believe in the Constitution, in democratic elections, and in universal individual rights. The fascists act directly against these values. The difference is not that difficult to notice.
And this means that, if you are a conservative, you are now facing a crucial moral choice. Will you repudiate fascism, or will you join in? Everybody says they’ll shun it if asked in the abstract, but I’m seeing very little of that in today’s political atmosphere. Instead I see conservatives of all types mostly joining into a big friendly celebration of partisan triumphalism, in which everyone would rather laugh and gloat at defeated liberals than question what sort of policy they are supporting when they do so. For instance, rather than trying to validate the accuracy of the recent vote count (or of our voting process in general) in the light of serious indications of antidemocratic skullduggery, most conservatives I’m hearing from are utterly scorning any attempt to recount or to audit our voting process. They are even, as a whole, dismissing the alarming threat of a hostile foreign power working to gain influence over our politicians and our election process — an attitude which at any other time would be astonishing. Nor have I heard them speak up about instances where corporatism has adopted the brutal methods of fascism, as in the Standing Rock standoff. During the recent election, a strong minority of conservatives spoke out against Trumpism, but now most of them seem to have fallen silent.
The election is still a fresh memory, and the new administration has not yet taken office, so we can allow for a period of honeymoon, or of painful reassessment. But the time is coming very soon when real policies will start to be handed down by the new regime, and from the looks of things so far, most of them will at the very least be nakedly corporatist. It seems inevitable that this new administration’s policies will make a mockery of conservative ideals, whether libertarian or religious. And given who is going to be accompanying Trump into the White House, and the sorts of ideas he has tweeted lately during the transition, it looks very likely that some of the new policies will be fascist: measures intended to punish or disempower the new president’s political opponents, or various marginalized or scapegoated groups in our society.
When that happens, will you stand up for human rights, for democracy, and for the constitution? Or will you cheer as long as the people on the other end are those you don’t like? History, and your fellow citizens, will be watching. This is your chance to show exactly what kind of conservative you are.
Over the long run, I have — or I thought I had — a pretty deep confidence in the readiness of the American people to reject any form of autocracy, regardless of party affiliation. But right now that confidence is under a strain. I am not seeing, from most of our conservative citizens, any sense of alarm or readiness to oppose such a threat. I hope that I will be seeing it soon.
Once the real confrontation starts, I’m ready to offer a truce to my fellow citizens who are conservative. We may have argued a lot and gotten angry with each other over a lot of issues, but for myself, I’m willing to let all that go for now. If you want to push for lower taxes and prayer in schools, or try to repeal gun laws and privatize the fire department, have at it. All I ask is that you stand with me against fascism. If they start criminalizing dissent or rounding up muslims or restricting who can vote or stifling the media, or heck, even if they just start flaunting blatant corruption (an unavoidable part of any fascist system), let’s stand together for liberty and democracy. We can argue about what to do with our liberty and democracy after we’re sure we’ll still have it.