Asheville Daily Planet, August 2017
The soap opera “Days of Our Lives under Trump” plays daily to an ever-growing TV audience. Some take it as comedy. Some take it as fantasy spun by the media. Myself, I pay attention to details: the growing glossary of political cliches, how articulate print journalists are on camera and the awesome intellect of Indian-American pundits (interestingly, a word that came to English from colonial India).
I noticed that hard-shell conservatives in Congress weren’t being very conservative. They betrayed states’ rights by collecting voter records in Washington. To get a healthcare bill through Congress, they threw billions of dollars around like birdseed, with no regard for national debt. And conservative stalwarts, like Charles Krauthammer, were pounding their Republican president mercilessly.
I was driven against my will to write on conservatism and President Trump.
By chance, my colleague who writes across the fold from me in these pages gave us an essay on how well various political philosophies handle “responsibility,” a term mostly defined in his column by what Progressives-Liberals-Socialists don’t have. He gives Conservativism an A+ in “responsibility.”
Mr. Mumpower’s A+ grade is correct. Personal responsibility has been a key principle of conservatism at least since William F. Buckley, Jr. 70 years ago. In “The Conscience of a Conservative” (which I read back when I still was one), Barry Goldwater called it “individual responsibility.”
The Goldwaters and Buckleys of the past – almost all elite intellectuals – passionately believed in an ideology that included limited government, low taxes, free trade, laissez-faire economics, foreign intervention, strong military and anti-Communism.
Their torch is carried today brilliantly by theoreticians like John Podhoretz and William Kristol. And at a level lower, old-time conservatism fires the blood of millions, definitely including politicians. Their belief is also intellectual, however, not experiential. When pure conservative principles have been applied to actual governing, they’ve flopped.
The problem is, conservatism is not the way ordinary people think and live their lives. I don’t argue with the viewpoint commonly stated that America is a conservative nation. But grassroots conservatism doesn’t come from the ivory tower.
American conservatives are just like everybody else in America. Practically speaking, they don’t buy into limited government or personal responsibility. They may talk about Medicaid’s being a giveaway program for their irresponsible neighbors, but dear old Mom is in the nursing home because of Medicaid.
When the GOP planned to whack $800 billion from Medicaid funding in their healthcare plans, I’m convinced Paul Ryan and his ideological colleagues were fulfilling their dreams to force people to be personally responsible.
And when only 12% approve of these healthcare bills, I think it shows that people don’t agree that Mom in the nursing home is their personal responsibility.
Ideological conservatives live in another world from rank-and-file conservatives – so different they shouldn’t both be covered by the same word.
When I was a boy in Georgia, everybody was conservative – in the dictionary sense of hating change. Their patriotism was split between U.S.A. and C.S.A. And later, they jumped from Democrat to Republican after the Civil Rights Act. Evangelical Christians denounced the “liberalism” of northern denominations.
By 1980, the various strains of “conservative” were under the shade of the GOP umbrella. And so it has been.
Then along came Donald Trump.
Ideological Republican conservatives flat-out despised him. He was a charlatan, they said, a liberal, an opportunist. He preached tariffs, isolationism, universal healthcare and never touching entitlements. And he praised dictators.
But those Southerners, thrifty rural folk and evangelicals flocked to Trump. Even now, they can be heard saying that critics of Trump are liberals.
Evangelicals, Southerners and ideologues have all shared the conservative label for generations. But only the ideologues care about ideology. For the rest, it’s Trump-brand “conservatism” that’s sacred. They don’t give two hoots for free trade as an issue.
Mr. Mumpower ended his piece with a section, “Political Reset,” but he didn’t say anything about a political reset. In fact, that’s what may well happen to conservatism, whether conservatives like it or not.