Trumpism is Conservatism: The New Conservative Mainstream

With Jeb’s attitude, we will never be great again, that I can tell you. We will never be great again.
Donald Trump
December 15, 2015

You must always be doing things and obviously succeeding. The hard part is to keep people always at the window because of the spectacle you put on for them. And you must do this for years.
Benito Mussolini


This fall, in a New York Times opinion piece “Have Evangelicals Who Support Trump Lost Their Values?” Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, urged Evangelicals to abandon Republican Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump. Moore’s essay was in response to public opinion polls throughout the summer indicating Trump’s support among conservative voters as he continues to lead the crowded Republican field.


Despite Trump’s success, conservative and liberal commentators believe his campaign will fizzle out once Republican voters pierce through the celebrity and bravado of the candidate and realize Trump, in actuality, does not hold conservative positions on a number of key issues. Trump’s popularity among conservative voters has renewed the argument heard in every presidential election about whether the Republican frontrunner, in this case and for the time being, Donald Trump is a true conservative.

The recent arguments of both conservative and liberal commentators, is that Donald Trump is not a conservative. They point to his life-style: a native New Yorker, thrice-married, peddler of the Miss America Pageant and gambling casinos, and his lack of the humility expected of a God-fearing Christian. Add to this his apparent apostasy on conservative positions such as abortion, same sex marriage, his occasionally candid praise of the Clintons, and his endorsement, a position from which he has since retreated, of a single-payer healthcare system.

Despite these disloyalties to conservative positions, conservatives need not worry. Trump is a conservative. Trump’s success suggests that we rethink what conservatism is in America and how this current variant came to be so popular as to redefine the ideology of conservatism. In the 20th century, the three pillars of American conservatism were traditionalism, market fundamentalism, and militaristic anti-communism abroad. Over the course of the 20th century this “conservative fusion”, in particular market fundamentalism and traditionalism existed uneasily, in significant tension under the umbrella of conservatism. The writings of conservatism’s 20th century intellectuals such as Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, or George F. Will attest to that.   Since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and, subsequently, the terrorist attacks of September 11, anti-communism has been replaced by anti-Islamism and racist immigration policy as the defining feature of conservatives’ foreign policy outlook. Additionally, there seems to have been a second evolution in the conservative outlook, one which Trump embodies: the marginalization of 20th century conservative traditionalism replaced by a white ethnic nationalism. Thus making –Trumpism — market fundamentalism, white ethnic nationalism, militaristic anti-Islamism, and appeals to bloodlust and vengeance in foreign policy as the conservative’s new normal.

Trump’s popularity among conservative voters suggests that he has captured a sentiment that is redefining of what it is to be a conservative. At present, conservatism, as the plurality of conservative voters perceive it, has de-emphasized traditionalism and instead re-defined it as market fundamentalism combined with white resentment creating, as Patrick Buchanan approvingly states, “the rebirth of nationalism.” Trump, better than his competition, has capitalized on a conservative touchstone – fear, disdain for established social, political and international norms, and the proposition that leadership through strength is the solution to the malaise created by ‘soft’ liberalism and political correctness. He is tapping into a sentiment that is expressed as market idolatry, hatred of the political, and an existential fear that something is very wrong with America.

Donald Trump declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president of the United States in June, 2015. Since then, his campaign has easily garnered more media attention than any other contender for the White House. Given the media’s saturation of and lack of critical engagement with the Trump campaign and the record-breaking television viewership of the Republican debates, presumably, conservative voters have had adequate time to get to know the candidate and his policy positions. Conservative voters’ support for Trump, and the anemic support garnered by traditional social conservative candidates indicate that their emphasis on traditionalist social conservatism, the belief that Christianity is at the root of the American project, expressed in issues such as teaching creationism in public school science classes, opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and an otherwise greater role for Christianity in public life are issues that may no longer be as important to what it means to be a conservative as they once were. To highlight the point, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, both social conservatives, have spiked in the polls when they refocused their message to bigoted, xenophobic, violent, anti-Muslim rhetoric. Either the conservative voter has abandoned what it means to be a conservative or conservatism, as the conservative voter now sees it, means something different than what we have known it to be in the second half of the 20th century. In fact, the pillars of American conservatism on the domestic front today are not Judeo-Christian traditionalism and market fundamentalism, but market fundamentalism and white ethnic nationalism manifest as white resentment, racism, and militaristic anti-Islam.

Unlike other conservatives seeking the presidential nomination, Trump is without commitment or loyalty to traditionalism. In fact, he ignores the traditionalist pillar of conservatism. Social conservative populists and establishment Republican candidates are market fundamentalists as well as traditionalists pointing to a doomsday on the horizon, whether it be an external enemy or an internal threat that undermines the fabric of the US (think Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, Patrick Buchanan). At least in rhetoric, establishment Republican candidates and social conservative populist appeals drawing on nostalgia for a small-town, middle American Evangelical traditionalism does not resonate with conservative voters today.

Trump: The Orthodox Conservative

Trump is a conservative because he is a market fundamentalist. Market fundamentalism is the belief in a political economy where the market and its values take priority over all others and market results are defined as the “public good.” The policies of market fundamentalism include low taxes (especially on the wealthy, who are defined as “job creators”), deregulation, erosion of the welfare state, and fierce anti-unionism. While Trump has yet to release detailed plans on economic issues, his recently released plan on taxation and tax reform are crucial to understanding his views on political economy.

On economic issues, Trump is fully in the fold of conservative orthodoxy. His proposal for tax reform is central to the conservative, market fundamentalist vision. Trump’s tax plan is informed by the idea that the most effective way to deregulate the economy and eliminate the welfare state is to starve the federal government of revenue. Trump’s tax reform proposal decreases the number of tax brackets from seven to four. The tax rates in the respective tax brackets would be 0-10-15-20% (Currently the seven tax brackets are 10-15-25-28-33-35-39.6%). The top marginal tax rate of twenty percent would be on incomes over $225,001 for heads of households. In addition, Trump would reduce the capital gains and dividends tax to 20 percent, eliminate the estate tax all together, and drastically reduce the corporate income tax to 15%. On the revenue generating side Trump proposes to eliminate tax loopholes, many tax deductions (but not the widely used, popular, and expensive mortgage interest deduction), and offer a one-time tax on foreign profits of U.S. companies held abroad (the aim of which is to encourage companies to return to the U.S.). Despite these revenue proposals, the slashing of individual income tax rates and corporate taxes would be catastrophic for government revenues. The revenue generating side of his proposals would come nowhere near the revenue shortfall that his tax reforms would generate. The federal government would be starved for revenue and forced to eviscerate the welfare state. The end result would be even greater economic inequality than exists today. Indeed Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who famously said that he wanted to shrink the federal government to the size of where he could “drown it in a bathtub,” gave Trump’s tax plan a “ringing endorsement,” according to the New York Times. In Norquist’s words, “as a centerpiece of a presidential campaign, it is pretty cool.”

Combine Trump’s tax proposals with his other plans to ratchet up the military (and presumably military spending) evidenced by statements like, “I would bring it (military levels) back to where it was at the height because we’re in so much trouble”; and his proposal to militarize the border with Mexico, despite his far-fetched statement that Mexico will pay for the construction of the border wall, there would be very little funds for healthcare, education, income security, infrastructure, housing, scientific research, consumer safety, environmental protection, labor protection, and civil rights enforcement, etc. In Donald Trump’s America, as his tax proposals and his other domestic priorities indicate, the welfare state would inevitably wither resulting in the unencumbered rule of the market. The guarantors of economic inequality and wealth need not worry. As Trump’s tax proposals clearly demonstrate, despite his populist rhetoric about hedge-fund managers, was indeed merely that, rhetorical flourish. As if that was not obvious enough, within hours of releasing his tax proposal, Trump declared, “I am not a populist.”

Despite Trump’s market fundamentalism there is something in Trump’s economic vision that should make establishment Republicans nervous. He is not a free-trade enthusiast. There are two varieties of market fundamentalism today in American conservatism: “free trade” market fundamentalism and a “nationalist” market fundamentalism. Despite persistent critique from within the conservative movement, free trade has been conservatives’ economic orthodoxy for the last few decades. It seeks to eliminate barriers to trade by sharply reducing government’s regulatory authority, eliminating existing tariffs and capital controls, privatize government services, eliminate subsidies (especially those of foreign governments), and support strong protections for intellectual property rights. It is the free trade market fundamentalist vision that brought about the World Trade Organization, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the force behind the yet to be approved Trans-Pacific Partnership supported by Congressional Republicans and President Obama. Free trade conservatism has become so mainstream in today’s political discourse that it’s the central tenant of the Democratic Party and its brain trust, the Democratic Leadership Council.

On the conservative side, critics of free trade have been those who believe in a nationalist market fundamentalism. This vision is not new. In the latter half of the 20th century it has been at the margins of the conservative movement. Patrick Buchanan has been its most recognizable proponent, and now it seems to be embraced by Donald Trump. The nationalist market fundamentalist vision is protectionist. It argues that through free trade the U.S. has eroded its manufacturing base, has had jobs stolen by foreign competitors and by immigrants, and as a result given away its sovereignty. This vision is critical of transnational corporations (who are without loyalty to country) and of the financial sector. In addition to the priorities of market fundamentalism discussed above, nationalist market fundamentalism seeks to restore manufacturing to the U.S. through protectionism, withdrawal from free trade agreements, and by drastically curtailing legal immigration and expelling undocumented immigrants. It is populist in the sense that it is critical of the financial wealth generated through free trade agreements, yet at the same time it is xenophobic and racist as it scapegoats racial minorities and non-white immigrants. It stokes racial as well as nativist resentment among poor, working, and middle-class whites whose economic position has eroded over the past forty years.

Trump: Conservative Racial Politics in the Post Industrial Era

In this economic context, poor, working class, and middle class whites, to whom this narrative appeals “see” an African-American elected and re-elected to the Presidency, domestic companies hiring Latino immigrants, racial conflict between blacks and police (whites), and a foreign policy that appears to appease other nations and they think that they are losing out. The declining economic condition of working class whites is real and as deeply troubling as are the dire economic conditions of millions of blacks and Latinos.   Working class whites see the problem and the solution as a zero-sum game with racial overtones at the core. Then candidate Barack Obama understood the dynamic stating in his 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech,

Most working and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they’re concerned, no one handed them anything. They built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pensions dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and they feel their dreams slipping away. And in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero-sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Donald Trump draws on these resentments among whites, as did Patrick Buchanan in his presidential runs in the 1980s and 1990s. Framing whites’ growing economic insecurity as the product of race, immigration, and economic internationalism breeds racial resentment and the politics of Trump promise no specifics beyond the restoration of “a great America.”   Meanwhile, it obscures an understanding of the real culprit of economic hardship for whites, blacks, and Hispanics, namely, market fundamentalism. And, more importantly, alternatives to it that require a cross-racial class coalition.

The trend toward economic crisis for the vast majority of Americans, both white and those of color, has been nearly fifty years in the making. It is inherent in the capitalist system of competition, the product of corporations drive toward increasing market share and rate of profit, and corporate friendly government policy. The corporate quest for increased profit rates in the face of greater competition led corporations to decimate labor by assaulting unions, driving down wages and benefits, outsourcing, replacing full-time workers with temps and part-time workers, and employing technology to increase productivity while reducing the workforce. The changing conditions of employment, or what David Weil calls “the fissured workplace,” has been devastating for American workers whether they be rural whites working in agriculture, blue collar and white collar jobs, or nonwhites working in urban areas across the country. All workers are working longer, experiencing wage declines, placed under surveillance, monitored, and controlled, and in the process producing more for the owners of capital than ever before.   Since the Great Recession, corporate profits are at a record levels, as is the disparity between CEO and workers’ pay, and wealth inequality is at levels unseen since 1929. Typical of market fundamentalist ideology, Trump ignores the record corporate profits and levels of income/wealth inequality and the anti-tax, pro-corporate policies that produced them. Ironically, Trump turns the argument on its head and reveals his class loyalties when he declares his opposition to an increase in the minimum wage stating, “wages are too high, we’re not going to be able to compete against the world.”

Trump is the linguistic and logical end result of Tea Party’s anti-establishment politics, right wing race baiting, militarism, xenophobia and the great promise to “take back America” from whomever has stolen it. One of Trump’s most often repeated phrases succinctly summarizes this when he proclaims over and again “We don’t have a country.” Since the 1960s when overt racism was made illegal by law and by custom the racial underpinnings of conservatives’ views and public policies were justified as a commitment to traditionalism. Donald Trump is without the social traditionalist, Judeo-Christian heritage inspired veneer. His incessant demands to see President Obama’s birth certificate; his statement that Obama (perceived to be a Muslim) is waging a war against Christians; his intent to eliminate birth-right citizenship as enshrined in the 14th Amendment; his comment about illegal immigrants (the vast majority of who are not white) being “killers and rapists” (and now terrorists); his proposal to surveil mosques across the country and create a database of Muslims in the U.S; his comment suggesting that undocumented immigrants are well-treated as compared to war veterans; and the framing of foreign policy through the race and religion are blatantly racist. It is not new. In fact it has been part of the conservative narrative for decades, used by conservative luminaries such as George Wallace, famous for his race-baiting oratory (“I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever..”); Ronald Reagan in reference to welfare recipients. Such rhetoric, gone unchecked by the media, has consequences. It has already stoked violence as indicative of the vicious beating of a Latino man by two whites in Boston, one of who said, “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.” Additionally, video footage at Trump rallies captures people of color being beaten and violently ejected as Trump himself incites the crowd.

The fact that conservatism has always stoked and capitalized on white resentment that manifests itself as racism does not mean that all, or the majority of Trump’s supporters are instinctual, reflexive racist who want to restore a pre-civil rights movement future. There is no doubt, however, that a portion of Trump’s following are bigots, white supremacists, and racists. The rest, support him not because they are racists themselves, but because they believe that the political and economic system and the establishment political parties have failed to address their deteriorating economic condition. Public policy over the last few decades has failed to address, and in many cases exacerbated the upward transfer of wealth, the power of capital over labor, and the resultant economic crisis afflicting the vast majority of Americans. For them, however, this political economy is framed and understood in cultural terms as the belief that America is not what it once was or what it originally stood for. The existential fear that we’re no longer an American nation.

The critique of the political and economic status quo that has been legitimated by academia, the media, the courts, and the political system has been grounded primarily in identity politics. This is not to say that these criticisms are without merit. In many cases they are. But because the identity politics-centered critique of existing society seems to be the only legitimate one conservatives have packaged for the white electorate as is evident by their challenges in the courts against affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act, the “one person, one vote” doctrine, and immigration among other issues. Absent alternative narratives, in particular class-based narratives that confront market fundamentalism head-on, identity is left as the primary organizing affiliation, making the politics of Trump, i.e. market fundamentalism and racism an appealing alternative to the status quo. Post industrialism meets conservative politics in the new century.

Trump: Conservatism Beyond the Political

The dominant economic narrative, embraced by both Republicans and to a lesser but still significant degree by Democrats, elevates market values and is premised on the idea that the market alone ought to drive economic development and that the government, at most, ought to provide a minimal social safety net. The only viable countervailing force to the market, with its inherent instability, economic inequality and skewed power relations, is government with its myriad of fiscal and monetary options. When public solutions are de-legitimated, and supplanted by market solutions pitting people in competition with one another in a profit hungry race to the bottom, then racial, ethnic, religious, and sectional differences become the organizing narrative of one’s position and relations toward others. This is the result when public political discourse is without a class-based understanding of economic and political life and, related, a loss of faith and de-legitimation of public solutions to social and economic problems. Crucially, throughout the 20th century and into the 21st this has been the conservatives’ battle cry; the unrestricted free market is great and class as a social category, which implies unequal power relations, does not exist, yet race is what perpetuates economic hardship among white Americans. How then to explain the insecure and eroding economic condition of the white poor, working and middle classes? Market fundamentalists elevate the significance of the cultural, religious, ethnic and race based distinctions that have always been a part of the American landscape and turn these issues into red hot touchstones (from Wallace to G.W. Bush “line in the sand”) currently under attack by some existential source, be it blacks, Latino immigrants, or Muslims. The triumph of the conservative movement’s economic vision has done what it set out to do: to remake the American political discourse. In the process the movement accomplished something else that may be the most enduring aspect of Trump’s ascendance. Perhaps as an unintended consequence—it remade what it meant to be a social conservative, jettisoning the core social values of the movement and produced a Donald Trump conservative. Many argued that the social conservatism of the movement was doomed to alienate voters over time as it was simply out of step with a socially evolving populace.   Trump, who pays no more than lip-service to traditional conservative values, and instead fully embraces the triumph of market values, consumerism, the power of wealth, market fundamentalism and white identity politics, provides a candidate that personifies conservatism’s evolution. Trump, if ultimately unable to win his party’s nomination, no less than the presidency has already succeeded in moving the Republican Party towards a nativist, xenophobic, pro-business, anti-government populism with overtly bigoted and racial overtones. While establishment Republicans have criticized some of Trump’s most outlandish statements regarding refugees fleeing the conflicts in the Middle East, it is indicative of how mainstream bigotry and xenophobia is in the Republican Party was when the “establishment Republican” Jeb Bush proffered to institute a religious test to determine which refugees he would admit into the U.S. which presumes that all Muslims are terrorists.

Trump-conservatism is not an aberration nor is it likely to fade away even if Trump himself does. His anti-establishment market solution demagoguery mixed with a disregard towards political norms and the process of governing is the latest answer to middle American resentment. By continuously rejecting the norms of politics, as the ebb and flow of competing ideas balanced against the rule of law, the balance and interplay of executive, legislative and state power is a sign of the potential for the potentially despotic / unilateralist / fascistic within the American political project. As Trump becomes more compelling one must start to consider the reality of his vision, however vague and extraordinarily unquestioned he remains as a political candidate. Would the 14th Amendment become meaningless; long standing foreign policy protocols disregarded; the power of the veto elevated to new heights; an executive with no understanding or tolerance for the legislative process? Trump continues to lead in the polls, despite or more accurately, as his racist policies have come into focus. We might ask of the conservative movement, what hath ye wrought? Like a magician or a dark knight, the conservative movement, to borrow a phrase from Karl Marx, has become “like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” If Trump endures, or even if his apolitical rants, clownish and hostile persona, and racist vision remains compelling to enough Americans, what does this mean for political discourse in the near future? Here we might consider the poet Donne’s famous line, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” In the end, Trump’s New York roots have served him well. Madison Avenue marketing meets George Wallace bigotry for the new generation. Extolling the virtues of market fundamentalist, fanning the flames of racial tensions and pointing to enemies abroad who seek to ruin “our once great nation”, Trump has emerged as Conservatism’s knight in shining armor.

James E. Freeman and Peter Kolozi are, respectively, professor and associate professor of Political Science at Bronx Community College, the City University of New York (CUNY). Kolozi’s book, Conservatives Against Capitalism (Columbia University Press) is forthcoming.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1