By Anna Bryner
Donald Trump is known to be a lot of things, but is conservative really one of them?
Throughout his campaign, one conservative after another dropped support for Trump, and some, such as George Will, even left the GOP. It’s clear from their statements that many left because they found Trump morally reprehensible. But did policy also play a role? Besides his inflammatory rhetoric, it’s worth investigating how some of Trump’s proposed policies differ from traditional conservative policies.
Free Trade and Tariffs
Conservatives have traditionally favored free trade policies. Though there are always some industries and businesses in each country that suffer from free trade, conservatives have generally favored free trade as they consider the policy’s overall contribution to the economy to be much greater. Trump, however, aims to satisfy each industry’s demand for jobs within the country, including those industries in which the US does not have a competitive advantage.
In keeping with his economic protectionism, Trump has called for high tariffs to keep manufacturing jobs inside the U.S.. Though Reagan also imposed tariffs in efforts to boost the economy, Reagan conservatives generally oppose them for their economic inefficiency.
International Relations and National Security
Far from a Reagan-like call to be a “shining city on a hill,” Trump invokes a rhetoric in foreign affairs from the President Washington days—isolationism. Though, like Reagan, Trump might call America “exceptional,” Reagan’s version of American exceptionalism assumed a vital responsibility to play a major role in world affairs; it called for making the world a more stable platform from which many of the blessings of freedom enjoyed in America could be brought to or adopted by the rest of the world. The Trump idea of American exceptionalism, however, seems to assert exceptionalism without noblesse oblige. There is no obligation to better the world, but rather to simply help America, even at the expense of other nations.
Another of Trump’s most unconservative (though in this case, certainly not liberal) views concerns NATO. Beyond calling for more faithful participation of its member countries, Trump has, at times, seemed to question the purpose and need for NATO altogether. This contrasts sharply with the view of most conservatives, who have traditionally strongly supported NATO, recognizing it as an important alliance of free, democratic countries.
It should be noted that since the inauguration, the administration’s messages concerning NATO seem to be more supportive of the alliance. However, the messages are mixed at best due to the fact that Trumps administration, as opposed to Trump himself, have made them. It is likely that his campaign statements still linger within the NATO alliances.
Donald Trump’s plan to put Americans back to work through the use of infrastructure projects sounds a lot like the plan of a liberal president who defined the Democratic Party—FDR. The use of subsidies for public building projects clashes with traditional conservative principles, which usually reject the meddling of government in economic affairs to such an extent.
While conservative policies emphasize that the people, not the government, should get to make more decisions, Donald Trump’s invocation of populism takes this idea to a different level, one that often lacks undergirding principle. Under his populist approach, what the majority of people want goes, and thus, moral judgments are set aside and the greater public good is left unexplored and wanting. This less-principled, get-what-you-want, America-first approach may account for several of Trump’s policies that clash with traditional conservative policies.
Conservatism: Will Trump Redefine It?
In comparing Trump’s policies with “traditional” conservative policies, it is important to note that conservatism, though very much based on some traditional principles and explored in this way by many scholars, is not entirely static. It will be interesting to observe to what extent Trump will redefine or shift the direction of the political right and the GOP. While many scholars, think tanks, and other institutions consider many of Trump’s policies unconservative and objectionable, he is in office as a Republican, and much of his base in the Republican Party has embraced some of his less traditional views. Presidents of the past have helped to shift conservatism in new directions, even if by small degrees. At the same time, however, the Republican Party and conservatism are not necessarily tightly bound to each other, and perhaps Trump will shift the direction of the party more than he will shift conservative thinking. By any measure, the next four years will be a vital time for conservatives and Republicans alike to define what they really stand for and to determine if they will hold fast to their values of the past or adopt the elements of Trumpism that were previously considered unconservative.
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