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July 2017 Policy Study, Number 17-9


President Donald Trump and the American Conservative Movement





President Donald J. Trump’s victory in securing both the Republican presidential nomination and winning the election is still causing a variety of reactions — from surprise to bewilderment and even anger — across the political spectrum. President Trump is also causing a debate within the Republican Party and the conservative movement regarding his beliefs and policies. The question is how President Trump will influence the future of both the Republican Party and the conservative movement. From a conservative perspective, Donald Trump has not fit into the traditional fold of American conservatism. Trump often identified as a Democrat until recently, and his philosophy today runs counter to much of conservative and Republican thought. Charles R. Kesler noted that “for political taxonomists, Donald J. Trump is a difficult specimen to classify.”[1]


As Donald Trump campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination and later in the general election, he campaigned on themes that were often seen as counter to Republican and conservative beliefs. Trump centered his campaign on calling for restrictions on immigration, controlling and securing the border by building a wall, renegotiating trade policy, using protectionist measures to prevent the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, restoring law and order, calling for improvements in national infrastructure, and putting national interests first in foreign policy. The theme of these policies and the Trump campaign was “America First.” Trump’s campaign slogans — “Make America Great Again” and “America First” — were the dominant theme of his campaign and now his presidency.


President Trump is unique because he does not fit easily into the Republican Party or the conservative movement. He is primarily a businessman — a non-politician —  which was one factor that made him attractive to a diverse group of American voters, especially the Nixon-Reagan Democrats and Independents who supported the Trump campaign and helped him win states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. His appeal as a businessman  is further increased by his no-nonsense approach to fighting back against political correctness. Nevertheless, the policies Trump is advocating do fit into the Republican and conservative tradition. For example, during the campaign Trump sought advice from well-known supply-side economists Stephen Moore, Arthur Laffer, and Larry Kudlow on developing his tax reform plan. President Trump’s tax reform plan is in the supply-side tradition of the Reagan tax cuts. Regarding entitlements such as Social Security, Donald Trump took a more moderate approach by pledging to protect this entitlement. Trump also promised to rebuild the military by pledging to spend more money on defense; as President, he has proposed a $54 billion increase in the defense budget.


President Trump’s position on other issues, such as immigration, trade, and foreign policy, are at odds with most of today’s Republicans and conservatives. The idea of restricting immigration and securing the border, using protectionist measures to help manufacturing and blue-collar jobs, and placing American national interests first in foreign policy go against the grain of post-World War II Republican and conservative policies. These ideas tend to be more in line with the Old Right than with the internationalist- and globalist-dominated Republican Party of today. Nevertheless Trump’s ideas do have a tradition in the Republican Party, especially the pre-World War II Republican Party. As Charles Kesler wrote:


Where could you find a Republican Party that stood for high, or at any rate protective, tariffs; immigration only with assimilation or, to use Teddy Roosevelt’s term, Americanization; and a restrained foreign policy guided by a firm but modest version of the national interest? (One might expand the list to include, for example, “internal improvements” or infrastructure spending to stimulate commerce and unite the nation, and judges prepared to be activists in order to defend the Constitution.)[2]


President Trump’s policy objectives, whether dealing with immigration or trade, fit into this older Republican and conservative tradition. This was the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover.


Henry Olsen, a Senior Fellow at Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of Ronald Reagan: New Deal Republican, even argued that President Trump’s philosophy is similar to President Ronald Reagan. As Olson wrote in The Washington Post:


Trump’s position that everyone should have some sort of health insurance finds its counterpart in Reagan’s long-expressed beliefs. Trump’s belief in building more public infrastructure could be funded by a gas tax hike just like Reagan’s was. His belief that free trade should be fair trade was Reagan’s, and his belief that immigration controls to protect U.S. workers are just also was Reagan’s. That’s not to say Reagan would have agreed with everything Trump says or does. But the overlap in their views on these issues stems from a broader overlap in philosophy. Trump seems to believe the federal government should act forcefully to protect the interest of the U.S. worker. Reagan’s philosophy was broader and deeper, but it stemmed from the same source: that enhancement of the life, dignity, and freedom of the ordinary American was the proper role for the government.[3]


Placing President Trump within the context of both the Republican Party and conservative tradition will be debated, but the President’s campaign and his philosophy are clearly based in traditional conservatism, which is sometimes referred to as paleoconservatism. For example, some of President Trump’s philosophy can be closely related to the ideas in The Next Conservatism, co-authored by the late conservative leader Paul Weyrich and William S. Lind. Other recent conservative books that relate to President Trump’s philosophy include Tom Pauken’s Bringing America Back Home and many of the essays that have appeared in the conservative journal Chronicles. Perhaps most of all, President Trump’s conservatism was explained by the late Phyllis Schlafly in The Conservative Case for Trump and the writings of former presidential adviser and columnist Patrick J. Buchanan. Both Schlafly and Buchanan argued for an America First policy regarding trade, immigration, and foreign policy. It was Patrick J. Buchanan’s American First platform in the 1992 and 1996 race for the Republican presidential nomination that paved the way for many of the ideas of Trump’s presidential campaign.


Although President Trump agrees with some of the paleoconservative views on immigration and trade, he is not a social conservative. That is, he was not vocal about abortion, same-sex marriage, and other issues associated with social conservatives during his campaign. President Trump did promise to nominate conservative judges to the Supreme Court, a promise he kept when he nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch. Nevertheless, social issues were not at the center of his campaign as they had been with previous Republican candidates such as Buchanan, Duncan Hunter, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum, among others. In fact, during the primary Huckabee and Santorum also campaigned on themes similar to Trump regarding immigration and trade policies, but they were not able to get political traction. Both Huckabee and Santorum also campaigned for the forgotten blue-collar worker and those who would be formerly classified as Nixon-Reagan Democrats. Rick Santorum wrote Blue Collar Conservatives, a book arguing for the defense of middle-class America and how liberal and big-government policies were hurting the middle class. Trump also read this book and was influenced by Santorum’s ideas.


President Trump’s economic policy, while seemingly foreign to today’s Republicans and conservatives, is rooted in a Republican and conservative tradition. In an economic policy speech in Michigan arguing for the need to resurrect American manufacturing, President Trump called for a “new economic model — the American model.”[4] In his many speeches, President Trump often recalls the economic nationalism of past presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln. As President, Trump noted:


Our great Presidents, from Washington to Jefferson to Jackson to Lincoln, all understood that a great nation must protect its manufacturing, must protect itself from the outside . . .[5]


President Trump’s American model of economic policy is not necessarily new policy or ideas, but a rediscovery of the older Republican tradition. Patrick J. Buchanan wrote that “in leading Republicans away from globalism to economic nationalism, Trump is not writing a new gospel. He is leading a lost party away from a modernist heresy — back to the Old-Time Religion.”[6]


Buchanan also noted:


The economic nationalism and protectionism of Hamilton, Madison, Jackson, and Henry Clay, and the Party of Lincoln, McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Coolidge, of all four presidents on Mount Rushmore, made America the greatest and most self-sufficient republic in history.[7]


With the exception of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, all of these individuals belonged to the Republican Party, or were forerunners to the party, like Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist, and Henry Clay, a Whig.

Alexander Hamilton’s economic and political philosophy was an influence on not only future political leaders such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, but also the future Republican Party under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Warren Harding, and Calvin Coolidge. Harding, Coolidge, and Andrew Mellon, who served as Secretary of the Treasury, were influenced by Hamilton’s philosophy. In a 1922 address to the Hamilton Club, Vice President Calvin Coolidge stated:


The party now in power in this country, through its present declaration of principles, through the traditions which it inherited from its predecessors, the Federalists and the Whigs, through their achievements and through its own, is representative of those policies which were adopted under the lead of Alexander Hamilton..[8]


President Donald Trump can learn from Washington, Hamilton, and other leaders who confronted difficult economic times. Both Harding and Coolidge were traditional conservatives who believed that a constitutional, limited government was the best policy solution in governing the nation. Both the Harding and Coolidge administrations adhered to the principle of a constitutional, limited government in their pursuit of policies to solve their economic challenges.




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