Conservatism as a political and social philosophy promotes retaining traditional social institutions in the context of culture and civilization. Some conservatives seek to preserve things as they are, emphasizing stability and continuity, while others, called reactionaries, oppose modernism and seek a return to "the way things were."
Wikipedia's definition of conservatism is a bit simplistic, but it's good enough for government work: conservatives generally want to keep things as they are, and reactionaries want to return things to the way they used to be. In neither case is moving forward considered to be a good thing. It's the liberals who are always talking about hope and change and leaving the bad old days behind. The tension between the two worldviews has always been present in American life. In recent times America's conservative movement has been defined by its strong religiosity and high esteem for institutions like the military and police, while liberalism pushes toward modernity and social evolution. The push and pull between those two philosophical poles has been a feature of American culture at least since Alexis de Tocqueville made his anthropological field trip back in the 1830s.
It is, therefore, interesting to see the Republican Party, which represents the conservative strain in American politics being referred to (and referring to itself) as revolutionary or radical, even as Republicans define themselves as conservatives. It doesn't make a lot of sense. They are reactionaries (or revanchist if you want to go even deeper into the philosophical weeds), driven by a desire to recapture a lost Eden they think of as the perfect America of the past.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the candidacy of Donald Trump. While Ronald Reagan also used the slogan "Make America Great Again" when he ran for president, his vision was much more upbeat and optimistic than Trump's, which harkens back to paleoconservative candidates like Pat Buchanan and his "Pitchfork Brigade". Indeed, it centers around "getting rid of bad people" which is not what most people think of as morning in America. Last week he even explicitly went back to the 1950s and evoked the Eisenhower era program "Operation Wetback," which he characterized on "60 Minutes" as "very nice and very humane." (It wasn't.) He said “Did you like Eisenhower? Did you like Dwight Eisenhower as a president at all? He did this. He did this in the 1950s with over a million people, and a lot of people don’t know that…and it worked.”
He elaborated at his rallies later in the week:
"You know, Dwight Eisenhower was a wonderful general, and a respected President - and he moved a million people out of the country, nobody said anything about it. When Trump does it, it’s like ‘whoa.' When Eisenhower does it, 'well that was Eisenhower, he’s allowed to do it, we can’t do it.'
That was also in the '50s, remember that. Different time, remember that.
That’s when we had a country. That’s when we had borders; you know, without borders you don’t have a country, essentially. We don’t have a country. Without borders, you just don’t have it.
But Dwight Eisenhower, this big report, they used to take them out and put them on the other side of the border and say, 'you have to stay here.' And they’d come right back, and they’d do it again and again, so they said 'Wait a minute, this doesn’t work.' And they took them out and moved them all the way South; all the way. And they never came back again; it’s too far. Amazing.
And I’m not saying this in a joking way — I’m saying this happened. It wasn’t working, they were coming back, and then they literally - literally - moved them all the way. A lot of the politicians - they never came back, it was too far. They’d put them on boats and move them all the way down South, and that was it."
This brought huge cheers as does Trump's frequent references to former POW Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and how in the good old days he would have been summarily executed:
“We get a traitor like Bergdahl, a dirty rotten traitor, who by the way when he deserted, six young beautiful people were killed trying to find him. And you don’t even hear about him anymore. Somebody said the other day, well, he had some psychological problems. You know, in the old days ……bing – bong[pantomiming shooting]
When we were strong, when we were strong.”
Back when we had a country. When we were strong.
This past week-end at a Second Amendment rally in Tennessee, Trump went back to the 1970s, evoking the old Charles Bronson vigilante movies, saying that he carries a concealed weapon and repeatedly pantomiming drawing a gun and eliciting huge applause from the audience. At one point, Trump had them screaming out the words "Death Wish" in unison. This is not something you see every day at a presidential campaign rally.
Evidently, Trump fondly remembers the gun violence in New York during that era as a time when real men avenged their families by gunning down strangers in the streets. In Trump and his followers' minds, making America great again isn't about being the first to go to the moon or re-building the middle class. It's all about getting rid of "bad people" --- by any means necessary.
Historian Rick Perlstein delved into Trump's journey into America's heart of darkness in this fantastic piece contemplating the symbiosis between a man and his mob -- a mob which applauds summary execution and screams wildly for deportation of people as if they were animals being led to the slaughter. Perlstein notes that up until now, right-wing politicians have always tried to tame this impulse when it got too out out of hand -- Goldwater with the racists in the 1960s, Reagan with anti-gay violence in the '70s and Bush in the '00s with his repeated admonishment not to tar all Muslims with the terrorist brush. Trump feels no such responsibility.
Traveling back in time to the earlier era Trump thinks he's evoking, Perlstein wonders what the thinkers of that era, for whom the "F" word still loudly resonated, would have thought of Trump. Noting that some liberals have rather optimistically interpreted some of Trump's populist-ish rhetoric as an opening for a bipartisan consensus on some economic issues he writes:
Our notional midcentury social scientist, or better historically informed pundits, wouldn’t be so sanguine. They would recognize the phenomenon that sociologist Pierre van den Berghe in 1967 labeled herrenvolk democracy: a political ideology in which members of the dominant ethnic group enjoy privileged provision from the state, as a function of the economic and civic disenfranchisement of the scapegoated group, to better cement dictatorship. This was why elites feared Huey Long’s promise of a guaranteed income –“Every Man A King.” This was how George Wallace governed Alabama. This was apartheid South Africa.
Perlstein acknowledges that some of Trumpism stems from the rageaholic tendencies of the right wing but as he explains, it's more than that:
[T]he economic neoliberalism with which the Republicans serve their donor base, and which most motivates conservative leaders, has always been an electoral albatross. What became known in the 1970s as the “social issues” helped distract Republican voters from their party’s economic agenda. Back then, according to Gallup, the public favored wage and price controls as the answer to inflation by a margin of 46 to 39 percent. Eighty-five percent liked the idea of a public jobs program on the model of the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, with only 10 percent opposed. Even Ronald Reagan got elected and reelected not because of his embrace of neoliberalism but despite it.
Those chickens may finally be coming home to roost right in the GOP establishment's lap. Listen to Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or John Kasich drone on about tax cuts and "the ownership society" and all the other tired right-wing tropes that were supposed to deliver the brass ring to every hard working (white) person, and you can easily see why these people are excited by Trump. Sure, his tax plan is full of the same nonsense, but he doesn't go into the weeds; he just says he's going to give all the good people a break and all the bad people hell --- and that sounds pretty good to a lot of GOP voters who are bored to death by the moldy Republican rap.
But it's a mistake to confuse that with an impulse toward liberalism. As Perlstein ruefully observes:
[A]s has been demonstrated time and time again by empirical social science, one reason white Americans frequently vote against candidates promising to support spending for the public good is the fear that their tax dollars will be spent on minorities at the expense of themselves. The herrenvolk democracy limned by Trump––in which downwardly mobile whites hear themselves promised economic protection that won’t be shared with the scapegoated Others––is a powerful tool for understanding why his popularity with Republican voters grows and grows.
The latest Pew poll is very instructive in this regard. One might expect that a conservative party would value experience and a proven record over bold new ideas but since Trump came on the scene, 55 percent now say they yearn for someone and something new. These voters no longer applaud the "flat tax" or "tort reform." They don't want to hear dog whistles about "the 47%" or abstractions about "big government." They want to cheer wildly for mass deportation, border walls, military confrontation around the world, trade wars, and gun play with promises of riches and rewards at the end of the day. The lost American Eden to which they seek to return was a dystopian hellscape from science fiction.
Since Trump announced his candidacy, everyone has assumed that his supporters were in the throes of a tantrum, expressing a sort of political primal scream. And maybe they are. It's certainly possible that everything will return to "normal" soon and the Republicans will settle for one of the establishment approved candidates. But according to the latest poll aggregation by the HuffPost pollster, it's not happening yet. In fact, fellow outsiders Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson are slipping and Trump is on the rise again.
And the Republican establishment has no one to blame but itself. Their stale supply-side bromides and promises that never materialize have left these voters yearning for some fresh ideas about how to recapture the fictional past of their dreams. Trump's the only guy who's got any.