The GOP's big lie: They want us to believe Trump's hateful rhetoric isn't part of the conservative tradition. Don't buy it

The GOP is frantically trying to disown the very voters it's cultivated. Suddenly they're not "real" conservatives

Published March 5, 2016 3:45PM (EST)

Donald Trump   (Jeff Malet,
Donald Trump (Jeff Malet,


When things happen we do not expect, we go in search of explanations. And so it is that the history of the Republican Party since June 16, 2015, has been the history of a party with a lot of ‘splainin to do.

That was the day, you may recall, when Donald Trump kicked off his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination by opining that undocumented immigrants from Mexico consisted of “murderers” and “rapists.” (To be fair, he did allow that some unspecified fraction might be “good people.”) He surged to the front of a large GOP field and has remained there ever since, subsequent statements of a similarly offensive mien having failed to dislodge him. He claimed that Sen. John McCain, who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, was not really a hero because heroes don’t get “captured.” Annoyed when Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly pressed him during a debate about various louche remarks of his concerning women, he sought to prove his feminist bona fides the next day by wondering publicly about her menstrual cycle. He said it was “disgusting” when Hillary Clinton took a potty break during a Democratic debate, made fun of a disabled reporter’s affect, and referred to the communion wafer Catholics call "the body of Christ" as a “cracker.” He threatened the family members of terrorists with vague but ominous-sounding reprisals, and wanted to ban Muslims from entering the country. (Muslims already here were to be placed on a national registry.) These remarks were greeted with horror by pundits who breathlessly found in each the beginning of Trump’s end, only to be confounded when his numbers remained unchanged or even improved. In the run-up to the South Carolina primary, the Donald got into a fight with the pope and charged that George W. Bush had “lied” the country into the 2003 Iraq War. (Even Trump can get something right now and then.) The result? Trump won big in South Carolina, outpacing his nearest rival by 10 percentage points. More recently, he refused an opportunity to renounce the support of David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and other white supremacists. (He later explained that a defective earpiece prevented him from hearing the question.) What happened next? Trump won every Southern state in the Super Tuesday Republican primaries.

When Victorian England was up in arms over Charles Darwin’s newly published "On the Origin of Species," the wife of the bishop of Worcester, having taken in the theory’s lineaments, was properly mortified. “Let us pray it is not true,” she told a friend. “But if it is, let us hope it does not become generally known.” Republicans, experiencing their own mortification, have responded to Trump’s ascendancy in similar fashion. For a long time they simply pooh-poohed the idea that Trump could ever be their party’s nominee. (They were not alone. Even so worthy a figure as Nate Silver, he of FiveThirtyEight fame and the perfectly called 2012 presidential election, stated flatly last summer that Trump’s chances were vanishingly small.) But as he clung tenaciously to his lead in the polls and then began to win actual contests -- and to appear the likely winner of even more in the future -- a new approach was called for. Thus was born the “Trump is not a conservative” meme, whose rationale seems to run like this: If it is true that Trump will become our nominee, let us pray the public does not mistake him for one of us. “He’s not a conservative,” sniffed Jeb Bush, more than once. National Review, which has roughly the same relation to conservative orthodoxy as the Spanish Inquisition had to Catholic propriety, devoted an entire issue to Trump’s perceived apostasies from the Gospel According to Buckley. Other right-wing figures have joined this chorus, all of them declaiming, more in anger than in sorrow, that Mr. Trump (and, by extension, his supporters) must never, ever be confused with actual, honest-to-gosh acolytes of the conservative faith.

Occasionally this formula is altered slightly to read: Trump and his supporters are not ideological conservatives” or, simply, not “ideological.” This, of course, raises the question of what they are. And so we’re told that Trump is a “populist” who appeals to “working-class whites,” themselves “newcomers to the political process” who previously avoided it because they believe the rich have rigged it against them. Dismissed by Republican elites and the political class generally, displaced economically by globalization and the digital revolution, this pale army of the disaffected is angered, embittered, resentful -- and Trump, with his bluster and his swagger, is their tribune.

No doubt this narrative gets some things right. Non-Hispanic Caucasians account for almost all of Trump’s support -- some studies put the number as high as 91 percent --  and what we know of their educational and economic backgrounds suggests the term “working-class” may not be out of place. Almost half of them have only a high-school degree or less, and about one-third earn below $50,000 annually. These facts are important clues to the nature of Trump’s support, and we will grant them due weight if we want to understand his political appeal. But that understanding is stunted, not sharpened, by the claim that Trump’s supporters are not “conservatives.” To say this is to engage in what logicians refer to as “stipulative definition” -- the attempt to settle an argument by defining it out of existence. There is simply no reason to identify conservatism as a whole with the particular version of conservatism preferred by the Republican “establishment.” Nor is there any basis for the belief that only the establishment’s credo qualifies as an “ideology.” When properly understood, Trump’s supporters emerge squarely within the conservative tradition. Their “ideology” is among the classic strands of conservative thought, and their distinctive sentiments -- the outrage and distrust we hear so much about -- have always provided the darker energies of conservative politics. The Republican leadership has both strategic and tactical reasons for wanting to evade these facts -- more about this later -- but that does not mean the rest of us should assist them in doing so.


Every political community has to answer two essential questions. The first is which value, or values, it will make its own. The second is whom it will admit as a full-fledged member -- as a citizen, in other words.

The American nation has mostly thought of itself as dedicated to individual liberty. This is the value we generally place at the center of our political life. We also tend to think of liberty as a unitary concept. As inheritors of the British Enlightenment, in which property was conceived as the bulwark of civilized life, we have been peculiarly resistant to claims that the various kinds of liberty -- political, social, economic -- can ever genuinely conflict with each other. We have been much more inclined to imagine them as a seamless web, and to believe that any effort to rearrange one thread at the expense of others will wreck the web as a whole. The almost universal invocation of liberty in this sense is one of the distinctive features of our politics. If we go on to identify it with “liberalism,” we can understand the emergence, in the middle of the 20th century, of “consensus” history -- a school of thought that depicted liberalism as not just the dominant theory of American life but the only theory, now and always. This view was probably rendered most pithily by the literary critic Lionel Trilling, who declared in the preface to "The Liberal Imagination" that “In the United States … liberalism [is] the sole intellectual tradition.” (It is one of the more dolorous ironies of American letters that Trilling wrote in the same decade, the 1950s, that would later witness the rise of Joseph McCarthy and the founding of National Review -- perhaps the two seminal events in the development of modern conservatism.)

But we should not think this regnant liberalism has been static or inert. As the country moved from the late 18th century into the 19th, it confronted new social phenomena and correspondingly new challenges. The transition from a largely agrarian economy to industrial capitalism radically altered the fabric of American life, and drove a number of allied changes -- increased urbanization and greater geographic mobility among them. An economy and society that had mainly consisted of freehold farmers and household producers suddenly came face-to-face with a completely novel invention:  the modern corporation, an enterprise capable of directing and organizing economic life on an unprecedented scale -- and of wielding a previously unthinkable amount of financial power.

These innovations, and the cultural churn they created, split the liberal consensus. One faction accepted that government would have to change as the economy and society changed, if only because it alone had sufficient scale to interpose itself between corporate power and individual citizens. This group, known originally as “Progressives,” attracted adherents in both major political parties; Theodore Roosevelt was probably its most famous Republican exponent, with Woodrow Wilson his counterpart among Democrats. Progressive ideology was an important precursor of the New Deal and of the liberal variant we now refer to as “welfare liberalism.” Today, of course, it is advocated almost entirely by Democrats.

Another faction disdained government activism of this sort. In their eyes, it was clearly incompatible with the unitary nature of liberty. The freedom of corporations to run their businesses as they saw fit -- to initiate and dissolve contracts in a free market of buyers and sellers (including sellers of labor) -- was no less important than any other kind of liberty. If anything, it was to be granted a kind of priority, as the rights of property were absolutely essential if civilization was to advance and prosper. This “market liberalism” is today the official creed of the Republican establishment. Because its agents identify it with the (allegedly) Lockean vision of the American founders -- Wal-Mart and Exxon, on their view, being just two more denizens of the state of nature -- they think of themselves as “conservatives” or, alternatively, as “classical liberals.”

The two liberalisms often find themselves in conflict, especially over economic policy, but they have managed to find areas of agreement -- or at least convergence -- as well. For most of the postwar period, the political class in both major parties supported a policy of containment with respect to the Soviet Union, though of course there were differences over detail and tone. And both establishments have evolved similar answers to the second question mentioned above, that of citizenship. As previously marginalized groups -- women, persons of color, gays, etc. -- agitated for full membership in the political community, Democrats (welfare liberals) generally acted as their champions. Republicans (market liberals) have been more chary of such appeals, but today the party’s leadership -- and its donor class -- often proffer a more expansive view of citizenship than many Republican voters. They tend to regard at least the more blatant forms of bigotry as politically (if not morally) toxic, which is why Trump’s remarks about Mexicans and Muslims left them aghast.

As critics of consensus history were quick to point out, our politics has never been a simple dialogue among competing liberal discourses. It has always included other voices as well. In "The Radicalism of the American Revolution," Gordon Wood, the great Brown University historian, located a strain of classical republican thought in the revolutionary and early national period -- an approach to politics that privileged the commonweal over individual liberty and owed more to Cicero and Tacitus than to John Locke. Other writers have reminded us that socialism was not always (with all due respect to Bernie Sanders) a negligible player in American politics; in the presidential election of 1924, Robert M. La Follette, the nominee of the Socialist Party of America, received nearly 5 million votes, almost 17 percent of all ballots cast.

These political visions (along with others) have added depth and color to our politics, and must be acknowledged by anyone who wants a sufficiently complex view of American life. But they have not represented the greatest challenge to our liberal consensus. That has always lain in the distinctive culture of the American South -- where, not coincidentally, Donald Trump finds his strongest support.


The South has always been an outlier in American life:  more rural and less urban than the rest of the country; more agrarian and less industrial; more religious and less secular. And then, of course, there is the region’s history of black chattel slavery, a centuries-long interval of depravity ended only by the catastrophe of civil war.

But ended only partially. Slavery itself passed away with the Confederacy, but its cultural foundation, the concept of white supremacy, did not. Temporarily held in abeyance by Reconstruction, it reemerged in the guise of Jim Crow after federal armies prematurely withdrew from the South in 1877. It would take the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and ‘60s, and the reappearance of federal forces in Southern cities, to liberate the South from de jure segregation and the more overt forms of racism.

We can debate the extent to which hearts and minds have echoed these changes in law and manners. As a Southerner myself and the father of a young woman now in her early 20s, I have been enormously impressed by how little importance she and her cohort attach to racial distinctions. These young Southerners have friends and intimates across the entire spectrum of race and ethnicity. But the impress of the South’s racial history remains strong among many older Southerners, especially those who came of age before or during the civil rights movement. It need not manifest itself in outright hostility or animosity; more often than not, it doesn’t. Integration, while only imperfectly realized, has meant that most Southerners, especially those in the middle- and working-class, have acquaintances (if not friendships) among many different races. This experience of sharing not just personal but public space -- neighborhoods, schools, workplaces -- has had exactly the effect its proponents predicted: it has burned the hatred out of many lives, replacing it with a rough-and-ready acceptance of diversity, if not always its enthusiastic embrace.

But everyday life is one thing; political ideas are another. Here, perhaps, is where we encounter the most stubborn residue of the South’s racial legacy. For most of their history, white Southerners defined the limits of their community in explicitly racial terms. To be a citizen was to be white; members of other races, it was believed, could not be trusted with the liberties (or the duties) of citizenship. Non-whites might reside physically in Southern towns and cities, but they could never belong there in the same sense as whites. The latter, endowed with complete social identities, would always regard non-whites as permanent outsiders -- perpetual strangers whose relations with the “real” community would always be fraught and strained.

This habit of thought has outlived the South’s commitment to official racism. It is no longer a matter of consciously affirming that only whites can qualify as citizens. That, thank God, has mostly been left behind. Instead, it is today a cluster of attitudes, of sentiments and second thoughts -- a worry that difference may be inconsistent with loyalty, that racial and ethnic identity trace, in some vague, uneasy way, the limits of social trust.

This racially inflected concept of community puts the South at odds with “mainstream” Republicans, who generally share with welfare liberals the universalist idea of citizenship favored by political modernity. But the South’s electoral power, suddenly up for grabs in the 1960s when white Southerners recoiled from the Democratic Party’s embrace of racial equality, was simply too large a prize to ignore. The GOP’s strategy was to use the notion of “small government” to elide its attack on federal economic regulation into the white South’s rejection of federal interference in its racial and cultural politics. This use of populist cultural appeals to advance an elite economic agenda has defined Republican politics since the Nixon administration.

Of course, the GOP could not rely solely on this strategy of diversion. It had to provide a positive program as well, an account of the benefits its economic policies would deliver. Here it used the familiar rhetoric of market liberalism: less regulation and lower taxes would unleash an entrepreneurial boom and bring prosperity to everyone. (Everyone willing to work for a living, anyway.) If the economy was weak, it was because government was too strong; shrink the latter and you would grow the former. And because liberty is a unitary concept, not only would we be more prosperous -- we would also be more free.

Two things combined to make the South more receptive to this message than it might otherwise have been. The first was relatively robust rates of Sunbelt economic growth after World War II, largely powered by demand for finished goods such as textiles and furniture and raw materials such as oil and gas. The absence of widespread unionism in the South made it an attractive haven for businesses in search of low-wage labor and compliant workforces. The second was the right’s ability, during the Cold War, to smear government intervention in the economy as “socialism” and suggest that any deviation from market fundamentalism was a step in the direction of Soviet-style tyranny.

But these props for market liberalism began to crumble in the 1980s and ‘90s. Globalization and corporate greed (abetted by Republican and, yes, sometimes Democratic legislation) undid the first, geopolitics the second. By the time of the Great Recession, scarified middle- and working-class Southerners were increasingly skeptical of the GOP’s alliance with Wall Street. Should they really entrust their futures to a corporate capitalism engaged in a restless trawling of global markets? For many, the answer was not just “No” but “Hell, no.”

This shift to a more populist economic stance did not just provide a pleasant symmetry with the South’s cultural politics. It was, in many ways, a return to normalcy for a region whose economically distressed inhabitants had long supported the program of common provision associated with welfare liberalism. Unlike the Republican leadership and its donor-class masters, they had no desire to dismantle Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid or the Veterans’ Administration. Their concern, rather, was that these and other benefits should flow only to those who “deserved” them -- those whose lives of productive labor and virtuous conduct had confirmed their membership in the authoritative community. Here we see the essential unity of the Southern mind. It favors a non-universalist concept of community, and this concept, in turn, drives its rejection of the individualist values of both market and welfare liberalism. The latter are transactional visions of social life, in which what matters are the interests and powers of particular agents, whether imagined as citizens of a polity or as consumers in a market. Just as everyone is a potential citizen, so everyone is a potential consumer; and as long as political and economic outcomes track the free choices of these agents, there is no independent criterion by which to judge their morality.

The Southern mind disavows both elements of this picture. To the question, “Which principles should define our political community?” it answers, “That community’s right to enforce its own mores and values” -- not a right to individual liberty, but one of collective self-determination. To the question, “Who can become a citizen of our community?” it answers, “Only those capable of conformity with those mores and values” -- a capability, sadly, it tends to allocate along racial and ethnic lines.

Both answers chart the depth of the South’s alienation from the tenets of market liberalism. Trump’s genius was to recognize this, then set about exposing it with ruthless efficiency. Instinctively self-protective, the Republican establishment quickly applied the label “populist” (for them, a pejorative) to Trump’s message and supporters -- as though the latter were a gaggle of aggrieved agrarians with carbines and pitchforks. They were right about the populism, but wrong about its provenance. Here Trump was much smarter than they were. He saw that the economic concerns of the GOP base were not a situational response to the Great Recession -- or income inequality or wage stagnation -- but were instead rooted in a much deeper set of doubts about their status in a truly multicultural community. In other words, the anxieties about white identity come first, not the economically inspired outrage. This is why he kicked off his campaign, way back on June 16, not with lectures about free trade or globalization or tax rates, but with disparaging remarks about Mexicans, soon followed with similar aspersions against Muslims and other “minorities.” The pundits who keep raising their eyes to heaven and beseeching it, first plaintively, then accusingly, “Why oh why are Trump’s numbers still so high?” are missing the crucial point. Trump’s various calumnies are offensive to most of us, but not to the voters he is addressing. To them he is asking the most fundamental question there is in politics: “Who is really one of us?” (They like his answer.) The thinly submerged violence often on display at Trump rallies--- a whiff, and then some, of fascist energies -- results from this sense of a community besieged by the strangers and outsiders who surround it. It signals a view of politics as the control of the wicked by the virtuous: politics as a clash of wills rather than the adjustment of interests.


With these ideas in place, we can now appreciate all the ironies in the GOP’s charge that Trump’s rhetoric and supporters are not “conservative.”

The most obvious is probably this: that the very people making this charge are not conservatives themselves, but market liberals. But this is too clever by half. The paradoxes of American conservatism need to be unfolded carefully, not turned into fodder for sound bites. (Every political tradition worth our time has its aporias.) This includes the fact, piquant though it is, that the order our “mainstream” conservatives wish to conserve is itself a liberal order.

But market liberalism, while perhaps the dominant strand of American conservatism, is not definitive of it. There have always been competing voices in the conservative canon. Some of these, echoing an older European idiom, imagine society as an intricate, almost organic web of interests and concerns, one whose overall pattern must be changed only gradually and carefully, if at all. Others see religious authority as central to social order and virtue, or champion the importance of tradition more generally. Often these elements are blended in various ways, with the emphasis now on one, now on another. But all agree in rejecting the liberal belief that freedom should be the touchstone of politics rather than the common good, that the individual citizen, not the community, is the criterion of moral value. They may also share an aversion to liberalism’s insistence on a universalist concept of community -- Thomas Carlyle’s attacks on liberal views about the civil rights of Jews, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opposition to Catholic Emancipation in Victorian England, are only two examples here.

The real irony is that these beliefs, so basic to Southern culture, are recognizably classic themes of conservative thought -- from Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke to John Adams, Coleridge and Carlyle. Why, then, does the Republican establishment contend that Trump’s message and supporters are not “conservative”? One possibility, of course, is that they are simply displaying an astonishing ignorance about the tradition they claim to represent. Perhaps their minds are so narrow that market liberalism of the American sort exhausts their knowledge of conservative thought. While this isn’t to be discounted in every case, it’s more likely that something else is at work. On the one hand, the establishment knows that “conservative” is a talismanic word to many Republican voters, a cherished emblem of identity. If they can suggest that Trump does not share this identity, these voters may move away from him and this would serve the establishment’s tactical interests.

But strategery is afoot here also. The GOP, having spent the better part of 50 years mining the cultural hysteria of the white South, now frantically disowns the voters it cultivated there. Suddenly they are not “real” Republicans and “real” conservatives. The leadership is obviously terrified that Trump’s repellent remarks will permanently damage its position with independent voters and the demographic groups it needs to remain competitive in national elections. But the party’s more hard-line elements are also anticipating the electoral holocaust likely to attend a Trump general election contest. Afterward, Republican moderates will doubtless clamber up the wreckage and declaim that doctrinaire “movement” conservatism has been discredited and a kinder, gentler conservatism should take its place. The argument that Trump is not a conservative is meant to remove any hard-line fingerprints from the disaster and thus forestall the moderate bid for power.

The hard-liners may well win this argument; the GOP’s center of gravity has shifted so far right that a self-correction to the center any time soon seems doubtful. But it appears increasingly likely that a reckoning of some kind is coming soon. For almost a century, from the Gilded Age until the mid-1960s, Americans sorted out their politics in a remarkably rational way: one major party represented (mostly) the interests of capital, the other (mostly) the interests of labor. In this they largely duplicated the pattern of the industrial societies of Europe. But then the racial obsessions of American, and especially Southern, life took the country in a different direction. The party of capital, exploiting these obsessions, absorbed large numbers of middle- and working-class voters and dominated national politics for a generation. But its relentless pursuit of elite economic goals, even when these conflicted with the cultural anxieties of its Southern base, rendered this alliance increasingly unstable. There is now serious doubt as to whether it can be effectively restored. We may well be witnessing a moment not seen in our politics since 1854, when the Whig Party, unable to negotiate the pressures generated by the issue of slavery, finally collapsed and gave way to the Republican Party. The last, and perhaps greatest, irony of our present situation is that a party that arose to answer the racial challenges of the 1850s may ultimately succumb to the racial conundrums of a much later era. Market liberalism and Southern conservatism may soon come to a cataclysmic parting of the ways. But the Republican establishment doesn’t want you to know this. Like the wife of the Bishop of Worcester, it has a secret to keep.

By Kim Messick

Kim Messick lives in North Carolina. His blog, "Primarily Politics," is at

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