Politics & Policy

What’s a Conservative to Do?

(Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
The presidential-election madness drives priorities home.

What to say? What to do? These are the questions many were asking as Donald Trump’s victory in the Indiana primary seemed to clear the way for him to become the Republican nominee.

Among conservatives I ran into in Washington, D.C., the morning after the primary, sadness, anger, and recriminations were in the air. Shock had set in for those who had been sure the Trump campaign was but a passing distraction. But when distractions are everywhere — becoming the focal point of many lives, and certainly of our culture — of course the presidency would fall victim to our habits, too.

“What the Trump nomination has revealed is that American conservatism, or whatever is left of it, was a mile wide and an inch deep. What distinguished conservatism from its rivals was its deference to tradition, manners, ordered liberty, natural law, and inherited wisdom, as well as skepticism about popular enthusiasms,” observes Francis J. Beckwith, professor of philosophy at Baylor University (and, in 2016–17, Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder). Conservatism, he reflects, “was grounded in a realist view of human nature and the human good, both of which come from the hand of a divine sovereign. A once great political movement that gave us Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley Jr., and Ronald Reagan — with all their gifts of insight, wit, and statesmanship — is now led by a conspiracy-mongering, demagogic, narcissistic loudmouth, championed by assorted boot-licking sycophants.”

His characterization certainly seemed to describe the Wednesday show — this primary season has basically been reality TV gone presidential, complete with daily episodes — as many people who earlier called out the Trump campaign as unserious, unacceptable buffoonery seemed to take not a minute before falling in line after the Indiana win.

Still, I should be quick to say that many good people are supporting Donald Trump — people who value tradition and manners and liberty and law and wisdom. The problem is that they don’t see anyone in the presidential race who is serious about these things — serious about preserving that which is good and true and allows for the beautiful to flourish — and who could win the general election. And so they’re going with the candidate who might just “blow things up,” as many people have told me. “He’ll do something different,” they tell me. Just what that is . . . your guess is as good as mine. But it would make for quite the prime-time show. Reality TV goes to Washington. It couldn’t be much worse, they figure, than what they’ve been watching.

Donald Trump for president is a symptom of much bigger problems.  

So, what to do? Many a conservative is struggling with the question of whom if anyone to vote for. Matthew J. Franck, director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute, says that while the Supreme Court could certainly be adduced as a reason to consider voting for Trump, he’s skeptical — even likening this to “pink unicorn” territory. “When has Trump demonstrated a pattern of promise-keeping, or inspired confidence that he would fight on a ground that he has never been interested in capturing?” he asks. Others suggest the political equivalent of straitjacketing the nominee at the Cleveland convention, including by making the vice-presidential role a more significant one. “But think about that,” Franck says. “It means that for the first time in our history, a major party would be planning to govern against and not with the leadership of a president it nominated. What has never been done is unlikely to be done. And a Trump unbound in the Oval Office might do more damage to the party, and thereby more durably to the country, than a Trump ignominiously sent back to his Tower in Manhattan.”

Chad Pecknold, a professor at my alma mater, the Catholic University of America, says that if the choice in November is, in fact, Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump, he couldn’t vote for either. “In my view, Trump and Clinton will both advance morally flawed positions — one in a fairly predictable but nevertheless vicious way, and the other in a completely unpredictable, corrupt, and capricious way. I believe both candidates would send America headlong into potentially irreversible decline, into the gravest of moral evils, severing whatever is left of our tenuous grasp on the best of our founding principles, detaching us finally from the median common goods that have made the country prosper. I can’t participate in it.”

Pecknold is considering writing in “a virtuous leader who understood what ailed us.” Names on his short list include Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, political theorist Patrick Deneen from Notre Dame — speaking of Indiana — or his boss at Catholic University, John Garvey. 

What ails us is a disordered view of what politics is about. We seem to have a bipartisan problem of looking for a savior in a president.

What ails us is a disordered view of what politics is about. We seem to have a bipartisan problem of looking for a savior in a president — it’s the stuff both of Barack Obama’s “We are the ones we have been waiting for” campaign and of Republicans (and now even some Democrats) idolizing the memory of Ronald Reagan. So take a deep breath, everyone — whomever you do or don’t support this presidential-election season. The presidency is vitally important, of course. But not in the ways we’ve been tending to think. Donald Trump didn’t start the fire, and there was never going to be a perfect presidential candidate who could put it out. That’s our work — the work of good citizenship. So walk away from the TV, stop watching the coverage of every rally, and do something to renew and rebuild our civil society. Right in front of you is where great things can happen. But not if you sit around waiting for Washington to work miracles — which never was its job anyway.

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