The Corner

Politics & Policy

Theory and Practice in the Time of Trump

William F. Buckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan in 1978.

Writing earlier this week, Dan McLaughlin reminded us that American conservatism is both “ideas and philosophy” and “a political movement in practice” and applied the lesson to the presidency of Donald Trump: On one hand, “for those of us engaged in the contest of ideas outside the electoral system, . . . it’s enormously important to stand up for conservative ideas, principles, philosophy, and experience especially when the man holding the reins of the Republican party diverges for them.” On the other hand, “when conservative commentators move out of the realm of ‘Is this thing Trump said/did/proposes good?’ to practical questions like ‘What do most conservatives believe or want these days?’ or ‘How should conservatives appeal to voters through the Republican party?’ or ‘What should Republican voters and officials do about’ this, that, or the other Trump thing, we have to deal with practical reality and not just theory.”

In the abstract, I wouldn’t know how to improve on this framework for coping with the Trump presidency. But the devil is of course in the application, and I think the story of conservatism’s evolution over past 60-odd years has changed the relationship between theory and practice in ways that are important to consider.

That story, in a sentence, is that a marginal philosophy went mainstream and got institutionalized. When Bill Buckley and his colleagues founded this magazine, the Republican party was not meaningfully conservative. There was no conservative “movement.” Lionel Trilling articulated something like a consensus view when he dismissed conservatism as little more than “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Bill and his handful of dissident intellectuals had no obvious organizational or partisan home.

In a such a situation, there is little you can do but say what you believe to be true and hope it persuades people. But you can do that with a great deal of freedom. You don’t have a party behind you, so you aren’t much concerned with electoral strategy. You’re not dependent on an institutional infrastructure or a mass following, so there are few loyalties to maintain and few risks in telling hard truths. You’ll be focused on theory, not practice, because theory is basically all you’ve got. The theory should be informed by experience, as Dan has insightfully argued, but you don’t yet have an opportunity to do anything with it.

As you succeed — as you persuade people and build institutions — that changes. Eventually you have the Republican party as a vehicle for your political philosophy; eventually you have Fox News and talk radio; eventually you have lengthy donor lists; eventually you have “the movement.” As a result, the balance between theory and practice shifts. Now you can be a political strategist and not just a lonely intellectual. Now you want to get things done.

But your very success begins to pose risks to the theoretical side of your endeavor. Why? Consider the following —

First, the typical Republican voter is probably less reflective than the typical conservative writer or think tanker. I don’t mean that as a putdown of the former, but the reality is that the more time you spend thinking about something, the more considered your thoughts will be.

Second, the literary expression of conservatism will tend to be more sophisticated, and more concerned with theory, than its radio or televisual expressions. Again, that’s not a putdown, and conservative radio and television at their best have done important work. But it’s in the nature of writing — whether one is producing it or consuming it — to allow for slow and careful deliberation and for a depth of analysis and a wealth of detail that are rarely possible in mass media. (Let alone social media.)

But third, you can, and you will, capitalize on mass conservative media. Nothing is better for you, if you’re a conservative writer or policy intellectual, than to have a radio or television host introduce your ideas to an audience of millions. At the same time, though, if you depend on mass-media publicity, you become vulnerable to mass-media antagonism. The host who tells his viewers to buy your book or subscribe to your magazine can also tell them not to do so. And if you don’t want that to happen, you have to accept a subordinate role in the ecosystem of the “movement.”

And fourth, the label “Republican” carries an emotional weight that exceeds the summed weights of whatever truths the Republican party articulates. It is a tribal identity in a way that belief in a philosophy is not, and it taps into tribal emotions.

What all of this means is that it’s much harder for today’s conservative intellectual to oppose Trump — even at the level of theory — than it was for his forebear to oppose, say, Eisenhower. There is pressure to present criticisms in the gentlest way possible and to refrain from making total judgments of the man; the safer course is to offer discrete (and discreet) criticisms mingled with praise. (There is a corresponding pressure to be total and damning in criticisms of Democrats.) And there is a psychological tendency to see the current Republican situation in the best possible light. No one enjoys worrying about lost readers, viewers, listeners, donors, or voters; no one is eager to invite hardship.

What’s more, if “your” party starts to go off the rails philosophically, the problem might seem relatively minor at first, which will reinforce the tendency to see everything in the best possible light. Sure, the president is contradicting your principles here and there, starting the occasional trade war, fawning over this or that dictator, inveighing against corporations, attacking the press, stoking ethnic antagonisms, and so on. But he’ll be gone on 2021 or 2025. You have a whole infrastructure in place to defend your beliefs, and you assume it has some staying power. And it probably does.

But the erosion that eventually collapses a sandstone arch is hard to perceive at first; and the trend is of greater long-term consequence than the status quo it has begun to transform.

My point is not that conservative intellectuals should abandon political practice and retreat into theory. The whole purpose of political theory is to apply it. But anyone who thinks and writes about conservative and classical-liberal ideas for a living needs to be honest about the way in which performing that activity, boldly and truthfully, might conflict with keeping the masses happy and winning elections — and ask whether, under the kinds of institutional and economic pressures I have described, we aren’t convincing ourselves that the situation is better than it really is.

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