On Friday, Donald Trump delivered a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). It was an odd speech, made odder by the fact that Trump is maybe the least conservative person to hold the Presidency since Woodrow Wilson, and yet there he was, addressing a crowd full of supposedly dedicated conservatives. After some introductory remarks, Trump spoke for eight to ten minutes on his favorite topics: the press and the 2016 election. He then pivoted to discussing the movement (“the likes of which the world has never seen”), and what it means. His victory in November was “a win for conservative values.” One might have expected him to then discuss what values he meant, but he proceeded instead to give a stump speech. He spoke in broad, mostly non-specific terms about his administration’s policy priorities. In order of appearance, he talked about:
- Border Security: Trump opens by claiming our borders are “wide open” and that “anybody can come in.” He plans to fix this by building a wall and deporting “bad dudes.”
- End to foreign aid: Trump says we’ve spent “$6 trillion” in the Middle East “while allowing our own infrastructure to fall into total disrepair and decay.” He claims that we could have “rebuilt our country three times with that money.”
- Healthcare: Obamacare is a disaster. He claims “Obamacare covers very few people,” and even fewer if you “deduct from the number all of the people that had great health care that they loved that was taken away from them.” Trump plans to sign a bill that makes the healthcare system “much better” and “less expensive.”
- Rebuilding our inner cities and cracking down on crime: Trump claims to be working with the Department of Justice to “[reduce] violent crime” and pledges to “support the incredible men or women of law enforcement.”
- Trade: Trump pledges to pull out of bad trade deals and pursue bi-lateral trade agreements that are better for the United States.
- Energy: Trump touts his authorization of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. He pledges to use only American steel for the pipelines, to “lift the restrictions on American energy, including shale oil, natural gas, and beautiful, clean coal” and to “put our miners back to work.”
- Decreased regulation: Trump says he will keep regulations that “protect our environment” and “protect the safety of our people and our workers,” but that he wants to roll back the regulations that “hurt companies, hurt jobs” and “make us noncompetitive overseas.”
- Tax reform: Trump promises to “massively lower taxes on the middle class, reduce taxes on American business, and make our tax code more simple and much more fair for everyone.”
- Increased military spending: Trump says he’s “putting in a massive budget request for our beloved military.” He pledges to make our military “bigger and stronger than ever before,” and promises “one of the great military buildups in American history.” He says he believes in “peace through strength.”
- Terrorism: Trump has “directed the defense community to develop a plan to totally obliterate ISIS” despite claiming during the campaign to have a “detailed plan to defeat” the group. He pledges to “keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country” and implies he will do so in a new executive order to be signed in the coming days.
During the rest of the speech, he mainly restates his points and offers closing remarks. When you strip away the fluff, and the off-the-cuff tangents, this is what we’re left with.
Trump trumpeted his November victory as a “win for conservative values,” but one thing that was noticeably lacking in his remarks was any sort of reference to conservative philosophical linchpins. He hit upon conservative talking points and listed off conservative policy ideas, but he never mentioned limited government, individual responsibility, fiscal responsibility, or the centrality of the family in society. He didn’t pay any lip-service to conservatism’s long-standing skepticism of government’s ability to solve problems without consequences – quite the opposite, in fact. He didn’t mention any conservative thinkers or leaders he would model himself after. He didn’t even mention Ronald Reagan (quite a feat for a Republican politician).
The omission of actual conservative values wasn’t surprising. He has never shown much interest in them. Far from being skeptical of government’s ability to solve problems, Trump has trumpeted himself as a sort of savior. In his speech to the Republican National Convention, he said, “I alone can fix” the nation’s problems. He has great faith in his personal ability to solve complex problems, in no small part because he doesn’t see them as complex. His policy positions reveal very little in the way of grappling with the issues. People are coming to our country illegally? Build a giant wall to keep them out. People are here illegally? Deport them. ISIS is a problem? Obliterate them. Terrorists are trying to come to our country? Close our borders. The solutions only make sense if one assumes the problem is simple and merely requires a tough guy to pull a lever. It assumes that the failure to solve the problems was a matter of will or intentional malpractice.
This way of viewing problems makes some sense in a business context, in which the only relevant interests are those of the business and its shareholders, and ultimate decision-making power resides entirely at the top. Government, though, is different than a business, and national problems are different than business problems. Rather than one interest to consider, there are many interests – interconnected, at odds with one another, aligning in some places but not others – and there are many decision-makers. And while Trump certainly sees himself as an exceptional person, previous Presidents were not weaklings without the will to make the necessary choices. They were men with good intentions and strong wills, supported by staffs of great intellect and ability. The problems the country faces remain unsolved because they are mindbogglingly difficult to solve within the system we have.
During the 2016 campaign, many things shocked me, but one of the most shocking developments was the way conservatives embraced a man who embodied no conservative values himself. Conservatism’s chief virtue is humility, and it is a virtue our President lacks entirely. He really believes he alone can solve our nation’s problems. When he says he does not need intelligence briefings, or a team of advisers, he really believes it. Conservatism champions individual and fiscal responsibility, but Trump has behaved irresponsibly all his life. Conservatism holds the family in highest regard; Trump is a thrice-married, serial adulterer. Conservatism says government offers only limited promise when setting its teeth into society’s problems; Trump believes the government, located in himself, is the solution.
I am not a conservative, but I appreciate the need for a strong, rigorous conservative tradition within American thought. Watching Trump give that speech on that stage was chilling. This is the great victory for conservative values? This is what it’s all about? The crowd cheered boisterously as he made his way through the speech, apparently oblivious to the irony. Conservatism always sought to protect society from demagogues like this, from charlatans, from amoral hucksters. It failed, and it failed mightily.