Trump the “True Conservative”: Against the “Radical Transformation” Thesis

By Sean Kennedy—

Donald Trump would have us believe that he is one-of-kind president, a new kind of politician, something sui generis. But Trump is not unique nor is he particularly different. Because of this fact the Leftist critique of the Trump presidency should not treat Trump as a radical transformation of conservative rhetoric and values. Instead the Left should understand that Trump is an embodiment of conservatism’s core conviction: markets are the only vehicle for meritocracy, and safeguarding them from distortion is essential to ensure that each individual receives their just desserts.

This thesis runs contrary to the popular diagnosis offered by a bevy of journalists, pundits, and think piece scribes, many of whom argue that Trump’s candidacy and early presidency represent a fundamental shift in the meaning of conservatism. According to this narrative, Trump’s rise to power has displaced the traditional conservative ideology grounded in values of small government, liberal global trade, and individual responsibility in favor of unchecked executive authority, economic nationalism, and homogeneity of race and religion.

The clear implication of this thesis is that the rise of economic nationalism and the authoritarian expansion of state power are the central problems facing the Left, while critique of market-oriented governance is a sideline issue. Indeed, for some commentators, calling into question the desirability of meritocracy or the extent to which markets reward merit threatens to reinforce Trump’s position, a point illustrated by the on-going false equivalence drawn between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. While the narrative that Trump has radically transformed conservatism has considerable inertia, this argument is untenable when Trump’s rhetoric during and after the campaign are examined closely. Trump is not the herald for a new nationalistic conservatism; instead he is the embodiment, contradictions and all, of the conservative belief that the market links ability and effort with wealth and fame, a notion that has been a defining element of mainstream conservative thought since at least the 1980s.

A myriad of articles in both conservative and liberal outlets testify that the “Trump radical transformation” thesis has been quite powerful. Early on, ‘traditional’ conservatives attacked Trump’s credentials. The National Review published a special roundtable in which leading conservative intellectuals argued that Trump was not a “true conservative,” insisting he was not worthy of Republican primary support. But by the 2017 CPAC, a major gathering for movement conservatives, there was widespread agreement that Trump represented a significant turning point in conservative thinking generally, and GOP leadership specifically. Social scientists have also argued that there is initial data to suggest the definition of conservatism has fundamentally changed, such that many voters now identify agreement or disagreement with Trump as the primary determinant of conservatism. Other major and influential media, including The Washington Post and The Atlantic, ran with a similar thesis. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, therefore, appears to have captured the views of many when he argued Trump spells the death of the theory of “True Conservatism,” a supposedly “unbroken tradition running back through Ronald Reagan to Barry Goldwater and the Founding Fathers,” which “shaped the Tea Party’s zeal,” “influenced Paul Ryan’s budgets,” and “infused Mitt Romney’s, “‘You built that’ rhetoric.”

Yet a closer look at Romney’s “You built that” refrain, which dominated the GOP’s 2012 campaign message, reveals that perhaps Trump’s presidency is not a shift in the meaning of conservatism, but an embodied example of its contradictions. In a speech in Chilicothe, Ohio less than two weeks before the 2012 RNC, Romney asserted,

People ask me why I think the President’s policies have been such a disappointment. I just don’t think President Obama understands what it is that drives our economy. America runs on freedom. Free men and women, pursuing their dreams, working hard to build a better future for their families. This is what propels our economy. When an American succeeds, when she wins a promotion, when he creates a business, it is that individual, that American that has earned it, that has built it.

Expanding upon this message in Bettendorf, Iowa during the same pre-RNC tour, Romney offered his promise to run the government as a business, contending,

It’s the nature of the private sector, where if you stand still people will end up rushing by you…It’s also true in the public sector, they just don’t know it. If a nation doesn’t change the way it does things and improve and find ways to have government become more and more efficient and hold down the spending and balance the budgets, why other nations will run right by them.

In his speech accepting the GOP nomination at the 2012 RNC, Romney re-articulated each of these themes. First, he reasserted the notion that business experience is an essential qualification for the presidency, condescendingly arguing that,

The President hasn’t disappointed you because he wanted to. The President has disappointed America because he hasn’t led America in the right direction. He took office without the basic qualification that most Americans have and one that was essential to his task. He had almost no experience working in a business.

Second, Romney repeated his objection that individuals receive what they deserve from the market, positing,

These are American success stories. And yet the centerpiece of the President’s entire re-election campaign is attacking success. Is it any wonder that someone who attacks success has led the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression? In America, we celebrate success, we don’t apologize for it.

To recap: the essence of Romney’s case for the presidency, a case that Douthat characterizes as encapsulating “True Conservatism,” involved two basic themes. First, Americans get what they deserve from the market. Arguments that call into question whether relative wealth and status are derived from merit are an insulting attack not only on successful people, but market freedom and individual rights generally. Second, government works best when it runs on the model of a business, thereby making private sector success the most important qualification for the presidency. In sum, Romney’s campaign amounts to an attempt at identification with the public as entrepreneurial citizens, reassuring them that “you built it” while arguing this proposition is something only a fellow businessperson could understand.

Despite the hype to the contrary, this is also the message of the Trump campaign, albeit with one important twist: where Romney tells the American people “you built it,” seeking identification, Trump proclaims, “I built it,” asserting his wealth and fame as a source of authority. During his initial campaign announcement, Trump diagnosed a lack of business leadership as the primary source of the nation’s failures, arguing,

So we need people— I’m a free trader. But the problem with free trade is you need really talented people to negotiate for you. If you don’t have talented people, if you don’t have great leadership, if you don’t have people that know business, not just a political hack that got the job because he made a contribution to a campaign.

In the same speech, Trump pitched his wealth and fame as his primary qualifications for the presidency, contending,

I have a total net worth, and now with the increase, it’ll be well-over $10 billion. But here, a total net worth of—net worth, not assets, not— a net worth, after all debt, after all expenses, the greatest assets— Trump Tower, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, Bank of America building in San Francisco, 40 Wall Street, sometimes referred to as the Trump building right opposite the New York— many other places all over the world. So the total is $8,737,540,00. Now I’m not doing that…I’m not doing that to brag, because you know what? I don’t have to brag. I don’t have to, believe it or not. I’m doing that to say that that’s the kind of thinking our country needs. We need that thinking. We have the opposite thinking. We have losers.

Perversely, Trump argues that he is trustworthy precisely because he is already incredibly rich, making him less beholden to special interests. He contends that as a successful businessperson, he has,

Watched the politicians. I’ve dealt with them all my life. If you can’t make a good deal with a politician, then there’s something wrong with you. You’re certainly not very good. And that’s what we have representing us. They will never make America great again. They don’t even have a chance. They’re controlled fully— they’re controlled fully by the lobbyists, by the donors, and by the special interests, fully.

His RNC acceptance speech contains similar themes. Here, he paints a dark picture of a nation in the midst of a crisis, which he attributes to two familiar sources: lack of negotiating chops and corruption. Trump contrasts his business experience with the career public service of the Clintons, arguing,

I have made billions of dollars in business making deals – now I’m going to make our country rich again. I am going to turn our bad trade agreements into great ones. America has lost nearly one third of its manufacturing jobs since 1997, following the enactment of disastrous trade deals supported by Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Likewise, status as a 1%-er means Trump has seen firsthand the ways in which the free market has made it impossible for ordinary Americans to compete. Indeed, his credibility, in part, derives from his straightforward admission that he has benefited from corrupt politicians and the special interest lobbies to which they are beholden. He posits,

I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens.

In a press conference on January 11 in which he responded to conflict of interest concerns, Trump heralded the qualifications of his cabinet using the same logic of proven market success. Moreover, he argued that a transactional business-driven approach encapsulated his entire philosophy of government and the ethos of his impending presidency, opining,

I think we have one of the great Cabinets ever put together. And we’ve been hearing that from so many people. People are so happy. You know, in the case of Rex, he ran incredibly Exxon Mobil. When there was a find, he would get it. When they needed something, he would be there. A friend of mine who’s very, very substantial in the oil business, Harold Hamm – big supporter – he said there’s nobody in the business like Rex Tillerson. And that’s what we want. That’s what I want to bring to government. I want to bring the greatest people into government, because we’re way behind. We don’t make good deals any more. I say it all the time in speeches. We don’t make good deals anymore; we make bad deals.

When Romney’s “you built it” narrative is viewed alongside Trump’s description of his presidential qualifications, there is a clear sense in which Trump’s pitch to the American people is a logical extension of Romney’s. In asserting that it is irrational or immoral to challenge whether the rich earned their wealth through merit, Romney implied that one’s net worth was evidence of expertise. By positing the government should be run like a business, Romney laid the groundwork for a presidential candidacy defined by the transactional logic of market exchange. And in suggesting that Obama’s “you didn’t build that” sound bite was government once again coercively claiming credit for the hard work of ordinary Americans to expand its power, Romney suggested that the state had a rotten core of corruption and coercion. In each case, Trump’s rhetoric is less a dramatic transformation in the meaning of conservatism and more a shift in the candidate’s narrative relationship to the audience, from the “you” of empathetic identification, to the “I” of authoritative embodiment.

Viewed from this perspective, Trump’s statements about immigration and free trade are less economic nationalism than outraged protest at the distortion of markets by other nations and the failure to respect the border as the rule of law. Small government “true conservatism” has always maintained a “night watchman” role for the state, and Trump’s protestations about China’s currency distortion and Mexico’s lack of respect for the northern border both fit squarely within this tradition. Bernard Harcourt, a professor of law at Columbia University, argues that a strong concept of the national security state underlies the notion of the “free market” as governance through the “spontaneous order” of individual self-interest. Harcourt argues the “invisible hand” theory maintains that,

In the economic domain, there exists a space that is governed by a certain inherent orderliness that should make us cautious about government interference; by contrast, the state has free rein outside that space to punish bypassers, the disorderly, those who don’t play by the game of the market, those who don’t respect the order of economic exchange (2011, pg. 48).

Much of Trump’s rhetoric about free trade and immigration is perfectly consistent with the notion of policing those who refuse to play the game of the market. Trump has argued that he is not against free trade itself, but instead believes that previous presidents either were corrupt and beholden to special interests, or lacked the business savvy to ensure the US and its workers get a fair deal that respects their right to compete. Rather than offering a principled critique of trade and globalization in and of themselves, Trump instead criticizes a lack of effective US trade leadership, which serves to reinforce the importance of his tremendous wealth and fame as evidence of his market acumen. Likewise, the concerns he raises about immigration are about a lack of “law and order” at the border, with concerns about the effects of immigrations on the wages of US workers coming in at a distant second. His solution, building a wall for which Mexico will have to pay, again emanates from the reciprocal logic of market exchange and requires the deft negotiating touch of a veteran real estate power player. The takeaway here is not that the problem with Trump is primarily economic, as opposed to white supremacist, nationalist, or Islamophobic. Instead, the juxtaposition of Trump and Romney’s speeches illustrates that Trump’s expressions of white supremacy, Islamophobia, and nationalism are perfectly compatible with “true conservatism’s” belief in small government, market-based meritocracy, despite protestations to the contrary.

But what about Trump’s defense of raising the minimum wage, expanding infrastructural investment, and improving access to health care? In important ways, however, these issues are not in-synch with the basic thrust of the Trump campaign, which was centered less on a raft of targeted policy proposals and more on the mystique of the “The Art of the Deal.” As Nate Silver pointed out in September 2015, “Trump is largely campaigning on the force of his personality,” a claim evidenced by the fact that his campaign website listed only “immigration” as a policy position nearly three full months after he had announced his candidacy. Harry Enten noted after the 2016 election that Americans, “probably know less about what the Trump administration will be like than any incoming administration in modern American history.” Nearly 100 days into the presidency, Trump’s emphasis on a purely transactional, force-of-personality driven approach to governance has continued to dominate, leading Debra Saunders of Real Clear Politics to remark that, “More than any ideology, Trump values winning itself — whether the contest is over ratings, poll numbers, crowd size or the claim that he gets things done. This president is no ideologue; he’s transactional.”  While Saunders is right that the core of Trump’s presidency is his personality rather than a specific policy platform, the notion that a president driven by TV ratings and negotiating leverage lacks ideology misses the mark. By treating his brand as the central preoccupation of government, Trump embodies one of conservative ideology’s central themes: government should be run like a business. The incoherence of Trump’s policy proposals and his occasional gestures towards economic populism are best interpreted as the expression of a market-oriented governing philosophy in which anything and everything is up for negotiation and winning is the only goal.

“Alright,” the reader might argue, “but what does it matter if Trump’s presidency is a fundamental transformation of conservativism, or the logical extension of its principles?” While this debate might appear semantic, it determines whether Trump himself or conservatism writ large are the Left’s primary concern. If conservatism spawned Trump, then effective opposition to Trump means delegitimizing the notion that the market is a “spontaneous order” produced by individual preference expression. Identifying Trump with conservatism means recognizing that his narcissistic obsession with “winning” and his purely transactional approach to governance are the perfect embodiment of Romney’s “you built it” campaign. It means refusing the allure of the “moderate center,” in which the state’s role is primarily restricted to correcting market failures or offering last-resort provision of social services. And it means recognizing that his authoritarian personality is not a deviation from small government conservatism, but the expression of its belief that entrepreneurs are, to quote the economist Philip Mirowski’s assessment, “the embodiment of the will-to-power for the community, who must be permitted to act without being brought to rational account” (2009, pg. 444).

To the extent that conservatives, ironically including Mitt Romney himself, believe that Trump is not a successful businessperson or that his wealth and fame are not deserved, they illustrate that their governing philosophy is grounded in a central contradiction. On the one hand, there is Romney’s line of argument, which posits that the market’s assessment of an individual’s contribution, merit, and ability is necessarily correct, as this assessment is the byproduct of self-interested decision-making by other individuals. Government redistribution, therefore, necessarily involves taking from the deserving and giving to the undeserving. The best government refuses to intervene in the market’s continuous assessment of individuals’ worth, leaving each individual to collect the rewards that reflect their just desserts. Therefore, businesspeople are best positioned to run the government since they respect the wisdom of allowing the market to determine each individual’s worth.

On the other hand, Trump’s pitch reflects Romney’s position. Trump argues that because he is tremendously wealthy and famous, he must possess incredible ability as a businessperson. If the government should be run like a business, than Trump’s expertise in business is directly translatable to expertise in government. Since Trump’s business model is predicated upon purely transactional logic married with aggressive self-branding, governing the country like a business means ensuring his presidency embodies this approach. Individuals possessing less wealth and fame than Trump are “losers,” who resentfully seek to harness the power of the government on behalf of the undeserving or to deepen their own pockets at the expense of ordinary Americans. There is nothing new in suggesting Trump’s presidential rhetoric contains authoritarian elements; what is more novel is the argument that Trump’s authoritarian personality is an embedded dimension of “true conservatism.” Leftist resistance to Trump, therefore, means challenging conservatism itself and the “I built it” logic on which it rests.

Harcourt, Bernard (2011). The Illusion of the Free Market, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mirowski, Philip (2009). “Postscript: Defining Neoliberalism,” in The Road From Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective. Ed. Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


CITE THIS: Sean Kennedy, “Trump The ‘True Conservative:’ Against the Radical Transformation Thesis.” The American Left 1, no. 1 (May, 2017).