It has been widely reported that the party of Reagan has become the party of Trump, and that this represents a major political shift. Some say a momentous quake in the zeitgeist, or a major political realignment. Is it, really?
Recently, Teflon-Don called upon “both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth.” Earlier this year, he promised that “…we’re going to have insurance for everybody…” and that “…there was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it… that’s not going to happen with us.”
Trump is not an advocate for the free market, or limited government, or individual rights. He promotes economic nationalism. He wants to clamp down on immigration. He refuses to cut social security and medicare. Reagan fans remember when he asked the Soviets to tear down the Berlin Wall. Trump groupies swoon when the Donald tells them he will a build a wall. On the surface, Trump appears to be a divergence from the traditional Republican, a misshapen defect that somehow made it through the Reaganite, GOP assembly line.
Many Reaganites think this is true. Consider David Brooks at the New York Times, a typical conservative specimen. In a recent column, he argues that “the old Reagan conservatism was economic individualism restrained by social and religious traditionalism,” and that “Trumpism is all about protection, security and order.” For Brooks, “healthy American political philosophies balance individualism and collectivism, personal freedom and communal cohesion…”
In other words, it is “healthy” to compromise your principles and pragmatically endorse individual rights only when it is convenient to do so. The individual is self-made, except when he must serve his community. The individual is free to produce and trade, except when tradition demands he sacrifice. The individual has reason, except on Sundays when he defers to religious dogma.
Brooks rationalizes his pragmatism, but leftist commentator Bryce Covert is more forthright. In her column on the subject she points out that even Paul Ryan, supposedly a principled advocate for limited government, defines freedom as “..the ability to buy what you want to fit what you need.”
She explains that “Conservatives are typically proponents of negative liberty: the freedom from constraints and impediments” and that “…Mr. Ryan inadvertently revived an idea that desperately needs to be resuscitated — the idea that freedom requires not just a lack of barriers, but also the conditions that allow people to live their lives fully.” “Deprivation,” she concludes, “is a constraint on Americans’ freedom.”
Covert is partially correct in her assessment: Ryan’s approach to freedom leads ultimately to statism. Where she goes wrong is in expecting Ryan to properly defend freedom in the first place.
In any war of ideas, the most consistent side will emerge victorious. As Ayn Rand once remarked, “there are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.”
The proper defense for political and economic freedom rests ultimately in ethics, an area that pragmatists like Brooks and Ryan are unable to broach honestly or consistently. One cannot defend capitalism and limited government without acknowledging their moral base: individual rights. Instead, Republicans implicitly endorse the altruism celebrated openly by the left and attempt to rationalize the contradictions that follow. In doing this they undercut the moral defense of capitalism and ultimately help their enemies expand state power.
So have Republicans changed? Sure, they have become more consistent. Too bad it is in the wrong direction.