In his instant classic of a cover story over at the Weekly Standard, Ben Shapiro offers a path for recruiting more young people into the conservative movement. He also ably examines the state of the generational divide within conservatism. Young conservatives are more individualistic and more libertarian as a rule, but most importantly for my purposes, they cannot understand why their older counterparts voted so readily for Donald Trump in 2016 – a candidate whom they saw as a net negative for conservatism.
My response to this conundrum involves an in-depth examination of why Trump won.
Yes, I know. Every political pundit worth their salt has already written their “why Trump happened” thinkpiece. What could I possibly have to add?
The common explanation for Trump’s victory hinges on the observation that a certain group of Americans (usually the white working class) voted for Trump based on fear of globalization and its effects. This seems accurate but lacking, an attempt to explain a social sea change through a primarily economic lens. If it were true, how would we explain the fervor for the culture war inherent in Trump’s base?
And here’s another question that no one wants to answer: was the broader anxiety and fear that led to Trump’s election in any way justified? Can the answer lead us to a solution that bridges the gap in the conservative movement caused by Trump?
I think that Donald Trump’s election emerged from a rooted, traditionally conservative impulse within the American populace. In fact, Trump would not have won the presidency without this conserving force behind him. Understanding the conservative nature of Trump’s election is fundamental to building common understanding between younger and older conservative generations.
Checks and Balances
America is a nation built by people who were suspicious of concentrated power. Our Constitution is a longform argument for the principle that authority must be diffused throughout society for human beings to flourish in their life, liberty, and property. No one area of government or sphere of social influence should be too mighty. To achieve this balance, our nation’s founders established both a threefold division of power in the federal government (executive, legislative, judicial) and a threefold division of power in the structure of national governance (federal, state, people).
But a mere balance of power is not enough. America is also a nation of checks. For the division of power founded by our founders to stand, every division must be able to check the excesses of the others, preventing any single sphere from gaining dominance over the others. Within the federal government, for instance, the judiciary may declare a legislative act unconstitutional, but the legislature may limit the judiciary’s jurisdiction and legal authority.
If these checks are neglected or ceded, the power balance is irreparably damaged. When a sphere of power finds a way to aggregate more authority to itself, it becomes difficult to remove it. The maintenance of our delicate national balance of power thus requires well-educated and virtuous citizens who understand its necessity.
At our nation’s founding the academy, the church, and the family provided education and nurture for most average Americans, imparting oceans of wisdom and moral value to rising generations. Political savant Alexis de Tocqueville called these social structures "mediating institutions” because they were located somewhere between public and private life. If America’s mediating institutions were healthy, anyone could gain the gumption, skills, and support necessary to climb the cultural ladder and live independent, free lives.
America’s founders thus understood that strong common virtue, taught and maintained by these mediating institutions, was absolutely necessary for individual liberty. The nation’s strength emerged from locality.
Progressivism Abhors A Balance
In contrast, the modern Left is dedicated to the religious ideology of progressivism, the doctrine that society must advance toward equality of result for all its members, and that expert-driven policymaking accomplished through government is the most expedient way to accomplish this progress.
This cultish faith leads the Left to see Americans not as people, but as members of disparate racial and ethnic groups that must be paternalistically aided by “those who know.” In service of this project, progressivism demands above all that mediating institutions – those great roots of liberty – must move or be moved.
Barack Obama was the first modern president to aggressively put this demand into practice. His eight years in office saw a herculean effort by the progressive Left to put the groupthink of identity politics into political effect. But the progressive project began far before him.
About fifty years ago, the Left kicked the great teardown of mediating institutions into overdrive. Due to these continued efforts, the academy became glutted with biased professors espousing historical revisionism and relative truth. The price of higher education correspondingly shot through the roof and public school systems nationwide continued a dramatic slide into the dumpster, despite continued increases in funding. Churches saw a sizable drop in attendance as religious adherents across the nation turned to apathy or atheism. Those Christians who remained faithful were vilified by activists who were then praised on morning shows and late-night talk programs for their so-called moral courage. And then there was the family. As the problem of absent fatherhood went unaddressed, the normalization of same-sex marriage and radical feminism by flashy cultural elites led to the inevitable result that the traditional family structure was no longer commonly viewed as uniquely good.
The evidence is overwhelming. Progressives do not reform mediating institutions. They obliterate their very character. It’s easier and faster. History must march on.
Americans watched the Left’s obliteration of the school, the church, and the family during Obama’s administration, and were justifiably terrified. Those mediating institutions that form the bedrock of liberty were not only under assault, but (they feared) in danger of being lost forever.
It turns out that when Americans feel threatened, they will fight for their liberty.
Donald Trump Is Like The Joker
I’m going to use a very bad analogy to explain what I mean. In The Dark Knight, the Gotham City mob hires the Joker to kill Batman. When he hears about the Joker’s methods, Batman remarks to his butler Alfred: “I knew the mob wouldn’t go down without a fight, but this is different. They’ve crossed a line.” Alfred responds: “You crossed the line first, sir. You squeezed them, you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand."
Alfred’s wisdom speaks to a larger truth about human nature. Push a group far enough, focus on breaking the structure they view as necessary for their continued survival, and that group will get desperate. And desperate people often look for a no-holds-barred fighter who will safeguard what remains.
The ascent of Donald Trump to the presidency occurred because a sizable portion of the American population became convinced that if Hillary Clinton won, the mediating institutions that formed the foundation of their freedom would be done for. Obama had dedicated the might of the ballooning federal government to destroying these institutions in the name of progressivism. Clinton indicated that she planned to do the same in order to drag America further downward.
Trump responded that America was headed in the wrong direction – and in that regard he agreed with the majority of Americans. He vowed to use the federal government not to destroy mediating institutions, but to protect them.
Despite significant skepticism, President Trump’s administration has followed through on these promises. Trump’s Secretary of Education has rescinded the previous administration’s transgender bathroom requirements and unconstitutional Title IX guidance while supporting school choice. The President himself has demonstrated far more openness to religious liberty than his predecessor, publicly acknowledged America’s Judeo-Christian heritage by holding conversations with faith leaders and moving America’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. And as for the family, Trump delivered an unprecedented statement at the March for Life while his administration advocated for tax cuts to help Americans economically and has thus far refused to use federal power as a cudgel to force compliance with any ideological view of marriage.
In 2016, I believe that Trump’s voters were operating out of the conservative desire to protect mediating institutions. They found the most belligerent and bombastic man they could and gave him command, hoping that he could put a dent in the progressive line. Some acknowledged the risks inherent in Trump’s gleefully immoral personality; some simply did not care. Regardless, the motive was the same. Individual liberty and a healthy nation cannot be sustained without robust mediating institutions. Those institutions were undoubtably dying. Trump’s central campaign promise was to fight against those who most wanted to see them crumble and return them to nationwide prominence – he would make America great again.
The decay of our mediating institutions gave us Donald Trump – both the President our profligate society deserves and the counterpuncher with a governing mandate to protect what is left of it. America must take this time to rebuild our mediating institutions, not give into continued progressive pressure or the constant buzz surrounding Trump’s every tweet and comment. If conservatives – and more broadly, Americans – can reach this common understanding, we can realize the unexpected opportunity laid out before us.