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The rise of Donald J. Trump over the past 12 months has impacted almost every area of American political life. But nowhere is his impact more apparent than on the culture of American Conservatism – the political right; a culture that was – prior to the billionaire’s rise – ostensibly united in thought and action, but which has since split into combatant political blocs.
On one side of this divide is the Paleo Right (PR), Trump’s own favoured niche, which stresses what is good for the American Republic itself over what is good for the world. On the other is the Neo Right (or neoconservative right), which stresses more the cause of liberty and democracy abroad than the condition of America at home. These two camps have sat awkwardly together for over two decades now. It was always inevitable that they would split. It just so happens that the chisel is Trump-shaped.
Both schools of thought have much to recommend them. The Neo Right has played a vital role in preserving the Pax Americana against the threats of Islamism, Communism and Dictatorship. Israel, Japan, Ukraine and Georgia, as well as many other democratic states in undemocratic neighbourhoods rely on the American Neo Right for their prosperity and security. Democrats in non-democratic countries look to the NR for moral and financial support. The net effect of the Neo Right is positive. Few conservative movements have been so charitably international.
The Paleo Right, meanwhile, has safe-guarded (or where they have failed, attempted to safeguard) the uniqueness of America, battling against moral and social subversion from within, and maintaining America’s spirit of patriotism and peculiarity. They are motivated by core social issues like abortion, gay marriage, keeping prayer and the pledge of allegiance in public schools, the need to defend the sacredness of the Star-Spangled Banner, and so on. Foreign affairs is to them a secondary concern, if a concern at all. They tend to favour a non-interventionist policy in regard to the Middle East, even while being generally supportive of Israel and other pro-Western regimes. Paleo rightists objected (and were right to object) to the war in Iraq, and have no desire to repeat the experiment with Iraq’s elephantine neighbour. They favour a strong, advanced military, but believe the army should be retained for life and death confrontations, as opposed to constabulary duties. Many Paleos also nurture an obsession with civil liberties, viewing the US government as semi-tyrannical and bloated out of constitutional design. On this matter, too, they are providing a vital voice of caution which all should heed.
As I said, it is a wonder how these two inclinations managed to sit politely together for so long. Now that they have parted, it seems unlikely they will re-unite any time soon. If Donald Trump clinches the White House, the Paleos will have control over the GOP for the next 4 to 8 years.
Neo Rightists are not taking this development well. Fox News – which despite its tangential forays into abortion and homosexuality – is a solidly Neo Right entity, has been thrown into a frenzied identity crisis. The over-publicised ‘spat’ between Donald Trump and Fox Anchor Megan Kelly is just a symptom of the underlying divide. Fox, just like every other part of the conservative establishment, is uncomfortable with Trump’s candidacy and secretly wishes to stall or destroy it.
Fox coverage of candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz has been tainted with bias from the very beginning. With the partial exception of Sean Hannity, most anchors have treated Trump with rubber gloves, as if handling radioactive waste. Trump was never being paranoid or irrational in protesting this treatment.
The Neo Right is substantially more powerful than the Paleo Right in material terms. Most conservative TV networks are Neo Right, as are most Think Tanks, magazines and newspapers. This is the legacy of the long period of uncontested domination of the conservative universe by academic, economic and intellectual elites that is now being ripped to pieces by the Trumpsters. This is why (to the untrained eye) Trump supporters appear to be ‘anti-intellectual’. If the conservative era is to switch from Neo to Paleo, there is a lot of hierarchy to tear down in the process. This is intellectual and ideological regime change. It was always going to be messy.
How valid are Neo Right objections to Donald Trump? Let’s go through a few of them.
Charge 1: Donald Trump is insufficiently supportive of the State of Israel.
On the subject of the Middle East, Donald Trump has said he thinks it unhelpful to frame the conflict as being between ‘a good guy and a bad guy’. Whilst I disagree with the spirit of this quotation (Hamas certainly qualifies as a ‘bad guy’ in my opinion), it seems more rooted in a sense of fairness and pragmatism, than in any bad will towards the Israelis or Zionism. Trump’s beloved daughter Ivanka is Jewish (by conversion) and Trump has spoken of her adopted ethnicity with pride and understanding. There is no direct evidence that Mr Trump has an anti-Semitic bone in his body. Rumours about his keeping Hitler’s collected speeches by his bedside have never been corroborated outside of delirious chat-rooms. Until they are, we should treat them much like we treat rumours that the Earth is a pancake.
Pro-Israel donors obviously prefer Marco Rubio because he is so malleable. Rubio will do whatever his backers tell him to do. This is not meant as an anti-Semitic dog-whistle. It is a fact of politics that donors influence policy, and not only foreign policy. The Koch Brothers, as the left never stops bleating on about, have enormous influence over social and economic issues. Donors – of all varieties – hate Trump because they can’t buy him. Donors also invest in media networks. Media networks hate Trump because they are told to. I adore America. But let’s call a spade a spade here. Trump is battling against a corrupt political establishment.
Charge 2: Donald Trump is not pro-free market.
Donald Trump has stated his determination to bring back manufacturing jobs from Asia and Mexico. When asked how he intends to accomplish this, the GOP front-runner explains that he will impose taxes on US companies that outsource jobs. This is not a violation of the free-market, nor of the regular rules of capitalism. It is a common sense measure to maintain prosperity for the American working class. It is also no different to what China and Mexico have done for several decades without American complaint.
Charge 3: Donald Trump is anti-mass immigration.
Guilty as charged. Donald Trump has been admirably clear on the subject of open borders. He opposes the idea, top to bottom. He wants to build a wall, and make Mexico pay for that wall. He wants to put a freeze on Muslims entering the United States. He also wants to deport the illegal immigrants already resident in the country, only allowing to return those who have clean criminal records and a professional command of English. This should be the default conservative position. No objections to this policy make for any sense.
The Neo Right’s love of open borders isn’t quite treachery, but it is moral and ideological confusion. Yes, Muslim immigration should be avoided as a special case, but this doesn’t mean the entire non-Muslim world is suitable for Western settlement. We have a good thing going here in the Western, Modern world. Allowing in people from regressive or intolerant cultures (of which Islam is only one example) is counter-productive. It jeopardizes what is precious to us.
Other objections to Trump by the Neo Right are similar to those made by the Political Left. The idea that Trump is akin to Mussolini is wildly popular on both sides of the ideological aisle. What evidence is there to support this idiotic claim? Some point to the enthusiasm whipped up at Trump rallies, but then if this is a crime, we’d better convict the Dallas Cowboys, Manchester United and Oprah Winfrey while we’re at it.
People are so refreshed by Trump’s style that they are overjoyed by his message. Joy is not an offence. Emotion might be rare at formulaic rallies with tedious politicians, but Trump is anything but formulaic or tedious. There is real contagious enthusiasm being generated by this man. Politics is being rejuvenated.
The patronising distaste with which the media and economic elite view the pleasures and aspirations of ordinary people is scandalous. People are people. Americans are Americans. All deserve to be heard, appreciated and spoken to, whatever their race, faith or economic category.
If Donald Trump wins the nomination, the Republican Party will never be the same again. The Neo-Con racket – the art of calling oneself a conservative whilst being left-wing on everything except foreign policy – will have been exposed and replaced with a straight-shooting honesty more in line with the fine history of the Grand Old Party.