istorians will have many questions to answer for the past four years: how Donald Trump became president of United States, how American influence on the world changed, and how Trump altered the future of American politics. No doubt that many will tie Trump’s legacy to COVID-19. But Trump’s greatest legacy will not lie with the pandemic. Rather, it will be that Trump held the most powerful political office not as a conservative or liberal, but as a populist demagogue—moving the Republican Party away from conservatism in the process.
For almost four decades, the conservative movement in the United States had been defined by one man: Ronald Reagan. Reagan held values close to traditional conservatives’ hearts: patriotism, limited government, free markets and the sanctity of the constitution. For followers of Reaganism, the latter was sacrosanct. The nation’s forefathers had been guided by a set of core principles, and such principles would later become the framework for governing the United States. Trump’s Presidency, however, cannot be said to have been in adherence to any one of them. As Michael Oakshott once said: “To be a conservative…is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery…the limited to the unbounded.” If this is true conservatism, then the Trump Administration has fallen far from that standard.
It has been on the economy that Trump has shown the greatest break with traditional conservative values. Conservatives long believed in the free market, free trade and limited government intervention. Fiscal cautiousness, along with the reduction of debts and national deficits were also core economic values. But Trump slapped tariffs on imports during his trade war with China, used anti-trust laws to investigate his political enemies, created problems for business by banning large amounts of their workforces from entering the United States, and increased the national deficit. Trump was no free-marketer during his time as president; he was a bastion of state intervention.
The greatest example laid with TikTok. Rather than embracing freedom of contract over state paternalism, Trump forced TikTok to sell ByteDance Ltd, its Chinese parent company, to an American Big Tech competitor. Indeed, Trump instead established a vague connection between TikTok and the Chinese Communist Party. In the end, Trump became guilty of the very thing the United States had long accused China of: excessive statism.
Trump’s economic actions were radical, not conservative. But it is important to understand the contextual shift through which the Trump movement operated. In the presidential debates, Trump had argued that American jobs had been lost, that the economy needed to be rebuilt for working people, and that a decline in wages had been a result of the concentration of wealth overseas. The Trumpian economic viewpoint was summarised in his rhetorical question to black voters back in 2016: “What the hell do you have to lose [in voting Republican]?”
The Trump movement, and the Republican Party with it, therefore retained an element of scepticism towards traditional conservative economic values. A step was taken away from the dogma of free market philosophies, and towards greater state intervention. Senator Marco Rubio was a key example. Pushing for “common-good capitalism”, Rubio demanded from the market more than just short-term financial gain, but assistance for families, workers and communities. For many of Trump’s “new wave Republicans”, the message was simple: conservatives had become overly infatuated with the free-market, too committed to free-trade and globalisation, and had ignored the practical impacts on Americans in the process. Trump packaged such concerns not with socialist critiques of capitalism, but a philosophy that combined weak elements of conservatism with populism and ethno-nationalism. Core elements of capitalist economics were retained, and the enemy became Mexican traders and Chinese currency manipulators.
Of course, this is not to suggest that Trump did anything significant to stem the growing inequality in America’s economy. That is a separate debate. Rather, it is to show that Trump broke with conservative tenants of free markets and free-trade, taking the Republican Party along with him.
Trump’s dissonance with conservative values of limited government equally manifested themselves in his propensity for executive orders. Once decrying their use as a “basic disaster”, Trump used more orders in his first 100 days than Obama (19), George W. Bush (11) and even Lyndon Johnson (26). Limited government had long been consigned a myth under the Trump Administration. Trump overrode governor’s decisions to send federal forces into their states during the racial unrest of 2020, undertook a flirtation with self-pardons and even attempted to regulate private media companies that attempted to challenge him.
Yet values of laissez-faire economics are but one part of conservatism. The other main principle includes the recognition of the sanctity of the constitution. But Trump’s tirades against the constitution during his 100 days in office included claims that the system of checks and balances on his power were “archaic”, “something really bad for the country” and a “very rough system.” The constitution has found its most avid and loyal supporters to be conservatives. In the words of the Heritage Foundation, the Washington based conservative think-tank: “One would be pressed to name a single book written from a conservative perspective critical of the constitution, or rejects any of its fundamental principles.” Trump, by that measure, would be far from conservative. A constitution defiler would be more accurate.
The story of Donald Trump will ultimately be one of demagoguism. Trump represented a new breed of politician, fit for a 21st century plagued by growing inequality, a rising far-right, challenges to democracy and rampant ethno-nationalism. The challenge for the Republican Party after Trump’s demise will be to re-evaluate its relationship with conservatism.