The most significant aspect of President Trump's legacy will not be the border wall, which is never going to be built, or the Affordable Care Act, which will never be repealed, or NAFTA, the terms of our involvement in which he will not meaningfully alter, or even his combative personality, which is only the flipside of Barack Obama's nauseating kindergarten teacher routine. It is the end of what used to be called conservatism, which he precipitated, though he did not quite set it in motion.
What do I mean by "conservatism"? It has never been a rigorous concept. In Britain the word has long been synonymous with the Tories, now a moderate neoliberal party but once the defender of the interests of country squires, retired colonels, and Jane Austen vicars. Its most distinct characteristic, in the 18th century as today, has been an unabashed philistinism. (In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the head of MI6 blames "golfers and conservatives" for the rise of an incompetent colleague.)
On these shores its definition has been at once clearer and more diffuse. From the 1950s until the end of the Cold War, "conservatives" were a loose grouping of classical liberals, fuddy-duddy traditionalists (such as Russell Kirk, who, among other endearing commitments, opposed private ownership of automobiles), constitutionalists, and dedicated anti-Communists. In a very boring book that I have never read, a man called Frank Meyer referred to their alliance, which was very broadly against the Soviet Union rather than in favor of anything in particular, as "fusionism."
Conservative fusionism was a matter of concrete personalities and institutions. Magazines such as National Review and the much better-written American Spectator, politicians such as Barry Goldwater, popular books by Milton Friedman that were more often cited than read, opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and, eventually, to legal abortion, the Federalist Society, and other groups dedicated to promulgating a fetishistic reading of the text of the Constitution — these together comprised "conservatism" as it once existed.
More so even than George W. Bush, who, with the exception of a handful of writers associated with the American Conservative magazine, was criticized by conservatives for his best decisions — expanding Medicare — and praised for his worst — the epochal folly of the Iraq War — Trump divided conservatives. Many rejected him out of hand because he had previously supported single-payer health care and raising taxes on the wealthy. Others found him simply too vulgar. Many got what they were hoping for when he was rude to Sen. John McCain and they felt they had an excuse to write Trump off. Voters did not, generally speaking, care about McCain's feelings, nor did they mind very much when Trump dismissed conventional wisdom about entitlements and trade and Iraq and other issues about which conservatives had settled opinions — indeed, it was for this reason that they supported him.
Today the remnants of the former conservative movement are scattered. They simply have nothing in common with one another. First Things, the magazine founded by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus to promote cooperation between Catholics, Protestants, and Jews on questions of social importance and to defend liberal democracy, runs essays in support of monarchy and the establishment of the Catholic Church as the state religion and against free-market absolutism. Reason magazine thinks that the rights of pornographers and white supremacists are in need of safeguarding. The editors of National Review continue to expound idealist views about political economy that have as much to do with the concrete realities of the distribution of goods and services as a polite game of chess does with the Battle of Gettysburg. With no common enemy in the Soviet Union and no Democratic president threatening any of their overlapping, if not shared, priorities — the "sanctity" of marriage when no-fault divorce is available in all 50 states, the rights of tycoons to construct pipelines, the looming problem of a national debt that is never going to disappear — they have no reason to cooperate with one another.
How long will it be before the "conservative" label itself disappears?
Conservatism exists now mainly in the minds of its former enemies. In America today it does not matter if one supports single-payer health care, the nationalization of major industries (including banking and internet service providers), stricter environmental regulations, and higher taxes for the wealthy, opposes NAFTA, "right-to-work" legislation, monopolies, and payday lending. If you are against abortion, you are, for all practical purposes, a conservative. As Matthew Continetti put it recently, "In 21st century America culture and identity take precedence over economics, and it is in regards to culture and identity that the true break between left and right is found."
Probably it is too late, but regardless of the baggage, I think that "conservative" was really not such an undesirable appellation. The most wholesome political trends of the 20th century were not radical — like communism and fascism and neoliberalism — but modest and pragmatic programs of reform: the patrician trust-busting and welfare statism of the two Roosevelts, the toast and jam socialism of Clement Attlee, post-war Christian democracy in Europe, the High Tory paternalism of Harold Macmillan that found its transatlantic counterpart in the common sense and moderation of Eisenhower. All of these things were "conservative" while having nothing whatever to do with the intellectual movement with which they share an adjective.
Conservatism at its best was a temperament, not a body of writing or a set of policy prescriptions. It meant kindness and decency and good humor. It tended to involve a fondness for small and outdated and, very frequently, absurd things for their own sake. It rejected the windy meliorism that is the essence of liberalism. It was a repudiation of the Evil One, who, in the words of Cardinal Newman, promises "trade and wealth … knowledge, science, philosophy, enlargement of mind. He scoffs at times gone by; he scoffs at every institution which reveres them." The greatest conservative thinker of the last century was probably Fred Rogers.
At present there is no reason to believe that a post-conservative conservatism could go anywhere, not because there is no constituency for it — socially conservative and fiscally moderate to progressive describes the views of a majority of Americans — but because our two parties are beholden to their donors. I do not expect to vote for a pro-life socialist or anti-corporation Republican in my lifetime.
This is a shame. In my opinion, all political campaigns should be conducted with public funding. Expenditures should be strictly limited and campaigning should begin two weeks before political conventions that take place perhaps two months before Election Day. To get money out of politics we must first get politics out of it.
But this is a digression. It is also, frankly speaking, a pipe dream. Conservatism is dead and nothing of any consequence is likely to replace it any time soon.