Does the election of Donald Trump qualify as a triumph of American conservatism? No, for the simple reason that Trump subscribes to few of the values that conservatives (and by extension the Republican Party) have for decades touted as core principles.
So although the GOP will now control the presidency and both houses of Congress, gaining power has come at a high cost: The party faithful must now declare their fealty to a leader whose convictions, to the extent that any can be identified, are all over the map. In effect, Republicans must now pretend that incoherence and inconsistency are virtues. Rallying to Trump requires conservatives to engage in voluntary acts of self-debasement, all presumably contributing to the overarching goal of “draining the swamp.”
Yet if Trump’s unexpected triumph is, therefore, rich with contradictions, Hillary Clinton’s defeat is precisely what it seems to be: a rejection not only of the Democratic Party but of contemporary American liberalism.
Democrats today may see themselves as heirs to a progressive tradition that traces its lineage back to Franklin Roosevelt, or even to Williams Jennings Bryan. But that does not describe the Democratic Party that elevated Hillary Clinton to the position of standard bearer. Mrs. Clinton bears no more resemblance to Bryan, the Great Commoner, than does Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.
Once upon a time, progressivism meant standing up for the little guy against what another Roosevelt once called “the malefactors of great wealth.” Those days have long since passed. The version of progressivism represented by Clinton and her allies accommodates present-day malefactors. Rather than confronting class enemies, it glosses over competing class interests.
True, on the far left, vestiges of an earlier and more radical progressivism persist. We saw it in the primary challenge mounted by Bernie Sanders. We hear it in the language of Elizabeth Warren. We can expect to hear more of that language in the days ahead.
But in the party that chose Hillary Clinton as its nominee, radicalism qualifies as no more than a fringe phenomenon. While paying lip service to the idea of “toppling” the 1 percent, Clinton herself identifies with and assiduously courted members of the moneyed elite. They are her kind of people. In that regard, if ever a picture were worth a thousand words, it’s the photograph of both Clintons happily posing alongside Donald Trump at Trump’s third wedding. It shows a couple at ease with their surroundings, knowing that they are where they belong.
YET APART FROM an affinity for wealth, status, and celebrity, what is the essence of Clinton-style liberalism? As during her husband’s presidency, it centers on a theory of political economy. In a paid speech to Brazilian bankers prior to launching her run for the presidency, Hillary Clinton remarked, “My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere.”
Critics jumped on this passage as proof that Clinton intends to permit hordes of undocumented immigrants to flood the United States. It is, instead, a concise summary of the worldview to which leading Democrats subscribe, albeit with this caveat: The scope of that dream is not hemispheric, but global. The Democratic establishment’s commitment to openness encompasses not only trade and borders, but also capital and ideas, all flowing without disruption. Raised a Methodist, Hillary Clinton has long since followed the mainstream of her party by putting her faith in globalization.
To be sure, her belief in the transformative effects of globalization is unexceptional. On such matters, she merely parrots conventional wisdom. That removing barriers to technology-charged corporate capitalism will generate wealth on an unprecedented scale has long since become an article of faith everywhere from Washington to Wall Street to Silicon Valley. That given proper oversight these forces will also alleviate problems of inequality, injustice, and environmental degradation, while advancing the cause of world peace – all boats everywhere eventually rising -- is liberalism’s addendum to globalization’s common creed.
Since the end of the Cold War, the American political establishment has committed itself to validating such expectations. This has become the overarching theme of national politics, successive administrations, occasionally differing on specifics, all adhering to the so-called Washington Consensus. From the first Clinton to the second Bush and then on to Barack Obama, each in turn has used American power and influence to pry open the world so that people, goods, and capital can move ever more freely.
Each administration in turn has ignored or downplayed evidence that openness is not a win-win proposition. Along with riches for some have come market crashes, painful recessions, joblessness for citizens hard-pressed to adapt to the rigors of a changing market, and resistance from those opposed to the cultural amalgamation that trails in globalization’s wake. Even so, proponents of this ideology remained undeterred.
With its putative “logic” so deeply embedded in the fabric of American politics, globalization appeared – at least until November 8 -- immune to challenge. Submission to the dictates of a globalizing marketplace appeared all but obligatory, with alternatives such as socialism or distributism or any other -ism rendered inconceivable and therefore not worthy of serious consideration.
Lost along the way were expectations that furthering the common good or promoting human virtue, not simply expanding the economic pie, might figure among the immediate aims of political economy. On the weekend before Election Day, Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times that “technocratic and secular liberalism may simply not be satisfying to a fragmented, atomized society.” He got that right. Indeed, he might have gone further: the technocratic and secular liberalism embodied by Hillary Clinton has actually exacerbated the fragmentation and the atomization of society, even if elites (until now) were slow to take notice.
In the run-up to the 2016 election, observers without number described it as the most important in recent memory, if not in all of U.S. history. In fact, however, a Hillary Clinton victory, assumed as all but automatic, would have drained the election of significance.
Clinton’s supporters looked forward to the prospect of the first woman president as an achievement of cosmic importance. Of course, a half-century ago many attributed comparable significance to the election of our first Catholic president. Yet note that today John Kennedy’s religious affiliation figures as little more than a footnote to his presidency. So too, I suspect, the novelty of having a woman in charge of the White House would have worn off within weeks. At that point, rather than the president’s gender, the been-there, done-that quality of her thinking would have attracted notice.
In that respect, rather than a turning point, installing a second Clinton in the White House would have constituted a postponement of sorts, Americans kicking four years further down the road any recognition of just how bland and soulless their politics had become.
Now that Trump has won, however, the pre-election hyperbole might actually prove justified. The United States finds itself suddenly adrift in uncharted waters. As of January of next year, the captain on the bridge will be unlicensed and unqualified. We may hope that he masters his responsibilities before running the ship aground. In the meantime, the rough seas ahead might provide an incentive for liberals and conservatives alike to give a fresh look to some of those ideological alternatives that we just might have discarded prematurely.