The forgotten etymology of “conservatism” lies in its hardly hidden first two syllables—to “conserve”—so when the Republican Party underwent its lurching metamorphosis from its commitments to constitutionalism, free trade, and chivalry to royalism, protectionism, and vulgarity, the news was not that George F. Will, conservative, stood still. It was that, in the terms of conservatism’s father Edmund Burke, the Republican Party may no longer constitute, properly speaking, a party at all. It is at risk of reverting to the primordial state of “faction” from which Burke rescued what he called the practice of political “connection.”
“Connexions in politics,” Burke wrote—that is, friendships among politicians for common purpose—were natural and necessary but also “accidentally liable to degenerate into faction.” In his famed definition: “Party is a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.”
For Burke, friendships form in the crucible of these principles’ pursuit; hence his rejection of “the cant of Not men but measures. . . .” But the principles remain the object, and commitment to principles as opposed to power distinguishes party from faction.
The acid test for this distinction was the loss of power: A group that cohered in opposition was a party, one that disintegrated without the cement of power was a faction.
The reason power presented such a test was that in Burke’s time, it conferred manifestations of personal interest like lucrative executive posts. Only the man willing to forgo these allures could credibly claim to be leaving a party on principle, while only those willing to maintain political connections while out of power could plausibly claim the mantle of a party dedicated to ideals as opposed to a faction devoted to interest. Thus Burke:
[W]hen a gentleman with great visible emoluments abandons the party in which he has long acted, and tells you, it is because he proceeds upon his own judgement; that he acts on the merits of the several measures as they arise; and that he is obliged to follow his own conscience, and not that of others; he gives reasons which it is impossible to controvert, and discovers a character which it is impossible to mistake. What shall we think of him who never differed from a certain set of men until the moment they lost their power, and who never agreed with them in a single instance afterwards?
The Trump phenomenon presents this scenario in reverse: The test is not the sacrifice of abandoning power but rather the seduction of acquiring it. If the “connections” that knit Republicans together in the pursuit of power make the institution a party and not a faction, they should be rooted in the same principles that united the GOP in opposition. They are manifestly not.
Consider Mike Huckabee’s flailing riposte to Will, which demonstrates, inter alia, that Trump has normalized the use of the exclamation point as a persuasive form. “Don’t,” Huckabee tells Will, as though the exceedingly folksy former Governor invented the expression, “let the door whack you in the behind as you leave!” His essay, if it can be called that, is a paean to the “little people” (no, seriously) whom he fears are being condescended to by the likes of Will even as Huckabee crashingly condescends to them with exaggerated, one-dimensional idioms that fairly scream of alliteration-by-means-of-thesaurus: “Grits-eating, gravy-slathering.” “Wussy, wobbly and weak country.” And, by the way, “It’s a free country.” Please: Where I grew up someone who wrote like this would have been immediately treated like the northern interlopers who asked for forks for brisket.
The principles Huckabee offers, if they can be called that, have long been anathema to the Republican Party, protectionism, populism and isolationism among them. The ultimate justification is to “stop ‘Hellary’ [get it?] from continuing the slide of this nation into the abyss.”
There is a deranged strain of exceptionalism in this catastrophizing line of argument. It is also uniquely unconservative, the unvarying predicate to the demand for power in order to correct the crisis being proclaimed. The exceptionalism involved is the conceit that this moment in history—not the burning of Washington, not the Civil War, nor the World Wars nor the Great Depression nor 9/11 but our moment, right now, the administration of Barack Obama—represents the “slide into the abyss.”
This is historical narcissism—my moment is the moment, and all moments have been leading to it—and it is a power grab, pure and simple. The Anti-Federalist Centinel was wrong when he warned voters considering ratification of the Constitution that things were not so bad under the Articles of Confederation, but he was dead right that the rhetoric of crisis was “the argument of tyrants.”
Tyrants seek power for its sake, not for principle’s. That is the contemporary “emolument.” If Republicans support Donald Trump for the sake of the “R” he has compiled sufficient delegates to place by his name, they are the very definition of a Burkean faction.
But, Laura Ingraham warns George Will, policies are at stake. This is certainly true. A Hillary Clinton presidency will be different from a Donald Trump one. With respect to trade, it may be more conservative; with respect to foreign affairs, it may be more globally engaged. With respect to immigration, it would be more open. With respect to social policy, it would be more liberal, at least if the current iterations of Clinton and Trump, respectively, are to be believed.
Burke’s distinction between parties and factions challenges Republicans to recalibrate for the long game. They can, in Will’s phrase, “grit their teeth” for four years in opposition to avoid soiling, with a permanent stain to which their names will be justly attached, the chair where Lincoln sat. Burke’s Whigs endured opposition for 16 years.
Objectionable measures will doubtless ensue. They would not be irreversible. The stain—the introduction not just of rank but of prosperous demagoguery to the presidential office—would be.
Thoughtful critics who have resigned themselves to Trump focus most often on the long-range consequences of a Clinton presidency, which would, to be sure, likely witness at least three, perhaps more, vacancies on the Supreme Court. Fair enough.
But this means degrading the Presidency for the sake of a Supreme Court that, on conservatives’ own constitutional premises, will not be able to resist the persistent electoral majorities that will be forged if the Republican Party is generationally discredited by the participation of its entire institutional leadership in the Trumpian farce.
Even short of that, the Court argument assumes that Trump, who was pro-choice before he was pro-life, pro-outsourcing before he was protectionist and thought Hillary Clinton was the best Secretary of State in history before he thought she was felonious, means what he says about anything, and, to boot, possesses the constitutional judgment to choose reliably originalist justices.
Of course, the argument goes, even if he lacks it, the good sense of the institutional Republican Party will constrain him, a premise that assumes the party’s leaders like principles more than they like power, especially as the latter is embodied in the Presidency. That premise is being tested with the application of acid now. The results are in: In Burkean terms, the Republican Party risks becoming the Republican Faction.