Over at First Things, a manifesto was recently published that proclaimed that the old “conservative consensus” was dead and that space has been created by Donald Trump’s victory for a better form of conservatism. The authors of the manifesto are right about the demise of the old conservative consensus; there are many studies and public opinion polls that demonstrate that the political right in the United States now embraces many of the policy positions of President Donald Trump. However, while they are right about this change in the values of this newly emerging conservatism in the United States they—surprisingly and rather disturbingly—appear to believe these changes may very well be positive!
On the matter of nationalism, the manifesto works hard to blend Trumpian ideals with the aims of a certain illiberal conservative Catholic political mindset. Ultimately, this approach is morally objectionable and stands in conflict with Catholic social teaching. Meanwhile, their assumptions about Trump’s policies or the space he has created through his election are disconnected from reality. President Trump’s administration is not a true ally of Catholics—neither those with a reasonable understanding of Catholic social teaching nor even those trying to create a more reactionary alternative understanding.
In the manifesto, the signatories praise what they call the “new nationalism” that opposes “open borders.” They maintain that Americans ought to show allegiance and devotion to Americans above all others. There is a palpable anti-immigrant mentality behind these appeals and the simplistic dualities they set up. Their nationalistic desires have certainly been aided by the rise of Trump’s nationalism.
Of course, it flies in the face of the Church’s commitment to global and international solidarity and institutions. And it comes at a time when US Bishops from across the political spectrum have acted in unison against Trump’s xenophobic, grossly immoral immigration policies. The Trumpian pseudo-Catholic conservatism of these “new nationalists” (who do not signify any way they are different from the other ‘America First’ nationalists of today or last century) stands in opposition to the Christian call to universal brotherhood and sisterhood. The social teachings of the Catholic Church teach us that governance, citizenship, and political life should always be directed toward the common good. We are obligated to put the common good above our selfish interests and stand with the most vulnerable in society because of our principle of solidarity. As Catholics, we have an obligation towards the poor, the vulnerable, the disabled, and religious and ethnic minorities. And we have a responsibility to welcome the stranger, including vulnerable migrants who are fleeing abject poverty and violence.
Catholic social teaching emphasizes the importance of strong community. Solidarity is the name we give for what weaves us together in community. This community, however, does not stop at the borders. We are not defined by where we were born or where we live—the principle of solidarity transcends boundaries. As Saint Pope John Paul II wrote: “We are all one family in the world” (Sollicitudo rei socialis). Pope Emeritus Benedict also argued that people must go beyond seeing people in other countries as mere neighbors—that we must be united in fraternity. This is not the globalism of elites on private jets but the globalism of a religion that is catholic (universal). And the Church’s teaching is not optional, something to grab or ignore in line at the cafeteria.
Yet the authors of the manifesto clearly reject the call to solidarity and concern for the global common good. They embrace a worldview where only the people who live within our politically-drawn boundaries are part of our extended family. They see the international community as dangerous to the American way of life. The pope speaks from the heart of the faith when he encourages us to build bridges instead of walls, but they want walls. The negative reference to multiculturalism may point to a Steve Bannon-style culture warrior stance of opposing “the other” because they might destroy the fabric of the American way of life.
Beyond this clear rejection of Catholic teaching, it is not clear why they think many of the other ideals they advocate can be better served in this new Trump Era than by past conservatives. Will President Trump’s administration produce a conservatism with a much greater commitment to defending human dignity? Do Trump’s policies really help American workers who have been neglected, helping to foster a conservatism focused on such folks? They also desire a conservatism that challenges “the soulless society of individual affluence” and believe that:
Our society must not prioritize the needs of the childless, the healthy, and the intellectually competitive. Our policy must accommodate the messy demands of authentic human attachments: family, faith, and the political community. We welcome allies who oppose dehumanizing attempts at “liberation” such as pornography, “designer babies,” wombs for rent, and the severing of the link between sex and gender.
Does that sound like the conservatism arising from Trump’s victory? Trump is obsessed with money and power. He has mocked those with disabilities. He tried to strip tens of millions of Americans of their health insurance.
Is he strengthening our political community? He has downplayed Russia’s repeated attacks on American democracy and backed voter suppression efforts. Is he a friend of religion? The Trump administration is definitely no friend to religious freedom or diverse political communities. As a candidate, and as President, he called for a Muslim Ban. He raised the specter of a Muslim registry. He has proposed gross violations of religious liberty for religious minorities by using the power of the United States government to close down mosques and places of worship that he deems “un-American.”
How about opposing pornography and the culture that makes it so popular? I’m not sure how a man who is caught on tape admitting to sexual assault, who dehumanizes women by publicly rating them on a 1-10 hotness scale, and has had affairs with porn stars can be seen as an ally of people who want to eradicate pornography. They claim to “reject attempts to compromise on human dignity.” It is not clear how Trump’s presidency will help conservatism be more focused on promoting human dignity—assuming that one regards women as human beings with dignity.
Is Trump really turning away from investors and “job creators” and making it easier to create a conservatism that benefits workers? He has passed regressive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and the largest corporations, while undoing critical economic regulations and safeguards. These policies are designed to help those at the very top while abandoning normal American workers, the vulnerable, and the needy. His administration has done everything it could to empower corporate greed and exacerbate inequality.
Beyond this inability to explain how the Trump administration is creating space for the various principles they favor (besides their nationalism), an even greater failure may be their inability to recognize that the election of Donald Trump and his administration’s corruption and incompetence are a clear distress signal. The election of President Trump should signal to all political observers that there is dysfunction at the heart of American politics. The American political system is spiraling downward not turning a corner.
The election of Donald Trump was an attempted firebombing of the American political system by those who felt that today’s diverse, multicultural, and globalized world is hostile to their preferred way of life—one tainted by sexism, racism, and xenophobia (not merely economic anxiety). This is not the time to rejoice at the possibilities of how conservative Catholics can use the Trumpian conservative movement to advance their causes; this is the time for deep introspection and self-examination. How might each of us have contributed to the election of an incompetent, immoral, egotistical political neophyte whose core supporters seem to nihilistically relish nothing more than “triggering the libs”? Before exploring a better way forward, these conservatives must realize the gravity of our current situation and how we got here. Otherwise, they may continue to entertain the delusion that the Trump Era is opening the door to a better conservatism.