For the next four years Donald J. Trump, as President of the United States, will be the most influential and high-profile conservative in the world. This, for conservatism as a whole, is a disaster. For humanity as a whole of course it could be even worse, but plenty has been written on this already by more able writers. If Trump’s brand of authoritarian, prejudice and quasi-democratic politics is allowed to define and transform the conservative movement then this movement will no longer be a positive force in world politics. This means the next four years are going to see an intense battle, most pronounced in America, for control of the conservative brand and party apparatus. It’s a battle which ‘traditional’ conservatives, by which I mean those who subscribe to liberal-democratic-capitalist values, must win over their authoritarian and populist rivals. And it’s a battle that’s going to be fought within the conservative movement, and often within political parties, between politicians who may until recently have considered each other allies.
The first thing ‘moderate’ conservatives need to do, and I’ll use this term throughout to refer to those who prioritise liberal-democratic values, is to realise that some of our greatest adversaries are on ‘our’ side. Politics isn’t, and shouldn’t be seen as, left vs right. In Britain the centre-left found this out the hard way. They indulged the hard-left, sharing platforms and the Labour Party with the defenders of Castro and Venezuela (and more curiously Hamas and Hezbullah), until the hard-left took over. Only at this point did they recognise that the hard-left were more than harmless eccentrics trying to flog unreadable newspapers outside party conference, they had the potential to be a mortal threat.
The fate of the Republican Party in America mirrors Labour in the UK. The moderates spent years indulging, or at least refusing to fight, the hard-right. They thought they needed the votes of the hard right, of evangelical conservatives, economic nationalists and tea party fruitcakes, in order to beat the Democrats. They may well have been right. But as a result, especially during the Obama years, they allowed the hard-right to become more and more entrenched within the American conservative movement until, via Trump, they were able to takeover.
Mainstream Republicans began by tolerating, or turning a blind eye to, all kinds of quackish nonsense and insanity. The hard-right spread racially charged rumours that Obama wasn’t born in America, that there was a plot to repeal the 2nd amendment and even shut down the federal Government in 2013. Overtime the right gained strength, making increasingly implicit appeals to white identity politics, until the mainstream Republican candidates were wiped out in the 2016 Primaries. In the end the Republican choice came down to Ted Cruz, the ultra-conservative ideologue, or Donald Trump, the populist demagogue. The Republican Party is dominated by Trump now, and moderate Republicans need to fight hard to ensure that at least some residue of the original Republican Party survives.
The same battles will also be fought in Europe. Generally in Europe the demarcation lines are clearer, as the hard-right and mainstream conservatives have different parties. Thus the hard-right, represented by Trump in America, is represented in Europe by the likes of the Front National in France and the Freedom Parties of Austria and the Netherlands. Generally European conservatives, no doubt reflecting on their history, have been better at confronting the hard-right than their American counterparts. This may be partly why, outside of Eastern Europe, the hard-right has been kept away from power on the continent. Considering the strength of the hand the right has been handed, thanks to economic stagnation, the refugee crisis and Islamist terrorism, this is no mean feat. But it’s unlikely to last. The hard-right is likely to triumph in some West European nation in the near future. They nearly managed it twice this year in Austria, with the Freedom Party candidate coming within a narrow margin of winning the Presidency. They will have another chance next year, with Parliamentary elections in the Netherlands (and possibly Italy) and, most significantly, the French Presidential election.
Considering the threat from the hard-right, who are currently far more of a threat to the Western order than the hard-left, moderate conservatives have a duty to fight on their right flank as well as the left. They should be wary of seeing authoritarian populists as useful allies against the left, and should prioritise liberal-democratic values and defence of the nation over any allegiance to a broader ‘conservative’ family. If at times this means working with parties of the centre and centre-left, then so be it. And moderate conservatives need to realise that, right now, history doesn’t seem to be moving in their direction.
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