America since its conception has consistently experimented with unique forms of foreign policy doctrines; whether that be found in the isolation of Calvin Coolidge, or the expansion of Theodore Roosevelt. From the beginning of the Revolution until the end of World War 2, all doctrines adopted by the United States were not feasibly able to contest as a global order. This was encased in the reality that America did not have a monopoly on the world stage at this time, even in the western world. Further, the United States was not seen as the standard bearer of inspiration but was instead viewed as the successful experiment of already existent European philosophy. This situation reversed after America accelerated in global influence during the Cold War – developing the prestige to establish such a global order, beholden to its own domestic consensus. The consensus requisite proved better said than done, however, as foreign policy debate not only raged on between parties, but also within them. Seeing as we are analyzing the Trump Administration – let’s briefly examine the maturation of Republican Party doctrine on this issue from the aforementioned period to today.
The Nixon Administration was, in many ways, the first to clearly define the American global order, primarily through politicizing foreign policy. The Vietnam War as a conflict need not be more political, yet Nixon was unique in capitalizing on politicizing the policy regarding the conflict. Nixon’s ideas appealed to Isolationists by promising to leave Vietnam, yet also satisfied interventionists ensuring an active global state. This order in many ways, would have most likely been successful for years to come, if not for two controversial presidential terms bombarded by scandals. The unpopular invasion of Cambodia did not help either, and almost as quickly as Nixon’s fall from grace happened, so to it his order. The lasting influence of this realpolitik era was not primarily found in its ideological remnants. Rather, it was the strategy Nixon utilized of creating doctrinal consensus that would be adopted by contemporaneous theories.
One such example of this application is found within the changing tides of the 1980s. In the later portion of the prior decade, society had, to some extent, grown worryingly dejected. As Jimmy Carter described American life, it was in a state of moral “malaise”. The foreign policy instituted by the Carter Administration, or more accurately-the lack thereof- was in part to blame. What resulted from his self-described “moral foreign policy” equated to nothing less than the temporary loss of global political advantage for the United States; exhibited during the unmitigated disaster of the Iran hostage crisis. With Carter’s misfortunes in mind, the last pursuit on the public’s sense was isolationism. This profound shift in American identity away from isolationism accumulated to its highest point since Roosevelt with the election of Ronald Reagan as president.
Reagan was a defiant interventionist contrary to Carter and provided a reflection of Senator Barry Goldwater’s failed 1964 presidential bid. Unlike Goldwater, Reagan was blessed with the inherited gift of persuasion and compromise. Yet, his campaign consisted of the same anti-statist, militarist, and fiscally apprehensive sentiments of the conservative movement that prevailed since before the New Deal. That made it all the more surprising when after Reagan’s ascendancy to the presidency, he would abandon around half of this agenda. In a symbolic gesture, Reagan broke from the ranks of the Old Right when he declared publicly that he viewed Franklin D. Roosevelt as a ‘great president’. This angered many in the conservative establishment, yet simultaneously legitimized the Republican Party by moving on from battles lost far in the past. Rather than continue to lose such battles, Reagan instead directed Republican opposition towards the expanded welfare state of Johnson’s Great Society – that after 16 years failed to show any substantive positives. What would become apparent after initial push back by the old establishment, is that this shift in trajectories by Reagan was not an issue most conservatives grew disdained over.
Roughly at the same time of Reagan’s ascendancy to the presidency, new theories began to develop in the conservative community. Neoconservatism, inspired by Irving Kristol and other New York elites, was the exemplar ideology that would corner control in the Reagan-era to come; resulting in a re-imagined establishment that swiftly replaced an ineffective one. To the surprise of many modern individuals who commonly hear ‘neocon’ only used pejoratively, neoconservatism throughout the Reagan-era was lauded rather than disdained by most Americans. In many ways, neoconservatism legitimized the humanitarian fight for global democracy without sacrificing patriotism. Thus, it successfully appealed to an electorate seeking a strong state, while having a justification in line with the modern era. Further, it inaugurated the first time since the 1910s, that leading conservatives began de-emphasizing nationalism and small government. As far as a coherent formula for a global order, it passed the test. The new neoconservative establishment expanded the coalition from what was once almost exclusively highly educated white men to the working class (Reagan Democrats), and even women. While very popular at the time, it is unsurprising that such a substantive shift in the conservative movement spawned a reactionary criticism.
Such a reactive movement would take the name of paleoconservatism. Counter to Irving Kristol’s work, Pat Buchanan’s became the center of the paleoconservative persuasion. The first disagreement between the two movements was found in an area bound to spark immediate tension, the neoconservative concession of the welfare state. Paleoconservatives continued to hold true to the belief that the welfare state, including the original one created under the New Deal, was inherently inefficient. They ascribed it to creating countless societal trends leading to the moral degradation of society – such as crime, divorce rates, and suicide. Still, no divergence between neoconservatives and paleoconservatives was more persistent than the fundamental disagreement on the pursuit of creedal nationalism or civic patriotism. Paleoconservatives subscribed to a creedal nationalist outlook, to accomplish-as they claim-the preservation of western civilization; done through restrictive immigration and stringent assimilation. They prescribed non-interventionism and tariffs as imperative to this idea, both of which the neoconservative movement unequivocally rejected. Neoconservatives took a far less apocalyptic approach in civic patriotism. For the new establishment, existent institutions such as the church or the school already provided the necessary integrating factors for society. Thus, the extreme measures persistent by the paleoconservatives, were to be approached cautiously at best. Yet, paleoconservatives, able to conglomerate a coalition of those in the old right who continued to believe in the old establishment, and young reformists, created a respectable bulwark that consistently itched the ear of the new establishment; always declaring ideological victory when neoconservatism failed to win its cultural battles. Eventually, one such of these cultural losses for the neoconservatives proved so immense, that it would seemingly overnight eliminate its once long-standing monopoly over the conservative movement – the Iraq War.
As we enter the age of Trump, it is important to recognize how it is we have entered. The victory by Trump, exacerbated through his paleoconservative rhetoric, is central to this. However, the perception of any ideological victory for paleoconservatism is antithetical to reality. Interventionism has continued in altered but visible esteem, and the welfare state Buchanan once railed against continues with little signs of rolling back, other than natural job growth displacing recipients – which would continue regardless. The only observable change to the new establishment revolves around Trump’s goal to create a defined ‘America First’ identity – however the results of such an experiment remain to be seen. What is instead observed throughout the Trump Administration is not the supposed victory for paleoconservative ideology, but something entirely unique.
In its infantile woes, paleoconservatism is slowly adapting to the reality of globalism. Old right isolationism, that which so superstitiously defined the Buchananites of the past, is failing every day in the Trump Administration’s internal battle of ideas. It is no surprise then, that the political order appears so similar to that of the past establishment on the surface. But this is a shallow understanding that fails to factor in the second difference between paleoconservatism and neoconservatism, that being nationalism and patriotism. Although the isolationist sentiment of the Trump Administration may fade by the day, the nationalism has not.
It is no wonder then that the current division within the conservative movement is that of resolving the last main friction between the two ideologies, nationalism or patriotism. For many, and understandably so, reintroducing such a concept of nationalism does not bode favorably. These people would argue that nationalism requires excessive loyalty to the state and is bore out of a failure to define one’s own identity. But one must consider that the nation has a rightful place as a factor in our identity, not simply an insecurity. The reason so many of us have such strong feelings about our country is because we identify with it as a shared family, a creed that takes care of their own interests foremost but invites anyone else willing to join – albeit they adopt the tribe. In a similar way to how we have come to understand capitalism as a natural phenomenon of man, an expansion upon the primal instinct of greed, one must consider that nationalism be a similar evolution from our primal ideas of race and clan. To come to such a conclusion about capitalism, that it is not but another expendable theory of the enlightenment, but a societal reality – it resulted in the death of millions in the name of communism. Before millions die in a similar social engineering project in name of world “unity”, the establishment should work within the proven restraints of nationalism as is done already with capitalism. The book The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony, a prominent Jewish-American scholar, provides a similar conservative approach to nationalism, tying its root in western culture to Ancient Israel of the Bible, and even further back to its relatives of race, tribe, and clan. National Review editor Rich Lowry attempts a similar argument and is quite successful in his book The Case for Nationalism.
These latest insights from conservative authors provide answers to the fundamental question of nationalism or patriotism, and if they happen to eventually be successful in the battle of ideas, it should be responsible for the maturity of Trump’s establishment to something unique from the old. Despite this, I do not necessarily agree with the Trump Administration’s often cultist embodiment of nationalism. Rather than embracing the zeitgeist as Reagan did, Trump has attempted to turn it onto himself – revealing of his deep narcissism. Regardless, my sympathy to the philosophical argument remains, and will not fade merely due to an insufficient executive. Nonetheless, it is because of the current American identity dilemma to reject the idea of cohesion in all facets, that I affirm the necessity of this evolution in our political order to continue. This identity dilemma is unaddressed in the prior establishment, which seems increasingly unwilling to reform itself. However, the proposal of intervening to redirect Trump’s arising order to a more cogent nationalism – independent of his demagogic personality – remains possible.