Speaking politically, I enter 2017 warily optimistic. I believe a Hillary Clinton presidency would’ve hastened the slow, painless, normalized death of liberty at the hands of idiot experts, overweening regulatory agencies, and a thoroughly corrupted corporate media. A Trump presidency, though full of hazards and led by a chronically undependable man, presents the possibility of real hope: high hopes that the permanent government will be scaled back; moderate hopes that the courts might get some constitutionally minded judges; distant hopes that entitlements might be reformed in service of lowering the debt.
These would be wonderful, even nationally salvific outcomes of Trump’s election. If they come along with some buffoonery, dishonesty, and simple mistakes, I’ll eat all that with a smile.
But we constitutional conservatives shouldn’t kid ourselves. The nomination of Trump — let alone his stunning victory — was a reminder of what we should never have forgotten. The great historian of freedom Lord Acton said it well:
At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous, by giving to opponents just ground of opposition, and by kindling dispute over the spoils in the hour of success.
In other words, those who care about individual liberty and the processes, checks, and balances that preserve that liberty are always in the minority, always riding along in someone else’s car. We might join with evangelicals to fight abortion, say, and thus preserve the right to life. But we have to take the flak when some leading preacher blames the 9/11 attacks on American “alternative lifestyles.” That’s just part of the freedom-loving game.
So now we’re on the Trump Train and let’s hope it takes us to some good conservative locations. I think it will. But we already know that many of Trump’s followers will continue to follow him to other places too, places we don’t want to go. If he cozies up to thugs like Putin, if he spends recklessly, if he caves in to the left on entitlements, there will be plenty of Trumpsters who scream in our faces when we protest: “Hillary would’ve been worse! The media didn’t say a word when Obama did it! You’re an elitist globalist Jew! Shut up!” What’s more, should Trump’s non-conservative directions lead the country to some corner of hell, the left, the media, and many voters will blame us for being onboard the train, even if we wanted to go home by another way.
But to my mind, the usual conservative formula of “praise him when he’s right, attack him when he’s wrong” — while sometimes unavoidable — is a lame tactic overall. It puts us in the position of self-righteous scolds and chaperones.
Rather, I think we need to understand what the left understood when Reagan was elected. Our particular brand of conservatism is out of fashion. To bring it back will require a long game. Education, media, culture, and religion need to be slowly won back even while the Trumpians do their best and worst. We need to teach and preach the basics: the logic of faith, the reasons behind natural rights, the need to limit government, the urgent importance of free speech, the power of intact families. The left has worked and worked hard to erode these principles in our universities, our churches and our television screens. Rather than griping every time Trump zigs left when he should’ve zagged right, let’s start to make the positive arguments for liberty we will need voters to understand come 2020 and beyond.
This is a good moment politically. Good things may come of it. But don’t confuse political victories with victories of principle. America’s public, its youth, and its friends have been schooled in ignorance of conservative basics for 60 years. That ignorance didn’t go away on election day. We should begin the hard work of ending it now.