The American conservative identifies with limited government and regulations, and embraces the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” This keeps conservatives united around a set of concrete political and philosophical goals that every layman can understand. The Constitution, although less explicit, recognizes the liberties discussed in the Declaration and protects them as almost sacred. The Constitution’s Bill of Rights also makes religious liberty our “first freedom,” reflecting the Founders’ view that the free exercise of religion would have a positive effect on the workings of government. Today many conservatives defending liberty now call themselves constitutional conservatives. In reaction to a perceived crisis of our time conservatives are searching for the answer to why and how America went wrong. When struggling to protect their families and communities, to save the unborn, and defend marriages, radical solutions become tempting.
Donald Trump, the shape shifter, went from a boasting, bullying, insulting, insensitive candidate to someone who cared about the issues of the common person. He sold the image of America in decline which only he alone could make great again. This means curtailing immigration and tearing up trade deals like NAFTA. Trump connected with those workers who felt they had been left behind. In his inaugural speech Trump declared: “The jobs left, and the factories closed … the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.” Steve Bannon, who is Trump’s chief strategist, insists that America is suffering from a crisis in capitalism. He claims the problem began with the counter revolution of the 60s and 70s. Baby boomers rejected the traditional ‘Judeo-Christian’ values of their parents. It was the Judeo-Christian values that created the enlightened capitalism that made America great following World War II.
In Edmond Burke’s view the basis of a successful society should not be abstract notions like human rights, social justice or equality. Rather societies work best when traditions that have been shown to work are passed from generation to generation. Bannon claims baby boomers abandoned the tried and true values of their parents such as naturalism and religion in favour of new abstractions such as pluralism, equaltarianism and secularism. He believes this created the weakness of capitalism in 2008 that spun profits out of speculation rather than invest their profits in domestic jobs and business. This developed the socialism of the very wealthy and led to the welfare state of the poor and the suffering of the middle class. Some have defined traditionalism as ‘ordered liberty.’ Traditionalists claim there are limits to human reason which must be paid heed or a society may suffer serious damage.
The Traditionalist school of thought rejects the modernist assumption of progressive human evolution, regarding it as the exact opposite of how the universe functions. For Traditionalism, all things begin at their zenith and gradually degenerate, through a series of stages, into mere shadows of their former glory, a pattern no less true of human beings. Evola identified presuppositions that led to the decline of civilization. Social life must be governed by ‘Tradition,’ the forgetting of which brings about decadence. All that relates to our time is darkened by this egalitarianism and decadence of modern music and jazz, drugs, modern art, and society in general, specifically marriage, the family, and the relations between the sexes. Traditionalists see their approach as a justifiable ‘nostalgia for the past’. Recently Steve Bannon stressed the importance of Trump’s moves to begin a “deconstruction of the administrative state” by appointing individuals from the private sector to key economic Cabinet positions who will help strip down federal regulations.
Part of radical traditionalism is the decline narrative and the revival of localism or return to older philosophies of education. Trump claims he inherited a disaster – the trade deals need to be renegotiated in favour of American workers. The Republican Congress, under the control of the neoliberals, supports gutting the EPA and dumping more toxins from coal plants into river ways to support industry and the ‘creation’ of new jobs. In addition Trump describes the need to expand the groups of immigrants to be deported – putting him in opposition to essential civil liberties that have been guaranteed in the past. Many Republicans argue that religious freedom is under unprecedented attack in the United States. To ensure the country is rebuilt around Judeo-Christian values it is necessary to stop the influx of people who do not believe in them by rallying around nationalism.
Betsy DeVos is a member of one of the wealthiest families in the world. To the extent this is allowed by the Constitution, the agenda of the DeVos family foundations is to re-Christianize America and to replace the melting pot or gorgeous mosaic of the current secular society with an imagined America of a hundred years ago: white-dominated, Christian-dominated, traditional in values and orientation. However, voucher programs have led to disastrous results across the country. In Milwaukee, voucher-funded private school students consistently score below public school students. In Cleveland, less than 20% of voucher-funded private school students even reach basic proficiency levels in math and reading. DeVos says she wants every family to have ‘educational choice,’ the umbrella term used to describe efforts to privatize education by, among other methods, installing school voucher programs, which divert public funding to private and religious schools.
Instead of viewing our times in the light of history, traditionalists review history in the light of our times. They look back over the past, pick and choose events that conform to a preconceived notion of ‘what went wrong.’ History does not work that way – nations are shaped by great statesmen and unforeseen events. On occasion, the traditionalist approach actually rewrites history. It is important to understand that history is not linear. At the turn of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson and other Progressives rejected concepts of natural law, natural rights, and social contract. Wilson observed, “No doubt we were meant to have liberty, but each generation must form its own conception of what liberty is.”
President Trump says his goal is to make the country ‘safe again’, claiming, “We will not allow people into our country those who are looking to do harm to our people.” He wants specific surveillance of targeted communities and databases on people coming from certain countries. He knows that the majority of American people want to get their communities back – safe from terrorists and drugs. Trump’s conception is that the President has unchallengeable power to implement the agenda he believes the people elected him for. Trump attacks the press who he believes is in opposition to him implementing his agenda. His charge of “FAKE NEWS” is meant to delegitimize accurate reporting that makes him look bad. Many see this as suppression of freedom of speech and an attack on the Fourth Estate.
Traditionalism is skeptical about the “self-evident truths” that America is based on. They look back to a more virtuous foundation than the Founding – a tradition innocent of modernity’s “concretes” especially the concrete that the church and state can be separated. Constitutional grounding of the American regime on ‘religious neutral’ ideas such as natural rights, supports individual rights to promote sexual autonomy, leads to inevitable decline from natural law liberalism into modern liberalism, which they believe unwittingly makes today’s moral anarchy inevitable. Radical traditionalists say we must begin again.1 The West, Bannon believes, is in the midst of a crisis of faith. We need enlightened capitalism – capitalism once more moored in Judeo-Chritian beliefs. This would reduce the ongoing conflicts in the country that are basically due to major cultural differences.
The problem of course is that the modern order was born precisely because life in these societies was so intolerable to people of conscience. Conscience is an aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgment that assists in distinguishing right from wrong. One cannot be complacent because of the importance of American liberties, the reality of which depends upon an informed electorate rather than an nation that has been fed a diet of lies from the Trump apparatus, and because of the timidity and irresponsibility of a Congress that is failing in its constitutional role as a co-equal branch of government to serve as a check and balance to the Executive Branch. One wants to be able to say to their children, to others who look back in history, and to ourselves that we took a stand for our country, for our most fundamental shared values, and most importantly, for our moral values, as reflected in the best of religious and humanitarian traditions.2
Pre-modern Europe did not necessarily attribute liberties to individuals but to social relations and communities. Since Hegel (1770–1831) the concept has often been categorized in a threefold manner: moral liberties (freedom of moral choice, such as freedom of conscience), civil liberties (freedom of individuals as constituting members of a civil society, such as freedom of speech) and political liberties (freedom of individuals in relation to the state, such as freedom of political association), all being attributes of individuals. Freedom is not a matter of autonomy or choosing whatever we happen to want. Rather, to be free is to live a certain mode of life. Liberty is violated when someone else interferes with it. People of conscience are people who not only love our country and the values upon which our Constitution rests, but who strongly believe that our actions, and the actions in which our country engages, should be consistent with our most basic moral values. Individuals of good conscience must take a stand, remembering the US has, in the past, embraced progress, pledging to do better, striving for the higher moral ground.
1 Gill, Nathan. (20 Aug 2015) What’s Conservative about Radical Traditionalism? http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/08/14588/
2 Anderson, Ross C. (30 May 2008) People of Conscience, Challenge the President! https://www.thenation.com/article/people-conscience-challenge-president/