It’s nothing new when political movements and parties undergo fundamental transformations. Think about it: in the middle of the 20th Century, the Democratic Party – particularly in the South – was, despite its occasional willingness to use government as a societal problem solver, the party of segregation and racism. Longtime Alabama governor and segregationist George Wallace started out as a Democrat. Jesse Helms did too.
And, of course, the Republican Party – the party that today garners microscopic support from people of color – was once widely understood to be “the party of Lincoln.” Prior to the New Deal era, Black voters (where and when they were permitted to vote) overwhelmingly supported Republican candidates.
And it’s not just party labels that evolve. Consider the broader “conservative” movement itself. Seventy-five years ago, American conservatism was about, well, conserving. The quintessential American conservative was a stuffy businessowner who was not only suspicious of taxes and government spending, but of spending and consumption generally.
For a huge segment of 20th Century American conservatives, the successful government, business or individual was the one that practiced modesty, thrift, self-denial and even self-sacrifice, with an eye always on the future. These conservatives may have often gone too far in lording such values over poor people who had nothing of note to consume or conserve, but at least they practiced a lot of what they preached.
Useful reminders of this one-time conservative reality can be found in the movies and TV shows of the 1950’s and ‘60’s, replete as they were with sober and gray conservatives expressing exasperation at the self-absorbed pursuit of instant gratification by undisciplined and “liberal” young people.
This traditional conservative approach to life and politics even carried over to matters of war and foreign policy, where many conservatives were suspicious of the hasty use of American military might abroad. Especially for those conservatives who had been hardened by the horrors of World War II and the Korean War (like, perhaps most famously, President and former Army General Dwight Eisenhower) patience, a thick skin and dedication to the long run were essential, while armed conflict and militarism were phenomena to be resisted.
Today, in the era of Trump, these traditional concepts of conservatism have been thoroughly jettisoned. Thanks to an unholy (and even bizarre) alliance between utterly immoral, me-first, casino capitalists and religious reactionaries who have convinced themselves that the Rapture in nigh (something that obviates any need to worry about the future of the planet) it’s a remarkable and sometimes frightening new world.
Rather than saving and sacrificing for the future benefit of one’s children, country or planet (or even considering such matters) – consumption and immediate gratification reign supreme.
In Trumpland, it often seems, the bigger one’s home, vehicle or carbon footprint and the more hostile one’s interactions with disfavored groups and individuals, the better. The goal is, at all times, to maximize one’s immediate personal and group wealth, status, comfort and power.
The policy implications of this shift are evident and include:
- the complete denial of basic science when it comes to the climate crisis and other existential environmental threats;
- Trump’s utter contempt (a contempt that has trickled down as far as the North Carolina General Assembly) for the rule of law, due process and basic civility in government;
- the abandonment of traditional international allies and multinational institutions and the embrace of authoritarian oligarchs and a shoot-from-the-hip, go-it-alone foreign policy;
- the abandonment of longstanding conservative opposition to deficit spending and public debt;
- the resurgence of tribalism, religious intolerance, racism and any number of phobias predicated on fear of “the other” and the commitment to wall building; and
- the tolerance and even celebration of cruelty, violence and brutality.
And, of course, those policy implications are producing myriad real world consequences that include:
- the metastasizing and increasingly dire environmental situation – most recently evidenced by the calamitous, continent-altering wildfires in Australia;
- the historic impeachment impasse in Congress;
- the spiraling cycle of violence in the Middle East;
- the rapidly-widening wealth and income gaps;
- the increasingly unchallenged scale and power of multi-national corporations and the billionaires who run them;
- America’s abandonment of any pretense of seeking to champion human rights or push the world toward a more just and sustainable future; and
- the pervasive sense of cynicism and pessimism that grips so many – even the affluent.
The tragedy in all of this, of course, is that healthy human instincts like empathy, love and concern for the future haven’t gone anywhere. Most Americans still harbor what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.” Unfortunately, as in other dark historical periods, for far too many, they’ve been stifled and/or drowned out by a cacophony hucksters and scaremongers masquerading as conservative politicians, preachers and “thought leaders.”
Overcoming this toxic trend will be one of the great challenges of the new decade.