While running for president in 2000, George W. Bush spoke frequently of a “compassionate conservatism” that he himself characterized (years later) like this:
The philosophy took hold in my first race for governor. I remember my announcement tour and subsequent speeches saying, “It is conservative to insist that we measure students in public schools; it is compassionate to teach every child to read.” In other words, it’s conservative to cut taxes; it’s compassionate to let families have more money to spend or give families more of their own money to spend.
I felt compelled to phrase it this way because people hear “conservative” and they think heartless. And my belief then and now is that the right conservative philosophies are compassionate and help people. Compassionate means you care about people and the policies you enunciate help people.
This is a terrible formulation made for a terrible reason: there’s nothing heartless about conservativism, and speaking of “compassionate conservatism” as though the adjective were a necessary add-on suggests that conservatism on its own, without that super-deluxe attachment, isn’t compassionate at all. Is in fact heartless. (Also, you don’t enunciate a policy: you articulate a policy.)
If, as Bush believes, “people hear ‘conservative’ and they think heartless” that’s firstly because conservatives have mostly been awful at messaging for as long as anyone alive today has been breathing, and secondly because popular culture is almost entirely in the hands of leftists who fill the popular imagination with mustache-twirling Republican villains. (The only declared conservative character I can think of that was at all sympathetic was Alex P. Keaton on “Family Ties,” the last episode of which aired in 1989.)
We always hear how important it is for movies and television to “look like America” so that there are positive role models for people of every color and creed and body type and sexual preference (or orientation or alignment or configuration or whatever it is we’re supposed to say these days) except conservatives. Conservatives don’t deserve positive role models because conservatives are evil, so the only Republicans that Hollywood’s gonna show you are greedy businessmen, corrupt politicians, racist rural sheriffs, hypocritical preachers, or snobby golfers. Maybe a homophobic grandparent, or a bigoted in-law. Or a country club Stepford Wife.
So conservatives face an uphill battle in the struggle for hearts and minds. I get that. I’ve lived that.
Donald Trump was never anybody’s idea of a conservative before 2015, but he brought something to the table that even the Republican candidates I preferred at the time did not: he spoke happily and unabashedly about conservative ideas without playing Bush’s futile game of torturing language to try and make them sound compatible to liberals.
Donald Trump is not notable for his intellect, nor is he renowned as an orator. (And yes, I graciously accept that nomination for understatement of the decade.) But he has done more to advance and popularize the ideas of conservatism to more people than pretty much anyone else in the last half century besides Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh.
Trump got people excited about conservative ideas, mostly because he didn’t get tangled up in theory or philosophy. He kept things simple and practical and upbeat, even funny. He was a masterful salesman and he reached out to Americans of every color and creed. He broadened the appeal of the brand. Yeah, sure, he also pissed a lot of people off, but so did Obama and I never saw a Times or Post article criticizing Obama for his inability to win over conservatives, or suggesting that there was anything wrong with Obama or his policies because Republicans opposed them.
You’d never know it from the media coverage, but there are plenty of people (like myself) who didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 but did in 2020 and very few who supported him in 2016 and abandoned him in 2020. You’d never know it because the establishment media hunted down (or created) every last one they could of the latter group, while pretending the former didn’t even exist.
Assuming Trump lost this election, he did so in a freakishly unusual way: driving up Republican voter registration and turnout, increasing the Republican vote dramatically among every demographic group but white men, and providing coattails all the way down to the bottom of the ticket.
While the left was having a collective breakdown and conducting one national freak-out after another, while they and their allies were screaming and smashing and looting and burning, conservatives of every color were having joyful rallies and parades. Politics aside, how many Americans, I wonder, were influenced by the obvious visual disparities? How many people prefer violent fury to happy celebration?
Either Donald Trump tapped into something very visceral in the American electorate, or something very visceral in the American electorate summoned Donald Trump forth.
It doesn’t matter which, because this isn’t actually about Donald Trump. It’s about this refreshing and long, long, long overdue positivity on the American right, which is something I hope can be sustained.
I’ve never understood why conservative politicians and pundits were so lousy at communicating the natural optimism of the conservative outlook. Reagan could do it. Rush Limbaugh does it. It’s easy. The core beliefs that undergird modern American conservatism are, after all, much more appealing than the laundry list of laments constituting modern American progressivism.
Instead of making the simple case for American conservatism, however, too many conservative political and thought leaders have spent too much time on defense, responding to the cartoonish criticisms from the left. That’s how we get grotesqueries of language like compassionate conservatism.
“They think we’re heartless: maybe if we call it compassionate conservatism, then they’ll know we actually have hearts!”
In the words of Marcus Tullius Cicero, fuck that noise. (If it wasn’t Cicero, it was someone who looked like him.)
People think conservatism’s heartless because the left tells them it’s heartless and then the right gets defensive and says No, no, I swear, I totally have a heart, and it’s totally compassionate!
That’s a sucker’s game and the only winning move is not to play.
Let’s look at one of a million possible examples: poor Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” ordeal.
Here’s how the wildly leftist Guardian put it back in October 2012, shortly after the event:
The Facebook group “Binders Full of Women” has, at time of writing, 212,484 likes. Mitt Romney’s daft boast has become a viral meme, complete with its own Tumblr and an avalanche of mocking tweets. It’s fair to say the second presidential debate did not go Romney’s way.
The delicious irony is that the phrase was supposed to show us Romney the feminist. As governor of Massachusetts, he explained: “We took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said: ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”
When the Guardian says “the delicious irony” was that Romney was trying to show some feminist bona-fides, they’re not reporting, they’re gloating. What’s delicious to them is the irony that the candidate was making a point about his desire to bring a lot of women into his cabinet but the left was able to make it sound like something sinister or even kinky. The media ran with the make-believe version, the distortion, the lie. And they savored the deliciousness of it. Openly.
The healthy response to all that nonsense would have been for Romney to step up and say, “You guys are ridiculous. You know what a fucking binder is. It’s a thing to hold papers. You may not know this, since I doubt any of you have ever had a real job, but resumés are printed on paper, and these particular resumés belonged to hundreds of talented, qualified, hard-working, exemplary women whom the groups we reached out to had vetted and considered worthy of cabinet positions. I was saying those groups had helped me find a shitload of ass-kicking conservative women to bring into my cabinet. If you really couldn’t understand something that obvious, maybe you ought to get a job that doesn’t require a basic understanding of the English language.”
I think every conservative felt in their bones that Romney ought to have stood up for himself more resolutely instead of trotting out his running mate Paul Ryan to explain the next day that “All he (Romney) simply meant was that he went out of his way to try to recruit qualified women to serve in his administration when he was governor.”
Everyone knew what he meant, Paul. The problem was that the left wanted to pretend it was something else and then the media ran with it, and you guys let them. Don’t tell us what we already know: show us that you share our contempt for the way the media twisted it all around. Show us that you give a damn. Be a happy warrior and punch back twice as hard. And savor the deliciousness of it. Openly. As they do.
“No, no!” cry the genteel Republicans, “we mustn’t stoop to their level!”
Stoop? They control 95% of the means of mass communication. They use it to misrepresent conservatism, smear conservatives, lionize liberals, and propagandize liberalism. There’s no question of stooping: conservatives need to rise to their level.
And lo and behold, just four years later, here comes a chap who doesn’t stand for that kind of crap, who calls it out and throws it right back in their faces. With obvious glee. The media didn’t like it but an awful lot of Americans did—because an awful lot of Americans were tired of watching decent conservatives abused by the media. Another four years go by, and the media are in fact now the least trusted institution in America.
I mention all this to emphasize that trying to engage with the establishment media to get a conservative message out to the public is a fool’s errand. I also think Donald Trump deserves some credit for refusing to adopt the traditional conservative response to abuse from the media, which has been to bend over and say “Thank you, sir! May I have another?“
America’s establishment media loudly and proudly consider themselves the guardians of democracy, and once upon a time they may have been, but for the past few decades they’ve merely been the guardians of leftism. They guard it viciously. Anyone stepping outside the sacred zone of their approval must be crushed. That’s not just the leftist media, that’s the left in general: you’re with them all the way or fuck you.
If you watch some of the testimonial YouTube videos made by former liberals as part of Brandon Straka’s “Walk Away” movement, or Candace Owen’s “Blexit” movement, you can’t help being struck by the joy, the literal tears of joy streaming down the faces of former liberals describing how they came to see the light. The relief at getting out from under all the awful baggage liberalism had piled upon them, all the rules and impositions and demands.
How have we on the right, we conservatives and libertarians, allowed our simple, positive, buoyant message to be so badly bungled over the years?
Ours is, after all, the political philosophy that doesn’t want to put you in a box (and keep you there). We’re the ones that don’t care what color you are, what god you worship, or whom you sleep with. We’re the ones that believe the government in answerable to you, and not vice-versa. We believe in the sovereign and inalienable liberty of the individual, and we’re committed to defending that liberty and individuality because we know from history that there is no more powerful engine for progress and prosperity than free people working toward their own individual dreams: there is not one historical example, from any culture or era, of a society whose progress came from any other source.
How is that not a more uplifting message than the grievance studies, condescension, and nannying of the left?
Conservatism wants you to be free: free in what you do, in what you say, in what you believe. It wants not only an open marketplace for commerce, but an open marketplace for ideas.
Modern American liberalism’s message, on the other hand, is something like, “You can’t handle the freedom!”
Not only can’t you handle the freedom, you’ve also been horribly oppressed by the exploitative and racist hellhole that is America. (Unless you’re one of the horrible oppressors and exploiters who need to check their privilege, acknowledge their racism, and take their medicine.)
Liberals want to control what you can and cannot say, they want to prioritize your wants and needs based on the color of your skin, they want to control as much of your life as they can because they genuinely believe they know what’s best for everyone.
They have an almost child-like faith in government as a force for good, a force for societal change, a force for progress. The American left will only take time out from extolling the wonders of government to tell you all of the atrocities for which the American government has been responsible.
It’s a pretty radical disconnect.
TERRIFIED CIVILIAN: “Godzilla is destroying Tokyo! He’s an evil and destructive monster. He crushes people, cars, trucks, and even houses beneath his feet, knocks down skyscrapers with his tail, and burns entire city blocks to ash with his fiery breath. How can we save Tokyo?”
LEFTIST: “Let’s make him more powerful!”
It’s a bleak and awful message (and illogical), but the left has mastered the art of communicating such things cheerfully, like in this video Kamala Harris dropped just a few days before the election:
The visual metaphor used in the video is interesting, because it suggests there’s a great mountain to climb and that the citizen starting out on lower ground has a longer hike than the citizen starting out on higher ground. Visually, the leveling of the land is in fact the metaphor for the conservative approach: level the playing field! But she concludes by saying that “equitable treatment means we all end up at the same place.” That’s not true. It is the opposite of true.
Equitable treatment, a level playing field, means we all start out at the same place. People will never, so long as they have any freedom at all, end up at the same place. They never want to. There’s no evidence, anywhere, in any culture, in any period of history, of a people unanimously seeking total social equilibrium.
There is, on the other hand, plenty of evidence of people trying to enforce total equality on society. The results of those experiments ought to be enough to discourage any further efforts in that direction. But they don’t, as the market for hammer-and-sickle branded casual wear makes all too clear.
That’s the liberal genius at communication: they can make a happy little animated video endorsing a political philosophy that has, always and everywhere, led to gulags and mass graves.
Freedom is priceless, but it isn’t free. There are risks in being responsible for yourself and owning your own fate. But those risks are always there. They can’t be erased, they can only (sometimes) be mitigated. Even if you were dropped on a paradisical tropical island with fruited trees and springs of sparkling mineral water and lagoons full of delicious fish, along with your best friends and closest family and whatever conveniences you chose to bring along, there would still be risks because life is risk. The only guarantee we get in life is death, which isn’t really much to get excited about. Everything else is risk, risk, and more risk.
Liberals want to mitigate the risks of freedom by taking it away from you: “Don’t trouble your pretty little heads, dear ones, we’ll take care of you: just do as we say (but not as we do!) and you’ll be fine… or at least you won’t be any worse off than your neighbor.”
Conservatives want to mitigate the risks of freedom by maximizing it: “The more freedom you have to pursue your dreams, the greater the benefit to our society overall because of the progress and innovation and prosperity your freedoms will unleash. And if you fail, if you crash and burn, as some of you surely will, the wealth created by those who’ve succeeded as a result of their freedom will let us help get you back on your feet quickly.”
There are also costs to freedom: not to having it, but to preserving it. A happy little land of prosperous, freedom-loving libertarians isn’t going to last very long if they’re surrounded by hostile powers and trust to the goodness of their hearts. And people being what they are, those happy libertarians are also going to need some sort of law enforcement to protect their property and personal well-being from the more unscrupulous libertarians in their midst. And a justice system not only to handle the unscrupulous libertarians gathered up by law enforcement, but to ensure that the contracts made between well-meaning libertarians can be properly enforced. And so on.
Everyone understands all that intuitively, yet the American left just spent a couple of years assuring us that borders are meaningless, police are unimportant, and justice should answer to mob rule.
Individuality. Liberty. Order. Law. It’s a box set. You cannot sustain a self-governing republic without all four.
The American left doesn’t care about any of that stuff. It’s all a bunch of stuffy old twaddle, as far as they’re concerned. They just want equity: they want the people with too much stuff to hand it over to them, so that they in turn can hand it out to the people without enough stuff. And they get to decide how much stuff is too much, and how much not enough, and by the way none of these rules apply to them.
And that’s the fatal flaw of liberalism: to finance a state that can give you lots of stuff, you need an awful lot of money. Governments can’t make money, they can only collect it: the more money they want to hand out, the more they need to take, a point I obviously don’t need to explain to a Danish audience. But if you not only take a huge cut of the earnings of your most productive citizens, but simultaneously tie their hands with laws and rules designed to socially engineer perfect social equality, or “equity,” you’re strangling the goose that’s been laying all those golden eggs, and before you know it you’re going to have an angry and impoverished population that you’ve promised to take care of…. but no longer can.
Especially if you’re in a world, such as ours, where there are other countries with less confiscatory governments. Countries squeezing their most productive citizens too hard inevitably find those citizens fleeing to greener pastures. That’s called Brain Drain, and it’s a very real thing with very real and very well documented consequences. How can a country recover from the loss of its best and brightest and most productive?
Denmark has an advantage here, I think, in that our costly welfare state has not been accompanied with intrusive and punitive social engineering policies—yet. That may be partly because the cultural force of Janteloven makes any such explicit engineering unnecessary. If so, as much as I hate Janteloven, it’s actually another argument in support of conservatism: culture very often solves problems that governments can’t. (Conservatism is the philosophy that says the government doesn’t have to, and in fact should not, do everything that a society wants done; liberalism says if it needs to get done, then, by jingo, we’d better get the government involved pronto!) If we’re smart, we’ll keep it that way here in Denmark, but I warn you: the gathering storm in America will touch our shores sooner than you think.
It’s a wonderful moment to lay out the conservative vision of liberty and self-sovereignty against the totalitarian conformity and submission to government increasingly demanded by the left. Joyfully! Confidently! Unapologetically!
Who doesn’t want to be free? Who doesn’t want to be judged on the merits of what they’ve done and said rather than the color of their skin? Who doesn’t want the opportunity to maximize their own potential without being tied down because their success might make someone, somewhere, feel bad? Who wants their country to be subjugated to the whims of distant foreign bureaucrats? Who wants to navigate streets full of angry thugs itching for a fight with anyone who doesn’t think the right thoughts?
Conservatives need to seize this moment to step up and make the joyful case for conservatism, for the political philosophy that not only allows but encourages diversity of thought; for the political philosophy that sees variegated individuals instead of colored tokens; for the political philosophy that wants to leave you alone instead of control you.
How about, now that we’ve found it even in the middle of these trying times, we just dial up the sunshine and stick to communicating the joy of conservatism?
The joy of being an individual rather than a demographic profile.
The joy of our liberty and independence and sovereignty as individuals, all of which are guaranteed by a Constitution that enshrines them as the inalienable rights they are.
The joy of owning our own lives and making our own choices: of being the masters of our own happiness and prosperity.
The establishment left wants to put you in your place and silence all dissent from their dogma; conservatism wants you to be whoever you want to be and welcomes all voices.
It’s a no brainer.