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Don't Call them Conservatives

At the conclusion to the latest round of the House Select Committee hearings on the January 6, 2021 invasion of the United States Capitol Building, committee vice-chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-WY) stressed that much of the testimony against Donald Trump came from conservative-identifying members of the Republican Party.

However, what became clear during the hearing and in recent American politics is not only that Donald Trump incited a riot and was involved in a criminal conspiracy to overthrow a democratically elected government, but that the MAGA Republicans in the House and the Senate and a Republican majority on the United States Supreme Court are not “conservatives” in a meaningful sense of the word. They are illiberal rightwing reactionaries who are willing to circumvent democracy to maintain power. Many are political extremists, religious zealots, intolerant bigots, and racists who appeal to the basest instincts of their followers. Their ideas and actions come very close to those of the Fascist movements that swept through Italy and Germany between World War I and World War II and have come to power in Hungary, Turkey and Russia today.

Whatever you call Trump’s followers, don’t call them “conservatives” or “traditionalists.” There is nothing conservative or traditional about them. Those labels just provide a veneer of legitimacy to people who deserve no intellectual or political legitimacy at all.

In Republican primaries across the country, candidates for office keep championing their supposedly conservative credentials. Often that only means support for unrestricted ownership of the kind of weapons frequently used in mass murders and campaign ads showing politicos in photo ops carrying automatic weapons.

A recent poll by the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis exposed very disturbing trends in the United States. Slightly more than half of the respondents believe that “in the next several years, there will be civil war in the United States” and over 40% believe that “having a strong leader for America is more important than having a democracy.” About 1 in 5 argued political violence like the kind we saw on January 6, 2021 is “justifiable.” While the study identified 62% of the people who completed the survey identified as white, non-Hispanic and 47% as male, there was no breakdown on political identification and how different demographic cohorts responded. A recent academic study published in the journal Psychological and Cognitive Sciences found that that in the United States radical action by individuals associated with right-wing causes was more likely to be violent or espouse violence than radical action by people on the left. The study also found that “right-wing individuals are more often characterized by closed-mindedness and dogmatism.”

The United States has a strong conservative antidemocratic tradition dating back to the nation’s founding. What is different now is the conservative appeal to mass action to undermine democratic institutions, something we generally observe in Fascist movements. Early conservatism was clearly expressed in the Federalist Papers’ defense of the new Constitution. James Madison made very clear in Federalist #10 that the new government was specifically designed to inhibit decision making by an “overbearing majority” and to protect the influence of those he considered to be “our most considerate and virtuous citizens.” The Constitution was not a document designed to ensure democracy, but to protect the liberties of the elite, although it did include a commitment to rule by law. This traditional brand of conservatism sought to protect the power and property of the elite from the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.

The Declaration of Independence promised “liberty and justice,” meaning the protection of privileges and property from arbitrary authority, but not for “all.” These protections were not extended to women, enslaved Africans, and indentured whites. The Supreme Court made it clear that “liberty and justice” were not extended to people of African ancestry in its 1857 Dred Scott decision. These conservative traditionalists wanted to protect their rights and freedoms, but not those of others.

The conservative commitment to rule by law in the early national era was crucial for the survival of the new nation. One of the earlier conservative leaders in the United States was John Adams, elected as the nation’s first Vice-President in 1788 and 1792 and second President in 1796. As political parties evolved, Adams was the candidate of the Federalist Party. In 1800, when Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams’ bid for reelection because of additional electoral votes granted the slaveholding states, Adams conceded defeat because, unlike Donald Trump in 2020, he placed the survival of the country and its institution ahead of party and power. Adams’ action represented one of the first times in world history that there was a peaceful turnover of power between rival political factions.

Conservative movements dominated the federal government both before and after the New Deal. Historian Gabriel Kolko argued in The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916 (1963) that Progressive federal legislation at the beginning of the 20th century drew conservative support because it circumvented more radical state reform efforts. Republicans and moderate Democrats have held the Presidency since 1969.

I include Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama and Joseph Biden as politically moderate Democrats. No Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been elected to national office, served in a Presidential cabinet, or been appointed as a Supreme Court Justice.

Prior to 1994 and Newt Gingrich’s efforts to close down the federal government and obstruct any legislative action, Republican conservatives generally believed they had a responsibility to support good government. Republicans held a majority on the Supreme Court when the Court ruled that there was a constitutional right to privacy and to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Thirty Republican Senators voted for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Republicans supported to formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. When Richard Nixon was caught breaking the law in the Watergate Scandal, many Republicans supported his removal from office and helped force him to resign.

The Supreme Court, whether it was intended to be or not, has almost always functioned as a conservative brake on social change. But it rarely rewrote the Constitution or reversed its own positions as forcefully as it does today. The current Supreme Court, with three Trump judges and a six-to-three rightwing majority may well be the most activist and extremist Court in United States history. Its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022) overturned Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992) and Roe v. Wade (1973), eliminating federal protect for abortion rights. Earlier, decisions by a narrower rightwing majority in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees (2018) overturned Abood et al. v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), taking away long established labor union rights, and its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) reversing McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003), eliminated major federal regulation of election campaign financing. These decisions all violated the conservative belief in stare decisis, the doctrine that courts will adhere to precedent in making decisions, a principle each of the rightwing justices promised to uphold.

In a 2012 pre-Trump article in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf asked what “Americans mean when they say they’re Conservative.” While he concluded “it depends,” he did identify a few basic themes. They include “an aversion to rapid change and mistrust of attempts to remake society” and a “desire to return to the way things once were,” a belief that it is “imperative to preserve traditional morality, as it is articulated in the (Christian) Bible,” “disdain for American liberalism, multiculturalism, identity politics, affirmative action, welfare,” an “embrace of free-market capitalism,” and a belief that “America is an exceptional nation.” Missing from these core values was any commitment to democracy and respect for the rights and lives of others.

The positions identified by Friedersdorf in 2012 offer a reasonable definition of American Conservatism. But in the Trump era with anti-democratic “values” coupled with contempt for reason, law, and tradition and rightwing Republican politicians stirring up popular unrest and insurrection at the Capitol, the United States is in deep trouble. As we confront what is happening in this country, we need to stop calling the MAGA movement conservative.