It is part of the problem in our political culture that the newspaper of record will publish drivel like this, “Trump’s Deficits are an Existential Threat to Conservatism.” It is an opinion column, so we can have lower expectations for the quality and quantity of the news it contains.
But it rests on two entirely fatuous premises. First, that we have conservatives in the United States. In terms of public officials, we mostly have “conservatives,” especially at the federal level. Second, that our “conservatives” care at all about budget deficits.
Part of the problem is the historical impulse of libertarians to make political common cause with conservatives in the Republican Party since the New Deal, which was almost entirely a Democratic initiative.
Libertarians and conservatives agree in opposing an increasingly large and powerful federal government, but they have diametrically opposite reasons for that opposition. Libertarians have a principled concern for liberty, which a large, powerful government threatens. Conservatives, real ones, care not a fig for liberty, or “freedom” as modern Republicans like to put it, but they like their tyranny to be highly local and close knit. The problem with the federal government is that it is culturally distant, even from northern Virginia.
So the conservative argument about the prohibition on establishment of religion in the First Amendment is that its purpose was to prevent the federal government from establishing any religion, but leave states free to have an established religion if they want. Especially since the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, which set a federal floor for the rights of citizens, the Supreme Court has interpreted the establishment clause as applying to state and local governments.
This distinction is clear in the amicus briefs for the case in which the Supreme Court struck down all state sodomy statutes. Conservatives filed briefs taking the position that the states should have the power to prohibit sodomy by consenting adults. This is the genuinely conservative position, the one that had prevailed in the Anglo-American legal tradition since Henry VIII established the Church of England. Before that, the Catholic Church prohibited sodomy in all of Christendom, the ultimate source of western conservatism.
The libertarian Cato Institute, which ill informed observers often characterize as “conservative,” took the position that sodomy statutes violate the Fourteenth Amendment, which in some sense only restates the basic rights that the original Constitution was supposed to protect. They therefore encouraged the Court to strike down all state sodomy statutes in the country.
As to budget deficits, neither group has an obvious position. Both trace their philosophical origins to a period when the concerns of the modern, administrative state had not yet emerged. Insofar as budget deficits are a predictable problem for our large, powerful federal government, libertarians will not like them and do not like them.
Insofar as the Anglo-American tradition of conservatism traces back to vigorous defenses of monarchy, it has no apparent basis for objecting to budget deficits, since good conservative monarchists take the position that us plebes do not argue with the monarch, so if the monarch wants to spend the nation’s pelf, the monarch is free to do so.
To carry the claim that Trump’s deficits post any “existential” threat to “conservatism,” whatever it might be in the United States, requires one to credit two ridiculous propositions. First, that the Republican Party is “conservative” in any meaningful sense, and second, that the Republican Party has any serious concern for federal budget deficits. Neither will withstand a moment’s serious scrutiny.
Conservatives, in the most literal sense, wish to conserve, usually mostly in a cultural sense. They like tradition and custom, and deference to authority. Conservatism usually depends somewhat on the culture it exists in. A Chinese conservative would necessarily be different from a French conservative. In the United States, real conservatives face the dilemma that our Constitution and political culture are distinctively liberal, both generically and in the historically specific sense that the most influential political philosopher in the English colonies that would become the United States was John Locke, who articulated modern liberalism in his Second Treatise on Government.
The U.S. Constitution is a monument to western liberalism, which puts conservatives in the U.S. into a very difficult position. In order to defend the culture of the U.S., they would have to defend liberalism, in particular, the liberalism of the U.S. Constitution. Trump poses a serious difficulty for conservatives, since he understands virtually nothing about the history or traditions of the United States. The conservative impulse is to defer to leaders, no matter how obviously corrupt or incompetent, which is why the Catholic Church cannot deal with the problem of child molesting priests. The pope and priests are the leaders of the church, and if they won’t do anything, then no one else can.
Now that Republicans have allowed Trump to take over their Party, they are stuck with a leader whose attitude towards our constitutional history and traditions does not even rise to contempt because he is too ignorant of them even to disdain them. Amusingly, he is even ignorant of the principles of “conservatism” as its avatars in the United States have articulated them. But since good “conservatives” defer to their leaders, Republicans continue blindly to prop up their dear leader against all challenges even as his interactions with government under the Constitution evoke nothing so much as the metaphor of the bull in a china shop — lacking the intelligence to be deliberately destructive, but laying waste to everything that comes into his path.
The “conservative Freedom Caucus” (see above about conservatives and “freedom”) in the House of Representatives did oppose the budget deal that passed in July, stating their concerns about the large budget deficit it enacted and the contribution of that deficit to the already huge public debt of the United States. One assumes they are sincere.
Except that, for anyone who has serious concerns about U.S. budget deficits to ally with the Republican Party is rank nonsense. As the chart above shows, budget deficits have consistently grown under Republican presidents and decreased under Democratic presidents since 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office.
For Republicans, positions they take in public statements are just devices to win elections, with no expectations that the statements will at all result in any discernible policy outcomes. So they bravely assert their lasting opposition to budget deficits when a Democrat is president, then advocate tax cuts, tax cuts, and more tax cuts when they take office, repeating all along the absurd fantasy that the tax cuts will cause so much economic growth as to pay for themselves, which has never happened and never will happen.
Taking people at face value is polite. In personal interactions, one usually avoids pointing out obvious, huge discrepancies between what people say about themselves and what they actually do. Normally, one can just avoid such persons.
We cannot avoid the federal government if we live in the United States. Much as we might want to, we are too often stuck with Republican public officials who utter entirely empty promises for election purposes, then do exactly the opposite of what they just promised. Trump railed against the ever increasing U.S. public debt when he was running for president, but is now adding to it at the highest rate in our history. That Trump was an incompetent moron who would likely achieve none of his grandiose promises if he gained the office was obvious to any thinking person and likely why he lost the popular vote by a large margin. That Trump is doing exactly the opposite of what he said he would do is entirely unsurprising. In that, he is a model Republican.
What is at least mildly surprising is that a New York Times columnist could be so obtuse as not to see the obvious discrepancy.