Illustration by Michael Hogue
According to a current tenet of conservative groupthink, the movement suffered a terrible blow with the ascension of Donald Trump, who it is alleged hijacked conservatism and its political vessel, the Republican Party. But while political conservatism is in crisis, Trump is not the cause. By embracing an ideology of military interventionism alien to American constitutionalism—while tolerating an ever expanding welfare state—conservatism lost its way.
When the Cold War ended, the Republican Party had an historic opportunity to lead the United States toward a more modest role in the world and to return to smaller government, federalism, foreign-policy restraint, and constitutionalism. Even for Ronald Reagan, setting such a direction would have been impossible given our Cold War military commitments, but in 1990, the window of opportunity suddenly opened. Unfortunately, the Republican Party and an influential portion of the conservative movement fumbled this moment and embraced a Jacobinistic ideology, vowing a crusade to create a New World Order and to democratize nations near and far, even those with no historical foundation for democracy.
The post-Cold War Democrats were divided on questions of war and peace, but they also recognized that wars tend not only to expand the national security state but also domestic programs. Thus, despite the presence in the party of dovish leaders, the Democratic establishment quietly acceded to America’s military interventions. They understood that a nation that swells its chest in the foreign arena inevitably swells it also in domestic affairs. As Woodrow Wilson and LBJ knew well, the rush of power felt when America engages in a foreign crusade is effortlessly converted to a domestic crusade. Wars tend to undermine federalism.
Many conservatives do not grasp that World War I accelerated Wilsonian progressivism, that World War II brought us the first general income tax, that Vietnam coincided with the Great Society, and that the Iraq War was concurrent with the largest expansion of Medicare. The three presidencies in the last century that displayed skepticism about military interventionism—Coolidge, Eisenhower, and Reagan—also were the leaders most successful at controlling overall spending.
Since 1990, Democrats have cleverly leveraged the GOP’s seemingly ever-present desire to engage in costly wars to ratchet up domestic spending. In 1991, when “emergency supplemental appropriations” were required to fund Operation Desert Storm, the Democrats loaded up the bill with increases in food stamps, unemployment insurance, housing assistance, and a $100 million payment to the D.C. government. President George H.W. Bush, whose priority was the war, promptly signed the bill, setting the GOP pattern for the post-Cold War era.
The 2003 Iraq War provided enormous spending opportunities for the Democrats. When The Heritage Foundation rightly complained in 2008 that “Congress Again Lards Iraq War Spending Bill,” they did not seem to recognize that a war funding-domestic spending alliance had emerged. As the Cato Institute pointed out, George W. Bush “presided over an 83-percent increase in overall federal spending, which includes defense, domestic, entitlements, and interest.” George W. Bush was not a conservative president. He was a war president who supported huge domestic spending in order to secure a coalition that would fund his main priority: wars. Bush vetoed a mere 12 bills, compared with 181 for Eisenhower, who regularly used the pocket veto to limit congressional spending.
For FY 2018, Congress funded the government through a series of continuing resolutions that will push spending to $4 trillion. The last installment of that spending was the $1.3 trillion bill recently signed by President Trump. Republican leaders agreed to dramatic funding increases for the Democrats’ domestic priorities (including Planned Parenthood) because the bill fulfilled the GOP’s dearest desire: a massive increase in defense spending.
When he signed the bill, President Trump made clear that defense-spending increases were a priority above all else: “We’re very disappointed that in order to fund the military, we had to give up things where we consider in many cases them to be bad or them to be a waste of money.” House Speaker Ryan was quoted in The Hill saying that this gluttonous spending was necessary because the nation’s leaders had asked the military “to do so much more with so much less for so long.” One can describe this approach in a variety of ways, but “conservative” is not a fitting adjective.
When analysts point out, for example, that our national security apparatus costs more than $1 trillion per year if you include the intelligence community, veterans programs, and other spending not found in the Pentagon budget, they are underestimating the costs of the national security state because they ignore massive domestic spending accepted by Republicans in return for greater military funding. National-security spending has become the foremost political principle of the Republican Party and conservatives seem not to realize that promiscuous military interventionism and elaborate alliance commitments stand in historical opposition to fiscal rectitude.
Yet far more is at stake than fiscal excess: Constitutionalism itself frays badly in a warlike regime. Just ask the 2,000 American dissenters prosecuted by Woodrow Wilson under the Espionage Act or the 100,000 Japanese-Americans thrown into internment camps by FDR or even Michael Flynn whose Kafkaesque prosecution emerged from a political conspiracy justified by anti-Russian war fever. Not only have congressional leaders ignored their obligation to provide constitutional sanction for recent wars, they have also built a surveillance state so powerful that it was likely used in an attempted coup d’état against a legally elected President. In fact, Congress reauthorized the FISA surveillance program at the very time when they were aware of its unconstitutional misuse.
America is now in uncharted territory. The Constitution is virtually inoperative as a check upon government surveillance of its own citizens or waging wars. Conservatism has weakened because it failed to recognize what history teaches, that the political culture in nations with imperial ambitions is never constitutionally conservative. A recent book has labeled this phenomenon “the boomerang effect.”
The connection between military interventionism, constitutional flaccidity, and profligate domestic spending is not some odd coincidence. These trends converge because they are each inspired by a certain temperament of character in leaders, a lack of restraint, and a will to power for its own sake. The American framers assumed that a certain type of constitutional personality would animate American statesmanship. But any government that regularly goes abroad in search of monsters to destroy will tend to be led by people whose temperament ignores the constraints of constitutionalism and who in turn will become a threat to fiscal prudence and to its own citizens. Recent wars are merely a symptom of a decline in the general culture and an eroded constitutionalism. Donald Trump is largely a non-factor in this decades-long conservative crack up.
When will we ever have a government that protects civil liberties and shows some fiscal discipline? The answer is that conservatism may have revived if the nation begins reducing its alliance commitments, launches fewer wars, speaks with less bellicosity, and generally acts with more restraint. Restraint abroad would probably coincide with restraint at home. The John Bolton wing of the Republican Party, by contrast, is the very last political force that might lead the nation in a conservative direction.
William S. Smith is managing director and research fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America.