Trump Didn't Destroy the Conservative Movement — He Cashed In On Its Darkest Tendencies

#NeverTrump conservatives may view him as a traitor. But their ideology has trended toward hate for a long time

Photo Credit: oleskalashnik / Shutterstock

Donald Trump has given rise to a great deal of handwringing by those conservatives who seek to distance themselves from him. Salon's Chauncey DeVega recently interviewed one of the most thoughtful of those, Max Boot, whose new book, "The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right," is more honest than most. But the “corrosion” of the title betrays a lingering sense that something noble has been betrayed -- in contrast, say, with John Dean’s starkly titled “Conservatives Without Conscience” from 2006.

Nonetheless, as Jonathan Chait’s review puts it, “the truly radical act in 'The Corrosion of Conservatism' is its clear-eyed excavation of the movement’s history,” which entails recognizing that the crazies have always been there. William F. Buckley, for instance, "renounced the president of the John Birch Society while continuing to endorse the organization itself, which was a large and powerful constituency,” Chait notes.

In a sense, Boot has sorted out something worth conserving, telling DeVega, “The upside is I am discovering that I have a lot in common with many people on the left side of the spectrum, as well as with a small number of 'Never Trump' conservatives. We are coalescing around the basic idea of preserving liberal democracy against the threat posed by Donald Trump.” That’s been conservatism’s unexamined conundrum all along: whatever is really worth conserving in the political realm is itself a liberal, if not radical invention that conservatives past fought against tooth and nail. This raises another conundrum: what dangerous radical ideas do conservatives condemn today that their grandchildren will blithely embrace as “timeless conservative principles”?

Meanwhile, most of Boot's less self-reflective “Never Trump” fellow travelers still cling to the conservative movement's creation myth. MSNBC is virtually overrun with this sort—Bill Kristol, David Frum, George Will, etc. — all feeling perplexed and betrayed, protesting that Trump is not a “real conservative.”

But of course he is. Trump is presiding over a sharp and relatively sudden redefinition of what that means, but that’s hardly as unusual as it seems. “The redefinition of ideologies like ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’ is a virtually constant characteristic of American political history,” political scientist Verlan Lewis writes in “The Problem of Donald Trump and the Static Spectrum Fallacy,” a paper presented this summer at the American Political Science Association convention.

“Previous political science scholarship is dominated by the mistaken view that party ideology changes can best be described by parties moving 'left' or 'right' on a static ideological, spatial spectrum,” Lewis writes in the paper’s abstract. “In reality, the meaning and content of ‘left’ and ‘right’ (‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’) constantly evolve along with the issue positions of the two major parties. Thus, it makes no sense to describe the parties as moving to the ‘left’ or ‘right’ over time when the very meaning of ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’ change during the same time period.”

In addition to this direct assault on the conventional wisdom of the political science establishment, Lewis also incidentally lobs a grenade in support of Boot. “In some ways, Trumpism has simply fulfilled developments in Republican Party and conservative ideology that began earlier, and in some ways it has taken Republicanism and conservatism in new directions,” he writes, and everyone can nod along. But then he notes that “the idea most associated with Trump,” populism, has been a long time coming, “since the 1950s — through the efforts of Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Pat Buchanan, and George W. Bush, among others … the GOP populism of 2018 is a fulfillment of earlier transformations stretching back over six decades.”

Instead, Lewis sees Trump’s break with past GOP ideology in other areas, including “foreign policy, trade policy, government intervention in the economy, federal deficits, etc.”  How much of this is real and how much make-believe is a topic for another time.

“Unfortunately,” Lewis adds, “American political scientists, largely wedded to the Static Spectrum Fallacy, are unable to describe or explain these kinds of transformations.” I have certain quibbles with Lewis, but his fundamental point about ideological fluidity is hard to deny:

To take just a few examples, at the turn of the twentieth century, “liberalism” represented laissez faire, free-market economic policy with limited government intervention. In the early twentieth century, it changed to mean the opposite of that. ... In the 1990s, “conservatism” represented non-interventionist foreign policy skeptical of regime change, but in the 2000s it came to be defined by a hawkish foreign policy dedicated to spreading democracy abroad. ... In the 1930s, “liberalism” called for a restrained judicial system that deferred to democratically elected branches of government, but in the 1950s-60s it changed to mean the opposite of that.

Perhaps most arrestingly, Lewis points out that the scale of political ideology known as "DW-NOMINATE," conventionally used by political scientists, paints a strange picture of liberalism in the past:

According to this index of ideology scores, the Democratic Party’s high-water mark for liberalism was in the 1880s and early 1890s during the Bourbon Democratic administrations of Grover Cleveland. Interestingly, the Democratic Party during this time advocated relatively laissez faire economic policies. … These scores suggest, confusingly, that the Democratic Party moved rightward, toward less government intervention in the economy, during the late 1890s (when the party merged with the Populist Party), the 1910s (during the Wilsonian Progressive Era), and the 1930s-40s (during the Democratic New Deal) — almost reaching the political center by the end of FDR’s administration. The average DW-NOMINATE scores for the Republican Party are equally confusing.

I won’t go all the way with Lewis’ argument. In an email, he described liberalism and conservatism as ideologies that “are simply social constructs with no essential or core meaning.” Perhaps they don't have "essential" or "core" meanings, assuming some Platonic or Aristotelian model. But there is nonetheless a nuanced, defensible foundation for arguing that these social constructs have some larger meaning beyond a given historical moment.

In "On Liberty," John Stuart Mill wrote, “In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.” What counts as "progress" or "order" may of course vary enormously over time, and America’s political parties have long been more ideologically mixed than those of other countries — though that’s less true today than it has been since the Civil War. There’s plenty of room for broad concepts of liberalism and conservatism that transcend time and place — see Eric Havelock’s "The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics," for example — while also allowing for tremendous historical variation.

We may need to thinking of ideology as a fluid entity, internally structured to provide some coherence, but with that structure itself subject to change over time, sometimes rapidly. Conservatives are a social identity group, and the upheavals they’re going through reflect failures of past reinventions. Liberals are less cohesive, but they’ve failed more fundamentally in the past (see the elections of 1994 and 2010, as I wrote about here) and may now be primed for a kind of rebirth. Casting off the "static spectrum fallacy" can help us understand just what’s at stake in the 2018 midterms — if we find the right model to replace it. 

What is the "dyadic loop"?

Let me introduce the harm-based dyadic loop, described in a 2016 paper by Chelsea Schein and Kurt Gray, "Moralization and Harmification: The Dyadic Loop Explains How the Innocuous Becomes Harmful and Wrong." It’s based on two principles, the first being that “what seems harmful seems wrong," as a way of explaining "why more harmful acts are consistently judged as more immoral,” and the second being the complement of the first, that is, “what seems wrong seems harmful.” As people come to understand that "harmful acts are immoral, they automatically infer that immoral acts are harmful.” All politics is moral, as George Lakoff explained more than 20 years ago, and this dynamic goes to the heart of how political understanding changes.

Schein and Gray's first principle was established in an earlier paper, “The Unifying Moral Dyad,” showing that “moral judgment involves a common template grounded in perceived harm.” This contradicts a central claim of Jonathan Haidt’s “moral foundations theory,” which rests on the premise that “liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral mechanisms (or foundations).” Schein and Gray argue instead that these “foundations” have more to do with after-the-fact rationalizations than with how moral judgments are actually reached.

The second principle helps explain moments of moral panic like “Reefer Madness,” meaning the formerly widespread, evidence-free belief that marijuana was a dangerous drug because it had been made illegal. (Its association with “dangerous” users, meaning black people and Latinos, surely played a role as well.)

“The two principles of our harm-based moral mind are complementary: The inputs of each principle are the outputs of the other principle, providing the conditions for a positive feedback loop,” Schein and Gray explain. “This feedback loop has the power to amplify the perceived levels of both harm and immorality: what seems harmful seems wrong, and what seems wrong seems more harmful, and what seems more harmful becomes more wrong, and so on. This dyadic loop therefore serves as a relentless moralizer and harm-ifier, taking issues that are only minimally harmful or immoral and making them seems more severely harmful and immoral.”

The process they describe can work at almost lightning speed compared to other processes implicated in ideological evolution, such as those I described when I recently when I wrote about a new paper by Jeffrey Sinn. I think the mechanisms Sinn describes there work gradually over the course of generations, with the greatest impact on shaping core aspects of ideological social identity, while the harm-based dyadic loop works on a much faster time-scale, reshaping social identity most readily around the edges, though occasionally far more profoundly — especially in times of crises, such as the one we are living through today. 

Schein and Gray note that murder and rape may seem obviously harmful, but that people clearly disagree “about whether pornography, masturbation, and gay marriage are immoral, because all these acts are ambiguously harmful.”  For those who perceive those things as immoral, the dyadic loop will ensures that they will come to seem increasing wrong and harmful over time. “Once a concept is seen as somewhat harmful,” the authors write, “harm inexorably deepens and expands to related concepts.”

This process is universal, and applies to liberals as well as well as conservatives. But since conservatives are more threat-sensitive than liberals, they are more likely to react to the process more powerfully.

“Empirical research bears that out," Gray told Salon. "There's a scale that we use in our work, it’s called ‘belief in a dangerous world’ scale, and conservatives consistently score much higher than liberals. ... It's really about perception of harm or potential harm. I often think of cable news or local Fox stations, and their reports, often like 'Could someone be looking in your basement? Next on Fox News!' Right? It's leveraging these concrete experiences of harm and I wouldn't say conservatives are unique in that, but it's almost tied up in the definition of what it means to be a conservative — kind of reactive, and worried about threats to the social order.”

Expanding liberal morality

On the other hand, Schein and Gray's paper highlights some ways in which liberal morality has spread at the grassroots level. “The concept of abuse was historically restricted to physical assault but now includes emotional neglect and verbal insults,” they write. “Likewise, where once it was acceptable — or commendable — for parents to mete out harsh physical discipline or for fathers to be emotionally removed, both these now seem immoral.”

They cite a similar process with respect to bullying and prejudice, both of which have expanded in terms of perceived harm and immorality, “as society sees many subtle behaviors as indicative of harmful prejudice while viewing prejudice as a grave moral offence.” If you want to know why the right has lost so many culture-war battles over the past 40 years, look no farther than this.

The dyadic process generally only goes in only one direction, they note, “consistent with the historic trend of many issues,” including “environmentalism, cigarette smoking, and animal rights.” Apparent counter-examples that suggest a shrinking moral domain actually show something else: “What led many to see gay marriage as no longer intrinsically harmful and immoral? The answer is perceived harm — to gay people,” as reflected in the language of Justice Kennedy’s majority decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.

“More broadly, issues may be ‘de-moralized and de-harmified’ by emphasizing an opposing and more powerful understanding of harm and immorality,” the authors note, citing the example of tobacco companies' efforts to frame smoking bans as an infringement on individual rights. The tide turned against them when it turned out those companies had suppressed facts about the links between smoking and cancer, including the effects on children through second-hand smoke. “Impinging upon self-determination is harmful and immoral, but knowingly killing kids is more harmful and more immoral.”

Here's an important point: Different dyadic processes can occur at the same time among different groups, especially as social fragmentation increases. Instead of issues being "de-moralized," they get moralized in different ways. “We've actually been trying to figure out how different political leanings and particularly moral judgments are driven by different understandings of what is harmful and what can be harmed,” Gray said. One important example of this can be seen in the immigration issue. 

Liberals tend to see undocumented immigrants as vulnerable groups of people who are easily harmed (a statistical reality), while conservatives are likely to see them as actual or potential criminals perpetrating harm (a statistical rarity). “That initial seed of seeing immigrants as different can be bootstrapped by politicians to leverage even greater different opinions, like the caravan coming up from Guatemala,” Gray noted. “Liberals see a bunch of the bedraggled people who are fleeing poverty and violence. Conservatives see basically an armada coming to destroy their way of life.”

These diverse dynamics can also be fueled by religious sources, Gray noted. “There are things in the Old Testament that bear on morality, that more conservative people identify with, like in Leviticus -- questions of homosexuality, and whether you can have your daughter stoned for disobeying,” he said. “So in some sense old religious texts represent a kind of Rorschach test where people can see what aligns with their moral sensibility and their perceptions.” With texts like these as sources of values, “instead of having two things in your feedback loop, now have three, and that can accelerate it more quickly.”

Rejecting worldviews

Returning to the subject of de-moralization, another route discussed in the paper is the rejection of entire worldviews. “This is best exemplified by the secularization of modern culture,” they write. “Acts such as masturbation and homosexuality were [formerly] seen as both immoral and harmful because they tarnished one’s immortal soul and invited God’s wrath. However, if one denies the very existence of God and the soul, then one denies the legitimacy of this entire genre of harm." This explains why European society seems so morally permissive, they say, compared to more religious cultures — "secularization has removed entire domains of harm.”

The Republican and conservative trend toward the wholesale rejection of science and facts — indeed, the entire secular worldview — can be seen in similar terms. If there are no facts and no established process for determining facts, then any harm whatsoever can simply be imagined away — or invented, depending on the context. Moral frameworks can be created or discarded at will, the way a stage magician plays with his props.

This is precisely what Donald Trump has done throughout his adult life. Trump's takeover of the Republican Party reflects how ready it was to reject the entire secular worldview of shared facts and objective reality, and embrace whatever lurid fantasies Trump had to offer. This in turn creates a public discourse where this ideological fluidity is reflected in a bewildering flow of “alternative facts.” Decades of Fox News, talk radio, tabloid journalism and conspiracy-theory tomes like “None Dare Call It Treason” all helped pave the way.

Those earlier malicious lies were notably constrained by a shared worldview. You could only go so far in public, overt racism before you got called out for it. You could only lie so much before even your allies would turn on you. That shared worldview — long under stress from repeated right-wing attacks — has now been shattered, at least on the conservative side. It’s not just shattered once and for all, but repeatedly over and over again, as Sinn went on to describe:

Jeffrey Sinn, author of a paper referenced above, speculates that Donald Trump's lying "has a very practical impact." As the president's falsehoods become ever bolder and more brazen, the outraged reactions from Democrats and the mainstream media also become stronger, which "triggers his followers into even greater loyalty." Sinn adds that Trump's "direct delivery of the claims," whether on Twitter or in person, "makes them more personally his own and exerts greater pressure on followers to believe."

The rapidity seems designed to not only capture the narrative but also to short-circuit the regular pattern of discourse. One never gets to the bottom of the falsehood before another is preferred. It makes the discourse less deliberative and more tribal. There’s not enough time or energy to process all the claims, so followers must rely on their tribal affiliation with him against his critics. The lies are more effective than facts because they exert more pressure on supporters to trust him, to rely not on reason but their emotional connection.

This smashing of the truth-seeking process is integral to Trump’s authoritarian conservatism, which builds on decades-long developments, but takes them to a qualitatively different level, Sinn suggests: 

I’ve been stunned by the number of Trump allies who are prepared to believe the [recent attempted bombings] were either a false-flag operation or a Democratic hoax. This feels like the fluidity you’re talking about. It seems like here is a case where a Trump follower crossed a line – it’s now actual violence, not just tough talk – but they can’t pull back. They just double-down on the alternative reality where it’s the errors of the MSM that have brought this on.  CNN has only CNN to blame. 

Lessons for the midterms

How does all this theory translate into practical politics? First, it reminds us we’re engaged in a fluid, ongoing process. As vitally important as this year's midterms may appear, it is the longer-term process of transforming moral perceptions that will ultimately determine our future -- what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.” Seeing clearly, and deepening our concern for those who suffer, will keep us on the proper path.

Second, this helps explains what drives perceptions of good and evil — the presence of threatened harm to ourselves, our loved ones and those we identify as worthy of protection. Standing up to that threat and caring for those who are harmed is a worthy principle to guide us forward. 

Third, it reminds us that perception matters. Visibility matters. Stories of concrete harm matter. You want to know why healthcare is the number one issue for so many this campaign? Because it makes abstract harm concrete.  We need to do the same for every harm that threatens us, such as climate change, for example.

Fourth, it points to what we need to do. Far more people see Trump himself as a threat than see him as a champion. But simply seeing a threat is not enough. “They’re all like that,” “I’ve got more urgent problems,” “What’s the point?”—There are all sorts of reasons people have for not being engaged.

The key to turning things around is focusing on the victims being harmed, especially the most marginalized outgroup victims, who otherwise see no reason to vote. They need to know that harm to them is seen, that they are valued, that the evil done to them is known and called out. Progressives and Democrats have certainly improved on this score since the 2016 election. But we need to do more, we need to do better, we need to keep the spotlight on the harm to those who are “the least among us.” Doing this can help turnout in the short run, and help build solidarity in the long run. But most of all, it’s just the right thing to do. It’s called building the beloved community.

But wait. Don’t just think about doing something for outgroup victims targeted for harm. Take a closer look at what you can learn from them. Take a closer look at Standing Rock, at Parkland, at the #MeToo movement, at Black Lives Matter. The message of the moment is from Psalm 118:22: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” The profoundly intersectional leadership and participation in the Women’s March helped set the tone for this 22 months ago. This is the wave of the future. The future starts now.

Fifth, it helps us understand our emerging new leaders, how they’re showing us a better way, and helping us understand—so as not to repeat—the mistakes of the past. Consider Beto O’Rourke’s response to a question about NFL players kneeling. He didn’t just answered the question, he welcomed it as a chance to educate and a chance to share—and even a chance to let others disagree. But above all, he recovered the reason why Colin Kaepernick and other players were kneeling in the first place. It was about Black Lives Matter and the longer historical struggle for racial justice—an historic struggle against our country’s greatest betrayal, its greatest sin. Trump told perhaps his biggest lie about Kaepernick’s act, trying to utterly erase and deny what he was doing—and the media, and everyone else pretty much let him do that. But Beto O’Rourke did not.

Sixth, it helps us understand the importance of linking harmed targets together. For example, in June I wrote about the work of Anat Shenker-Osorio, Ian Haney López and Demos in developing a suite of race-class narratives that call out scapegoating by greedy, wealthy special interests, and that call on people to unify across racial lines for the common good. “Not only can racial justice and economic issues be addressed simultaneously,” I wrote. “Other issues involving the common good — such as environmental protection — gain support as well, even if they’re not being talked about directly.” The harm-based dyadic loop helps us more deeply appreciate the power of these narratives and how we might build on them in the future.

Whatever happens in the mid-terms, things are bound to change radically and unpredictably in the months ahead. The mid-terms—though vitally important—are just one step on the long road ahead.  As we progress, keeping the dyadic loop in mind will help guide us through all the twists and turns that will surely come.

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Paul H. Rosenberg is senior editor at Random Lengths News, a biweekly serving the Los Angeles harbor area.