American conservatism has taken many often contradictory, but more often overlapping forms over recent decades. The libertarianism of Ron and Rand Paul, the Christian conservativism of the Moral Majority and its successors, the Koch brothers’ focus on limiting regulation and cutting taxes, the noblesse oblige of the Rockefellers, the neoconservative foreign policy of Dick Cheney and his acolytes and the federalism of 10th Amendment loyalists all made claim to the label. Donald Trump fails to fit neatly in any of these conservative traditions. Instead, like a clunky jazz musician, he steals from several of these traditions, depending upon the day of the week and the issue of that day.
A final branch of American conservatism is one that puts tremendous faith in formal and informal American institutions to provide the persistently protective “guard rails” in American life and law. If there is anything consistent in a Trumpist ideology, it is a consistent rejection of this articulation of conservatism. He regularly disrespects such institutions and their guiding principles, from his dismissiveness of “so-called” federal judges who rejected his unconstitutional ban on travel to the U.S. from certain primarily Muslim countries, to his ongoing attacks on the FBI, to his tweeted assaults on certain media outlets that perpetuate “fake news.” This anti-institutionalism climaxed (for the moment) in a disconcerting statement from the Oval Office on April 9 in reaction to the raid of his personal attorney Michael Cohen’s law office, home and hotel room carried out according to the clear defined investigatory rules and appropriate court oversight: “It’s an attack on our country, in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.”
As Julian Zelizer argues in a recent, excellent essay in The Atlantic, such anti-institutionalism makes perfect sense in that Trump is deeply reflective of the 1970s, the moment when many longstanding American institutions were under complete assault, often because of self-inflicted wounds like Vietnam and Watergate. Many argued that the institutions could be bettered through essential reforms such as enhanced transparency (such as new oversight of the CIA) and changes to lessen potential for abuses (such as limiting the term of the director of the FBI). Others settled into a more fundamental distrust of institutions. Zelizer concludes that Trump took the latter path: “Trump has taken the message of distrusting institutions to heart, stripped away all the messages that coupled skepticism with the need for institutional reform, and promoted a brand of political nihilism that polarizes the nation.”
As a child of the 1970s, socialized by a family deeply distrustful of such institutions, I get the dangers of unquestioned loyalty to social and political institutions. We need to remain constantly on watch for how those institutions could be made healthier, be clear on how innovation is stifled when our faith in them is too strong (as is the case with certain constitutional originalists), and appreciate that, without oversight, institutions can abuse the real power they have. But, we also have to recognize that they have been and remain a stabilizing force in America dating back to its founding.
Indeed, a renewed celebration of the value of institutions is pulling together those who, until the rise of Trump, would have separated themselves into differing political camps. As Republican strategist and MSNBC commentator Steve Schmidt said immediately after the FBI raids on Michael Cohen’s properties that had elevated the rule of law above the interests of the man in the White House: “If you listen carefully tonight, you can hear the faint applause of the Founding Fathers in Heaven.” (Yes, I know there is irony in the fact that Schmidt bears some responsibility for the rise of a consummate anti-institutionalist, Sarah Palin, in 2008). A few days before, Schmidt’s counterpart in the 2008 campaign, Obama strategist David Axelrod, warned those who show a desire to shortcut the process and move to impeachment of the president without dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s: “If impeachment becomes a political tool instead of the end result of a credible investigation, then you are as guilty as Trump, in some ways, of taking a hammer blow to institutions.”
We know that this is a realigning era in America politics. Much of that realignment is geographical and demographic. But, a sharp division on the value of institutions in American life is also at the heart of this transformative moment in our politics.