Because the Commonwealth of Virginia holds its elections one year after America’s federal elections, it can serve as a mid-term report card for the national government a few miles up the road in Washington DC. Message to Biden: must pay attention and try harder.
Virginia has been moving decisively towards the Democrats for more than a decade now. But election night results suggest that the Republicans are going to make a clean sweep in both executive offices and the lower house. Their candidate for Governor, the delightfully named Glenn Youngkin (truly – could Trumpkin ever have been elected President) defeated a well-funded aggressively-campaigning former incumbent for the job.
Nor is it just a Virginia thing. In the New Jersey election – a state Biden took by a 16% margin one year ago – the Democrat Governor looks set to cling on with a 1% margin.
Wise heads will no doubt point out that the Republicans had ‘moderate’ records and steered clear of slavish endorsement of the former president (while successfully dodging Democrat attempts to make the elections about Trump).
But that is tactical stuff. At the strategic level, Trump and Trumpism are part of the Republican package.
Which means it’s time to grapple once more with the nature of that slippery beast. Because a year of the alternative (Bidenism?) sure helps bring it into focus.
And from this perspective, what increasingly stands out is – its conservatism. Yes, roughly per Edmund Burke a mistrust of elite abstract policy reasoning and a preference for change in accordance with the traditions and temper of the country.
This perspective will not be shared by all. Another reflection views the age as marked by:
“ … the tear-it-all-down populism that has swept so much of the right in the past five years and the tear-it-all-down progressivism that threatens to sweep the left.”
And goes on to argue that:
“ … Trump’s real legacy, in Burke’s eyes, would be his relentless debasement of political culture.”
There’s a time and place (not here) for a book-length discussion on the debasement of political culture in the age of anti-racism and woke.
But given Trump’s rather flexible and sometimes inconsistent principles, it behoves us to look again at the policy record. Which looks more and more, well, conservative.
- Stopping the relentless growth of the body of (‘supply chain crisis’ exacerbating) government regulation.
- Appointing judges consistently opposed to the extension of state power.
- Shouting loudly against the imposition of ideology through state institutions supposed to represent the people they serve.
- Refusing to commit America to vast and globally-unbalanced climate expenditures (and more generally opposing far-reaching schemes of policy engineering like government-run healthcare).
- Challenging the terms of the existing Sino-American accommodation and the Chinese government’s opportunism in exploiting its weaknesses.
- Trying to control the flow of people across America’s borders.
- And let’s not forget the old favourite of imprudent public expenditure plus tax cuts. Conservatives love occasional bipartisanism.
One of the more distinctive things which distinguishes Donald Trump from right of centre contemporaries like, say, John Key or Boris Johnson is the totality of opposition to the contemporary progressive juggernaut which he manages to project.
He purposely distances himself from the – mostly progressive – establishment. He does not try to give the soothing impression that some nastiness is sadly inevitable but he can manage it so much more sensibly and practically than the other lot.
While Trump appears an unlikely reader of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, he is one of the few able to convey some of its revolt against convention:
‘The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.’
One wonders how Trump would have fared if he could also have managed the nobility.
Well, the establishment has been back in charge in Washington for a year now (albeit no longer in Virginia). It has spent much of that time divided over its response to Trump. Some want more of the same; others much, much more of the same.
Given the policy implications of either choice, it will need a heroic productivity response from America’s private sector (you know Google, Amazon, Pfizer, ExxonMobil etc) with lots of creative job destruction to keep the economic show on the road.
Which suggests a conservative revival is not implausible. But will it require the garb of Trumpism?