Late last month, the magazine National Review -- a staple of conservative punditry for half a century -- published a fawning article by a Fox News contributor listing all the purported reasons that conservatives and libertarians should be thankful on the 2017 Thanksgiving Holiday for the one-year old Trump presidency.
The prominent placement of the said piece was a subtle acknowledgement by the NR’s rather Trump-sceptic editorial stable that too many of its readers have hitched their wagons to the Trump star.
Whether that adoration for the president is one of political principles or sheer tribalism is a matter of perspective.
The NR article’s smitten author Deroy Murdock certainly wants to advance the political principle argument; too many conservatives like myself are unimpressed.
To be sure, Murdock’s listing includes the substantive achievement of putting Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court and several other activists in conservative legal circles on other powerful appellate benches.
Whether those judges end up being actual conservatives who protect the rights of individuals against the state or simply rubberstamp majoritarian policies emanating from conservative legislatures is yet to be seen.
Much of the rest of the adulation of Trump as a conservative is that of process and rhetoric rather than substance: What awesome things he said in Riyadh or Warsaw or what posture he struck figuratively in a speech or his choice of words.
Worse, the fallacy of equating correlation with causation shows up in such worshipful hosannas to the president: The stock market is up or a certain company is opening a plant in Wisconsin must equate to Trump policy triumph which, in a supreme irony, is precisely the causation sophistry that candidate Trump’s tweets were dismissive about in regards to his predecessor’s fan club crediting a rebounding Dow and lower gas prices to Obama’s stewardship.
Even on his signature promise of stopping outsourcing, the record is showing a slightly faster clip of jobs sent overseas this year so far than have in the past five years on average, according to his own Labour Department.
It is fair to say that the president’s first year has been a triumph of a populist wish list of policies
And of course, there is the massive Republican tax cut bill that is likely to be trumpeted as a major conservative victory which, upon closer look, is conservative only in that it reduces the crushing tax burden on businesses.
But by adding a trillion dollars to the national debt, the bill is the antithesis of fiscal conservatism as it had been known for generations.
Nothing in the bill does anything to bring a modicum of sanity to the out of control entitlement spending that eats up a quarter of the national budget every year, with projections of that proportion increasing as life expectancy rises; this should be no surprise since Mr Trump promised to defend entitlements to their fullest.
Similarly to the tax cut bill, populists have heralded the noticeable reduction in unauthorised migration into the United States under the Trump presidency as a sign of conservative policy triumph.
Such a claim is defensible, though it has its own conservative critique: It has come at the cost of a massive projected increase in the government’s policing payroll and stagnation in the hinterland’s agriculture fields, where migrant labour is the keystone to productivity.
The outlay for hiring tens of thousands of unionised police officers is not the only area where the Trump administration has opened the spigots to spending. In a role far more relatable to the American liberal-progressive agenda, it is also pushing for a trillion dollars to be put into public works from bridges to highways to dams, and everything in between.
Given almost unchanged rates of unemployment and labour force participation during the first year of this presidency, such public spending looks more like a giveaway to favoured voting blocs than anything to do with conservative economics.
If the record of conservatism domestically is not clear for the Trump presidency, it is equally murky, to put it most charitably, in the foreign policy realm.
By going against the fundamental conservative economic tenet of free trade, Trump has created unprecedented chaos in trading ties with America’s closest commercial partners while handing communist China the de facto leadership of Pacific trade lanes.
Compounding insults to America’s closest Western allies from Britain to Germany to France has been the president’s ardent defense of NATO’s arch-nemesis, former KGB supremo Vladimir Putin who has used such confusion emanating from Washington DC to consolidate his strategic partnerships with Iran and India and to continue his covert mission to destabilise the electoral systems in Western democracies.
While his domestic fan club has been busy equating his blustery rhetoric with supposed strength, the sad truth of the matter is that the core conservative foreign policy ideal of American leadership of the democratic world has been simply tossed away by a president whose foreign policy is informed by populism, isolationism, and a fondness for Twitter, rather than timeless principles of American conservatism.
It is fair to say that the president’s first year has been a triumph of a populist wish list of policies. It is wrong to confuse, however, populist ideology with conservative policy principles, notwithstanding the worshipful adulation of the core supporters of the president.
Esam Sohail is a college administrator and social sciences instructor in Kansas, USA.