Donald Trump

How Donald Trump Ditched Conservatism and Got Ahead

The roots of Trump-style nationalism


If you had to sum up Donald Trump's platform with a single word, "nationalist" would work much better than "conservative." Many conservatives understand this, which is why outlets like National Review keep telling Trump voters that their candidate isn't a man of the Buckley/Goldwater right. Many nationalists understand this too, which is why they keep replying—either directly or via the polls—that they don't care.

The latest journalist to tackle this topic is Michael Brendan Dougherty, whose latest piece in The Week makes sense of the Trump movement by looking back at the American right of the '90s. Like many writers, Dougherty sees Pat Buchanan's insurgent presidential campaigns as a prelude to Trumpism. But Dougherty goes further than that, noting that Sam Francis—a Buchanan ally associated with the most nationalist wing of the right—issued this advice to the candidate in 1996:


I told [Buchanan] privately that he would be better off without all the hangers-on, direct-mail artists, fund-raising whiz kids, marketing and PR czars, and the rest of the crew that today constitutes the backbone of all that remains of the famous "Conservative Movement" and who never fail to show up on the campaign doorstep to guzzle someone else's liquor and pocket other people's money. "These people are defunct," I told him. "You don't need them, and you're better off without them. Go to New Hampshire and call yourself a patriot, a nationalist, an America Firster, but don't even use the word 'conservative.' It doesn't mean anything any more."

Pat listened, but I can't say he took my advice. By making his bed with the Republicans, then and today, he opens himself to charges that he's not a "true" party man or a "true" conservative, constrains his chances for victory by the need to massage trunk-waving Republicans whose highest goal is to win elections, and only dilutes and deflects the radicalism of the message he and his Middle American Revolution have to offer. The sooner we hear that message loudly and clearly, without distractions from Conservatism, Inc., the Stupid Party, and their managerial elite, the sooner Middle America will be able to speak with an authentic and united voice, and the sooner we can get on with conserving the nation from the powers that are destroying it.

As Dougherty writes, "Trump embodies this in nearly every letter." That's true not just in terms of how he brands himself and who he associates with, but in terms of his policies. Francis is a guy who explicitly wrote that his ideal ruling class would use subsidies and trade barriers to "make use of the state for its own interests as willingly as the present managerial elite does." That certainly fits the Trump model. And while Trump and Francis' foreign policy views may not be quite as close a fit, in broad outlines they resemble each other too. Like Trump, Francis was less prone than the GOP elite to support military action abroad; also like Trump, he stopped well short of Ron Paul–style non-intervention.

Dougherty's point isn't that Trump has been reading Francis. (That seems extremely unlikely.) It's that Trump is taking advantage of a dynamic that Francis identified 20 years ago, embracing its logic in a way that Buchanan wouldn't. "What is so crucial to Trump's success, even within the Republican Party, is his almost total ditching of conservatism as a governing philosophy," Dougherty writes. "He is doing the very thing Pat Buchanan could not, and would not do." That's a pretty noteworthy development, even for those of us who are neither nationalists nor conservatives.

Bonus links:

• Francis' career began in the 1970s New Right and ended on the racist fringes. The most detailed overview of it that I know of was written nine years ago by one Michael Brendan Dougherty. You can read it here.

• For a concentrated dose of Francis' suspicious worldview, check out his 1998 review of a book about alien abductions. The upshot: Francis wasn't convinced that extraterrestrials were real, but if they were real, he was pretty sure they were up to no good.