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.

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  1. MOAR TRUMPZ!!!!

    1. There have been two Trump posts out of 13 total today on H&R.

      1. It was a long weekend, they’re a little behind.

  2. Aliens are real and they are laughing their asses off right now. “Let the milk suckers implode and then we will get all the craft beer we want. Muahahahahah!”

  3. All joking aside, this is the best Trump post I’ve seen in a while. It’s not earth-shattering, but it is
    iInformative and insightful, and not just “Here’s another thing that makes Trump awful scum.”

      1. You know who else was involved with bad things happening at camps?

        1. FDR?

        2. My Boy Scout Troop Leader?

          1. Which badge did you “win?”

          2. “My chin may be scratchy, Canteen Boy, but it gives good backrubs.”

            1. He even had time to add a link and last name. Boy are you slow!

      2. Seconded.

        A choice between totalitarianism and nationalism isn’t a choice at all. Northeastern demagoguery versus Southeastern demagoguery. The basis of the last civil war.

      3. If it’s not irony, it’s at least nickely.

  4. The GOP “conservatives” may be quick to disavow Trump, but Trump’s getting hung around their neck anyway. One way or the other, they created him. I keep hearing Trump doesn’t represent the GOP “base” values, but the base of the GOP has only one over-riding value and that’s to vote Republican. The base, by definition, are going to hold their noses and vote for whoever the GOP nominee is so it’s silly to suggest Trump doesn’t represent their values.

    1. But as this post touches on, part of the point is that the “base” is not the same thing, at all, as “conservatives.” The point of all this, as a lesson for the GOP, is that the base are nothing but populist nationalists. The establishment is finding out that its base is not conservative at all.

      1. The establishment is finding out that its base is not conservative at all.

        Finding out? No, they knew it all along; they were just arrogant enough to believe they could successfully ride the dragon.

        1. I’m sure some of them were dumb enough to not realize it.

          1. I was dumb enough to not realize it.
            On the other hand, it’s making me move more in the libertarian direction.

      2. FYI: Republicans Have Overestimated the Conservatism of the Base

        It underestimated the extent to which many of its voters hadn’t so much embraced the corporate conservatism of the Chamber of Commerce or the constitutional conservatism of the Tea Party as much as they had rejected the extremism of the increasingly shrill and politically correct Left.

      3. Exactly. The Republican base is more dumb and angry than it is conservative. They have always voted for candidates who call themselves conservatives because they are the only ones who even pay lip service to the things they consider problems.

        1. I seriously doubt if the Republican base is more “dumb” than the Democratic base.

          1. I seriously doubt if the Republican base is more “dumb” than the Democratic base.

            There’s an accomplishment.

          2. Good thing Hugh didn’t make the claim that it was.

            1. Geez nicole, didn’t you read the part of my comment where I specifically mentioned the Democrat base? I mean it shouldn’t be too hard to find if you just look.

              1. You mentioned it as if it was some sort of special, distinguishing feature, instead of a description of the base of any large political party.

                1. He was comparing those things to how conservative they are. The Democrats have absolutely nothing to do with the comparison.

            2. You know who else made disparaging claims about other groups?

              1. Tony?

      4. The establishment is finding out that its base is not conservative at all.

        To some significant extent, I think the establishment is finding out that its base is more conservative than they thought.

        Much of the rejection of the establishment by the base has to do with the establishment’s craven refusal to oppose, or to actually support, one Dem proposal after another, and to refuse to push any “conservative” proposals opposed by Reid or Pelosi over the finish line.

        The base doesn’t want Dem-Lite or Dem-Enabling, but that’s what they think they’ve got. To some extent, its Team thinking, but to some extent, its anger at the soi-disant conservative leaders not being conservative or leaders.

        1. More anti-Democrat does not equal more conservative. Is there a single fiscally conservative policy Trump supporters want?

          1. Not importing Muslim refugees is fiscally conservative.

            1. Not importing Muslim refugees is fiscally conservative.


              The giant wall with Mexico on the other hand… Bernie Sanders cries with envy that *he* didn’t propose that boondoggle.

          2. Good point. The thing is, it struck me that a lot of the earlier outrage was over fiscal policies. Trump’s been very adept at channeling for his own agenda.

        2. RC, this makes no sense to me. The GOP frontrunners all have ZERO economically conservative bona fides. They aren’t front-running by accident.

      5. The establishment is finding out that its base is not conservative at all.

        I think that’s true. So much of the base is farmers looking for handouts, rednecks looking to blow up brown people, and the military-industrial complex.

        As I’ve stated in the past, during primary season playing to the base – whatever it is – is the smart strategy as primary season is for the base. Once the nomination is sewn up, playing to the base is an idiotic strategy.

        McCain played the nationalism card into the nomination, where his complete lack of conservative bona fides kept him out of the White House. Romney made the same mistake, to a lesser extent. The GOP will bitch and moan that a vote for libertarians is a vote for democrats, and they can take that derp to their graves as far as I’m concerned because socialism and nationalism are just two routes to the same shithole.

        1. You point out a very significant pattern. When conservatism is more libertarian (even in tone, if not in fact), it tends to win general elections. When conservatives run on this sort of thing, they fail. The thing is libertarianism is sort of at the heart of what makes America special (okay, cue the sneering from the usual suspects). I think a lot of people kind of know it, even if they won’t acknowledge it to themselves. And when someone presents a moderate libertarianism to them, they’ll rally to it.

          1. I don’t think they will. I think the empirical evidence is that a supermajority of Americans want low taxes paired with massive spending and a big, intrusive government that meddles with “those people” (although there is disagreement on who ‘those people’ are, of course).

  5. Not that the terms are mutually exclusive, but I wonder why Walker, who coined the term “libertarian populism” went with nationalism as opposed to populism. Producerism would be even more accurate.

    1. 1. I didn’t coin “libertarian populism”! I think that was Tim Carney.

      2. I went with “nationalism” partly because that’s the term Francis used, but also because that’s the specific sort of ideology at work here. Not all populism or producerism is nationalist, and not all nationalism is populist or producerist.

      1. You know who else deemed it important to distinguish among -isms?

      2. I didn’t coin “libertarian populism”! I think that was Tim Carney.

        Mea culpa! Regardless, I’ll still award you the credit.

        Not all populism or producerism is nationalist, and not all nationalism is populist or producerist.

        Certainly, though I’m not sure Trump, himself, falls more on the nationalist side. Indeed, many of his followers are vocally nationalist, but from what I’ve heard, it seems Trump would be more than happy to keep trading with China, for example; however, he advocates “negotiating” for a better deal.

      3. True. However, those -isms tend to cluster in the same people, & some of those people think that at least 2, or all 3, of those -isms are causally connected or follow from each other.

        A friend of mine is such a Trump supporter that he recently registered to vote after not having voted since the 20th C. He’d been the sec’y of the Populist Party of America, considers Trump a populist rather than a “conservative”, and considers himself (& Trump too, I’m sure, though he didn’t say so) a nationalist. It had, however, bothered him that Trump vied w Buchanan (of whom he was a big fan) for the Reform Party nomination for POTUS. Since that time, my friend says now, there’d been several times he & another friend thought Trump might run, & that he would’ve had a good shot had he done so, but that he was likely just building rumors & would not run. So my friend was very pleased that this time it was for real.

        My friend has never AFAIK used the term “producerist”, but that label certainly fits him too. My friend does label himself conservative, and construes conservatism narrowly enough to exclude neocons, & considers many who others would consider conservatives to be neocons instead. He more or less defines “conservative” by what he is, but I’d use the term “reactionary” for him. Basically he wants most (though not all) things to go back to the way he thinks they were in the USA around when he was born, 1953.

      4. I was inclined to post something similar.

        I have no inkling that Trump has some sort of consistent vision for the country, nationalist or otherwise. He seems to have a knack for finding buttons and pushing them. His TV series is not particularly informative nor are his comments on the show insightful, but he has a knack for making it entertaining. Largely by being bombastic and somewhat unpredictable. Sound familiar?

        That’s why I call him a populist. The fact that there are nationalist themes to his populism is driven by his random walk toward what the riled up masses want to hear. If he says something that gets positive reaction, he gives more of it. If he says something that gets a yawn, he moves on. His lack of any identifiable core makes him the perfect candidate for his bombastic style. Being inconsistent virtually guarantees an attack by some opponent or reporter at every turn – which is when he is at his most entertaining.

        The guy is an unmitigated doofus, but he does know how to reach a big chunk of the population in the middle. Make no mistake, nothing in his support is due to his acumen or positions…. it is all due to his ability to say things that people want to hear and to be entertaining. That’s it.

        Therefore, a populist.

  6. Speaking know trump’s style of politic, I’m wondering if American politics are becoming more European as I sensed a decade ago.

    Everyone here complains that Republicans barely pay lip service to limited government. It seems that leviathan, the massive welfare state can no longer be curbed, and no one’s even trying. So “conservatives” have simply resorted to making sure foreigners or illegals can’t get any of it.

    1. You know who else discriminated against foreigners in a European style?

    2. Everyone here complains that Republicans barely pay lip service to limited government.

      How many Republicans have actually rolled back government since Harding in anything more than a superficial manner? One, maybe two? When the principles of FDR’s New Deal became the American status quo, and American society grew increasingly complex, more government was inevitable. There’s a reason the country’s workforce became chock full of middle-manager types starting in the 1950s, because the conventional wisdom was that they were needed to run the ever-growing, ever-changing needs of the state.

      Goldwater, as admirable as his screed was, ultimately was pissing in the wind. Reagan paid lip service to it and allowed deficits to go through the roof rather than risk dying on a political hill to even roll the Dept of Education back into Health and Human Services.

      That’s why Trump is still leading the pack after all these months, and why he freaks out both the establishment GOP as well as the Democrats–because he’s the only R that acts as if he has the will to power to actually take down some long-cherished American shibboleths about the post-WW2 consensus.

      1. because he’s the only R that acts as if he has the will to power to actually take down some long-cherished American shibboleths about the post-WW2 consensus.

        And which part of that involves a more-limited government?

        1. I think you’re missing the bigger picture. Conservatives don’t really give a rip about limited government anymore because they think conservative leaders don’t either. That’s why the “Trump’s not really a conservative!” line isn’t getting any traction. Why bother supporting someone who won’t deliver what they promise?

          What Trump represents is really more of a return to Theodore Roosevelt-style politics–muscular nationalism and a government that goes after large industries but tends to leave smaller businesses alone. However, it’s a bit more complex in that Trump’s evoking nostalgia for the high-trust, low-scale, mostly white societies that a lot of his supporters would prefer to live in and feel have been decimated at least as far back as the 1960s, and even to the beginning of the 20th century. It also harkens back to the economic protectionism that Republicans supported for decades before the Democrats co-opted the leftist immigrant populations of the late 19th and early 20th century and turned them against the protected businesses.

          1. So it sounds like I’m not missing the bigger picture and these simply are not conservatives or people with very conservative impulses. I agree with everything you say here, and most of your previous comment, except that for some reason your previous comment seemed to imply that being genuinely for limited government, as opposed to paying it lip service, would have been a winning strategy.

            1. Oh, and this:

              Conservatives don’t really give a rip about limited government anymore because they think conservative leaders don’t either.

              I don’t understand why you’re using “conservative” here instead of “Republican.” People who don’t want limited government are not conservatives.

              1. Or it could be the other way round. Loads of Republican politicians have become big government Republicans because the electorate doesn’t give a rip about limited government.

                Admit it. We are a tiny minority. How often do you get blank stares when you try to explain the ponzi scheme that is the social security system? And that’s an easy one. Bring up something like Raiche and good luck getting three sentences into your ideas about constitutional limitations on government power. Nobody knows what the heck you are talking about….

                Conservative never was nearly as conservative as we are. They were mostly prudes who wanted the state to enforce their “values” and had an “oh, by the way” affinity for limited government in other areas.

                It is a trueism, but it is still applicable and relevant. We are way, way more conservative than the conservatives, and way, way, way more liberal than the liberals. That’s why we are so reviled.

              2. Cripes, Nikki, you’re going to have to stop sounding so reasonable. I find myself agreeing with you too much on this thread. 🙂

              3. People who don’t want limited government are not conservatives.

                Or maybe they’re people who just don’t care anymore because they’ve realized nothing short of collapse will actually limit government anymore.

          2. That describes Robert Blumetti (my friend as referred to below) to a tee. He’s not positive Trump’s for all that, but is satisfied he wants to shake up the Establishment.

          3. a government that goes after large industries but tends to leave smaller businesses alone.

            Trump and most of the GOP have zero intention of doing this. They are whores-for-sale just like their Dem counterparts. They’re just selling a few principles at lower prices.

            Trump/Cruz and Hilary/Sanders are both willing to kill foreigners, Hilary/Sanders just want more money to say so.

      2. How many Republicans have actually rolled back government since Harding in anything more than a superficial manner?

        Around 25 YA, in rxn vs. an unpopular Dem regime in NJ, Republicans swept in & rolled back most of the recent grievances. Not all of them, though, & things were back to where they’d been in a few yrs.

    3. Many “conservatives” have become honestly conservative in that regard. Social Security’s part of the status quo, so they aim to conserve it.

  7. It’s unreasonable to expect any candidate to have a coherent platform beyond pandering to whichever voting asshole is in front of him at the moment.

    1. Pandering is entirely underrated.

      1. That’s true. Theoretically a representative democracy should be all about pandering. The candidates aren’t supposed to have their own opinions any more than any other hired agent is, they’re supposed to reflect whoever hires them.

  8. You know who else became famous for their own particular brand of nationalism?

    1. FDR?

      1. +1 ambassadorship to Uganda

        1. -1 ambassadorship to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

          1. That’s what i get for not checking Wikipedia before i post. Damn.

  9. If you had to sum up Donald Trump’s platform with a single word, “nationalist” would work much better than “conservative.”

    I’d choose “retarded”, but when in Rome….

    Can’t argue with success.

    1. Know your constituency. (sorry for the Eddie)

  10. dilutes and deflects the radicalism of the message he and his Middle American Revolution have to offer. … the sooner Middle America will be able to speak with an authentic and united voice

    I say this as a libertarian, not as a New Yorker or anything: fuck off, Middle America.

    1. You know who else came to dislike America?

      1. We need to rename you Citizen G (Godwin)

  11. “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.”

    I had a conversation about this the other day. Jeb was whining to some group in Iowa, “Trump isn’t a conservative!!” and i pointed out how Jeb was basically 100% wrong and completely missing the point, which is why he will lose.

    He thinks “Conservative” means the same thing it meant in the 1990s. What “Conservative” means has been changing constantly since then. As Nick himself noted, the Religious Right hit its apotheosis in the middle of the Bush admin then took a swan dive. The traditional formula of “Conservative” no longer matters politically.

    On the economic side, no one has bought the idea of a “pro-Small Business” GOP since… fuck, ever. The “Anti-Globalization” Right has had nowhere to go. The idea that DC-centric Trade policy has fucked over the little guy is pervasive. And they’ve had no voice at all.

    Then you have the failure of the 2007 “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” which many ‘conservatives’ saw as a massive betrayal by the GOP. They were pitched so much Hurr-Durr rabble-rousing, the actual bill was seen as ‘too-accommodating’ and virtual ‘amnesty’.

    I don’t think Trump is some new-formula of “nationalist” at all. I think he’s just speaking to the actual issues that Conservatives care most about, while the establishment GOP has been smelling their own farts for 20 years.

    1. This right here.

      Self-identified conservatives feel abandoned and betrayed by their putative political leaders, so they are looking for a new one.

      Trump may not be very conservative by most definitions, but he sure looks more conservative than the GOP establishment.

      1. This thing about what he “is” or “isn’t” is sort of meaningless.

        The fact is that people who call themselves “conservative’ are voting for him.

  12. Good point about nationalism, but how is this different from populism, such as Liberty Lobby, The Populist Party, Ross Perot, Bo Gritz, David Duke, etc.? Protectionism, patriotism, xenophobia, etc. Appealing to regular blue-collar, God-fearing folks who talk plain. Offering very little specifics. Painting themselves as outsiders. A touch of anti-government. Even Ron Paul’s popularity probably grew beyond pure libertarians with a bit of this populism.

    1. You know who else was appealed to their base using protectionism, patriotism, and xenophobia?

    2. How is it different? It’s not. Everyone has nuances, but they’re just details.

    3. but how is this different

      Trump is actually a frontrunner?

      Outside of the xenophobia, the Democrats run on the exact same stuff. In fact, the ONLY difference between the Northeast Elites (and their kowtowers on the left coast) and the Southeast Elites (and their kowtowers in the plains) is the xenophobia. Both are welfare statists to the core.

      1. Meant to say: the ONLY difference in the last 150 years

      2. Democrats usually run on protectionism, but not overt patriotism. That would be the GOP and of course populists. Almost all politicians are welfare statists, except for true fiscal conservatives and libertarians, which are rare. Being an angry anti-establishment outsider, populist-nationalist, protectionist, like Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, and Donald Trump appears to be the key to popularity in the polls right now. If the anti-immigration and xenophobia can be sold as the key to the war on terror, then that seems to be working as a way to manipulate a lot of the masses.

        We can hope the thoughtful and intelligent voters will outnumber the idiots. But most voters are actually simpletons. They’re uninformed and stupid, and they are easy to manipulate. Trump’s populist message is appealing to a lot of blue-collar, angry people, and because the economy hasn’t been so great for kind of a long time now, there are more dissatisfied, angry middle-class people now too. They want change, and he tells ’em there will be alllll kinds of wonderful change. They want to hear that. And they don’t want to consider how impossible it all is, since you kind of need a little help from Congress. It’s getting very ugly.

  13. I heard from a reliable source that Trump’s appeal is because Republicans don’t value experience, where Democrats do.

    1. I don’t know where they got that idea. Jonah Goldberg pointed out that the Republican Party’s M.O. for decades was to get behind the candidate who they felt had “done their time” and deserved a shot, typically one that had been previously denied. It’s happened basically since Ford all the way through Romney–a candidate who had to defer to someone else because it was “their turn,” often who had tried to run before and lost, so they deserved the shot at the brass ring. If anything, Republicans have often been far too deferential to experience rather than nominating a more dynamic candidate.

      Trump knows the base is tired of “experienced” milquetoasts and are more interested in novelty right now. That he and Cruz are the two main candidates right now shows just how pissed off they are with the old Republican campaign machine.

      1. shows just how pissed off they are with the old Republican campaign machine.

        Voters don’t give a rat’s ass about campaign machines, only political hobbyists do.

        People like celebrity, people they’ve heard of before. THAT is the entire reason behind supporting a candidate that had done his time – familiarity. That puts Trump in the lead right there and the GOP campaign machine is behind him. He’s a celeb not mincing words; Christie and Bush were seen kissing Obama’s ass so they pissed their celeb credentials away.

        A small faction of the GOP campaign machine is pissed that Trump hasn’t “done his time”. These are mostly the supporters of the failed candidates. They will get over their butthurt.

        1. It will be interesting to see if the National Review guys in particular will actually swallow their pride and vote for Trump if he’s the nominee. They’re typically party guys all the way, but I’d love to see the neocon faction of the Republicans try and undermine his run in a general. We’d know for sure that a political realignment was in play at that point.

  14. I liked this. It is nationalistic. Stop the Brown Hordes from invading, bring back manufacturing, strong military…

  15. Oh look, now Trump wants a more robust ethanol mandate. I wonder why.

    1. I wonder why.

      He wants to make the environment great again?

    2. He’s just talking straight, Nikki. He’s not pandering or anything. He’s not like those other politicians too afraid to say the things some voters want to hear.

    3. Trump wants a more robust ethanol mandate

      When dems want an ethanol mandate, it’s for Bambi and the children.
      When repubs want it, it’s to save the farmer and stick it to the towelheads.

  16. I still describe myself as a conservative albeit a libertarian leaning one, to most people I discuss politics with. Not because of any loyalty to a particular brand, but rather because it is a convenient shorthand. To folks who tend towards right-of-center I try to show areas of agreement between us (free market, guns, and I personally tend towards a strong military, though not necessarily all the foreign adventures). And then feel like I can gently persuade them on the WODs, or sex stuff starting with the first principle of liberty.

    And with lefties, I just like pissing them off.

  17. But, embracing nationalist politics isn’t rejecting conservatism. Just the worthwhile parts. If you think through a principled conservatism, you can really only go one of two ways, libertarianism or this sort of nonsense. And if you follow this through to its logical conclusion, this sort thing starts to look ugly very quickly.

    1. I’m pretty it’s going somewhere ugly regardless what happens. Ignoring our likely presidential candidates, there’s no reason to think things aren’t going to get worse before they get nightmarish.

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