Email #265: “Conservative Principles”?

Donald Trump is not a conservative, and under his presidency, the Republican party is betraying its conservative principles as defined by Russell Kirk’s 1993 “Ten Conservative Principles,” one of the most cited and posted documents at conservative websites.

Some of Kirk’s principles are less convincing than others. His sixth accepts “some evils, maladjustments, and suffering” as not only “tolerable” but preferable to the “hell” of “utopia,” and his fifth argues that social inequality is not just a necessary evil but is actually a social good because it creates “healthy diversity” and so requires “orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality.”

But I found myself agreeing with some of Kirk’s principles, especially his last. He crowns his essay with an argument for balancing “permanence and change.” He writes:

“The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.”

But then he adds:

“Change is essential to the body social, the conservative reasons, just as it is essential to the human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die… The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new.”

That sounds like the definition of a moderate or a centrist. That sounds like the proper goal of a democratic government that must balance both conservative and progressive constituents. Republican Senator Graham said something similar to angry progressives at one of his South Carolina town hall meetings in March:

“I don’t believe that the Constitution was written so that you get everything you want and I get nothing. That’s not the way the Constitution was written.”

Of course his constituents weren’t demanding “everything.” They were demanding compromise. In a nation that has given one party only a two-vote majority in the Senate and a President elected by a minority of voters, the principle of compromise should be an overwhelming priority. You occasionally employ bipartisan rhetoric, but you and the rest of the GOP under the leadership of the Trump administration have rejected bipartisanship approaches to governing in favor of a winner-take-all attitude. This, according to Kirk, isn’t conservativism.

I’m even more startled to read how much President Trump violates other Kirk’s principles. Not only does he not favor “reasoned and temperate progress,” he is not guided by Kirkland’s “principle of prudence.”  While radicals “dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away,” the conservative “acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences” and judges any measure “by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity.”

Kirk also insists that “the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.” He warns against the sort of revolution that President Trump as a political outsider embodies:

“When successful revolutionaries have effaced old customs, derided old conventions, and broken the continuity of social institutions—why, presently they discover the necessity of establishing fresh customs, conventions, and continuity; but that process is painful and slow; and the new social order that eventually emerges may be much inferior to the old order that radicals overthrew in their zeal.”

President Trump routinely ignores political conventions, but “necessary change, conservatives argue, ought to be gradual and discriminatory, never unfixing old interests at once.”

While I’m troubled by the President’s violation of the principles that he and his supporters seem to think he embodies, I am even more troubled by his party’s unwillingness or inability to uphold Kirk’s most democratically vital principle: “the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.” President Trump outspokenly demands the power “to do as one likes,” not simply disagreeing with but ridiculing political opponents and members of the judiciary who attempt “to limit and balance” him. Though according to Kirk, the conservative approves “Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite,” you have enforced no limitations on the administration.

So of Kirkland’s ten principles, today’s GOP can at best claim five, while actively violating the other five. Is this because Kirk is out of date and your party champions a “new” kind of conservatism? Or have you forgotten the principles that Kirkland articulated the year you first took office? Or worse still, were they never you actual principles but only rationalizations that you’ve discarded now that they’re not useful for claiming and maintaining political power?

What if any principles do you uphold?

Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an associate professor at W&L University, comics editor of Shenandoah, and series editor of Bloomsbury Critical Guides in Comics Studies. He has published two novels: School for Tricksters (SMU 2011) and Pretend I’m Not Here (HarperCollins 2002); and six books of scholarship: On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa 2015), Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury 2017), Superhero Thought Experiments (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Iowa 2019), Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Routledge 2020), Creating Comics (with Leigh Ann Beavers, Bloomsbury 2021), and The Comics Form (Bloomsbury forthcoming). His visual work appears in Ilanot Review, North American Review, Aquifer, and other journals.

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