Few serious observers of American politics would dare to suggest that Donald Trump’s emergence as the Republican frontrunner is having a salubrious effect on America. The violent racial tensions at his rallies are enough to make many of us fear for the health and safety of our fellow citizens, and the prospect of his potential victory in a general election make us fear for the future of our democracy. His policy proposals range from vague (tax cuts that pay for themselves!) to impossible (make Mexico pay for a border wall!) to monstrous (waterboarding is for girly men too weak for real torture!)
Even despite all this, however, we can still thank Donald Trump and his supporters for doing the country a service. There is little Trump or his backers could do that would outweigh the blessing they are providing by disempowering and humiliating the traditional Republican establishment. No matter how uncomfortable Trump’s crowds may make us, they pale in comparison to the disgust we should feel at the politics of Karl Rove and David Brooks.
It’s not just that Rove, Ailes, Krauthammer, Podheretz and even ultimately Buckley himself laid the economic, social and media foundations for Trump’s racist nationalism. It’s that unless carried to its farthest extreme, racist nationalism isn’t as damaging as corporatist objectivism.
Bigotry is ugly and it can be deadly. But it is also ultimately a sin of ignorance. Prejudice has existed in many forms, it will continue to exist in the future, and there are no doubt many assumptions we take for granted as normal today that will be seen as forms of prejudice by future generations. As the human race becomes more educated, as cultures collide and the world shrinks, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain institutionalized discrimination. Progress on this front is slow, but it is also mostly constant. When we say that the moral arc of the universe is long but bends toward justice, we generally understand this to mean in terms of social justice rather than economic justice.
But while modern conservatism depends politically on the prejudices of large swaths of the public, its controlling donors and legislators enforce an agenda of ruthless objectivist philosophy. When one looks at the laws it actually passes, the Republican Party is in truth far more Ayn Rand than Strom Thurmond. Its prejudiced public policies are less for their own sake than in the service of ensuring that the super-rich take an even greater share of the wealth. Its policies toward the poor are less a function of institutional racism than of an ideological sickness that assumes the poor simply lack adequate threats of desperation and starvation to work harder to survive. It is a form of economic royalism and just world fallacy that explains the injustices of the world by asserting that they are not injustices at all, but rather that the strong dominate the weak by virtue and right.
Unlike simple prejudice, that worldview isn’t a sin of ignorance. It’s a sin of moral corruption. Given the choice between Strom Thurmond and Ayn Rand, Rand is by far the greater evil. By extension, Donald Trump is a lesser evil than Karl Rove and the kinder, gentler faces of corporate conservatism like David Brooks.
The supposedly respectable conservatives of the National Review and the Washington Post editorial pages see themselves as of a nobler and purer disposition than those they dismiss as the mouth-breathing yokels who back Trump. But it’s actually the reverse. Trump’s supporters are more interested in the advancement of their own tribe than in the promotion of an ideology of pure greed. Neither are laudable, but the former is at least morally understandable within the context of fearful ignorance. The latter is a deep seated character flaw. It’s no surprise that in more morally advanced social democracies, the conservative parties tend to be more nationalist than overtly objectivist.
In the end, the victory of the nationalists over the corporatists in the GOP will likely be beneficial to our character as a nation.