Nowadays, it can be hard to figure out just what it means to be a 'conservative.'
Does it mean the promotion of limited government ideals such as free markets, minimal immigration restrictions, and wide-ranging privatization? This is what untold millions have believed since the early 1980s, when the modern conservative movement crystallized under the influence of Ronald Reagan and his key backers.
The roots of their philosophy -- though some might say 'ideology' is a better term -- stretch back to what California was in the post-World War II age; a land of industry, a magnet for new residents, and fertile ground for diverse ideas. Amid this constant cultural change, pro-commerce voices competed with labor activists for the loudest bullhorn. Anything seemed possible, though a uniquely Californian brand of optimism, palpable as San Diego sunshine, ruled the day.
Nobody ever imagined the good times would come to an end. Who had the gall to think that Reaganism might give way to the New Left superstructure now entrenched in Sacramento?
That Reagan conservatism proved a flash in the pan, rather than a long-term trajectory, is a bitter pill to swallow for most center-right Americans. None too few movers and shakers still speak the late president's name in an almost deistic context. Nonetheless, his beliefs' lack of societal staying power and the hugely unpopular neoconservative ideology that succeeded them have placed a damper on the Gipper's legacy; especially for the under-40 crowd.
Presently, one must ask if conservatism means something different from what Reagan championed. Does it pertain to the preservation of America's Anglocentric culture, the defense of its borders, and the protection of its economic power from emerging foreign markets?
The new conservatism is actually quite old -- a throwback to what the Taft family, Calvin Coolidge, and Teddy Roosevelt stood for. Its resurgence comes against the odds; internationalism was trumpeted as the Washington Consensus until less than a year ago and there seemed little chance of changing this.
Now, a fierce battle of ideas unfolds over not just which variant of conservatism should triumph, but something far deeper: What matters more -- the transcendent ideals of Reagan or the kith-and-soil campaign of the Tafts, Coolidge, Roosevelt, and Donald Trump?
Paul Nehlen has proved himself one of the emerging right's most vocal and enthusiastic proponents.
Earlier this year, Breitbart described him as "not another lifelong politician, but a business executive and inventor. Nehlen started out on the factory floor, and through God's grace, grit, and determination rose to lead Fortune 500 manufacturing businesses around the world. Nehlen challenged Speaker Paul Ryan in Wisconsin’s 2016 First Congressional District to stop Trans-Pacific Partnership and secure America’s border. Today he is waging the battle against the refugee resettlement racket and leading the cause to fight for America’s values."
Nehlen's run against Ryan attracted international attention and, though there was no upset victory, a serious, well-funded campaign against the Speaker sent shock waves far and wide. Nehlen continues to remain relevant by advocating for, more or less, the America First philosophy of Donald Trump -- though with a distinctly Midwestern, homespun approach. With a large following and contemporary-right message, it seems likely that Nehlen will remain in the news for some time.
While two weeks are an eternity in politics, I would not be surprised to see Nehlen holding some substantial office in two years. Either that or some serious leadership role in the ever-more-nationalistic conservative movement.
Nehlen recently spoke with me about many topics relative to American politics. Some of our conversation is included below.
Joseph Ford Cotto: A few years ago, certain political forecasters claimed that the future of America's center-right belongs to libertarians. Since the 2012 presidential election, protectionism has surged in both major parties. Now, in the age of Trump, libertarianism's once-ascendant nature seems a distant memory. Would you say that right-libertarian politics have any serious potential under Trump?
Paul Nehlen: That depends on what libertarian policies we’re considering. I think there’s a future for building a strong American military deterrent, and in so doing, preventing wars and nation building activities. There’s a future for those libertarian end goals: less war and nation building. President Trump has said as much.
Conversely, I’ve had self-described libertarians argue on behalf of ‘free trade agreements’ (FTAs) such as Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), willfully ignorant of the text in the agreement. Those same libertarians argue (wrongly) against tariffs done correctly. There’s no future in principle over reality. It seems to me that’s been the primary failure of not just libertarians, but across the political spectrum.
Cotto: More than anything else, why are protectionist economics transforming the American conservative movement?
Nehlen: What’s the alternative? America has the largest market, and therefore, the leverage. American’s are intuitively supportive of America First policies. American’s certainly cannot count on the benevolent actions of China, Japan, Germany, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, et al to correct our trade imbalance.
Foreign nations are presently waging trade wars on the United States. Meanwhile, our UniParty politicians - those who outwardly identify as a Democrats or Republicans - foist bad trade deals on American workers to satisfy their corporate donors. TPP was modeled on the failed 2011 KORUS FTA with S. Korea that’s resulted in the loss of over 100,000 U.S. jobs and a 114% increase in S. Korea’s already bloated trade imbalance with the United States. Bi-lateral trade deals, by definition deals between two countries, will be negotiated by competent America First minded negotiators under President Trump.
The results will be decidedly different than what we’ve seen over the past several decades.