Subscribe for 33¢ / day
Signe Wilkinson cartoon

Signe cartoon SIGN05e

Donald Trump is a throwback to traditional conservatism - just not the tradition you think. Trump's notions of power and privilege reflect not the modern conservatism of the Republican Party, but the classical conservatism of the old European aristocracy. This conservatism was vanquished by the rise of the rule of law and modern industrial economies. But the return of monopolies, especially in the energy sector, has revived it, setting the United States on a dangerous path away from Western democracy and toward petro-state dictatorships around the world.

This development should be deeply concerning to all Americans, because classical conservatism has one simple goal: maintaining the power and privilege of the elite through any means necessary. That is a goal that precedes - and will last well after - Trump's time in office.

Before the Industrial Revolution, elites built wealth by taxing the overwhelming majority of their populations, most of whom were poor. Wealth came either from status at birth or monopoly power granted by the king. This created a vulnerability that left elites in constant fear of losing position. As a result, they labored to justify their wealth and protect their position, including keeping the masses uneducated, limiting their freedom and constructing segregated legal systems where peasants had few rights.

This preindustrial system existed solely to perpetuate itself. To support it, elites promoted a conservative ideology, one which posited that stability and peace could be achieved only if everyone recognized his or her place in society, determined at birth. That meant not challenging the moneyed nobility. And it meant resisting change.

Kings (and occasionally queens) used economic power for political means, granting monopolies as political favors and fearing any sort of major economic change. Conservative monarchies resisted the Industrial Revolution even as it provided dynamic economic growth in the 19th century. Austria-Hungary and Russia both deliberately prohibited the building of railroads, for instance, fearing the creative destruction it might bring.

Classical conservatism's domination was shattered by classical liberalism, an ideology that took hold gradually in England and with revolutionary force in the United States and France in the late 1700s. This liberalism was based on individual freedom and the rule of law. The revolutionary founders of the United States were explicit - in philosophy if not in practice - that no one was above the law, birthright should not be destiny, and everyone was guaranteed basic freedoms and rights regardless of their social status.

Not by accident, classical liberalism's ascent coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the development of capitalism. A legal system that guaranteed basic rights for more people and the freedom to take risks and profit from their own ingenuity drove the technological advances that fueled the first real steps in human progress starting in the early 1800s. In England and the United States, monopolies were no longer granted by monarchs, workers had more freedom, and choices and innovation thrived.

These new economic possibilities fostered new political dynamics. Wealth could now come from market opportunities, not just birth. Liberalism fueled creative destruction that upended the conservative system that had previously protected elite power and position.

We know how this story ends. Liberal capitalism doomed conservative monarchies; they simply lost relative power until they embraced industrialization and the political reforms it entailed.

During the 20th century, classical liberalism fended off challenges from first fascism and then, more slowly, communism, neither of which could offer a society where freedom under the rule of law fostered innovation and long-term economic growth. For most of American history, both major political parties have been "liberal" in the sense of believing in the rule of law and individual freedom.

After World War II, however, having witnessed the atrocities of communist and fascist governments, a new strain of conservative intellectuals perceived the greatest remaining threat to freedom as being governments that would use their immense power for great evil. This new modern conservatism naturally contrasted with a blossoming strand of liberalism that viewed government as a force for good in society. Yet both maintained the same basic classical liberal fealty to the rule of law and individual freedoms.

Classical liberalism thus appeared triumphant, and history, as Francis Fukuyama famously argued, ended when the Soviet Union fell.

Within the United States, however, modern conservatives became myopic - focused solely on the threat posed by the federal government to freedom and ignoring the possibility that market failures could just as easily threaten prosperity and limit opportunity. Modern conservative politicians - increasingly concentrated in the Republican Party - allied themselves with businesses, working toward restrictions on unions and workers, deregulation of financial firms that contributed to ever-larger corporations, and continued subsidization of fossil fuels. These increases in market power have chipped away at the opportunity promised by classical liberalism, leading to rising inequality, stagnant wages and dissatisfaction among the working class.

In 2016, this myopathy proved fatal to 20th-century American conservatism. Donald Trump vanquished a large Republican primary field with impeccable conservative credentials, and while he echoed the anti-government rhetoric Republicans are used to, his reasoning was starkly different. He is a monopolist, a throwback to classical conservatism, who wants the government to be his tool for maintaining power. His assertions that as president he cannot break the law are perfectly in line with old-world monarchs such as Louis XIV, and his arbitrary policy choices mirror their initiatives, seeking to award economic benefits to those who please him.

The president announces tariffs so he can negotiate exceptions for those who curry favor; he uses executive orders and pardons to reward allies and appease his base; he offers infrastructure plans whose benefits skew toward his strongholds while neglecting opposition terrain. Simply put, he prioritizes the well-being of his base, who he sees as loyal exclusively to him, over other Americans.

However, Trump did not succeed alone. A coalition of business interests paved the way for his ascendancies, especially an energy sector desperate to postpone a carbon tax that threatens its long-term viability. And these interests are perfectly aligned with Russia, Saudi Arabia and other petro-states, all run by dictatorial leaders - whose oil wealth allowed them to eschew the practices of classical liberalism - Trump would like to emulate.

These rulers often get compared to 20th-century fascists, but they are more a modern variant of the old-world classical conservatives - a group of elites with monopoly power they seek to maintain at any cost. Like the conservatives of centuries ago, they manage systems of political patronage with the tools of monopoly power.

Trump is transforming the Republican Party from a proud classical-liberal bastion of freedom into the corrupt machine of a petro-state. The party's main policy actions - cutting corporate taxes, dismantling the regulatory arm of government and completely ignoring climate change - only serve to consolidate the power and position of wealthy elites like Trump and his family.

We thus find ourselves at a turning point. The Trump administration has betrayed the fundamental notion of freedom for all under the rule of law - evident from arbitrary detentions at the border and a president who pardons and celebrates lawbreakers. Republican conservatives who support the administration seem to have forgotten that freedom thrives under the rule of law, where all are treated equally with the same rights and privileges.

The United States still has the potential to lead the world toward a brighter future of opportunity, innovation and prosperity. But realizing that potential will require forcefully rejecting Trump's embrace of old-world classical conservatism. True conservatives, who believe in freedom and the rule of law, must do what it takes to remove Trump and his sycophantic followers from office and reclaim the real American tradition of classical liberal democracy.

Alan Green is associate professor of economics at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. He co-teaches a course on the history of capitalism. He wrote this for The Washington Post.