I’m Not a Conservative, But Please Stop Calling Trumpism “Conservative”

By Jessica RiskinDecember 15, 2020

I’m Not a Conservative, But Please Stop Calling Trumpism “Conservative”
Trump may finally be going, at least for now, but Trumpism is here to stay. So, let’s be careful what we call it, which shapes how we understand it. Each time a commentator refers to Trumpism as “conservative” — probably hundreds of times a day — Edmund Burke surely rolls over in his discreetly marked grave in Buckinghamshire. Burke, the Irish political philosopher and Whig MP who originated Anglo–American conservatism, supported the rebellion of the British colonies in North America but hated the revolutionaries in France, and there you have conservatism in a nutshell. The American rebellion, Burke judged, was not a revolution but a movement to conserve an ancient principle of the British constitution, the people’s power of “granting their own money” to the government. [1] Also in keeping with Burke’s “principle of conservation” was the colonists’ preservation of other longstanding institutions such as slavery, which Burke favored eliminating, but only “gradually.” [2] In France, on the other hand, people went rushing around hurling kings from their thrones, abolishing feudalism, summarily eliminating aristocratic and clerical exemptions and privileges, and making a lot of vulgar noise about equality. That sort of revolution was anathema to Burke. The discreet marker on his grave was a compromise: he had asked that it be altogether unmarked, sure that the Jacobins would arrive in droves to desecrate his final resting place, if they could find it, as they had desecrated the institutions of the Old Regime. [3]

His abhorrence of the French Revolution led Burke to define the political philosophy that would come to be known as conservatism. His central principle was that abstract political ideals, such as the ideal of absolute equality, were dangerous because they led people to destroy longstanding traditions in their name. A society could not rest upon airy abstractions, Burke argued, but only upon solid things: traditional institutions, such as the institutions of property and inheritance. Burke’s “principle of conservation” held that any reform must be undertaken gradually, keeping always in mind that traditions were the bedrock of society, and that to eliminate them was to invite mayhem. [4] When, in the 1950s, the founders of modern American conservatism such as Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, Jr., identified Burke as the originator of their philosophy, they embraced this same principle: the necessity of preserving longstanding traditions and a distaste for rapid or wholesale change. [5] Burke would no doubt have been content with such disciples. Trump, in contrast, although he wouldn’t know an abstraction from an emolument, and is as un–French as they come, would be as detestable to Burke as the Jacobins.

Sure, Trumpism preserves certain ancient American traditions, notably white supremacy and minority rule. But it lays waste to others and makes a display of doing so. It’s not just the demolition that is antithetical to conservatism, but the demolition derby, the spectacle of smashing to bits everything from norms of etiquette to formal rules and laws. Conveniently, there do exist suitable words to describe the Trumpian theater of contempt for the institutions of democratic government, and one of them is even printable in a family newspaper: radicalism. Trumpism is not conservatism but right–wing radicalism. The deconstruction of the administrative state; the move to eliminate NATO and undermine trans–Atlantic alliances while cozying up to longstanding adversaries; the summary abandonment of international agreements; the rejection of expertise in government agencies, and the appointment of lobbyists and others to direct these agencies who are on record as advocating their elimination; the characterization of a 200–year–old free press as an “enemy of the people”; working openly to subvert the results of an election; these actions are all radical, not conservative.

Why quibble about words? Not being a conservative myself, I have a different motivation from the Never–Trump Republicans who have tended to disavow Trump on the basis of his policies (protectionism, undermining NATO …), and his behavior (boasting about sexual assault, showing contempt for war heroes …). Their point is that Trump is a bad conservative, that he’s bringing the conservative movement in the wrong direction. I don’t care whether people are good or bad conservatives. My point is that Trumpism is formally and historically antithetical to conservatism, and that words matter. “Conservative” in reference to Trumpism is dangerously misleading. If you’re a conservative, you’ll think the word denotes wisdom and judiciousness, two things Trumpians don’t even pretend to embrace, but make a show of flouting. If you disagree with conservatism as a political philosophy, you might think it sounds stodgy, benighted, even oppressive, but in a static or at least a slow–moving way, not in a way that poses an immediate threat of civil war. No one associates an attempted coup, even an inept one such as we’ve been witnessing, with the word “conservative.”

Despite the belatedly certified fact that Trump lost the election, Trumpism is not going away. Since losing the election, Trump has raised hundreds of millions of dollars.  Trumpism is now the defining stance of the Republican Party; the Republican attorneys general of 17 states and most Republicans in Congress supported the recent Texas lawsuit to overturn the election results in four swing states. This is not a fringe movement. Its partisans are making ever clearer their determination to remain an enduring and dominant feature of the political landscape. A new generation of young Trumps waits restively in the wings plotting its political future. It is therefore more urgent than ever that we stop mischaracterizing Trumpism and the Trumpian Republican Party as “conservative.” It would make better sense to call Bernie Sanders “conservative,” with his commitment to extending the reach of existing institutions such as Medicare and the community college system. To describe Trumpism as “conservative” allows its partisans to have it both ways, claiming the ground of both radicalism and conservatism. Describing Trumpism as “conservative” lulls its critics into a complacent sense of an old, familiar, slow–moving antagonist. But Trumpism is not that: it is the revolutionary Right. It is, in Burke’s phrase, “a wild and dangerous politics” and a “species of political monster” bent on conserving nothing but itself, by devouring the country that created it.


Jessica Riskin is a professor of history at Stanford University and the Jean–Paul Gimon Director of the France–Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Studies.


[1] Edmund Burke, “Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies” (March 22, 1775), in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 6 vols. (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854–56), vol. 1, pp. 464–71.

[2] Burke, “Sketch of the Negro Code” (1780), in Select Works of Edmund Burke. A New Imprint of the Payne Edition, foreword and biographical note by Francis Canavan, 4 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), vol. 4: https://www.econlib.org/book-chapters/chapter-vol-4-miscellaneous-writings-sketch-of-the-negro-code/

[3] See Jesse Norman, Edmund Burke: The First Conservative (New York: Basic Books, 2013), pp. 167–168.

[4] Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), “principle of conservation”: pp. 18, 28: https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/burke/revfrance.pdf

[5] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, From Burke to Eliot (Chicago: Gateway, 1953), p. 6.

LARB Contributor

Jessica Riskin is a history professor at Stanford University, where she teaches courses in European intellectual and cultural history and the history of science. She is the author, most recently, of The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick (2016).


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