MINOT, N.D. — The conservatism of my youth, the sort of conservatism I still believe in and subscribe to today, takes a skeptical view of the power of the state.

This more traditional conservatism stands in stark contrast with what's called conservatism in the Donald Trump era.

Conservatives once talked about government as something to be limited to certain necessary evils so that life and culture, in all its many facets, could flourish outside it.

Conservatives used to care about fiscal discipline, yet in the last broadcasts of his life no less a right-wing luminary than Rush Limbaugh was defending the profligacy of the Trump presidency. "Nobody is a fiscal conservative anymore," he told a caller concerned about Trump-era spending in 2019. "All this talk about concern for the deficit and the budget has been bogus for as long as it's been around."

Why have so many conservatives taken their fealty to an ideology rooted in a preference for small government and invested it in a politician who grew government and used its awesome power to try and impose cultural outcomes on others?

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It's a question I've been struggling with since Trump's rise in the 2016 Republican primaries.

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I've finally had my "Eureka!" moment, and it came while reading Elisabeth Zerofsky's article in The New York Times about the growing conservative fascination with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the "illiberal democracy" he promotes in Hungary.

In the article, describing the fawning attention Orbán has enjoyed from the likes of former Vice President Mike Pence and Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, Zerofsky describes an anecdote from a conservative conference that featured a debate among attendees about the role of the state.

The more traditional conservatives took the traditional conservative view of government (a necessary evil, keep it in its box, etc., etc.). The more Trump-aligned conservatives argued that government is the only cultural institution left to conservatives.

"Conservatives compose a minimal percentage of Silicon Valley; their influence is declining in the corporate world; and they are all but absent from mainstream media, academia and Hollywood," Zerofsky writes, describing the argument. "But with nearly half of Congress and possibly more government control in the future, conservative cultural power would come from the state."

This is backed up by Trump World's fascination with Orbán.

In a 2014 address, the Hungarian leader laid out his views of government, rejecting the idea, subscribed to by traditional conservatives, that is a free association of individuals. Instead, he argued, "for the use of the state as the means of organizing, invigorating, or even constructing the national community."

What was touted as a small protest against mandated vaccines as a requirement for employment, turned into a protest garnering larger crowds than any single protest during the "Summer of Protests" in 2019. (Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press)
What was touted as a small protest against mandated vaccines as a requirement for employment, turned into a protest garnering larger crowds than any single protest during the "Summer of Protests" in 2019. (Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press)

That sounds like Trump if he were a bit more coherent, and less distracted by self-interest.

No wonder Tucker Carlson likes the guy.

The conservative shift toward illiberalism is a reaction to progressive illiberalism in America. It's not just that conservatives, and conservative views, are not present in Silicon Valley, academia, the entertainment industry, the news media, or even corporate leadership. Those institutions have become actively hostile and antagonistic to right-of-center views.

Thus, conservatives have retreated to the last institution in American society where they still have a significant presence, which is government, a place where Republicans still routinely have more or less half of the power.

That reality has driven a shift in how conservatives view the government. A shift that led conservatives to embrace Trump whose appeal is firmly rooted in an insult-comedy routine that targets the institutions where conservatives aren't welcome.

The shift is now manifesting itself in policies conservatives of another era would have abhorred.

Traditional conservatives are pro-life but would have recoiled at policy like the Texas law which sees the government putting a legal bounty on the heads of women seeking abortions (and anyone helping them).

Minot resident Mark Todd holds a sign at a rally in support of President Donald Trump in Bismarck on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. (Kyle Martin / Forum News Service)
Minot resident Mark Todd holds a sign at a rally in support of President Donald Trump in Bismarck on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. (Kyle Martin / Forum News Service)

Traditional conservatives promoted local government. Trump-era conservatives attack local autonomy when it produces policies, like mask mandates, they don't like.

Traditional conservatives believed that government should be limited so that individuals can be free. Trump-era conservatives have few compunctions about using the awesome and coercive power of government.

Here in North Dakota, the purest distillation of Trumpism takes the form of the Bastiat Caucus of self-styled, capital-T, capital-C, True Conservatives who aren't really all that conservative at all, but rather culture warriors who relish using the state to get their way in the tail-chasing culture war debates over masks and ivermectin and vaccines.

Conservatism should be about promoting small, efficient, and competent government. What it is, in the age of Trump, is about turning the state into a vehicle for settling cultural scores, which is not an endeavor that's likely to lend itself to a lot of long-term success, a fact that delights our left-wing friends.

"Donald Trump was for many years a generous donor to Democratic campaigns, from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Chuck Schumer, but his deformation of the GOP will be his lasting gift to the Democrats," observes Kevin Williamson.

If only that weren't so true.

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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com.