Conservative Neo-Imperialism vs Jacksonian Neo-Isolationism

As for Trumpism vs. Bushism, one will be no less dependent on “populist nationalism” than the other, to whatever extent it is also successful: In a mass electoralist national system under popular sovereignty, the winner will always be the truest national populist, by definition, if not necessarily the purest national populist according to some external or merely intellectual standard.

What remains, then, is Trumpism. Which is also, in its lurching, sometimes insightful, often wicked way, a theory of what kind of party the Republicans should become, and one that a plurality of Republicans have now actually voted to embrace.

Ross Douthat
“The Defeat of True Conservatism”

The Republican coalition as an effectively neo-conservative coalition was able to bind itself together, or bind citizens to its project as constituents, in opposition to perceived external threats – militarism, fascism, communism, Islamism – that were mirror reverses of its precepts. For conservatives under the most politically effective articulation of their premises, American Idea and American Identity could be conjoined, with whichever war at whatever temperature serving to fuse otherwise contradictory ingredients, while melting away the rough edges of unresolved disagreements and irresolvable frustrations. Though the articulation is most readily identifiable as Reaganism, Reaganism can itself be seen, and is perhaps best understood, as a re-capitulation from the right both of and integrally within an inherited framework. Similarly, Reagan’s loyal progressive and so-called liberal1 adversaries could not stray too far from the same premises without losing their ability to compete and therefore to govern on the national level.

Referencing America’s first year of direct and open engagement in the Second World War, addressing the West Point graduating class, General George C. Marshall defined this simultaneously patriotic, traditionally liberal, and global neo-imperialist consensus: “We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.” In our time, the ascents first of Obamism and then of Trumpism, for all of their differences, share in common an attempt forced on American national leaders or their coalitions – on us – to define an alternative sufficient consensus, or popularly accessible binding or integrative force, or source of unifying collective will, of the type without which no nation-state can function as a nation-state.

Those differences between Obamist and Trumpist reactions to this moment or conjuncture are far from trivial, but are a subject for another discussion – perhaps of Progressive Withdrawalism vs Jacksonian Neo-Isolationism. For present purposes – of understanding what has happened to American conservatism or so-called Movement Conservatism – we can observe that Obamism and Trumpism share a significant if inconsistent or not yet consistent divergence from an ideology or civic-religious idea of “Freedom.” Freedom for Americans in Marshall’s time, as for American “Constitutional Conservatives” at any time, referred to central precepts on the “universal” rights of human beings as individuals and the political and economic superstructures thought, and thought proven, to protect as well as to advance recognition of those rights as comprehended in the founding documents of the United States of America, and as re-transmitted, under American tutelage, in the founding documents of the post-war global order. Yet for Obamism as well as Trumpism, freedom on such terms no longer efficiently defines an identity or collective ego ideal as it were internally, but in multiple respects has become externalized as dangerous. In foreign policy any positive attempt to realize the classic American liberal ideal, especially through military force, is taken to produce hopeless, counterproductive, and immoral entanglements: as acute manifestation the failure of Operation Iraqi Freedom; in chronic form a world of evils to be avoided not least because proven insusceptible to the kind of “force” that may once have “overwhelmed” an enemy state, but that has limited utility or seemingly no utility at all against other types of resistance. In domestic or economic policy the so-called Washington Consensus, or “globalization,” was until recently a matter of epochal bi-partisan or mainstream consensus, in key respects re-producing or restoring elements of the old liberal economics: It is now held by many both inside and outside of mainstream and right or left reactionary camps to be responsible for inequality, insecurity, stagnant or declining prospects for the middle and lower classes, and ecologically as well as economically unsustainable levels of consumption: Acutely the 2008 Financial Crisis, otherwise the ills and uncertainties of financialization or “Financialized Neo-Liberalism.”

As for Trumpism vs. Bushism2, one will be no less dependent on “populist nationalism” than the other, to whatever extent it is also successful: In a mass electoralist national system under popular sovereignty, the winner will always be the truest national populist, by definition, if not necessarily the purest national populist according to some external or merely intellectual standard. Differences in presentation and personality between past and present candidates – between President George W Bush and Donald J Trump, as between Trump and Secretary Hillary Clinton, as between Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders – may also coincide with other differences between their platforms and coalitions, but what may matter more is that the People in 2016 seem no longer to believe the same things about the nation, its vital needs, and its illimitable possibilities that the People of 2004 still believed. 2004 may in that sense belong to a different era, a view which would place it historically in some ways closer not just to 2001, but to any year back at least to 1942, than to 2016.


  1. …or social liberal, or perhaps statist liberal. []
  2. This post originated as an expansion upon a tweet in reply to Daniel McCarthy, who identified “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” as a “Trumpian” element in George W Bush’s re-election:



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3 comments on “Conservative Neo-Imperialism vs Jacksonian Neo-Isolationism

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  1. I’m not sure where you’re getting the idea of Obama representing a philosophy of withdrawal when we’ve not actually seen significant withdrawal on the part of the US under him. He may have won in 2008 on the specific example of Iraq, but the actual existing president has long proven those who backed the candidate for that reason to be fools. There’s even still troops there!

    Re: military force as a tool of liberal ideals… I’d say that gives the advocates for it credit they don’t deserve, but even that would leave aside whether their motivation is even in good faith in favor of just assuming they’re incompetent or naive. There comes a time after someone keeps reaching a result that’s terrible for most people on the ground when it is safe to consider that was the plan all along.

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If there's anything mitigating the bad news for the White House here, it is that Comey may have also sent subtle signals that the matters under investigation are not principally about the personal conduct of Trump himself. While this is speculation, I do not believe that if Comey had, say, validated large swaths of the Steele dossier or found significant Trump-Russia financial entanglements of a compromising variety, he would have said even as much as he said today. I also don't think he would have announced the scope of the investigation as about the relationship "between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government" or "coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts"; these words suggest one step of removal from investigating the President himself. If the latter were the case, I suspect Comey wouldn't have used words suggestive of the Flynn-Manafort-Page cabal.

But that's reading a lot into a relatively small number of tea leaves. What is clear is that this was a very bad day for the President. In it, we learned that there is an open-ended Russia investigation with no timetable for completion, one that's going hang over Trump's head for a long time, and one to which the FBI director is entirely committed.

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