I recall the early part of 2016, when Donald Trump began to win several presidential primaries. Suddenly, everyone was asking “Who is this? What is he? A New York businessman?! A real estate developer?! A casino owner?!” Also: “What is he politically? A moderate Republican? A liberal Democrat? A conservative?” As a supposed political scientist, people began asking me questions about him. I had no answers.
In February 2016, when we had one of those blessed snow days frequent in these Virginia mountains, I found myself with a day at home and, surprisingly, caught up on my work. So I knew it was time to do some research on Trump.
The way a Burkean Conservative does research on someone political is not to look at his policies or platforms, but instead to look at his cultural heritage, family, economic situation, education, religion, and so forth. Those tell us more about one’s attitude than stated policies.
Studying Trump in this way first, I found that he was of German (father) and Scottish (mother) ancestry. If you know these national cultures as I do, you know they are similar in many ways and known for a strong work-ethic; military toughness; seriousness; and deep, but understated, faith. Trump’s character displays these qualities.
Looking at his family’s economic status, I found he grew up very wealthy, but from first-generation business money. And that his father, with characteristically German discipline and frugality, required his rich children to work in his construction business to learn the trade and know workers’ conditions.
Trump received a rich boy’s education, first at a traditional (probably English-Anglican) prep school and then military school. I know these institutions and the kind of classical education and sense of order they breed. They are, since Ancient Greece, the schools that train rulers. I recall during the campaign hearing Trump describing a New Hampshire village suffering from widespread heroin addiction as “bucolic.” I’m not sure I had heard that quaint term used by Shakespeare professors, much less a politician!
Then Trump went on to Fordham University, at the time of his education a conservative Catholic University in New York, and then graduate studies at Wharton School of Business at Penn—arguably the best business school in the nation. Reviewing Trump’s educational odyssey, I thought “My God! This guy is a preppie!” How did the liberal Ivy League “elite” fail to notice this? Probably because he’s “old” old school, not “new” old school.
And despite various moral peccadillos common to many of us of who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, he valued traditional marriage and family.
Another historical cultural factor which most observers seemed to miss (but I also grew up with) was Trump’s characteristically male, country club jocularity. And an early documentary on him noted that early in his real estate career he established a reputation for acquiring dilapidated properties and fixing them up. I thought to myself, “Isn’t that just what America needs right now?”
His religious sensibilities were also familiar to me, for they are of our class and era—a deep but “unostentatious” Faith—never “wearing one’s religion on one’s sleeve,” and still comfortable around Evangelicals, if not actually being one.
These cultural characteristics of Trump partly explain his popularity, for they match the majority and traditional American cultural traits Alexis de Tocqueville described in Democracy in America: equality, piety, work-ethic, family, charity and freedom. And as Burke pointed out, such social culture changes very slowly, especially if it is grounded in natural law.
I recall visiting a Russian village shortly after the fall of Soviet Communism. A “babushka,” looking like she was out of Tolstoy, served us potatoes from her garden with butter from the village creamery (delicious) and I saw an Orthodox Church icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Christ child behind candles on the mantle. I thought, “Where are the Communists?” Eighty years of official atheism didn’t stamp out the traditional faith. Such is the case with the permanence of the American political culture.
And that was noticed by Americans. Ultimately, what convinced me that Trump could win was the response he elicited from average Americans.
At his rallies I looked at the faces of those Americans of all kinds; young, old, rich, poor, black, white, men, women, urban and rural. I saw in the expressions on their faces a joy and gratitude that someone was finally standing up for those voices; voices that had been ridiculed for decades. I remember at one rally an old gnarled-faced veteran standing behind Trump; stocky, short-cropped white-hair, in a uniform covered with medals. Clearly a tough bird. And tears streamed down his face as he realized his country was back.
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