Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Former U.S. president Donald Trump arrives to board his plane at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Aug. 3, in Arlington, Va., after facing a judge on federal conspiracy charges that allege he conspired to subvert the 2020 election.Alex Brandon/The Associated Press

“The conservative consensus is over,” blares the headline on a recent post on The Hub, the lively conservative website edited by Stephen Harper’s former policy adviser, Sean Speer.

That is, it is over in the United States, writes Mr. Speer, who is in fact the author of the piece. For whatever reason, the internal divisions that have beset the American conservative movement have not been as much observed in Canada, at least in the 20 years since the reunification of the Conservative Party.

But sooner or later, whatever happens in the United States tends to be repeated in Canada. Canadian conservatives, Mr. Speer argues, should brace themselves for the same definitional fight.

On the one hand, there are traditional “freedom” conservatives, who believe in, well, conservatism: free markets, individual rights, personal responsibility, a strong defence. On the other, there are the newer “national” conservatives, as they style themselves, who believe in none of these things.

Where FreeCons believe that businesses should live or die depending on their ability to serve consumers, NatCons take a more interventionist line, in which business decisions are explicitly shaped by government direction. Similarly, where FreeCons believe the state has no business substituting its own moral choices for those of the individual, in matters concerning only the individual, NatCons are advocates of precisely such paternalism. As Mr. Speer puts it, “in a world in which the only major culture-shaping institution that conservatives may conceivably control is the government,” NatCons believe in being prepared “to use state power for conservative ends.”

FreeCons take an optimistic view of American prospects, and of the open society generally; as such they incline to a more welcoming approach to immigration and a more muscular foreign and defence policy. NatCons, by contrast, seek to pull up the drawbridge against a threatening world, isolating America as much as possible from outside influences and foreign entanglements – for example, Ukraine. And so on.

This dichotomy, it should be said, puts rather a more dignified face on things than is probably warranted. Whatever its intellectual pretensions, national conservatism is essentially an exercise in on-the-fly revisionism, an attempt to put a retroactive cerebral gloss on the bundle of inchoate resentments and grievances that assembled behind the figure of Donald Trump. As such, it seeks to give coherence to a phenomenon that is fundamentally incoherent: Trumpism gone to college.

Suppose there were something to it. What does it say about the state of modern “conservatism” that it could be made to embrace two such diametrically opposed tendencies? These are not the usual sorts of differences that arise within any political movement: whether to go fast or slow, whether to shoot for the moon or settle for the possible, whether to stay true to its ideals or make pragmatic compromises.

Neither is it a debate about applying different methods to the same conservative ends, or about adapting traditional conservative principles to new problems. Rather, the struggle here is between two groups with entirely different, not to say fundamentally incompatible objectives. FreeCons always made uneasy coalition partners with social conservatives, but there was a basis for an accommodation in the Burkean idea of the “little platoons” of family, faith and community as guarantors of social stability, rather than the state.

Opinion: We aren’t as powerless over extremism as we may think

But the NatCons are something else again. Nationalism is a species of populism: As with any form of populism, it turns on an irresolvable antagonism between Us and Them – between the People, and whoever is defined as being Not the People: immigrants, foreigners, the “globalist” elites who are supposedly catering to them both, plus those unspeakable urban liberals with their alien cultural values.

Having defined the stakes in such existential terms, it is unsurprising to find populists all too ready to surrender themselves to the strongman, the charismatic authority figure who will defend the People from the powerful forces arrayed against them, and who therefore must not be tied down by petty restrictions on his ability to act: the very sorts of rules of limited government that are the foundation of traditional conservatism.

What, in other words, could these two movements possibly have to do with each other? It is one thing to duke it out for control of a political party: a vessel, that is, for the pursuit of power, which acquires whatever principles are needed to that end. The Democratic Party began the last century as the party of segregation and white supremacy; it ended it as the party of civil rights and reparations.

In this country, likewise, the Liberals and the Conservatives essentially traded places over the course of the century – the Liberals began it as the party of free markets and provincial rights, and ended it as the party of big government and federal power, with the Conservatives performing the inverse about-face.

That mimicked, somewhat, the evolution of small-l liberalism and small-c conservatism. Conservatism, at least as we have known it, was really an outgrowth of liberalism, in the sense of the Western liberal tradition. It sought to preserve the 19th-century liberal tradition of individualism and limited government against the excesses of the new breed of liberal reformer: those who had made the same compromises with the state that the national conservatives have done.

So I suppose there is some pedigree for a political philosophy turning itself inside out. But still, not like this. Late 20th-century liberalism was still identifiably liberal. It was still devoted to the welfare of the individual; it just saw more room for the state in promoting it. It still campaigned in the name of freedom; it simply broadened freedom’s definition.

But national conservatism marks a fundamental break with freedom conservatism – indeed, in its wilder offshoots, of Christian nationalism and “white nationalism,” with the whole Enlightenment tradition that is the common heritage of liberals and conservatives alike. There can be no accommodation between the two claimants to the conservative mantle. Either one prevails, or the other does.

On the other hand, so what? What does it matter who gets to call themselves conservatives? What is the point in arguing about what a “true” conservative believes? If conservatism has reached a point that two entirely hostile forces, each the negation of the other, can simultaneously lay claim to it, that suggests it is already something of an empty shell.

More to the point, the decision to call oneself a conservative should surely come at the end of one’s personal ideological journey, rather than the start. Surely one is drawn, or not, to its constituent elements – the rights of the individual, the circumscription of state power, the wisdom of tradition, etc. If those are no longer to be found listed under “conservatism,” time to find another label.

And yet many people seem to form their views by the opposite process. They start by identifying as conservatives: in opposition, I suspect, to those they identify as liberals, for whom, for whatever reason, they form a distaste. Then they adopt whatever views are necessary to maintain themselves in that identity.

In the U.S., this is a more explicitly partisan phenomenon than in Canada. Just 2 per cent of Canadians belong to a political party; by contrast, every American is formally registered as either a Republican, a Democrat or an Independent. So the ideological identity is overlaid with a partisan identity, adding to the impulse to believe whatever it is required of the tribe to believe.

So it is that, as polls show, a great many American conservatives/Republicans now believe the opposite of what they used to believe, across a number of issues. The party of free trade now endorses protectionism. The party of law and order endorses insurrection. The party of personal responsibility endorses … Donald Trump.

Is Mr. Speer right that the same conflict will inevitably play out among Canadian conservatives, and Conservatives? Perhaps – we are inevitably influenced in this country by what goes on to our south – but not to the same degree. Our situations are too different. Our economy is much more heavily trade-oriented than theirs: there isn’t the same constituency for protectionism. Almost one-half of our population are immigrants, or the children of immigrants: there is no turning back on that, either.

Neither are the divisions in American society that make such fertile soil for populist Us and Them narratives as pervasive here. Our chief points of division are geography and language. These may have given us the idiocies of separatism and regionalism. But decades of practice and the institutions of federalism have helped us to contain them.

You can see this in the positions adopted by Pierre Poilievre, the most overtly populist national party leader we have had. Yet as Mr. Speer observes he fits much more easily in the FreeCon mould than the NatCon. He is pro-immigration, pro-choice, pro-gay rights. If he has courted the populist right, it has been much more in fringey obsessions with the surveillance state and the baleful ministrations of the World Economic Forum than in the culture-war battles that consume Republicans.

He is, in short, a recognizable democratic figure – the demagogue, the opportunist, the bunkum artist – rather than the harbinger of a new political order. That’s a shame, in a way. At one point, before Mr. Trump arrived on the scene, there was some discussion in the United States of “reform conservatism,” of broadening conservatism’s appeal by applying it to a newer set of issues and concerns beyond the old agenda of lower taxes and less regulation. It’s unlikely we’ll see Mr. Poilievre taking conservatism in that direction, either.

Still, give thanks for small mercies: RefCons may not be on offer, but a FreeCon beats a NatCon any day of the week.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe