OTTAWA (CCN) — When hundreds of conservatives gathered for the annual Manning Centre Conference 2016 Feb. 25-27 on the theme Recharging the Right, it was impossible to ignore Donald Trump.
The real estate magnate and reality-show creator and star has dominated headlines south of the border for months and seems to be on his way to becoming the Republican presidential nominee. He has inspired record turn-outs in various state primaries.
But for author and columnist Michael Gerson, who worked as a policy adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush, especially on his policies fighting AIDS and malaria in Africa, Trump’s populism does not represent the kind of revitalization conservatives need. Instead, he argued for reform-conservatism, a movement that focuses on the common good along with conservative principles and ideals.
“Donald Trump represents the hostile takeover of a political party,” said Gerson in a talk at the Manning Conference sponsored by the social policy think-tank Cardus Feb. 26.
“(Trumpism) is not the natural outworking of conservatism, it is the corruption of conservatism,” he said. It is similar to the “right-wing anti-immigrant populism we see rising in Europe.”
Donald Trump introduced himself to America by saying undocumented workers are disproportionately rapists and criminals, Gerson said. He called for a complete ban on Muslim immigrants when there was no demand for it.
“You do not fight the war on terror by alienating Muslims around the world,” Gerson said. “It’s insane!”
“I don’t find anything in conservatism to justify that,” he said. Conservatism is humane, “not a nativist vision of exclusivism.”
Trump is someone who cannot reliably tell the difference between our allies and our enemies, Gerson said. He noted America has often been accused of being too involved in world affairs and exercising too much power.
“Wait until they see America unconstrained by its ideals,” Gerson said.
Economic populism and nativism stem from the loss of the old economic certainties, leaving people “certain opportunity has been stolen from them.”
The political consequences of the feeling opportunity has been stolen are the politics of anger, or retribution, he said.
There are many problems, but they have been misdiagnosed, he said. The whole world is undergoing “vast economic changes.”
Workers in America have come into increasing competition with workers from around the world, and that competition is driving wages down, Gerson said.
At the same time economic factors are hitting people hard, family structures and other humanizing institutions are also deteriorating, he said. He noted political scientist Robert Putnam has written extensively on the decline of the blue collar economy, the atomization of community, and the decline of the family structure in working class settings.
It would be unexpected for Republicans to strongly identify with the concerns of blue-collar workers in a practical way, Gerson said. But a reform-conservative instead of a populist view could examine whether you can “shape policies that give people the skills and human capital to succeed in a modern economy” during a time of great “moral and social transition.”
“There has to be a limited role for government in helping give people the skills to succeed,” he said.
Gerson suggested distinctly conservative programs that could help people improve their skills so as to be able to compete in the new economy; and conservative programs to help support families and children.
“Economic liberty is only achieved through healthy institutions that have a vision of the good beyond getting and keeping,” he said. A mature, conservative appeal “can’t just skip to GDP” but has to be rooted in civil society and in ideals.
People are inspired to stay together in families because “they believe it is good and true,” he said. The message has to be not just utilitarian, but anchored in a belief in “universal human rights.”
“We need a conservatism of the common good,” Gerson said. A conservative vision of the common good would include strengthened families and communities, religious liberty and “should be known for making a passionate case for human dignity.”
While leftist ideologies often treat human beings as “malleable” and often subordinate to leftist causes, Gerson said human beings are “not insignificant.”
“They matter more than any cause,” he said. “They are the cause.”
Where others can offer “anger and envy,” this vision would offer “common purpose, civic pride and inclusivity,” he said.
Gerson reached back to conservative leaders such as William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln who played major roles in the abolition of slavery. He also pointed to U.S. President George W. Bush’s policies combating AIDs and malaria in Africa that have saved millions of lives.