How Compassionate Conservatism Lost Its Compassion by Luke Perry
President Trump lacks the capacity of past presidents to unify, heal, and better the nation through civil religion. White evangelicals may rejoice for now, having elected a fighter on their behalf, but long term, they have a big problem too. Compassionate conservatism has lost its compassion.
One can subjectively parse how compassionate conservatism has really been. Yet it’s undeniable that civil religious values were a rhetorical cornerstone of George W. Bush’s presidency and American exceptionalism was central to the success of the Reagan Revolution. Both are missing from the Trump presidency thus far.
Trump’s religious indifference and illiteracy was evident during the campaign. Trump claimed to never ask for God’s forgiveness, not liking to or needing to, and shared his view of Jesus as a source of security and confidence, admiring his bravery and courage. There was no mention of specific Bible passages or teachings that inspired him, nor reference to widely held Judeo-Christian values, such as love, compassion, mercy, and charity.
The president then turned his first National Prayer Breakfast into a comedic roast before lightly touching on typical themes and projecting strength and superiority through disproportionate emphasis on national security. In contrast, President Bush’s first prayer breakfast remarks emphasized religious diversity and the power of faith to unify humanity, teach love, inspire compassion, and help him become a better and more humble public servant.
President Bush regularly invoked faith in discussing national security as well, but very differently than President Trump. For instance, Bush articulated an often overlooked domestic component to the War on Terror-- a sustained public narrative of how citizens can help overcome terrorism through “millions of acts of kindness all across the country.”
Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address explained that for too long Americans did what felt good, not what was best. He instructed everyday Americans to assist the war effort by loving a neighbor, feeding somebody, mentoring a child, or serving their community. Collectively, this would build a better, more peaceful, more responsible society, premised on the universal higher law of mutual love, not government intervention.
President Trump’s political rise has relied on populism, requiring a consistent rebuke of existing institutions and displacing an uplifting, collective vision to make America better with a deeply personal one. Trump assures people not to worry, believe him, everything is under control.
Trump’s lack of public empathy and self-reflection provide a context for understanding his authoritarian proclivities and illuminates how the president has forsaken American exceptionalism for a dystopic understanding of America, favored by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller.
Trump will make America great again, not the American people. America is not exceptional, he is exceptional. The president has not asked anything of the American people because he doesn’t want to, know how, or both.
President Bush, typically silent, has rebuked aspects of Trump's presidency, suggesting immigration policy should be "welcoming" and "uphold the law," and claiming "the media is indispensable to democracy" considering that power is "addictive" and "corrosive."
The contrast between Bush and Trump reflect fundamentally different priorities within modern conservatism. This year’s CPAC crowds cheered the end of the “Obamacare nightmare” and “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” If realized, the question becomes what the new order will be built on.
President Trump must find a more caring and inclusive narrative to ground his conservative vision or his movement will crumble.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Associate Professor of Government at Utica College.