A New Agenda for the Right | Opinion

In the wake of his disappointing rally in Tulsa, some of President Donald Trump's most prominent supporters have urged him to reorient his campaign around a new strategy: "Preserving the American way of life."

The phrase comes from an article by Thomas Klingenstein, chairman of the Claremont Institute, of which I am a 2020 Lincoln Fellow. Michael Goodwin, a columnist at the New York Post, has said that Klingenstein's article "deserves wide readership, especially in the White House." Rush Limbaugh has argued that it answers Trump's need for "an agenda going forward."

Whether or not Klingenstein's proposal is adopted by Trump, it represents an important moment in the debates taking place on the Right. Even those who dislike the president would do well to pay attention.

Klingenstein argues that the Right has focused too narrowly on freedom and limited government.

"Often, Republicans describe their mission as 'freedom.' But [this] does not give us any guidance as to when freedom must be restricted, as it often must," Klingenstein writes. "Republicans sometimes also say their purpose is 'constitutional government' (or limited government). But this, too, is not a mission: it is a means to a mission."

Many intellectuals on the American Right profess a form of creedal or constitutional patriotism. Rather than declaring their loyalty to a particular people, place or way of life, they speak of abstract ideals—a civic "creed"—or formal legal procedures, most notably those contained in the Constitution.

Conservatives are right to defend the idea that all men are created equal. But it is not enough to praise America's noble ideals. One must also sustain the material conditions—the "way of life"—that make their exercise possible. Likewise, we rightly take pride in our political heritage. But it is not enough to defend our written constitution. We must uphold, as well, the fundamental constitution—the social bodies and unwritten laws that constitute the American way of life.

What makes up the American way of life? Klingenstein highlights the importance of family, church and community. At the highest legal level, our country is defined by the interaction of three distinct but related powers: legislature, executive and judiciary. But at the everyday level, for most Americans, through the bulk of our history, life has been defined by the interaction of spiritual, familial and civic communities.

Sometimes, these communities are defined so vaguely that they become meaningless. At the 1992 Republican National Convention, Barbara Bush said, "However you define family, that's what we mean by family values." Klingenstein is more specific. He argues that strong families generally require a mother who is the primary caregiver, and a father who is the primary breadwinner.

American flag waving
American flag waving Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Klingenstein's willingness to define the family is a welcome move beyond the relativism of the Right. So is his acknowledgement that families need more than "values" to survive. They require material security. He therefore suggests an economic policy that specifically seeks to strengthen the family, even if this reduces productivity. (He mentions moving manufacturing back from China as one possibility.)

Conservatives have very little power outside of politics. If they are to advance their aims, they must use the power of the state. "Creating the conditions necessary to achieve the American way of life means giving citizens a nudge in the desired direction," Klingenstein writes. They should observe constitutional limits, "but within [those limits] there exists a great deal of latitude."

Of course, many details of Klingenstein's proposal remain to be worked out. And his proposal will sound offensive to many people with liberal ideals. But he argues that it could have broad appeal. "Republicans must be the party of the middle class and of common-sense Americans, of all races and ethnicities," he writes, "the party of color blind, hard-working, self-reliant, public-spirited, religious, patriotic, self-sacrificing Americans. There are many, many Democrats who belong in that group."

Standing behind Klingenstein's program is the assumption that there really is a nation called "America," a distinct people with recognizable traits and a shared history. In fashionable quarters, it is increasingly common to deny this. America is presented as far more diverse and divided than "real" nations like France or Germany.

People who deny that America is a nation overstate American diversity and understate the confected nature and continuing heterogeneity of other nation-states. Some decades ago, Michael Lind observed that America was more like Mexico—multiracial but monocultural—than it was like Canada, a monoracial but binational state made up of French and English speakers. Canada is now more racially diverse, but the observation holds.

America, for all its diversity, remains a single nation. That does not mean that it is unified. But our national divide is not so much racial or cultural as it is ideological. We are less like the Habsburg Empire than we are like the European nations that have been divided by irreconcilable ideologies. One camp affirms family, flag and faith. The other takes pride in overcoming these loyalties. Klingenstein's proposal clarifies the battle lines.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.