Donald Trump Is Just an Old Whig

By R. Emmett Tyrrell

January 12, 2017 6 min read

WASHINGTON — It has come to my attention that there are still conservatives out there who do not believe President-elect Donald Trump is a conventional conservative, or even a conservative of any stripe whatsoever. Of course, I suspected him of being pretty much a conservative in 2013 when he spoke at the American Spectator Robert L. Bartley Gala, and I have been assiduously spreading the word ever since.

Now, unlike President Ronald Reagan, he never read the National Review — or The America Spectator, for that matter. Nor did he vote for former Sen. Barry Goldwater, our first bona fide conservative presidential candidate. These are derelictions to which he pleads guilty, but back then he was not a politician or even particularly politically aware. He was a builder and a real estate guy, making billions of dollars and establishing a family — three families, in fact. That can keep a man busy.

Still, I think one would be in error to say that Trump was not somewhat conservative in his early years of adult life. He was for free markets, a sound dollar and all those elements that go into patriotism. By the time he had made it through the same decades as the rest of us baby boomers and arrived at 2013, he had pretty much come our way — take my word for it. He was for free enterprise, a strong defense and most of our values, and his love for America made him what we would call typically American. He really had come to love America. On that, he was emphatic. I cannot imagine him ever being as Laodicean on the topic of America as our laid-back 44th president.

Moreover, in looking over his picks for Cabinet, I cannot believe that there are many conservatives out there who have any doubts about his conservatism. Not since the Reagan administration has a president chosen such an array of right-of-center appointments to head his departments and his White House staff. Retired Army Maj. Gen. Mike Flynn, retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly and retired Marine Gen. James Mattis come from the London Center for Policy Research, a rock-solid conservative think tank. To the Department of Education he is sending Betsy DeVos of the vaunted DeVos family, an advocate of vouchers, charter schools and school choice. His selections for the Central Intelligence Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department are solid conservatives. And then there is Sen. Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department, who has versed himself in the conservative classics since his college days. I count six other professed conservatives in the Cabinet, ending with the estimable Dr. Ben Carson. Then there is Trump's White House team, led by Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, all members of the vast right-wing conspiracy. As Machiavelli said, if you want to gain an appreciation for the Prince, ponder his lieutenants.

So where does Trump's conservatism come from? Now, you are going to think I am pulling your leg, but I am doing nothing of the sort. I am not about to joke about the origins of his conservatism. It comes from the same source as President Abraham Lincoln's conservatism. That would be the Whig Party of the 1830s to the mid-1850s. I am not saying that Trump, between establishing casinos and golf clubs, was devoting his leisure hours to reading political tracts from the 1840s. Yet he was living the life of a Whig, as were other 20th-century business people.

The Whig Party has been ignored by modern-day progressives and left-of-center historians who are uncomfortable with the Whigs' essential conservatism and the questions that the party posed — namely Jeffersonian elitism, Democratic racism and opposition to change. These historians promote Honest Abe as a frontier romantic and ignore the Whigs who basically dissolved into the new Republican Party by the mid-1850s.

Yet there they are, and their beliefs predate Donald Trump. They favored "internal improvements," or what Trump now calls infrastructure. They favored economic growth, especially on the frontier. And they favored high tariffs. Trump says he favors free trade, but he will use the threat of high tariffs to sustain free trade. The historian Allen C. Guelzo elaborates on all this in his admirably comprehensive "Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President," though he leaves Trump out of it.

Guelzo identifies the Whigs (and Lincoln) as essentially a reaction to Jeffersonian idealism, which is another reason the Whigs get the cold shoulder from modern historians. They opposed President Thomas Jefferson's class system, with its alliance of the marginal farmer with the aristocracy. The Whigs were working-class and middle-class, as opposed to creatures of inheritance. They were optimistic and socially mobile, as opposed to the Jeffersonian Democrats' idolatry of stasis and the soil. They opposed slavery, and we all know what the Democrats favored and still do in its welfare-state form. The Democrats were — and are today — for the status quo, and conservatives, along with Trump, favor growth and dynamism.

I could expand upon Trump's Whiggery (and ours) for several chapters, but you have to go to lunch. I suggest you get Guelzo's book and consider the origins of Donald Trump. We are all Whigs now.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and the author most recently of "The Death of Liberalism," published by Thomas Nelson, Inc. To find out more about R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

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