There are principled conservatives who wish to conserve aspects of society, such as family and nation, that are threatened by the unfolding logic of liberalism.
Then there are the "trimmer" conservatives who wish to conserve liberalism and its institutions, particularly against too rigidly ideological an implementation of the liberal program ("The ‘trimmer’ is one who disposes his weight so as to keep the ship upon an even keel.")
A principled conservative opposes liberalism at its philosophical starting points, including its understanding of the nature of man and his purposes. A trimmer conservative supports liberalism, its institutions and values, and wishes to sustain it.
Mainstream conservatives are nearly always trimmers. They call themselves conservatives whilst still supporting liberalism (or libertarianism).
My colleague Mark Moncrieff, of the Upon Hope blog, alerted me in the comments to my last post of a good example of a trimmer conservative, namely David Frum.
Frum recently debated Steve Bannon and he described the event as follows:
The debate in Toronto focused on a prediction: whether the future belonged to populist politics...or to liberal politics, in the broadest sense of the word liberal. As I told the audience, I’ve spent my life as a conservative, but what I’ve sought to conserve is not the Spanish Inquisition or the powers of kings and barons. I’ve sought to conserve the free societies that began to be built in the 18th century and that have gradually developed and strengthened—with many imperfections and hypocrisies and backsliding—in the 250 years since. When I was young, the most important challenges to those free societies seemed to come from Communists and Marxists. When I was not so young, the most important of those challenges seemed to come from Islamists. Today, they seem to come from—again, speaking politely—populists. The vector of the challenge changes, but the thing to be cherished and protected remains the same.
This is trimmer talk. He describes himself as a lifelong conservative but it is liberalism that he cherishes and wishes to protect. His mindset is that people like himself must flexibly change position to meet the different challenges that beset liberal societies (he does not consider the issue raised in Patrick Deneen's book, Why liberalism failed, that liberalism will fall because of its own inner workings rather than any external threat).
The tragedy is that trimmers have been able, for so long, to lead the socially conservative rank and file by seeming to be what they actually are not. They present themselves to the rank and file as "conservatives" but they have no intention of halting the slide of Western societies into an ever more radical liberalism.
The trimmers dislike the emergence of populist leaders, who are willing to at least voice the concerns of the rank and file. What would be even better would be the emergence of a new leadership of principled conservatives, who would challenge liberalism at the level of core principles, so that there was a solid ground to the defence of traditional forms of family, culture and nation.
A note to Melbourne readers. If you are sympathetic to the ideas of this website, please visit the site of the Melbourne Traditionalists. It's important that traditionalists don't remain isolated from each other; our group provides a great opportunity for traditionalists to meet up and connect. Details at the website.