Monday, November 19, 2018

A trimmer Frum

In my last post, I made a distinction between two entirely different types of conservatives.

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.


  1. You might have a few people on the internet who are monarchists but most populists/nationalists don’t want to go back to medieval times. But he makes it sound like that to scare people.

    1. Yes, he tries to frame the debate in his favour by making it a contest between a free society on the one hand and the Spanish Inquisition on the other. I don't think that's what's in the minds of most rank and file conservatives.

  2. No dominant ideology failed against a weak, fractured and feckless external threat. "Liberalism" isn't going to fail on its own and certainly not from some disagreeable muddle of various so-called "conservative" threats so pathetic that they spend the best of their efforts on more clearly defining the differences between themselves.

    Modern liberalism, as I see it, has no such problems. It doesn't have a brain. It doesn't care. Look around at the incessant bickering, Frum for one. He hates all kinds of so-called "conservatives", and all kinds of so-called "conservatives" hate him.

    Frum doesn't care. He hacks on Limbaugh and all "mainstream conservatives" and he supported Rudi Giuliana, a pro-choice, pro "gay" rights, pro immigration "conservative" for President?

    Frum is a progressive establishment Republican hack. He calls those who criticize his elitist party hackery, cult members. He calls Trump a liar and a crook, calls him a divider, a power grabber, a man whose plan is to have no plan.

    Frum "spent his life as a conservative"? What does that mean? What is a reader of those words supposed to think that he means?

    It's gibberish.

    1. Buck, I don't see the point of your comment. I am trying to break rank and file conservatives from a misguided faith in a mainstream conservatism. I have shown that Sullivan and Frum, whilst claiming to be conservatives, support liberal institutions and values.

      If your point is that it's obvious to everyone that mainstream conservatives are not really conservatives, then I think you're mistaken. On my social media feeds, the majority still have illusions in men like Abbott and even Latham, men I know are liberal in their underlying values. Those who understand this are still a small minority.

      If your point is that political clarification isn't important, then I would first of all disagree but also secondly point out that I am also doing what I can to build up political organisation.

      If your point is that we should just call a spade a spade and be done with the theory, then I'd agree that there is a place for this, and I support those doing it.

      But ideas have consequences. You can see this even in the whole "trimmer" ideal that Sullivan put forward. This seems to come from the "conservative" philosopher Oakeshott. There are some good things in Oakeshott, but he never got close enough to an effective philosophy and seems therefore to have had a negative effect on a generation of "conservative" leaders.

      Getting the theory right would help.

    2. Mark, thanks for replying. I understand that you think that there exists a rank and file conservative that you think is simply misguided, but is somehow still a conservative. I think that they are liberals, even on the easy stuff, and certainly when it comes to push and shove.

      You describe two completely different mindsets and call them both conservatives; one, the principled conservative that sees liberalism as a threat to family and nation (I call that a conservative); and the other who actually wants to conserve liberalism and its institutions, but only wants to trim a little around the ears. I call a conserver of liberalism and its institutions, a liberal, not a "conservative".

      If I had said to the "barber", within hours of entering Parris Island in 1968; just trim a little off around the ears, I would have been instantly in a world of hurt. Not one young man opened his mouth. In short order, every head was clean shaved. Then repeatedly and often as needed.

      I realize that I'm screwing with the "trimmer" theme, but Marines has a simple fat body program too. Moving through the chow line, a big spoon full of chow came off a fat body's tray and on to a skinny body's tray. At the end of boot camp everyone's at fighting weight.

      Common sense and a natural order. The misguided accept guidance or a neatly made empty rack magically appeared at reveille.

      You write of yourself "I have shown that Sullivan and Frum, whilst claiming to be conservatives, support liberal institutions and values."

      How does supporting liberal institutions and values keep one a conservative?

      You say that I'm mistaken if I suggest that so-called mainstream conservatives are not actually conservative. What then, is the point of any of this?

      You say that a majority of them still have illusions about men that you know to have liberal values, meaning, I assume, that the mainstream conservative majority needs still more political clarification. How much more? Are they hearing things clearly, or are they arguing from the same liberal values?

      I agree that clarity is needed, but you can distill a good whiskey too many times.

      As long as you refer to mainstream and trimmer "conservatives" as conservatives, even as they support and conserve liberal values and institutions, they will be happy to be garden tools. If you call them liberal/spades they might have to defend themselves and clarify exactly what their values are. Yes, ideas have consequences, and words have meanings.

      If I call Caitlyn Jenner a transgender woman, I'm calling him a rake, not a spade. If I refer to David Frum or David Brooks or Andrew Sullivan as a conservative, I'm not calling a spade a spade, I'm calling them "garden tools".

      I'm not familiar with Oakeshott. I was an avid kayaker. I put into a nearby river 3 times a week for years. Carried one cold beer and carried a cigar and lighter along with my wallet and keys in a water tight box. I always got wet, but I never trimmed an item. I did float and relax, but you can only float for so long. I always started where I started and finished where I started.

    3. Buck, I agree with you that the bottom line is that they are liberals. They often, in practice, turn out to be radically liberal in their policies. But they have learnt to frame things using appeals to certain aspects of a conservative disposition - and this is often enough to win them support from rank and file conservatives who are put off by the forms of speech, the slogans of the left. Until the advent of social media it wasn't easy to call them out. The smarter young men I know here in Melbourne are admirably good at seeing through the deception, but there are still large numbers who hear the rhetoric of the "trimmers" and prefer it to that of the left and who read too much into it, i.e. they assume that the "trimmer" really thinks the way they do, and holds the same values.

      A classic example in Australian politics is Tony Abbott. He has the ability to make himself sound like a conservative (he references Edmund Burke), and look like a conservative (religious, family man) but his positions on issues like the family and immigration are very radically liberal. Yet there is a whole movement of people ("delcons") who think he is the solution.

  3. But this trimmer conservatism -- it is what has been meant by the word conservatism in the U.S. since as far back as I can remember (the 1960s). It is an excellent point you make that it is actually support for liberalism frozen at a certain point in its development, and that it really lacks any way of stopping the logical progression of liberalism. However, having been used so long in that way, it doesn't help to try to redefine the word conservatism. The other two branches of those on the right are, as I've said before, traditionalism, and populism and certainly the latter isn't well described by the word conservatism.

    Perhaps it is time for you to do another post on what you think a traditional society would look like as I can't really imagine it. At what point do traditionalists want to go back to?

    1. At what point do traditionalists want to go back to?

      I'd be interested to hear Mark's views on that as well.

    2. I don't have a point in time as such. The logic of liberalism did not wipe out a traditional outlook all at once, it happened over time. So it's possible to find attractively traditionalist features of society all the way up to the second half of the twentieth century, though they tended to coexist with a liberal zeitgeist, pushing things ever closer to where we are now.

      What a traditionalist society would mean is that there would be a different understanding of the nature of man and his purposes, and the logic of this different understanding would animate society and shape its institutions rather than the liberal one.

      There is more than one facet to man and his purposes. But let's say, for instance, that it was accepted in a traditionalist community that we have a given, created nature, not just as individuals, but as a type of creature, i.e. as men, and that a purpose of life is to become most fully what we were created to be, i.e. to reach completion.

      This would then mean that a community would come to an understanding of what represents the fullest expression of the physical, moral, emotional and spiritual nature of men; of the roles, responsibilities and duties that correspond to this; of the institutional framework within which men can best fulfil these roles and so on.

      I know this sounds abstract at this level, but once you set such principles in place, then the reasons for preferring one form of social organisation over another become clearer.

  4. Hi, I went to Amazon to check out Deneen's book and a reviewer says Deneen wrote that black slavery in the US was "unique" and bad. Is this true?

    1. I don't recall anything like this. In fact, Deneen mentions the existence of slavery in the ancient world.

      I highly recommend the book. I've read it several times and am still finding that a close reading pays dividends.

  5. I read the book on your recommendation Mark.

    It is fantastic. Although I thought it was (understandably) a little too U.S focussed in its viewpoint the book as a whole is incredible. I understand why you keep recommending it and referring to it.

    1. James, it's the only carry around book I've ever had. Not that I think there aren't things in it that are open to debate or that need further argument. But it's one of those books that have pushed my thought further along and opened up new lines of thought.

    2. Indeed. I've got no time for those people who say "well I didn't agree with what he said on page 158 paragraph 4".

      The analysis of Liberalism as the main cause of our troubles is correct. If people have minor quibbles they should write a book of their own.

  6. Mark - I thought the following quote from an Unz article was very good:

    "Orbán’s Hungary then has to some extent rejected a purely individualist conception of democracy, which sees human beings only as fleeting and interchangeable atoms, to a notion of the citizen as incorporated in a particular family, a particular nation, and a particular chain of generations. In doing so, Orbán has recognized basic biological realities and moved towards what he calls an “illiberal democracy.”

    Personally, I prefer the term “communitarian democracy.” But in any event, the Hungarians have constitutionally founded their state on the basic Aristotelian principle of community: that one can only consider individual well-being starting from the well-being of the whole, of the community of which he is necessarily a part, and which will outlive him."