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Fintan O’Toole: Conservatives have abandoned their core principles

The rich were only pretending they cared about prudence, law and family values

Family values: If Barack Obama’s lawyer paid off a porn star to conceal her story of having sex with him shortly after his wife had given birth, conservatives would have reacted with rage and disgust. Photograph: Retrofile/Getty

We are due a public retraction on a grand scale. Conservatives have long pretended to adhere to certain core values, timeless truths they hold sacred and (of course) immutable. And what is becoming ever more starkly obvious is that they don’t really believe these things at all, or at least that they find them important only when liberals are allegedly violating them.

They are rhetorical weapons, not serious principles. Fiscal caution, prudence, family values, patriotism and adherence to the rule of law: each of these five ideals is being revealed in the maelstrom of contemporary politics as a standard to be applied only to those on the left. For the right, each is dispensable.

1: Fiscal caution

Last week in the United States the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released its projections of what will happen to the annual federal budget deficit. By 2020 it will reach $1 trillion, partly because of tax cuts for the wealthy. By 2028 it will be $1.5 trillion.

The US national debt, now $21 trillion, will soar to more than $33 trillion in 2028. It will then be 96 per cent of GDP, the highest level since the second World War. If these projections were issued under a Democratic administration the response from conservatives in the US and worldwide would be apoplectic and apocalyptic. Hell would be at the gates.


When Barack Obama was in power conservatives pretended to see the growing fiscal deficit as a threat to civilisation as we know it. In 2011 the Republicans brought government to a standstill by demanding nothing less than a constitutional amendment to require balanced budgets and an elimination of the deficit.

Deficits 'proved' societies could no longer 'afford' public health and welfare systems – but not that they cannot afford enormous tax cuts for the wealthy

In 2013 the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, proposed $4.6 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years. Yet the same Republicans have now embarked on one of the largest peacetime expansions of the deficit and the national debt in US history – to the indifference of most of the international conservative commentariat.

Conservatives pretended to see deficits not just as a fiscal and economic question but also as a moral test. They were tokens of laxity, irresponsibility, ill discipline and a refusal to face hard choices. They were the external numerical expression of the internal spiritual weakness of the left. The real deficit was not in money but in character.

And it could not be clearer that this was all posturing. It was a cover for an entirely different agenda.

Deficits “proved” that contemporary societies could no longer “afford” public health and welfare systems. But, oddly enough, they don’t prove that contemporary societies cannot afford enormous tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.

2: Prudence

The fundamental appeal of conservatism is summed up by Edmund Burke in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs: "Prudence is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all."

The left is enamoured of experiment, of innovation, of novelty. The right supposedly values prudence above all. And, again, it raised prudence to the level of a moral ideal, far above mere inertia or timidity. Prudence demands, rather, that those who propose radical change think very carefully about its consequences and stick to existing forms if they cannot show that new ones will be better.

If conservatives ever really believed this they certainly don’t believe it now. Conservatism has become breathtakingly reckless. Brexit is one obvious example – a project embarked on without even a back-of-the-envelope sketch of the medium- and long-term consequences. It proposes a radical change in the existing order of things on the basis of little more than wish-fulfilling slogans, wild fantasies and assurances that everything is going to be all right in the end. But Brexit is a symptom of the wider jettisoning of prudence by conservatism.

In the United States conservatives proved willing to entrust the entire country to a TV loudmouth with no experience whatsoever of government. In much of Europe conservatives have shown an increasing willingness to play with fire. Basic prudence would suggest that you do not play with the fire of extreme nationalism and hatred for “the enemy within”. Yet conservatives have fooled themselves into warming themselves at that fire and mistaking the heat of destructive rage for the glow of comfort.

3: Family values

If Barack Obama's lawyer paid off a porn star to conceal her story of having sex with him shortly after his wife had given birth, we know how conservatives would have reacted: with rage, disgust and jeremiads about the way liberals were leading the world into a moral cesspit. When it was revealed that this had actually happened with Donald Trump the same conservatives suddenly discovered that the sexual behaviour of a president is irrelevant.

Moral outrage at sexual turpitude turns out to be another selective weapon, a sword to be wielded against liberals but sheathed when the sinners are on the right side

White evangelical Protestants continue to be the bedrock supporters of Trump, a self-declared sexual predator. There has been some loss of support among women evangelicals, but overall that base has remained solid. This is not because religious conservatives do not believe Stormy Daniels (more believe her than Trump) but because they don’t really care. Moral outrage at sexual turpitude turns out to be another selective weapon, a sword to be wielded against liberals but sheathed when the sinners are on the right side.

4: Patriotism

For most of the 20th century the worst thing that conservatives could say about the left (not always without reason) was that it was in hock to a foreign power – usually Russia. There is now ample evidence of collusion with Russia, not just by the Trump campaign but by right-wing parties all over Europe. If 1 per cent of what is known about the Trump campaign’s collusion with the Russians had been shown to be the case in relation to any Democratic president, conservatives would have cried treason. They would have characterised that presidency as an affront to American patriotism and as fundamentally illegitimate.

This too turns out to be a matter not of principle but of optional outrage. Subversion by a hostile foreign power matters only if it is done in collusion with liberals or leftists.If it favours conservatives none dare call it treason.

5: The rule of law

Law and order have long been at heart of conservative values. But even these values now seem to be contingent on where the threat to law and order is coming from. The conservative ideal of the rule of law was always rooted in the idea that the state should be “a government of laws and not of men”. The right has increasingly attacked this principle: the state must be the government of the strong man.

Within the European Union no one embodies this more threateningly than the recently re-elected Hungarian prime minister, Victor Orbán. The centre-right European People’s Party (of which Fine Gael is a member) has done nothing to distance itself from Orbán, and its leaders urged support for him in the elections. Likewise, of course, Trump is openly at war with law-enforcement agencies in the US.

Yet again we know what conservatives would say if a liberal president were regularly denouncing the FBI. And yet again it turns out that they don’t really care very much. Conservatism has lost the will to be conservative. It knows what it is against – liberals and the left – but has forgotten what it is for.