The New Yorker headline is too strong: The Book That Predicted Trump. That’s beefed up from what Matt Feeney actually says: “From Robin’s argument, we could predict that a conservative party would be unlikely to nominate the idealized conservative as its standard-bearer, but that it would absolutely yoke itself to a populist nut job like Donald Trump.” That’s better than the headline. Better still, however, not to defenestrate Karl Popper quite so dramatically as all that. Robin advances an empirical hypothesis about the nature of conservatism. If possible, we should model hypothesis testing as an exercise in disconfirmation. It is plain that Trump does not disconfirm Robin. Trump fits the Robin model to a T, but it goes too far to say the model predicts him. Obviously 2016 has been an unusual year for Republicans. It may yet prove to be the year in which the Republican Party cracks up, like the Whigs. There is nothing whatsoever in Robin’s model that predicts 2016, in particular, shall be a special year. You could have made money in the prediction markets, betting according to Robin’s model, because you would have snapped up Trump back when he was selling for fractions of pennies. Clearly he was an undervalued property, by Robin’s theoretical lights. But recognizing a long shot as not so long as people think is not the same as it being a lock. So, to repeat: Robin did not predict Trump. I belabor the point because I predict some folks – our Corey does have his detractors, strange to say – may dismiss this New Yorker squib on the grounds that it is puffing Robin up as a prophet to an irrational degree. That right. It is.
But the Robin point can be reformulated. It’s not that he predicted Trump and, therefore, his hypothesis is confirmed. Rather, nearly everyone else predicted Not-Trump and, therefore, their hypotheses are disconfirmed by Trump. ‘Since conservatism is X, Y and Z, conservatives won’t vote for a -X, – Y and -Z guy like Trump.’ Something like that. (OK, I’m fudging a bit. Point is: Trump tests everyone else, NOT Robin.)
The headline ought to read “The Book That Didn’t Predict Not-Trump”. There. Fixed it.
Now the question is: have philosophers and theorists and advertisers of the alleged virtues of the conservative mind, from Burke to Kirk, Buckley and beyond, really been advancing variations on an empirical hypothesis? The obvious objection is that conservative political philosophy is a normative claim, or cluster of them. It says how people ought to be, not how they are. So it isn’t refuted if people don’t follow its precepts in real political practice.
In the New Yorker piece Feeney sketches ‘the ideal conservative’ like so: “This figure is a dreamy quietist of peaceable disposition, who savors apolitical friendship, nurses a skeptical outlook, and looks to an anti-theoretical politics of homey tradition and humane, but chastened, sentiment to guide him.” Close enough for government work, as a thumbnail summary of conservative political philosophy. But not nearly close enough for government work if Trump is elected. Obviously not. But that just shows Trump isn’t a conservative, not that conservatism was always already Trumpism. If ‘conservatives’ substantially go Trump, it goes to show that they weren’t conservative. There were fewer ‘real’ conservatives, after all.
It’s fair enough to say conservative political philosophy is a normative position. That’s a reasonable way to use words. But if conservatism is a normative position unmoored from real US politics, to the point where it has no bearing whatsoever on election results, and election results do not reflect on it, then it seems self-defeating for a different reason: namely, it’s just some abstract philosopher’s game. It’s a paper plan for some utopia. That’s nuts. Because the paper plan is to be smug about how other people – the liberals – are always making paper plans for utopia. A utopia in which everyone is smug about how they are the only non-utopians is a stupid utopia.
Putting it another way, terms like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ have many uses, potentially. They are foci for theorizing about ideals. We want to know what is the best that liberalism could be; the best that conservatism could be. It makes sense to try to see the best in competing values. We also want these terms to serve as socio-electoral shorthand. If you want to understand what is going on in politics, ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ are terms for tagging groups and movements and so forth. Deploying these terms is supposed to make politics less, rather than more, baffling. Using one word to do both jobs – limn the ideal, track the real – is optimistic. It depends on the real groups and movements being approximately ideal. The way things are actually going needs to be not waaaaaay off the way they ought to be going, in order for a theory of ideal conservatism to do reliable double-duty as a rough map of actually existing conservatism.
Robin’s model has the distinction of not having conspicuously fallen to pieces, due to this potential gap. That’s a fairly rare distinction, I should think.