‘The Great Man’ and the end of conservatism

Donald Trump waves at a Capitol Hill rally against the Iran nuclear deal on Wednesday. Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Donald Trump waves at a Capitol Hill rally against the Iran nuclear deal on Wednesday. Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Last week, I read the results of a poll that made what remaining hair I had fall out.

The poll, commissioned by Huffington Post and YouGov, was something of an experiment. The goal? Find out if support for certain issues was driven by ideology or some form of personality tribalism.

Half of the 1,000 people polled were asked whether they supported certain issues advocated for by Republican candidate Donald Trump. The rest were asked whether they supported certain issues advocated for by President Barack Obama and other Democratic figures.

They were the same issues.

One question, on universal health care, for instance, related to a topic that is (or should be) deeply ingrained in the political ideology of any conservative. Political conservatives believe strongly that state-directed universal health care is destructive to cost, results in state-directed care, leads to waiting lists and degrades the quality of the system.

When one group was asked if they agreed with Obama that universal health care was a good idea, the result was predictable. Only 16 percent of Republicans felt it was a good idea, with 84 percent opposed, which seems about right.

Yet when the other group was asked if they agreed with Trump that universal health care was a good idea, a staggering 44 percent of Republicans agreed.

This phenomenon is not strictly limited to Republicans, of course. On that same question, 82 percent of Democrats thought universal health care was a good idea when Obama was the figure supporting it, while only 46 percent thought it was a good idea when Trump presented it.

Yet Democrats are in no danger of having a nominee who steps outside party orthodoxy. It is the Republican Party that is currently going through a major ideological identity crisis.

If this election were about issues and ideology, this would simply be impossible. But elections aren’t about issues or ideology, they are about identity and trust.

Republicans, based on that identity and trust, have a frontrunner today — Trump — who currently holds, or recently held, policy positions that have long been regarded as anathema to conservative values. Universal, single-payer health care is just one. There are many others.

What befuddles me is how some people have been able to live with the transparently obvious logical inconsistency.

Mitt Romney, we were told, was a conservative apostate unable to stand up to Barack Obama on important issues, because he was himself insufficiently conservative. He stepped outside his ideological bounds on one major issue — health care — and to many of these same people, that made him a moderate sellout, unworthy to bear the conservative torch.

And yet, Trump has talked up single-payer, advocated a 14.25 percent tax on every American worth more than $10 million, defended funding for Planned Parenthood, been pro-choice his entire life, and donated to figures like Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid, John Kerry, Anthony Weiner and Ted Kennedy.

And he is sufficiently conservative to represent the conservative party, desperate for sweeping changes to this country?

Increasingly in politics — and believe me, it isn’t just with The Donald — we are seeing the rise of the cult of personality, circulating around The Great Man, a kind of messianic civic savior, here to deliver us from our political sins.

Whether it is Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ron Paul, Obama or any of those who have come before them, the search for and belief in The Great Man is a terribly dangerous thing.

These cults of personality are by their very nature entirely illogical. They have no ideological core to them. They identify with, and trust a singular figure, believing that person is the only one who can fix what is increasingly broken in our country. They don’t believe in issues or ideas, they believe in The Great Man.

Because they believe that, any rational examination of issues evaporates completely, as it did with Democrats in 2008. Gone is logic. Gone is any healthy skepticism of a political figure. Gone is any kind of realistic expectation as to their time in office.

All that is left is a belief in The Great Man and his transformative power.

If that becomes the method by which we select candidates, then not only is conservatism dead, but we are setting ourselves up for, sometime not too far in the future, a very dangerous, autocratic government, led by exactly the wrong kind of Great Man. History is replete with examples of the destruction of human liberty that follow such a thing.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.