Skip to main content


Letter from Rome: Explaining Trump to Europeans

Dear friends of Istituto Acton,

Last month, I broke from the Italian vacation tradition of “mare o monte” (sea or mountains) and took part in a medium-sized gathering of American and European conservatives, broadly defined as those wishing to preserve Western civilization. The meeting was off-the-record, so I can’t provide the details. I can, however, reveal that I spoke about “Trump’s America” alongside two others from the United States. The discussion made evident not only some serious fissures among conservatives in both the US and Europe but also other generally divergent views of what we mean by “Western civilization” in the first place.

Not surprisingly, none of the Americans was especially enamored with Trump as a person, as no one outside his family seems to be. Furthermore, Trump is not running as a loyal Republican (he was a Democrat and a friend of the Clintons until very recently) nor as a conservative in any normal sense of the word. He has vehemently criticized the domestic and foreign policies of the party of which he is the nominee, especially in the areas of war, trade and immigration, and has notably stayed away from hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay marriage that have mobilized religious conservatives in the past. His only explicit appeal to the conservative “movement” as such has been to say he would follow the advice of the Federalist Society when nominating a Supreme Court justice.

Trump has vowed to “make America great again” by building a wall along its southern border, re-negotiating trade deals, especially with China and Mexico, in order to bring back manufacturing jobs, and closely scrutinizing Muslim immigrants. Many conservatives have expressed support for the first and third of these, fewer for the second, as it would entail a sharp departure for the economic-minded not only in the Republican Party, but the “new” Democratic Party of Bill Clinton and Al Gore as well. Most (but not all) economists have favored these agreements, a consensus which appears to count for little in an age of increasing economic anxiety.

Rather than his specific policies, however, Trump’s appeal to (at least some) conservatives is based on a revival of populist nationalism, which is stridently opposed to the globalism that has increasingly ruled the West since the end of the Cold War. In the eyes of nationalists, global elites have made dogmas out of free trade, multilateralism, and especially multiculturalism to the detriment of working- and middle-class people. Combined with the effects of political correctness promoted and enforced by the academy and the media, such people no longer feel secure or valued in their own countries.

Coming from a long-suffering, de-industrialized city like Flint, Michigan and having worked in various precincts of the Catholic left, I am no stranger to anti-globalization sentiments and am often reminded of the costs it has had on individuals and particular communities. I also know plenty of Italians who feel disadvantaged and displaced by the socio-economic trends of the last few decades. One unquestionably positive aspect of the Trump campaign for conservatives is that it has forced us to come to terms with the moral or more broadly human elements of politics and economics.

Yet not even this is really news to conservatives. Remember George H. W. Bush’s “kinder, gentler nation” with its “thousand points of light”? Or his son’s “compassionate conservatism”? Ever heard Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute give a speech? It is routine for European conservatives to call themselves “center-right” because plain right-wingers are either fascists or monarchists. Each of these attempts to humanize conservatism only managed to sow more discord on the right while reinforcing the leftist caricature of conservatives as mean-spirited and prejudiced. When it comes to showing they care for the poor, conservatives seem to be damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Just as the word “liberal” has been hijacked by illiberal progressives who want to control virtually every aspect of our lives outside the bedroom, so is the word “global” now being used to cudgel those who dare to resist the nice-sounding but pernicious ideology of multiculturalism, which means something much more than the obvious existence of different religions, races and cultures. As “-ism” or an ideology, it is a manifestation of the “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires”, as Pope Benedict XVI so aptly described it in 2005. And strangely enough, just like concepts such as liberty and equality, it arises out of Western civilization in order to destroy it.

The nation-state was originally a liberal idea, meant to allow peoples live freely and determine their own futures, no longer under the yokes of distant empires. Like the empires before them, nations also waged destructive wars against each other, leading to multilateral international institutions meant to keep the peace among them while respecting their sovereignty (i.e. the United Nations). Trade among nations was conceived as serving the cause of peace (i.e. the World Trade Organization). In the West, we are all, in a sense, nationalists as well as globalists - especially those of us grew up in the post-WWII world, frequently and freely travelling where English is the lingua franca.

But not in today’s political lexicon; the “No Global” movement of the year 2000 now includes many Western conservatives. What happened? I cannot help but wonder how much of our moral and political confusion is due to the lack of a common reference point, a role that Christianity once served. The Romans first introduced the concept of universal citizenship, which Christianity transformed into a universal religion while respecting the diversity of particular rites and peoples. Holding these competing ideas together in some kind of a creative tension is what arguably gave the West its dynamism, making it a highly impressive and admirable human achievement. (But besides that, what have the Romans ever done for us?)      

One can readily admit that “Christendom” was never as unified as its supporters have insisted (just ask the Jews), that the Christian Democratic post-war parties are spent, and still recognize that something substantial has been lost in post-Christian Europe. It is shocking to hear Europeans say they no longer feel at home in their own countries when those around them are fellow citizens of a different race, often from former colonies. It is shocking to hear Europeans and Americans say they have no duty to take in refugees from war-torn countries, 70 years after the end of World War II, claiming they can’t determine a refugee from an economic migrant from a terrorist. But that is what I’m hearing from fellow conservatives, who can no longer agree on the most basic aspects of human decency. Maybe Nietzsche was right: the death of God means the death of reason.

Overall, Trump is promising to Europeanize the American economy. He says he will level the playing field for American manufacturers by threatening trade wars with China and Mexico. What hasn’t anyone thought of this before? Buying “made in the USA” goods may make people feel better about themselves, but no one knows if it’s better for the economy as a whole. What may be good for producers may be bad for consumers; in a commercial society, we’re rarely one or the other, so the end results will likely be mixed. We will have a more “national” (i.e. managed) but less competitive economy. If you think the US economic growth rates are sluggish now, just wait until you end up with Italian-like rates between 0 and 1 percent and even fewer opportunities for the young and the marginalized.  

All in all, it’s a pretty depressing election for supporters of religion and liberty or what is sometimes called liberal conservatismor conservative liberalism (don’t ask me for the difference, though). I happen to be a poster child of globalization, an American living in Europe, a Westerner of non-Western heritage, and perhaps soon a man without a country. Blaming Donald Trump is attacking the symptom rather than the cause, while supporting Hillary Clinton is just asking for more of the same sad decline. The situation in Europe is even more worrying. Just what is it we’re trying to conserve anyway?
Kishore Jayabalan

Kishore Jayabalan is director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute's Rome office. Formerly, he worked for the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as an analyst for environmental and disarmament issues and desk officer for English-speaking countries. Kishore Jayabalan earned a B.A. in political science and economics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In college, he was executive editor of The Michigan Review and an economic policy intern for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He worked as an international economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C.