What makes the difference? What does it take to convert crazed reactionaries into stalwart defenders of truth and justice? Inspired leaders obviously help, but the most important ingredient here is tradition. Just as a healthy plant needs to be rooted in the right kind of soil, so a healthy conservative requires a tradition that is broad, deep, and appropriately adapted to the climate.
Fundamentally, a conservative is someone who blends a deep respect for the past with a yearning for transcendence. This can be a potent combination. Conservatives are sometimes maligned as “backwards-looking,” but realistically, we need people who remember and honor the past. To be fruitful, though, conservatism must be rooted in a tradition that is rich enough to offer wisdom across centuries, through all the vicissitudes of human life. Young-Earth creationists, Biblical literalists, and Holocaust deniers are all examples of people whose traditional commitments have backed them into a dogmatic corner. A broader-minded conservatism should help us to learn from past mistakes, instead of forcing us to repeat them.
What we see in the Trumpian right isn’t a flawed tradition. It’s what happens when there is no cohesive tradition.