Modern American conservatism is a funny hybrid animal. It seeks to conserve a political inheritance that is in large part liberal, at least in the classical sense. Yet its foundations are rooted in something greater and more permanent than procedural liberalism. If conserving the American people in the face of a truly grave threat clashes with libertarian ideology, it should be a no-brainer which should prevail. Coronavirus isn’t the first time conservatives have been asked to confront this dilemma in the Trump era, but it is the most important.
At the same time, this siren song has led conservatives astray before as well. We have been asked to discard constitutional punctiliousness in the face of various threats, leading to concrete follies like the Iraq war and more general ones like a federal government too financially overextended to meet its real obligations to the American people.
The great conservative temptation if Trump is defeated is to become generically antigovernment, leaving the country’s problems to be dealt with on progressive terms. The great temptation if he is re-elected will be to champion whatever the government does, as long as it is run by Republicans. Neither approach will be adequate to the long term, as coronavirus should remind us. Otherwise conservatives will be as scarce in government as in pandemics.