Most old-school conservatives in America have made their peace with Donald Trump, but they’re not about to accept him as their standard-bearer. They drew back in horror when the GOP nominated this braggadocious, thrice-married, non-observant Presbyterian. They looked on, mystified, as the Party of Reagan embraced protectionism, capitulated on same-sex marriage and sought rapprochement with Russia. Half a century of ideological consensus fell apart in a matter of months.
In the background of last year’s US presidential election was the rise of Theresa May. True: David Cameron was a bit soggy. But Mrs May’s rhetoric about “ordinary working people” and businesses’ “social responsibility” threw up red flags for American conservatives. “Theresa May is no Maggie Thatcher,” a Wall Street Journal headline grumbled. “She wasn’t even a second John Major,” the Weekly Standard added in a post-general election obituary. “She was another Edward Heath – cold, incompetent and not as popular as she thought.”
Where could they turn now? Not the Vatican, surely. John Paul II was a saint in Republicans’ eyes long before he was canonised by the Catholic Church. His role in bringing down the Iron Curtain cast him as the third person in the anti-communist trinity, alongside Reagan and Thatcher. But Pope Francis? Most conservatives (including an alarming number of Catholics) half-expected him to slap a “Hillary 2016” bumper sticker on the Popemobile.
In their very hour of need, the Reaganites’ European allies lay dead on the hustings. Then Moggmania swept Britain – and it didn’t take long to spread across the pond. “The Honourable Member for the Early 20th Century” is exactly the champion American conservatives are looking for.
National Review, the so-called Bible of American conservatism, has already endorsed Rees-Mogg’s yet unrealised bid for prime minister. “His classical liberalism is much closer to American conservatism than to traditional English Toryism,” they trilled. He’s a marriage traditionalist, pro-life stalwart, fearless Eurosceptic, a firm believer in our special relationship… and an orthodox Catholic to boot. What more could they ask for?
Crucially, he also shares their nostalgia for the good ol’ days of the Cold War. A clip of Rees-Mogg suggesting that Parliament “deify” Lady Thatcher in the manner of ancient Rome has been circulating among Washington conservatives in the last few weeks. You could actually feel the winds change with the force of thousands of free-marketeers collectively swooning.
Even progressives are flirting with Mogg-mania. NPR, the left-wing public radio station, is enthralled by this “son of a lord” who “sounds like a character out of Downton Abbey”. That’s not just low-grade Anglophilia, mind you. If Julian Fellowes (that’s Baron Fellowes of West Stafford to you) had brought Downton out in 1999, the House of Lords Act would have failed spectacularly. It’s all about aristocracy at its best: the embodiment of tradition, civilisation and patriotism. Downton is pure High Tory propaganda. That’s why it took off in the States. Americans have always been Higher Tories than Britons. For all our republican pretences, we’re still searching for a royal family of our own – be it the Adamses, the Kennedys, the Bushes, the Clintons, the Trumps or the Kardashians.
Jacob Rees-Mogg embodies the best of them all. Like George HW Bush, he’s posh without being pretentious. Unlike Bush, he doesn’t feign a “common touch”, which is where posh becomes condescending. And for all the populist rhetoric, we don’t actually hate “establishments” – just the poor lot we’ve been given. Rees-Mogg projects the competence of a political veteran but without Hillary’s technocratic coldness.
He also takes the same view of the Tories that most American conservatives take of the GOP: he venerates it as an institution, historic but also vital. He believes, like Sir Robert Peel, that the party plays an indispensable role in “the maintenance of order and the cause of good government”. That’s why his unswerving loyalty to his various (and varied) leaders doesn’t come off as the least bit cynical. It’s not a matter of party before principle: to Rees-Mogg, as to so many American conservatives, party loyalty is a principle.
Much ado was made about whether Trump’s “temperament” was sufficiently presidential. Rees-Mogg’s is virtually faultless. If he’s an archaism, he’s delightfully unaware of the fact. No one’s told him that good manners and even tempers have gone out of style – and if they had he wouldn’t care one jot. There’s no doom and gloom in his conservatism either. You would never catch him crying “Make Britain Great Again”. She’s always been great; the trick is to make her greater still.
This is the great promise that Jacob Rees-Mogg has made to his American admirers – and, best of all, he didn’t mean to make it. He’s been the same fundamental person since his faithful nanny was changing his nappies. If that person happens to be the man to save conservatism in the English-speaking world, so be it.
Michael Davis is the Catholic Herald’s US commissioning editor