In the battle over the role of government in American life, it’s clear that the Left is winning decisively. The era of small government is over. As Donald Trump’s convention speech made clear, the election of 2016 is a race between an old-school Democrat and a new-school progressive — between a post-war Teamsters’ boss and a university professor. Actual conservatism is nowhere in sight.
I can’t recall a Republican speech in my lifetime that put such an overwhelming emphasis on the ability of a national leader to transform American lives. I and I alone will protect Americans from ISIS, from domestic crime, and from the free market, Trump declared. Corporations won’t move their factories, wages will increase, and trade will suddenly become fair. How? Don’t ask. He’ll make it so.
Conservatives have long focused on the reality that private individuals and private associations are the best-equipped to encourage and foster human flourishing. Churches and civic associations take care of their members better than government social workers. Businesses large and small are best-equipped to respond to and spearhead economic innovation. Good families are better than even the best government at raising children and overseeing their education.
Trump understands what Democrats have long understood: The disconnected and vulnerable often feel that they have nowhere to turn but to government.
The breakdown of the family and the increasing alienation of the individual has changed this calculus. A person in an intact marriage who belongs to a thriving church looks at the world very differently from a single parent living on their own or an older divorcée who’s disconnected from the surrounding community. During the primary, the more a Republican was connected to a church or to civic associations, the less likely they were to vote for Trump. The more alienated the citizen, the more likely they were to hop on the Trump Train.
Trump understands what Democrats have long understood: The disconnected and vulnerable often feel that they have nowhere to turn but to government. They feel helpless and look for a champion. That’s why President Obama put out his much-derided “Julia” cartoon: to show single women that they have nothing to fear, because the government will meet all their most critical earthly needs.
Trump could put out his own cartoon — let’s call his hero “Frank” — describing how, thanks to his chosen leader, Frank can keep his job, increase his wages, and prevent his nasty factory owner from closing up shop and heading to Mexico. Trump will keep Frank safe, limit Frank’s economic competition, and protect Frank from the world economy.
But Trump’s Frank relies not so much on his man’s policies as his man’s promises. Obama came to the table bearing proposed gifts, a potpourri of programs that purport to protect Americans from cradle to grave. Trump comes to the table bearing himself, pledging to be Frank’s champion and asking Frank to trust that Trump’s incredible talent and winning habits will carry the day.
Conservatives have to face a sobering reality: At present they simply do not have a message that reaches the Franks of the world like Trump’s does.Intact, church-going, engaged families face each day with more hope and optimism — and with greater resilience — than their more alienated peers. The connected conservative largely experiences government as an impediment to prosperity, as a drag on their dreams. Yet — as I wrote in the aftermath of the 2012 GOP defeat — a conservative message of small government, self-reliance, and individual liberty turns out to be pretty terrifying to millions of struggling Americans. In 2016, we learned that many of those millions inhabit the GOP ranks. They weren’t ever going to embrace the multicultural progressivism of the New Left, but the protectionism and paternalism of the old liberal order had its appeals.
In other words: The southern Democrat is back. The old-school Midwest union boss is back. They have their champion, and he’s the GOP nominee. For now, the Left has won. The only real question is which version of big-government liberalism will prevail in November.
— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.