By winning the Republican party’s presidential nomination, Donald Trump ousted conservatism as the guiding ethos of the GOP. As president, he might compel conservatives in Congress to drive a stake through the heart of the ideology of small government.
Donald Trump won the presidency while explicitly shunning conservative ideals. As a candidate for the Republican nomination, he embraced insurance mandates, rejected the reformation of entitlements, and prescribed an expansion of the federal government and executive authority to enact his immigration preferences. When conservatives balked at supporting Trump even after he won the nomination, the GOP’s nominee said the feeling was mutual. “This is called the Republican party,” Trump said at the time; “it’s not called the Conservative party.” When it came to policy, Trump never changed his stripes. He ran on a retrograde nationalist platform and advocated the resurrection of American heavy industry through tariffs, protectionism, and a “trade war” (his words) with China.
Conservatives would have been lucky to live in comfortable exile. It’s a condition with which they are familiar and where the stakes are low. But fate has not been so kind to Donald Trump’s supporters; they must now govern with him as their party’s leader. Will conservatives bow to Trump’s big-spending proposals and, in so doing, allow their president to make hypocrites out of them and their philosophy?
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Donald Trump spent weeks on the trail touting how his plan to spend $500 billion on public works and infrastructure projects was roughly double what Hillary Clinton had pledged to spend. Last month, he inexplicably doubled his proposal to $1 trillion. This is common practice for blusterous real-estate developers for whom big price tags are a prerequisite to securing investors, but it is irresponsible behavior in a conservative lawmaker. How will Republicans pay for such a thing? Will they hold the line on spending as they had pledged they would for all those years in the opposition, or will they cave when the big-ticket proposal comes from a Republican president?
Republicans in Congress are not under any obligation to abandon their principles.
Trump has also called for a dramatic expansion in defense funding. He’s asked Congress to repeal the Budget Control Act of 2011 (the sequester), and promised to address the outstanding problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs by throwing money at it. To offset these new outlays, Trump advised the elimination of “government waste and budget gimmicks” and “improper government payments,” which is to say “waste, fraud, and abuse.”
And speaking of great works, there is still the matter of Trump’s immigration proposals. Trump transition-team officials are already dampening expectations that the Great Wall on the Rio Grande will spring up in the southwest anytime soon. Some have estimated that the costs of materials alone will run in excess of $17 billion, to say nothing of the years of surveying, environmental-impact studies, legal fees, and union-labor costs associated with its construction. As for Trump’s pledge to round up and deport some 11 million illegal immigrants over the course of just two years, former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin estimated that such an ambitious operation would cost at least $300 billion. And, as Linda Chavez rightly observed, these projects will likely hasten the onset of a recession resulting from lost productivity and labor. Even if Trump backs off from much of this, he won’t be able to abandon all of it. What will conservative Republicans do?
The Republican party is now led by a populist who ran on a nationalistic platform, but Republicans in Congress are not under any obligation to abandon their principles and good sense in service to the hazy idea of an electoral mandate. Congressional Republicans do not need to have an antagonistic relationship with their party’s leader, but nor should they give up on what their constituents voted for: supply-side economics, sustainable budgets, and individual liberty. Donald Trump may not have much use for conservatism, but the Republican party and the country most certainly do.
– Noah Rothman is the assistant online editor of Commentary magazine.