Politics & Policy

How Should Conservatives Respond to the Age of Trump?

(Nancy Wiechec/Reuters)

Morning has broken in Republican America. On this bright new day, what was once the party of Lincoln has become the party of Donald Trump. Our electoral scene is more dynamic than at any other time in living memory. The fertile mind explodes with new imagined possibilities for how America’s future might unfold. No longer shackled to the crippled agendas of the Bush and Boehner eras, Trump and his supporters are now free to craft a fresh, forward-looking policy agenda for the 21st century.

The first order of business, obviously, is to bludgeon the holdouts into submission. Don’t be too gentle about it. It’s better to be feared than loved. If Paul Ryan won’t immediately pledge fealty, put Sarah Palin on his case. Have Mike Huckabee issue get-in-or-get-out ultimatums to anybody who might still be on the fence. Meanwhile, have the candidate play hard-to-get by assuring skeptical conservatives that they aren’t really needed anyway. It’s called the Republican party, people. Republics can be liberal.

The next step, most likely, is aggressive outreach to Bernie Sanders’s fresh-faced socialists. But at the risk of provoking another Corey Lewandowski attack, I’d like to pose a question first: What is this grand new party? Do Trumpites have an answer to the charge that they have sold their conservative birthright for a mess of white-identity politics? If I remain un-hypnotized by Trump’s strongman antics, was anyone planning to give me another reason to vote for him, or are we just leaving all of our eggs in the Not-Hillary basket?

With Trump preparing to assume command, it’s time for round two of “What Is Trumpism?” questions. And this time we need answers. Three months ago, a sizable group of conservatives claimed to be for it, even as they criticized Trump personally. For tactical reasons, I always thought that was a mistake. Now that the phantom is taking on flesh, it’s time to look beyond the tactical. Anti-anti-Trumpism was mainly an expression of sympathy, usually seasoned with a dash of “I told you so” for whatever mistakes the speaker thought the Republican party had made in the past. It turns out in the end that two antis do make a pro. What now?

RELATED: After Trump, Conservatives Must Continue to Explore Their Options

Donald Trump is vile. Can we admit now that Trumpism is also bad? Even its defenders implicitly acknowledged this when they rhapsodized about depressed rust-belt towns, withering cultural foundations, and fancy Manhattanites who use the term “redneck” without shame. Notice that these apologias, even if they inspire sympathy, are not justifications. They are excuses. Excuses are what we give for people we know are doing wrong.

Trump’s backers have done wrong, and not because any particular Republican candidate was ever entitled to widespread voter support. Trumpism is irresponsible and destructive. In their wrath, Trumpites blithely treated millions of ordinary working, family-rearing, flyover-dwelling Americans (who regard Trump as offensive and disturbing) as mere collateral damage in their private war with snooty Washington elites. Even in victory, they seem to cherish the hope that they can grow the movement with vinegar (their favorite flavor) instead of resorting to the less-satisfying honey of persuasion.

RELATED: The Scariest Reason Trump Won

For me, one of the more disturbing experiences of recent months was watching as Trump-sympathetic friends and associates slowly shifted away from rational argument to a different strategy: ousting “elitists” from the conversation. It’s not so important to be right anymore, so long as you’re not “out of touch.” No need to hash out policies, principles, or other such high-falutin’ frivolities. Your degrees are too fancy. I beat you on Charles Murray’s bubble quiz. You’re not as American as me.

It’s stupefying. Before our very eyes, we have watched our associates morph from members of a movement into members of a tribe. Is that a guillotine I hear being sharpened? I’ve suddenly lost my taste for cake.

#share#Of course, Trumpites are not the only people in the Republican camp who have made some mistakes. We can condemn their errors while retaining some measure of sympathy especially for wounded people who are desperately looking for hope. Nevertheless, the Trumpites are in the driver’s seat now, so there’s no time for a sharing circle. Bad behavior needs to be forgiven, not justified, and it certainly should not be accepted as the new normal. We need to crystalize that point before we can move forward with purpose.

RELATED: The GOP’s Ideological Earthquake and the Aftermath

Most of the discussion of the last week has focused on electoral flag-planting. Who, in the end, will support our ghoulish new chieftain? Who will revolt? In the frenzy to declare ourselves on this point, we should not overlook the significance of Trumpism. Walking the anti-anti tightrope is no longer an available option now that Trump has effectively clinched the nomination, so it’s important to re-affirm our deeper loyalties. We need to make clear that conservatism is not a nativist cult. That some of us are still committed to core conservative principles. That we hope to reconcile with some of the Trumpites in time, under the banner of a genuinely conservative movement. But if that’s not possible, we’re not on the same team anymore.

What that means politically remains to be seen, given the murkiness of our longer-term electoral picture. This much, however, is obvious: Trumpism cannot replace conservatism as the engine of a major political party. Its identity is tribal, but based in a demographic that is far too small to build a viable party. Its energy comes from a surge of nativist angst that will inevitably fizzle over time. Its intellectual foundation . . . does not exist.

RELATED: Perry and Other Republicans Sell Their Souls to Trump

In tumultuous moments, that kind of appeal inevitably provokes a round of guffaws from the peanut gallery. What did conservatism ever do for the struggling breadwinner whose job got outsourced? How did conservatism halt Obama’s progressive agenda? We build ivory towers (at great public expense!) for this kind of philosophical stuffed-shirt-ism. Spare us the lecture on True Conservatism.

In fact, it is precisely at moments like these that such reveries are needed. The fabric of our civil society is decaying, and our politics is devolving into a series of interest-group skirmishes. The progressive Left hopes to orchestrate these into a bid for more complete control over its only serious opponents (principled conservatives and religious traditionalists), so that its ideological agenda can advance unopposed. Without a substantive vision of our own, we have no real hope of defending order, or our cherished liberties. Returning to the source of our movement is the only way to proceed in chaotic times, and conservatism is that source.

RELATED: Trump’s Backtrackers: Republican Politicians Go Wobbly

What does that mean? Several excellent books exist that can help clarify what conservatism finally is. The short version is that American conservatism has two primary pillars. First, it recognizes that modern societies are perpetually vulnerable to the problem of governmental overreach. As technology makes it increasingly possible to control large populations through aggressive technocratic micromanagement, we must expect that some will wish to do so, for benevolent or not-so-benevolent reasons. Drawing especially from thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, conservatives recognize the dangers of that temptation. Big government is inefficient, but even more critically, it undermines human dignity. It saps our creative energies and prevents us from realizing the greatness of which rational beings are capable. Conservatives perpetually try to rein in the state’s relentless push for greater control over our resources and our lives.

Unfortunately, we have no assurance that conservative principles will always find expression in our political system.

As its second pillar, conservatism recognizes a robust moral order. Human beings have a nature. Things can be objectively good or bad for us. We have obligations, not all of which are subject to our personal consent. We are capable of true excellence, but also of moral failure, for which we should rightly be held to account. These are fundamental truths that shape the conservative worldview. Even as progressives seek to appropriate our property, they also have a fractious relationship with these moral realities, which they would like to clear away in a quest for a more radical autonomy. Conservatives object, insisting that the moral order is not ours to reshape at will.

At its best, modern American conservatism draws together these two points into a happy synergy — fusionism. Libertarians warn their more Burkean counterparts of the hazards of seizing any available opportunity to use state power to further their social and cultural agendas. Conservatives help their colleagues hold the line between “libertarian” and “libertine,” perpetually reminding us that market forces are not divine mandates, and that even culture has its limits.

#related#Applying these principles to good policy is never a simple matter, and campaigning politicians often feel obliged to bow to the grasping demands of fallen human beings. That being the case, the party of Lincoln has never been a perfect vehicle for fusionism, as indeed no party ever will be. Still, the relationship has been significant, and even in some of their less-glorious years, American conservatives have retained the capacity to speak this fusionist language in a way that could translate into a new policy agenda and revitalized conservative vision. But it’s exceedingly difficult to see the outlines of any such renewal in the threats and tantrums of Trump or his surrogates. Whatever the electoral picture, principled conservatives need to repeat clearly and regularly that this is not what we are.

Unfortunately, we have no assurance that conservative principles will always find expression in our political system. If we acclimate ourselves to the mores of Trumpism for the sake of winning an election, there is no guarantee that these principles will ever re-emerge on the American scene in a robust, politically relevant way. A new day has dawned, and it promises to be a hot one. Let’s get to work.


The Latest