Politics & Policy

Conservative Resistance in the Trump Era

(Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)
Let’s not abandon our ideals.

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.

And at the end of all this, Donald Trump won the largest electoral landslide for Republicans since 1988. While his total vote share lagged that of Mitt Romney, its distribution in the upper and central Midwest represented a potent display of political force. Yet those same tailwinds that swept Donald Trump into office also ratified the legitimacy of the Republican party’s majorities in Congress. Many of the members who won reelection to their seats in the House and Senate count themselves not as Trumpian populists but as conservatives, children of the Tea Party wave election of 2010. Unless Donald Trump performs an about-face in the Oval Office, he will ask a conservative Congress to give up on its convictions and embrace a brave new populist-progressive future under Donald Trump.

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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Those Republicans who lament that austere green-eyeshade conservatism fails to appeal to those for whom the national debt is an abstraction cheered the president-elect’s Ivanka Trump–branded child-care relief proposal.​ The plan expands the earned-income tax credit to new mothers and extends to eligible moms six weeks of unemployment benefits at a cost of approximately $2.5 billion per year. This is likely a low-end estimate, though, as some employers would probably take advantage of the program by dropping existing maternity-leave options. To pay for this, the campaign said only that it wanted to seek the elimination of an estimated $3.4 billion associated with unemployment-insurance fraud. That’s an insult, not a debt-neutral policy proposal. Will Republicans who opposed a similar plan from Barack Obama embrace it when it’s proposed by Trump?

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?

#related#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.


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