Politics & Policy

Conservatism in the Era of Trump

(Reuters photo: Lucas Jackson)
Where does the Right go from here?

Mick Mulvaney’s friends in the House Freedom Caucus couldn’t believe what they were hearing.

It was the Monday night following Election Day, and lawmakers were trickling back into Washington to resume their congressional duties. The next day, House Republicans would hold closed-door elections to choose their leadership for the upcoming 115th Congress, and little drama was expected. Paul Ryan had angered many of the members by abandoning Donald Trump’s candidacy a month before the election, but the president-elect had quickly and mercifully made it known that he wanted Ryan to remain speaker, extinguishing the fantasies of some conservatives who had plotted to overthrow him in the November 14 party elections.

As the Freedom Caucus’s nine-person board gathered for its preliminary briefing prior to the weekly meeting with the full membership, Jim Jordan, the group’s no-nonsense chairman, broke some awkward news: Mulvaney, a board member, would formally nominate Ryan for speaker the next day. Some colleagues thought Jordan was joking; he assured them he was not. Word quickly spread to the entire group, and when Mulvaney — who was running late — arrived for the full meeting, he was greeted with a chorus of angry expletives. According to multiple sources in the room, Mulvaney offered a simple explanation for his decision to so ostentatiously support Ryan: The speaker had asked him to. His comrades threw up their hands. “What else would you do if he asked you to?” Justin Amash, Mulvaney’s friend and a fellow board member, bellowed at him.

Things were about to get worse. As Jordan, a former collegiate wrestling champion, raised his voice to demand a verbal cease-fire, Mulvaney inadvertently let the cat out of the bag. “I was going to vote for Jim, but he’s not running now.” The room froze. “Oh, s***,” someone said. Before the election, Jordan, anticipating a Trump loss and an anti-Ryan backlash, had decided to run for the speakership himself, as Politico reported last month. But, worried that his plan would leak, he had kept it from many of the Freedom Caucus members — and then quietly nixed it after Trump’s victory and subsequent show of support for Ryan.

That Jordan, who has been famously reluctant to run for leadership, would plot against the speaker — and that Mulvaney’s colleagues would cuss him out for nominating Ryan — reflects simmering frustrations on the right with the man who succeeded John Boehner. Much of it, several members say, stems from the speaker’s “holier than thou” attitude toward Trump during the campaign, and specifically his announcement on October 10 that he would focus on House races from then until Election Day and do nothing to support Trump. (Ryan went back on that, later urging voters to support Trump, but the damage was done.) In retrospect, Ryan’s allies say, it was an emotional response to the freshly leaked Access Hollywood tape and an unforced error: The speaker was already focusing virtually all his efforts on House campaigns, and could have continued to do so quietly. Instead, he made a grand declaration that reeked of opportunism to his enemies. “He was trying to sabotage Trump, that’s what we think,” one Freedom Caucus member tells me. “This was about him positioning to run in 2020.” Ryan’s team laughs at this accusation, but there’s no question his about-face on Trump — accusing him of racism and later disowning his candidacy, only to embrace him in the aftermath of victory — has hurt his credibility in certain circles.

The entire episode, however, is about much more than Ryan and his role in a party that now belongs to Trump. It speaks to something fundamental about how the anti-establishment forces in American politics have been emboldened by Trump’s ascent and are eager to capitalize on this moment of upheaval. Many in the GOP believe they are entering a metamorphic period in the modern histories of both Republicanism and conservatism, one in which their intertwined loyalties and ideologies and dogmas could be scrambled and realigned. Conservatives in particular tend to believe this is a good thing, and rejoice in the reality that Trump, while not philosophically allied with them in some areas, nonetheless represents the culmination of their years-long assault on the establishment.

This explains why, eight days after Trump’s victory, the Conservative Action Project — an umbrella group for prominent activists — held a celebratory gathering at the Ritz-Carlton in Tyson’s Corner, Va. Attendees included some hardline conservatives who remained opposed to Trump throughout the election season; they were surprised to hear Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint talk about the party’s finally being unified, and stunned at the glowing remarks about Trump from Ed Meese, Ronald Reagan’s former attorney general and an icon in the conservative movement.

It also explains why, over the next three days, a sister organization — the Council for National Policy — met at the same location and focused not on the risks Trump poses to conservatism but on the opportunities at hand. There were panels featuring economists Larry Kudlow and Stephen Moore, both of whom are expected to work in Trump’s administration; Meese and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins; and Tom DeLay, who starred in a discussion entitled “Make Congress Great Again.” Nary a negative nor cautionary remark was made about Trump the entire weekend, attendees say.

And finally, it explains why most Freedom Caucus members refused to criticize Trump during the GOP primary, and why they enthusiastically backed him during the general: He didn’t run on the same promises of ideological purity that they did, but he spread the same message of disrupting the status quo in D.C.

“Trump has demonstrated a willingness to be bold and take on the establishment. That’s exactly what the House Freedom Caucus has been willing to do,” Jordan tells me. “I think we have a lot more in common than we have differences.”

All of this is a gamble, of course, as Trump’s ideology is disjointed at best and his core philosophy on the appropriate role of government is anyone’s guess. So while his presidency represents a prime opportunity for conservatives to influence the direction of the party and the country, it also threatens to redefine Republicanism in a way that is hostile toward traditional concepts of limited government. In some areas, no doubt, Trump’s agenda will mesh nicely with these principles. When it inevitably does not, conservatives will find themselves facing a quandary: Fall in line and risk damaging the credibility of conservatism, or push back and risk provoking a thin-skinned and Twitter-addicted president.

Will Congress dare to flout recent history and serve as a principled check on the executive?

Further complicating things is the fact that Trump dominated — in the primary and general elections — those districts represented by Congress’s most conservative members. They once believed they were elected to advance a narrowly ideological agenda, but Trump’s success has given them reason to question that belief. Knowing this, GOP leadership officials are betting that Trump’s popularity among conservative constituents will make their representatives less obstructionist and therefore less influential in the upcoming Congress.

“I think you’re going to see us sticking together more. I think there is less ability for the Freedom Caucus to do those types of things,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said at a Washington Post breakfast in late November. “I’m sure those districts Donald Trump probably did the best in. It would be hard for them to stand up, if a President Trump is asking for this fundamental change, and they’re saying no.”

Jordan called McCarthy’s comments “laughable.” Yet he has reason for concern. He knows that only three Freedom Caucus members — Steve Pearce of New Mexico, Trent Franks of Arizona, and Ted Poe of Texas — have been around long enough to defy a Republican president. And he knows that some of his group’s most reliably bold members won’t be there in the next Congress.

Mulvaney is one of them. In June, he conceded there had been surprisingly little conservative opposition to Trump but promised that Freedom Caucus members would hold the Republican nominee to the same standard as they did to Obama — particularly on the issue of executive power. “I’m not concerned about Donald Trump shredding the Constitution, because I know the people who stand in the House between him and the Constitution,” Mulvaney told me at the time. “We’ve been fighting against an imperial presidency for five and a half years. Every time we go to the floor and push back against an overreaching president, we get accused of being partisan at best and racist at worst. When we do it against a Republican president, maybe people will see that it was a principled objection in the first place. So we actually welcome that opportunity. It might actually be fun, being a strict-constitutionalist congressman doing battle with a non-strict-constitutionalist Republican president.”

Instead, he’s joining Trump’s administration.

Mulvaney was recently named director of the Office of Management and Budget, the powerful agency that supervises and coordinates the government’s financial planning. The week before he was chosen, I asked Mulvaney whether he stood by his promises about congressional Republicans’ holding Trump accountable. He declined to comment, because he was waiting to hear back from New York about the OMB post.

Freedom Caucus members — and Ryan, notably — issued ecstatic statements lauding Mulvaney’s selection as a sign of Trump’s commitment to fiscal responsibility. That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is this: Trump just sidelined one of the House’s most outspoken conservatives, someone who repeatedly stood up to Republican leadership, thereby weakening potential intra-party resistance to his administration’s initiatives.

These dueling outlooks frame an essential and defining question for Republicans entering the era of Trump: With unified control of government and a president who bullied his way into the White House, will Congress dare to flout recent history and serve as a principled check on the executive?

*    *    *

Trump, Speaker Paul Ryan, and Mike Pence on Capitol Hill the day after the election. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

There is some reason to believe that conservatives will be intellectually consistent in their intra-party oppositions. After all, thanks to a bare 52-seat Senate majority, some combination of Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Ben Sasse, and Marco Rubio can easily derail GOP-only legislation. In the House, the Freedom Caucus’s core membership has repeatedly shown an appetite for internecine rumbling. And even within the administration, prominent conservatives — Mulvaney at OMB, Tom Price at Health and Human Services — could push back on the president if he strays from small-government doctrine.

But one-party rule has a way of silencing dissent, especially if the president has sustained popularity with the base. It’s hardly a stretch to imagine Trump spending his first year amassing voter goodwill by passing robust tax cuts and approving a massive, shovel-ready infrastructure package, only to steadily grow the size of government (and the power of the executive) while daring congressional Republicans to stop him. Everyone knows George W. Bush doubled the national debt; not everyone recalls that his first OMB director was Mitch Daniels, perhaps the most revered fiscal hawk of his generation.

The speaker of the House is particularly sensitive to this reality. Before he was a conservative darling with unflinching budget proposals, Ryan was a rank-and-file House Republican who voted for No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and the bank bailouts. Many conservatives — including Vice President–elect Mike Pence — believe it was these betrayals of principle, as much as the Affordable Care Act or anything Obama pursued, that inspired the Tea Party’s ascent in 2010. Pence, who voted against all three of the aforementioned bills, told me before Election Day that the Republican party “lost its way” under Bush and ignited the anti-establishment insurgency that would eventually result in Trump’s victory.

But Pence himself is now a subordinate to Trump; his charge is to influence policymaking from within, not lead the opposition from without. And Ryan — who has no track record of opposing his party’s leadership, and whose speakership was likely spared by Trump — isn’t exactly positioned to challenge the president-elect, either. Trump compared Ryan to “a fine wine” during a recent joint appearance in Wisconsin, but he had a warning for the speaker as well: “Every day goes by, I get to appreciate his genius more and more,” Trump said of Ryan. “Now, if he ever goes against me, I’m not going to say that, okay?’”

The morning after Election Day, when I asked Ryan during a press conference about his branch’s role in checking the executive — and avoiding the mistakes of the GOP under Bush — he was circumspect in his reply. “I think the mistakes of the Republican government [were] that we didn’t do the right thing at the right time,” he said. “I think the mistake that we made in the past is we didn’t seize the opportunity when it presented itself. The opportunity is now here.”

When Ryan talks about doing “the right thing,” he’s voicing regret that Republicans refused to act boldly — by reforming Social Security, for instance — when they controlled government. But he’s also touching on something more foundational. “The opportunity” Ryan says that Republicans squandered under Bush was to prove that their party was committed to principles of limited government. Ryan now sees the chance to right both wrongs — to accomplish significant things, and accomplish them in a conservative way — with a unified government.

But Ryan — and Pence, for that matter — will be focused more on the former goal than on the latter. That is not to say they’ll champion progressive proposals, but rather that the responsibility of pushing hard for the most conservative version of any undertaking will fall to Congress, and in most cases the House. It’s true that the GOP has just a narrow majority in the Senate, and that some Republican senators already have shown a willingness to tangle with Trump. (Cruz, who built his brand as an intra-party agitator, is expected to tread carefully owing to his complex history with Trump as well as his looming Senate reelection campaign.) But there are also numerous red- and purple-state Democrats eager to work with the new administration ahead of their own tough reelections in 2018, thus providing cushion for maneuvering in an upper chamber that was less ideological to begin with.

One-party rule has a way of silencing dissent, especially if the president has sustained popularity with the base.

It’s a different story in the House, where Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi can often whip her caucus en masse against GOP measures. Republicans will control 241 seats in the next Congress (assuming the party keeps a handful of special-election seats) and 218 are needed to approve legislation, meaning Ryan can lose only 23 GOP votes. The Freedom Caucus will number roughly 40, which ensures two things: It will control the margin needed to pass Republican-only bills, and it will be positioned as the first and last line of defense against Trump.

Some Freedom Caucus members — Jordan, Justin Amash of Michigan, Mark Sanford of South Carolina — are considered immovable. But many of the group’s rank-and-file members are relatively new to Congress and have been tag-alongs, rather than instigators, in the fights against GOP leadership. They represent heavily pro-Trump districts and might have no appetite for conflict. “Some of these guys still get nervous when they get called to the speaker’s office,” one Freedom Caucus member tells me. “What happens when Trump calls them to the Oval?”

Muddying the picture further is the fact that some of the House’s most stalwart conservatives have just left Congress or soon will. Mulvaney, of course, is headed to OMB. Scott Garrett, a Freedom Caucus board member, lost a hard-fought reelection battle in his New Jersey district. Louisiana’s John Fleming, also a board member, gave up his House seat to run unsuccessfully for the Senate. Raul Labrador, another board member, has been one of the most outspoken critics of GOP leadership — but colleagues say he’s decided to run for governor of Idaho, a decision that might remove him from the front lines of some intra-party fights, and would remove him from the House altogether in 2018. Tim Huelskamp, who has voted as often against Republican legislation as anyone, lost his primary in Kansas’s first district. Matt Salmon, a highly respected conservative who was considered a universally acceptable successor to Jordan as Freedom Caucus chairman, retired this year.

And then there’s Mark Meadows, the group’s incoming chairman, who arrived with the second wave of tea-partiers in 2012. The small-businessman from North Carolina stayed mostly behind the scenes until July 2015, when, against the wishes of some Freedom Caucus colleagues, he filed an obscure procedural motion aimed at ousting Boehner. It unexpectedly worked, and Meadows gained something of a cult following in the conservative base, which he has expertly parlayed into a more prominent role in the conservative movement.

The question now is how aggressively Meadows will position the group to Trump’s right. Several members have raised concerns about Meadows’s perceived coziness with the president-elect — they hit it off while traveling together in North Carolina during the campaign — and his transition team, specifically chief strategist Stephen Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, with whom Meadows talks frequently. There was a heated internal exchange, members say, on November 30 when Breitbart.com published a story with the headline ”Exclusive — Rep. Mark Meadows: House Conservatives Ready on Day One to Help Donald Trump.” Meadows isn’t the only one being scrutinized. Dave Brat, the former economics professor who defeated Eric Cantor in 2014, was recently elected to the Freedom Caucus board for the 115th Congress. His nickname in the group: “Bratbart,” for his love of the far-right website and determination to stay in its good graces.

That said, while the Freedom Caucus’s fondness for Trump is somewhat surprising, Meadows’s association with Bannon is smart and strategic. House conservatives are increasingly worried that Ryan’s close personal relationship with Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, will result in backroom deals that diminish their ability to influence legislation. This seemed to be foreshadowed by a December incident in which Jordan informed Ryan of his intention to proceed with an effort to impeach the IRS Commissioner. Ryan’s office objected, and when Jordan ignored them, sources say the Freedom Caucus chairman got a sudden call from Priebus — whose phone number Jordan didn’t recognize — asking him to please hold back. Jordan pushed ahead, all the more motivated after Ryan’s apparent decision to enlist Priebus to stop him. (Jordan’s resolution was rejected on the House floor and referred back to committee.)

If there’s a tug-of-war in the White House for influence over Trump and his agenda — pitting Priebus the establishment insider against Bannon the populist outsider — it makes sense that Ryan and the congressional leadership are partnering with Priebus while Meadows and Freedom Caucus members are allying themselves with Bannon. But these tensions may not manifest anytime soon. Meadows believes that Trump’s agenda out of the gate is likely to unify Republicans and suppress any internal conflicts. “In the first 200 days, we’ve got enough where we agree on that I don’t see a lot of areas for battles with the administration,” he tells me.

House conservatives are increasingly worried that Ryan’s close personal relationship with Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, will result in backroom deals that diminish their ability to influence legislation.

Meadows is probably right that Republicans won’t fight a civil war at the dawn of Trump’s administration, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some fascinating ideological modulation to monitor. Consider Trump’s stated intention to seek a $1 trillion dollar infrastructure package soon after taking office. At a conservative forum one week after the election, Labrador told reporters that any such bill “has to be paid for” with spending cuts or revenues from elsewhere, “and if Trump doesn’t find a way to pay for it, the majority of us, if not all of us, are going to vote against it.” Otherwise, conservatives reasoned, it would be no different than the Obama stimulus package they once railed against. But their thinking has shifted in the weeks since. According to several members, there has been informal talk of accepting a bill that’s only 50 percent paid for, with the rest of the borrowing being offset down the road by “economic growth.” It’s an arrangement Republicans would never have endorsed under a President Hillary Clinton, and a slippery slope to go down with Trump.

Another example is the repeal of Obamacare. Pro-life leaders met quietly in Washington the week after Election Day and plotted to pressure Republican leaders to defund Planned Parenthood in the process of repealing the outgoing president’s signature health-care law early next year, and the idea has conservatives’ support. “This will be a good test: Can we really defund Planned Parenthood?” Jordan tells me. “We have to. I mean, come on. . . . It had better happen.” But congressional leaders, and Trump, who sang the group’s praises during the campaign, might not want that particular fight at that particular time. If they don’t, expect a showdown between social conservatives and the president they helped elect.

In these instances and potentially many more — his refusal to touch entitlement programs, his desire to borrow historic amounts without regard for the national debt — traditional conservatives might be abruptly reminded that Trump is not one of them. Their decision, either to follow his lead or push back in defense of the principles that have defined modern conservatism, will go a long way toward determining whether Trump is successful in remaking the party in his image.

*    *    *

Trump and Pence at Trump National Golf Club in November. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

In the six weeks since Trump’s triumph, many conservatives have shooed away these questions, arguing that nobody knows how he will govern until he actually takes office on January 20. They are understandably reluctant to preemptively criticize an incoming president who’s popular with their constituents back home — and who could jeopardize their political careers and livelihoods with a single retaliatory tweet. Indeed, some normally talkative lawmakers agreed to discuss the upcoming Congress only if they were not quoted.

It’s this culture of intimidation that helps to explain why conservatives weren’t publicly irate with the incoming administration for offering Carrier $7 million in tax breaks and incentives to keep roughly 1,000 jobs in Pence’s home state of Indiana.

The Carrier deal is a textbook example of the “crony capitalism” conservatives have fought against — as Sarah Palin pointed out — and part of a propaganda campaign in which Trump is attempting to demonstrate before taking office that his election has already helped American workers. Yet the response from Republican leaders, including Ryan, who for years has warned that the government should not pick winners and losers, was to celebrate the deal. Most conservatives kept quiet, too, one notable exception being Amash, a libertarian-leaning Michigan Republican with a fierce independent streak. “More corporate welfare and cronyism,” Amash tweeted in response to the Carrier news. “Equal protection is denied when one company receives favors at the expense of everyone else in Indiana.”

Meadows has a different take. “I don’t know of any federal benefit that [Trump] promised them other than tax reform and regulatory reform,” he tells me. “Everyone wants to talk about crony capitalism, but he didn’t encourage them to do anything that states aren’t already doing anyway.”

This reaction is telling. Some Republicans want to reserve any alarm-sounding for when Trump clearly oversteps a line — executive overreach will be closely monitored after the GOP allowed Bush to drastically expand the power of the presidency — but avoid disputes over every little perceived breach of conservative orthodoxy. To them, the Carrier deal seems like small potatoes; to others, however, it’s the possible foreshadowing of a party swapping out free-market principles for a nationalistic approach to economics.

In the era of Trump, the very definition of conservatism seems up for grabs.

David McIntosh, the Club for Growth president and former Indiana congressman who has been Pence’s friend for two decades, says the Carrier deal set “a terrible precedent” and that he was “surprised and disappointed to hear [Pence] say that the marketplace didn’t work in this case.” But McIntosh nevertheless continues to believe Pence is conservatives’ best hope of positively influencing Trump. “What I saw him do during the campaign was kind of reinterpret ‘Make America Great Again’ into a list of conservative initiatives,” McIntosh says. “The Carrier thing was disappointing because he didn’t do that, and it kind of seemed like they were giving up on the free market and talking about tariffs instead.”

McIntosh hopes Carrier is a “one-off thing,” but what if it’s not? Ten days after the election, Bannon put the party on notice in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “We’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” he boasted. “The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Ship yards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”

Bannon is correct that traditional conservatives wouldn’t support the agenda he describes. But in the era of Trump, the very definition of conservatism seems up for grabs. “Populism” has become the new buzzword on the right; Jordan, in our interview, made repeated references to “populist-conservative policy,” advocating the suddenly chic notion of a marriage between Trump’s everyman appeal and the tea party’s ideological purity.

It’s not clear, however, that such a merger is even possible. ”Populism as an ideology is not ideological. Populism basically says, ‘There’s a parade coming down the street and I’d better get out there because I’m their leader,’” says Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute.

For instance, Trump’s threat to penalize companies that ship jobs overseas might excite a blue-collar worker in rural, red America, but the idea is likely to be fundamentally incompatible with the ideology preached by the politician who represents that worker’s district. The politician in question might agonize over the violation of conservative orthodoxy, Brooks says, but when regular people are forced to choose between their livelihoods and a set of abstract principles, it’s a no-brainer.

Conservatives must now be careful not to oppose their party on principles that are no longer relevant or advantageous to the people they represent.

“Americans are not very ideological. Americans have some moral principles, which is great, but they’re really practical,” Brooks tells me. The idea of a “populist-conservative” hybrid, then, might afford politicians and parties a flexibility they previously lacked to experiment with policies and expand the party’s philosophical boundaries free from accusations of apostasy. “I think that what people are saying is not a logical fallacy,” Brooks adds. “What they’re saying is that the ideas and actions of Donald Trump [are] going to wind up affecting how American conservatism understands itself, because the actions he takes that work will ultimately be adopted by the conservative playbook.”

To that point: If Pence, who was once arguably the most ideological Republican in Congress, can be persuaded by Trump to stop supporting multinational trade deals and offer tax breaks to Carrier, it’s not hard to imagine Freedom Caucus members adapting to a new and different mandate from their constituents in the era of Trump.

Indeed, conservatives must now be careful not to oppose their party on principles that are no longer relevant or advantageous to the people they represent. Huelskamp’s “Big First” district in Kansas is deeply conservative, but it also boasts one of the nation’s premier farming constituencies. So when he voted against the Farm Bill in 2013 — after he’d already been kicked off the Agriculture Committee for other protest votes — he made himself uniquely vulnerable to a primary challenge from a more moderate Republican. It was previously unimaginable that a tea-party lawmaker could lose to someone running to their left in a conservative district. But that’s just what happened: Roger Marshall, a physician, promised to make the government more responsive to the agricultural interests of the district — a far cry from the message of getting government out of the way, period — and knocked off Huelskamp by 13 points.

The episode put a scare into conservatives, who saw establishment Republicans emboldened after claiming their first Freedom Caucus scalp and wondered who would be targeted next. This is part of Jordan’s reasoning for stepping down as the group’s chairman, according to sources familiar with his thinking. Most Freedom Caucus members have little cash in their campaign accounts and are therefore susceptible to primary challenges from better-financed, establishment-backed candidates. Jordan will now be devoting time and energy to growing the House Freedom Fund, his leadership PAC, with the aim of defending those members. Jordan, sources say, has even consulted Chris Wilson, the Republican data guru who ran the Cruz presidential campaign’s analytics outfit, about working on behalf of the group and its most vulnerable members.

Jordan’s efforts might take on added urgency with Trump in the White House. Though conservatives believe the president-elect to be an ally, they also recognize his fickle nature, which has been a source of frequent internal conversations. Even if they support Trump nine times of ten, voting against him once could trigger a tweetstorm or the threat of a visit to their district. It’s a chilling thought for members who know that the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the House GOP leadership already want them gone.

Trump’s presidency might signal heightened influence for conservatives; it could also trigger an establishment-orchestrated purge of members who dare to defy his priorities.

“Most of these members have every incentive to be cooperative. There’s a strong pro-Trump vote in their districts. They’re naturally inclined to be cooperative with the president under these circumstances,” says Matthew Spalding, a longtime Heritage Foundation official who runs Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center campus in Washington. “The president-elect will have every opportunity to challenge them. And if they’re oppositional, in the midterms he could run his own candidates.”

#related#There’s no way yet of knowing how aggressively, if at all, Trump will steer the party away from traditional conservative orthodoxy — or how aggressively Republicans in his administration and in Congress will fight him. But if there’s a lesson to be learned from the last time the GOP controlled all of government, it’s that there are lasting consequences to abandoning the party’s foundational values.

“If we as conservatives lose our bearings, if we go the wrong direction — we’ve seen that in the past, we saw Republicans stray away in the ’70s, we saw Republicans stray away from the core principles during the Bush 43 presidency — if we stray away, then that will provide the particle that allows the Democratic party to come back,” Texas congressman Bill Flores, the outgoing chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said during a recent forum at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Then again, if congressional Republicans are as deferential to Donald Trump as they were to George W. Bush, conservatives shouldn’t be concerned about the 45th president straying from the party’s core principles. They should worry that he’ll redefine those principles altogether.

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