Politics & Policy

Conservative Policy, Populist Attitude

President Trump speaks at a rally in Phoenix, Ariz., in August. (Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
The danger is that the latter will toxify the former.

This was supposed to be the year conservatism saw its end.

Conservatism, we were led to believe, had run its course. Trump’s supporters cheered his campaign-trail heresies against Reagan-esque conservatism. “What has conservatism ever done for us?” we heard, time and again. Candidate Trump was among those pressing forward this talking point: “This is called the Republican party,” Trump reminded Americans in May 2016. “It’s not the Conservative party.”

Conservatism had seen its heyday — it had become old, decrepit. A new governing philosophy had made itself manifest: nationalist populism. Or, as Trump’s advocates put it, Trumpism. This philosophy would mash up protectionism with a quasi-isolationist foreign policy focused on placating dictatorships such as Russia; it would combine big spending on infrastructure with a crackdown on immigration. Government would subsidize manufacturing and look to restrict companies like Facebook and Google. Wall Street would be put in the dock. The “elites” would pay. Nationalism would take precedence over patriotism based on founding ideals.

Many traditionally conservative commentators — including me — worried about such a philosophy. We worried most of all that with Trump as the mouthpiece for that philosophy, many conservatives, enamored with Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton, would follow him down the path toward replacing Reaganism with Trumpism.

Then it came time to govern.

And, as it turns out, there was no philosophical Trumpism. It was all a hollow intellectualization of candidate Trump’s contradictory campaign statements; it was an attempt to mold a system of thought around one man’s political impulses.

Thankfully, we were left with conservatism.

President Trump’s governance this year has been more conservative than that of George W. Bush or even Reagan. He has slashed the bureaucracy, cutting regulations at a maniacal clip. He has inserted constitutionalist appellate judges at a historic rate. He’s cut taxes. He’s looked to box in Russia in Ukraine while building up our alliances in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. He’s ended the individual mandate and he’s cut taxes. Trump’s governing philosophy, it turns out, looks almost exactly like Ted Cruz’s.

Attitudinal Trumpism is merely the notion that throwing a giant middle finger at the powers that be is a joyous, energetic, worthwhile activity.

What, then, of the new, bold philosophy?

There is no Trumpist philosophy. 2017 isn’t the year conservatism died. It’s the year so-called Trumpism was exposed. It was the year that Steve Bannon’s supposed Weltanschauung turned out to be Steve Bannon’s fantasy, not Trump’s mode of thought.

Trumpism still exists, make no mistake, but it isn’t a philosophy — it’s an attitude. Attitudinal Trumpism is merely the notion that throwing a giant middle finger at the powers that be is a joyous, energetic, worthwhile activity. Ask Trump’s most ardent supporters what they love most about him, and it’s unlikely you’ll hear a list of his policy accomplishments. There’s no “But Gorsuch” from that cadre, nor is there any disappointment in Trump’s failure to build a border wall. There is merely a general sense that for once, somebody is fighting back — that Trump has said the unsayable on matters ranging from kneeling for the anthem in the National Football League to supporting Roy Moore in Alabama. Trumpism’s slogan is its philosophy: “Trump doesn’t take crap.” It’s that simple.

All of which leaves nationalist populists out in the cold, and policy conservatives happier than they reasonably could have expected last year.

But it does make for another conflict that won’t be long in coming: the conflict between attitudinal Trumpism and conservative policy success. Right now, the two can coexist — we’re not nearing a presidential election, and the midterms are still nearly a year away. But what happens if Trump’s attitude makes him politically toxic and, by extension, toxifies the conservative agenda? What if the very attitudinal Trumpism that drives Trump’s most ardent supporters drives the conservative agenda into the mud?

That’s the most likely scenario for 2018, if the end of 2017 is any indicator: Trump’s last three weeks were the most conservative policy weeks by any president in my lifetime, but he simply couldn’t help hopping onto Twitter to enmire himself in yet another controversy over the FBI. When conservatives complained that this didn’t help Trump’s policy agenda, Trumpists suggested that those conservatives were somehow undermining Trump.

There may be no bridging that gap — it’s possible that everyone will just have to live with the inevitability of a Trumpist attitude and a conservative policy. We can only hope and pray that President Trump realizes that a dash of Trump is more than enough — that he’s the salt, and that conservatism is the stew. Too much salt ruins the stew, even if the occasional dash adds necessary flavor.


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