It seems like just yesterday that I undertook my first campaign for public office. I knocked on virtually every door in the small city of West Miami in my bid to be elected to its city commission. It was during that campaign, on the front porches and in the living rooms of the families I would ultimately represent, that I came to fully understand where I came from.
Almost two decades after that first campaign in one of the smallest cities in Florida, I had the opportunity to run for president of the United States. Just as I did back in my first campaign, I learned much about our people. I hope that by sharing these observations I can contribute to the cause of bringing all Americans together to confront some of the major challenges we face.
In that campaign, by day, I had town halls in cities throughout New Hampshire hollowed out by the new economy, and events in Iowa with Americans who esteemed the traditional values of hard work, family, faith, and community, but who felt that the people in charge of our country did not.
By night, I traveled to California, Chicago, Palm Beach, and New York to raise money at the homes of people who lived very different lives. They had benefited greatly from the new economy. But many of them did not respect the traditional values of the people I met in New Hampshire or Iowa.
Both the people whose votes I sought and whose funds I needed are good Americans. But only one of those two groups thought that it was represented by our government. And it was not the unemployed factory workers in New Hampshire or the truck drivers in Iowa.
Ultimately, President Trump won the office I sought. As a participant in that campaign, I can attest that he owes his victory to the fact that he was the candidate who best understood that our political parties no longer appealed to millions of Americans — that being hailed as a “reasonable conservative” by CNN, or a “pure conservative” by conservative think tanks didn’t mean anything to the millions of Americans who felt forgotten and left behind.
The families I met in West Miami during my first campaign and the ones I met running for president aren’t ideological warriors. They are fathers and mothers, workers and small-business owners, Little League coaches and church volunteers. What they care about is having leaders who understand them and fight for them.
They need leaders who appreciate that jobs are not just about making money so they can buy more things; jobs are first and foremost about dignity. They need leaders willing to put the needs of Americans before the needs of other countries. They need leaders who know that the global trade that makes it cheaper to buy something at Walmart is useless if it destroys the jobs that pay enough to buy it.
The American work culture — being able to earn enough to support a family — is under attack from global economic elites out of touch with working Americans.
I am a conservative because I seek to conserve the principle at the core of the American project: freedom. It is the freedom to live a virtuous and meaningful life supported by family, community, faith, and the dignity of work. Today as much as ever, our nation needs a political movement that seeks to conserve freedom, because these core elements of American life are being threatened.
The American work culture — being able to earn enough to support a family — is under attack from global economic elites out of touch with working Americans. Insulated from the disruptions created by globalization, they care more about the profits multinational corporations can make doing business in China than they do about American workers losing their jobs.
The family, the single most important institution in all of society, is buffeted by economic pressures that discourage family life, and by social engineering that seeks to replace it.
The faith of our fathers and the traditional values it teaches are now routinely mocked, ridiculed and increasingly silenced by liberal elites in the press, Hollywood, and academia, denying millions of Americans their place in the public square.
The American community — a nation sharing a common homeland and destiny — has been abandoned by the political Left and Right. It has been replaced by a democracy of the fittest, which pits Americans against one another on the basis of purchasing power, religion, race, ethnicity, or even who they voted for in the last election.
What happens to a nation when the only economic-policy options offered are narrow economic growth without redistribution, or narrow economic growth with redistribution? Or when the social security provided by strong families is replaced by accumulating wealth or by becoming dependent on government programs? What happens when what is right and wrong is relative instead of rooted in absolute truth found by faith? What happens when citizens of a nation abandon their shared inheritance for the identity politics of wealth, race, or ideology?
What happens is what we are witnessing in America today. And while this state of affairs threatens the security of our nation at home, the failure of the liberal order to see and rectify similar insecurities in countries across the globe threatens our entire political system. This failure has left millions of people vulnerable to the ancient temptation of authoritarianism.
We are in the middle of a geopolitical competition between democracy and dictatorship. In far too many places, authoritarianism seems to be winning, while democracy and liberty are coming under assault. Authoritarian leaders in Russia and China, Turkey, and even the Philippines argue that democracy leads to societal chaos and national decline. They point to the heated divisions and unsolved challenges of the preeminent democratic republic in the world, the United States, as Exhibit A.
We face an existential challenge to the American cause. It is a bet against the revolutionary idea that a diverse people could use their God-given right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to establish and maintain a just and prosperous nation.
By our example, we have inspired the world to favor the side of liberty. But if we fail to correct our current course, we could end up emboldening the cause of autocracy.
This is why I am, now more than ever, committed to doing all I can to help reinvigorate a national American conservatism that puts the strength of family, community, faith, and work first. Our policy agenda must follow from this goal.
Rebuilding the American project cannot be the work of conservatives alone. It will require a broad civic awakening, one that restores our ability — as one people with many different views — to discuss these issues, recommit to our founding principles, and ensure that we preserve the blessings of American freedom for generations to come.