Politics & Policy

Temperamental Conservatives Still Matter

President Trump waves to supporters at a rally in Murphysboro, Ill., October 27, 2018. (Al Drago/Reuters)
In the post-Trump era, Republicans will need a strategy to reach them.

When, a little over two weeks ago, delegates at the 26th General Conference on Weights and Measures in Versailles voted to jettison “Le Grand K” — the hunk of platinum–iridium alloy to which the kilogram has been linked for more than a century — I responded with an impromptu lecture about scientific elitism, managerial hubris, and the cult of precision. My five- and seven-year-olds were not impressed. Rather, it was their mother who planted the seed that might one day blossom into a worldview. Scoffing in that particular way that I like, she made the point that was surely on the mind of every layman who couldn’t give a damn about electric currents and the Planck constant: “What was wrong with the old system?”

One could build an entire political movement on that question.

Temperamental conservatism is little remarked upon these days and even less frequently engaged by politicians — a consequence, in part, of the extent to which Trump and Trumpism have come to dominate Republican thought. Who has time, when there’s a wall to be built, to plumb the psyche of those who say, with Edmund Burke, that “plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions”? What right-leaning office-seeker would dare, in the white heat of 2018, to champion the Burkean notion that we “must bear with infirmities until they fester into crimes”?

It is arguable, of course, that such is the nature of things: Trump is president, and he will naturally dominate the political realm and determine its tone. Yet Trump will one day pass from the scene — he will pass from it in just over two years, to be precise — and Republicans will do well in the post-Trump era to remember that millions of Americans like things pretty much the way they are and intuitively distrust sudden change in any ideological direction.

The fate of “Le Grand K,” though ultimately irrelevant, provides a useful illustration of the principle. My wife, a woman of intelligence and emotional health, cares little for politics. (Bewitchingly, she makes a point of not reading my contributions to this magazine.) Yet she knows instinctively that the replacement of a charming French rock with whatever the Eurocrats agreed upon is probably folly and almost certainly unnecessary. Her vote is up for grabs. Do Republicans want it?

If they do, allow me to propose a political strategy. Though I sometimes joke that I will cast my own ballot for any candidate who promises to say and do nothing for the next four years, I am not actually calling for a plank of inaction in the next Republican platform. Yet it is very much the case that the GOP should begin making plans to appeal to that portion of the electorate that is conservative by inclination rather than ideology. To do so, the party will need to reacquaint itself with a certain kind of voter: the man or woman for whom stability is a moral good, change is an evil to be avoided if possible, and a politician raving on television is at best a distraction from all that is meaningful in life.

If the economic realities of the ’80s and ’90s could be transplanted onto post-Trump America, such a job would be relatively easy. Let the Democrats make the case for their special blend of punitive taxation, intersectionality, and thought-policing. Our party could simply promise to treat the nation like the stock market: Cut a few regulations, maintain a predictable order, and watch it soar.

Alas, we live in a more complicated age, in which the interconnectedness of nations has given rise to a seemingly intractable set of problems. Like the previous two, the next several elections will be fought over trade and immigration — the extent to which the unregulated movement of goods and people puts at risk the standard of living to which Americans have become accustomed. Where free trade is concerned, ideological and temperamental conservatives have largely parted ways — a fact that helps explain the Republican party’s near-total lack of coherence on the subject. The ideological conservative knows that free trade has led to a broadly shared increase in consumers’ purchasing power and that to support it is to maintain one’s fidelity to noble and proven ideas about governmental non-intervention. The temperamental conservative knows (or believes he knows) that lots of people had a good thing going until General Motors screwed them last week. Is he wrong to think as much (or, more accurately, to sense it)? Perhaps. But he still gets to vote.

On the subject of immigration, holders of the two conservativisms split just as pronouncedly. Understanding (quite correctly) that the Republican party is the only vehicle by which right-of-center ideas can become policy, ideological conservatives despair to see the president muddying the GOP’s reputation with family separations and child imprisonment. Temperamental conservatives, meanwhile, simply know that there are a limited number of jobs out there, and that the law — whatever it is — should be enforced.

Are temperamental conservatives merely Trump voters, whom the Republican party will need to hang onto to have any hope of assembling a winning coalition? In part, yes, and Trump’s greatest achievement was surely his success with a segment of the electorate that cared little for Republican orthodoxy. It is also true, however, that many temperamental conservatives are put off by Trump’s rhetoric and behavior, while others openly despise the man, seeing in him the dissolution of a grand American tradition of comity and statesmanship. What all of the above have in common is their sense that the economic and spiritual character of the nation is worth saving and is being lost, one factory closure or border crossing at a time. If Republicans can’t speak to that wholly legitimate fear, then they deserve the political wilderness, and are likely to get it.

There are all sorts of arguments — some of them reasonable and good and true — against the nostalgia and sentimentality of temperamental conservatives. But like a certain alloy in a French vault, those arguments are becoming increasingly irrelevant.


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