The debate on the prospects for post-Trump conservatism has recently focused on the tactical response to the reckoning now fast approaching. Perhaps the tuning of tactics should await the setting of long-term strategy.
Partisans on both sides of this debate have invoked the memory of William F. Buckley Jr. They remember his style, which of course was indelibly memorable. Everybody over the age of 45 recalls Buckley as a languorous television personality, slouching at an implausible angle, grinning mischievously as he lobbed lightly salted witticisms at Ken Galbraith or Tom Wolfe. We all remember that Buckley.
During the years of his insurgency — the years before the political prosperity of the Reagan era — Buckley was rarely regarded as a paragon of style even by benign and middle-roading observers. He was, as Mr. Google will confirm, almost universally described as an enfant terrible, which is to say that he was regarded as a brattish and incorrigible man-child. (The Left, of course, had gone nuclear early on. To them, Buckley was a bigot, a racist, and a homophobe.)
Buckley had earned that contempt. When he announced his challenge to the established order, the incumbent powers did not say, “Oh, you’re the new guy and you want some of our market share and some of our media attention and some of our grant revenue? Well, why don’t we all just scoot over and make a place at the table for you?” That’s not the way it happened. That’s not the way it ever happens. The new guy must make his own place at the table. There can be some pushing and shoving. Elbows can fly. Lawsuits can fly. As John Quincy Adams famously recalled, he had become a warrior so that his grandson might become a poet. Buckley’s remarkable achievement was that, over the span of a single lifetime, he had evolved from a young warrior to an old poet. We remember the poet. Who could forget? But we celebrate the warrior.
My sense of the current moment is that, once again, our cause needs warriors even more than poets. The long run of Buckley conservatism — from the bang of Goldwater’s nomination to the whimper of Romney’s — is now over. The cycle begins again. And even poets must take up the sword.
Doubtless, there are more than a few readers of this page who in 2016 ranked Donald Trump as their 17th-favorite candidate for the GOP nomination. Rarely have so many people gotten so lucky. Trump’s performance on the big issues — the issues of peace, justice, and the American way — has been astonishingly strong. He has, as of this writing, held firm in his support for the right to life, in his pledge to nominate conservative judges, in his aversion to discretionary wars, and in his commitment to lower taxes and looser regulations. It’s all good.
But let’s be clear about what happened. In 2016, the Republican party was hijacked by persons unknown to us and those like us: It was hijacked by persons who knew nothing of the canonical roots of conservatism and who evinced no interest whatsoever in learning about them. In 2016, the Republican party, by that time a vessel utterly devoid of philosophical content, could have been hijacked by anybody with verve and thrust. We cannot assume that, in the post-Trump years, the party, much less our coalition, will snap back to its previous contours. A hijacking could happen again, and next time it could be worse.
At this juncture, I should pause to eat a few words. A while back I published the following paragraph:
In political terms, Donald Trump is a tidy fellow. When he exits the stage, he will leave behind him no movement and will take with him only the famously skeletal “Trump organization.” He will be remembered more for an aura than a legacy: His appeal has never been ideological but attitudinal and is thus non-transferable. . . . At the end of the Trump run, there will be left standing only a single Trump Republican outside the immediate family. And if he can grin and bear it for another six years, Mike Pence could be that man. The guesstimate here is that, off at the end, he won’t be. The working assumption is that the handoff would work only if Trump could say credibly to Pence, as Reagan said to Bush 41, “I never could have done it without you.” Trump won’t be able to say that. He thinks he could have done it with Steve Doocy.
That take, almost certainly true in 2017 and 2018, is almost certainly untrue today. You saw the sea-change most recently in Orlando at Trump’s announcement for reelection. Dotted among the crowd of almost 20,000 Trumpers were six or seven guys wearing neckties, two of whom were named Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham. It was only three years ago that they were both running their own testy, disparaging campaigns against Trump (who, I am reliably informed, has never forgiven Rubio for calling him a “con artist”). That night in Orlando’s Amway Center, as Trump riffed for more than an hour, both Rubio and Graham were clapping manically, doubling over at the one-liners, preening at the presidential shout-outs. Marco and Lindsey, two couldn’t-be-happier campers.
Those guys with the neckties are the vestige of the once-potent Bush-Crist Republican party of Florida. Until six months ago, they dominated party gatherings, large and small, calling the shots while rolling their eyes at the guys in the T-shirts. Today, the guys in the T-shirts are calling the shots, and the guys with the neckties are penned up in a peanut gallery, hoping for a reaction shot from network cameras. The Republican party has become, later than some had expected but earlier than many had hoped, a Trump party.
What does that mean in practical policy terms? One projects Trumpism only at significant reputational risk, but for the immediate future it would seem to mean: a) that the critical elements of social conservatism, including preservation of the inherited culture, are in relatively good hands; b) that U.S. foreign policy will continue to carry a slight but reassuring bias against interventionism; and c) that economic policy will be an issue-to-issue crapshoot.
As a businessman, I have admired Trump’s deregulation initiative even more than his tax reform. The full-court press of his first year in office, especially, caught both Democrats and bureaucrats back on their heels. The resulting cuts in compliance costs have compounded predictably and to the benefit of all participants in the economy. Trump’s overall economic record, however, is decidedly mixed. On the debit side of the ledger is his promiscuous use of the taxing power. If he has an immigration problem, his response is to levy a tax. An intellectual property problem? Levy a tax. A nuke problem? Levy a tax. (He calls them tariffs, of course, but some of us are bilingual.)
Then there is his inconstancy to even thin-soup, moderate-Republican fiscal policies. Trump can be heard daily on the stump declaring the U.S. economy to be the best since Ramses II, or whoever. (To be fair, he’s not wildly inaccurate in these ecstatic claims. By several economic metrics, these are the good old days.) But then, sometimes in the very same speech, he cranks up the rhetoric for new stimulus, for trillion-dollar budget deficits, for free money from an intimidated Fed. As our economist in chief, he is out of control. Even old-line Keynesians take their foot off the accelerator at the top of the cycle.
If we conservatives thus find ourselves passengers on a runaway Trump bus, and I think we do, and if we are political hostages to a new party orthodoxy, and I think we are, then what is to be done?
I make two recommendations. First, conservatives should endorse Donald Trump for reelection. He has done enough to earn our support. (And for the less high-minded among you: A glance at the calendar will confirm that we’re locked in and, at this late stage, have no viable alternative.)
Second, and beginning immediately, we should design, develop, and roll out a new conservative party that would achieve a national footprint no later than the winter of 2023. This new party would not be a protest party, in the mode of the Libertarian party, or the Green party. We would support neither a spoiler role for the personally disappointed nor a platform for the ego- or donor-propelled. Our expectation would be to run parallel to, and in addition to, the Republican party, supporting its candidates as often as ideological congruity permits. On those occasions when we could not support the Republican candidate, and as a last resort, we would run our own candidate and discipline the Republicans for their occasional apostasy. Our ambition over the long term would be to give Republicans the courage of our own conservative convictions.