Over at First Things today, a diverse group of serious social conservatives has posted a statement about the future of the right that’s worth your while. They differ among themselves about Donald Trump, but they are in agreement that what comes after Trump can’t be a return to what came before him on the right, and that it must involve a commitment to family, faith, work, community, and country.
It’s a promising and heartening statement of principles. And it points to an important fact about the various divisions and distinctions on the right that can easily be obscured by the huge ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question about Trump that now distracts everyone from everything. In the decade and more before 2016, some conservatives had begun expressing dissatisfaction with a Republican Party that had lost itself in tired, libertarian slogans, and that too often offered only rote repetitions of the ends of Ronald Reagan’s sentences without much thought to how or why they started. We thought the party had lost its sense of the essence of American life, and that it offered too little of substance to help working families. It had exhausted its spirit and its agenda, and had not found a way to revitalize.
I think Donald Trump is the culmination of that exhaustion—its living embodiment as an elderly, exploitative narcissist who appeals to voters’ resentments but not their aspirations, who gives the appearance of intense activity while achieving very little, and who is ultimately unfit to govern. Some of my friends think Trump is actually the solution to that exhaustion—that by shattering the old shibboleths he means to force a necessary reckoning and is achieving what others couldn’t. That’s a serious difference of opinion, but it also masks a deeper agreement that the status quo that preceded 2016 was not worthy or sustainable and that (especially given the growing perversity of the left) the right in America needs to recover its commitment to the foundations of the good life—family, community, faith, work, and country—and to protect and reinforce those through a politics rooted in the ends articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the means put forward in the Constitution. Whether Trump advances or retards that cause is an important source of division at this point. But that this should be our cause is a more important source of agreement in the long run.
To be critical of Donald Trump is not to yearn for what preceded him, and to be supportive of him is not to be content with what he offers. There is more to be sought and worked for. And this statement offers an appealing example of what that could involve.