Magazine | February 15, 2016, Issue

Toward a Conservative Populism

(Cassi Alexandra/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
How to draw Trump’s supporters into the fold

Many of Donald Trump’s supporters are not conservatives. Many of them have not been active in politics before.

Conservatives should be glad when a public figure leads newcomers to join our cause. We should welcome it even when the new recruits have somewhat different views and passions than the long-timers do. Some older-line Republicans were appalled when, starting in the late 1970s, northern Catholic ethnics and southern Evangelicals, some of them newly active in politics, joined the party, gave it a more downscale economic profile, and forced it to talk about school prayer instead of an Equal Rights Amendment. But these changes were mostly for the better. The country was riven by new moral conflicts, and conservatism could not carry on as though it were not. And because these changes brought in more new Republican voters than they repelled old ones, they made it possible for a changed conservatism to command a majority in many elections and, thus, to implement conservative policies.

The happiest story conservatives could tell about Trump would be an updated version of that one: A newcomer to conservatism himself, he is leading others to join an enlarged conservative coalition while simultaneously injecting it with a skepticism about mass immigration that is much more sensible than past conservative leaders’ enthusiasm for it.

This way of looking at the Trump phenomenon raises several large questions. One is whether his defects as a political leader outweigh these potential gains — and they do. For reasons of character, temperament, and experience, he is a poor fit for the presidency, and if nominated he could very well cost Republicans an election that they might otherwise win. Another is whether Trump, even today, is rightly described as a conservative — and whether the coalition he seeks to lead is, either.

During this campaign and the years immediately preceding it, Trump has taken a range of conventionally conservative positions. Whether from honest conviction or political expediency, he has gone from being a strong supporter of legal abortion to being an opponent of it. He opposes same-sex marriage. He no longer favors banning “assault weapons.” He is for large — irresponsibly, comically large — tax cuts.

But there is also a key element of conservatism that Trump has either ignored or contradicted. Missing from both his policies and his rhetoric is any interest in freeing markets or reducing the federal government to something closer to its proper constitutional dimensions.

Some of his Republican rivals advocate reforming the entitlement programs that take up more and more of the federal budget, so as to make them fiscally sustainable and less harmful to the economy. Others pay lip service to the idea. Trump is one of the few who oppose meaningful change. Some Republicans have plans to replace Obamacare with a system that would have a much smaller government role and much freer markets; some have no plan but endorse the goal. Trump doesn’t talk much about health care, but when he does, the outcome he describes sounds like a compromise between President Obama and Bernie Sanders. When it comes to economics, Trump’s greatest enthusiasm is for raising taxes on people and businesses that buy products or inputs from China. The other Republican candidates talk about appointing judges who will strike down laws that violate explicit constitutional prohibitions and who will otherwise defer to legislatures; Trump rarely raises the issue and flails when asked about it. (“I’m going to appoint people that have great reputations, that are great with the legal profession . . .”)

Trump promises not to limit government but to manage it better. He will hire the best, smartest people, who will come up with terrific plans, and the results will be excellent. What’s wrong with our government, on Trump’s telling, is not that it has overextended itself, taking on tasks that it has no business performing and by its very nature cannot perform well. It is that “we are led by very, very stupid people” rather than the “terrific” people who would staff his administration and bring America back to greatness.

None of this, of course, has particularly hurt Trump to this point. His success so far is, in part, a testament to how limited government and free markets are the weak sisters of conservatism. Yes, voters say they want less government — it’s an impulse built into the country — but there just aren’t that many voters highly motivated by those causes. When push comes to shove, voters care more about national strength, jobs, and their own government benefits than the relative abstractions of a smaller state and robust markets.

This political weakness is why conservatism constantly deals with attempts to repudiate or water down its commitment to limited government. In the 1990s, Pat Buchanan advanced a “conservatism of the heart” that prefigured Trumpism, and he favorably cited FDR: “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism was also a break with limited government, albeit one with a softer, less tribal inflection than Buchanan’s.

The weak attachment of even many Republicans to limited-government conservatism made the rise of the Tea Party remarkable. It led to a re-baptizing of the GOP in the limited-government, constitutionalist faith — especially when Paul Ryan worked assiduously to marry it to his own zeal for entitlement reform. In retrospect, it is even more extraordinary that the Tea Party took populist, anti-establishment sentiment and put it in the service of ideological purity, given that this same sentiment is now fueling the rise of the ideologically indifferent Trump.

Trump at least has had to gesture toward taking social-conservative concerns seriously; his campaign might have been a non-starter, and would certainly have been less potent, had he remained pro-choice. But he hasn’t felt the same pressure on economic issues. Indeed, he has probably gone farther in the direction of Republican orthodoxy than he needed to. He mused about making the rich pay more taxes without suffering any harm in the polls. Then he came out with a massive tax-cut plan stacked in favor of the highest earners.

Recognizing that limited government lacks natural mass appeal should not entail jettisoning it. Limiting the state and keeping it within constitutional bounds are necessary to maintaining a free, dynamic society that rewards and insists upon individual responsibility. We have ample reasons, both empirical and theoretical, to believe that adding protectionist tariffs to our existing welfare state will undermine the goal of making America great. We will not be able to maintain a strong defense and a thriving economy if we don’t rein in entitlements. And what has always made American nationalism distinctive, and distinctively valuable, is that it is rooted in our founding principles.

Conservatives can and should try to accommodate Trump supporters while sticking with our basic philosophy of government. Conservatives have done as much before. Conservatives did not shun George Wallace supporters, for example, but they rejected his most noxious and least conservative views. (Wallace supported both segregation and an expansive welfare state.) Ross Perot’s supporters were an uneasy fit with conservatives but were welcomed into a conservatism that retained its support for free trade and moral traditionalism. We should take the same approach with Trump’s followers.

The worst outcome of this political season would be for Trump to win the nomination — remolding conservatism in his image and weakening its attachment to limited government — and then lose the election. Not as bad, but still a cause for alarm, would be for Trump to lose the nomination and anti-Trump conservatives to breathe a sigh of relief and carry on as though nothing had happened.

There are a few obvious steps toward an intelligent recalibration in reaction to Trump’s potency. Conservatism’s economic agenda has overlapped too closely with the interests of big business and rich people. We should devote more attention to government-limiting steps that would be good for the broad mass of people — including the people who have been left behind in our economy — and we should highlight the concrete benefits of those steps. Neither Trump nor his supporters within conservatism have outlined much in the way of a practical agenda for these struggling Americans; but his opponents within conservatism have not always even paid attention to them. One hopes that Trump has opened up space for this conversation.

Another necessary step, of course, is to come up with a realistic immigration platform — which means, in various ways, rejecting the approach of each of the Republican factions today.

Many influential Republicans want more low-skilled immigration. But this is foolhardy. We don’t need it: The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the 2013 immigration bill would have doubled immigration levels while making a negligible contribution to per capita income. We don’t want it: Polls consistently show that only a minority of Americans favor higher immigration levels. And it would work against the national interest in assimilating newcomers. These Republicans also tend to favor granting legal status or citizenship to illegal immigrants, even at the risk of attracting more such immigrants.

Conservatives who reject these ideas have repeatedly managed to defeat attempts to implement them, in both the Bush and the Obama years. (National  Review has done its part to rally the opposition.) But the attempts have been repeated, and determined, too, enjoying strong support from both Republican and Democratic leaders, mainstream media outlets, business groups, unions, and church leaders — much stronger support than they have received from Americans at large. To opponents this has had the feel of a conspiracy about it, especially when their legitimate objections have been treated as pure bigotry. It is no wonder that many people are distrustful and angry on this issue, especially in light of President Obama’s efforts to effect amnesty through diktat.

But a policy of mass deportation is wholly unrealistic. Even more unrealistic is deporting and then returning the immigrants — Donald Trump’s cracked version of a “touchback” amnesty. We’re not going to do it, and we shouldn’t. The better alternative is to enforce immigration laws, reduce low-skilled immigration, insist on assimilation, and then deal with the remaining illegal population — perhaps even with a limited amnesty.

Yet practically nobody in the GOP is advocating this policy. The presidential race originally appeared as though it would be confined to candidates who favored increasing immigration levels. Now it includes candidates who appear to reject these ideas. These candidates, however, also favor mass deportation; or they wish to rule out legal status for any illegal immigrants under any circumstances. The general public, on the other hand, appears to want neither higher immigration nor mass deportation, and to be open to amnesty if it will not lead to more illegal immigration in the future. It’s a sensible set of views; perhaps Republicans should consider representing them.

George Will likes to say that when votes were counted for Goldwater 16 years later, he won. To win that “recount,” conservatives had to adjust and get rid of some rough edges. It turns out you can’t go to Tennessee and say no to the TVA (even today!). You can’t promise to slash and burn entitlements (even if you will get accused of wanting to when you propose modest reforms). But Will is right. Through the Goldwater revolution, the party became newly oriented around limited-government conservatism, and eventually a better politician than Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, came along to represent the new dispensation and get elected president.

Maybe Trump could serve roughly the same function. He could lose badly this year and yet give rise to a future GOP that takes enforcement of the immigration laws seriously, reduces low-skilled immigration, and does more to represent the less-schooled wage earner, while also rejecting fantasies of mass deportation. Those gains would, however, come at a fearful cost that conservatives should strive to avoid. It’s possible — and advisable — for the party to reject Trump as its nominee but learn from his rise. This way, the party would get the benefit of a worthwhile readjustment without risking the abandonment of important principles or suffering a potentially Goldwateresque liberal landslide.

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