That Donald Trump is in the White House and speaking for conservatism has to prompt a vigorous debate on the right. To what extent should conservatives support Trump policies while taking a hands-off approach to his personality and tactics? To what extent should Trump be allowed to rebrand or redefine conservatism? What parts of Trump’s winning message are worth incorporating into modern conservatism?
Henry Olsen, a fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, is familiar to NR readers as one of the few political pundits to nail the direction of the 2016 election. In his new book, Olsen applies his analytical skills to addressing what connects Trump’s 2016 appeal to Rust Belt voters with the success Ronald Reagan had in bringing millions of disaffected Democrats to his cause in the 1980s.
In summary, Olsen believes that conservatives are most likely to win future elections if they reach out to the non-college voters Trump was able to reach, but at the same time do not alienate upper-income, Republican-leaning voters the way Trump did in such places as the suburbs of Atlanta, Dallas, and Phoenix. He points out that Reagan won two landslide elections because he combined historically Democratic voters with economic and social movement conservatives into a broad coalition. He did that by ensuring that all parts of his coalition had skin in the game. For non-college, less Republican-leaning voters, that meant taking things they were afraid of (such as cutting Social Security or Medicare) off the table and putting efforts to fight for their jobs ahead of free-market ideology when circumstances required it (on such issues as trade and immigration). Olsen believes that grafting Reagan’s original approach, along with some of Trump’s innovations, onto traditional conservatism could once again create a durable political majority that could start to roll back excessive regulation and taxation.
Olsen shows that many self-described Reaganites, including Ted Cruz, have actually not followed the lessons of the Gipper but instead have pursued the more hard-edged and negative approach of the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign. (“My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.”)
As Olsen acknowledges, Reagan first burst onto the national political scene in 1964 with a televised speech on behalf of Goldwater’s candidacy. But Reagan made clear to his TV audience that he was giving his own vision of conservatism; because he had been a Democrat as recently as 1962, it clearly differed from Goldwater’s in tone and approach.
Reagan made clear that conservatives were for “telling our senior citizens that no one in this country should be denied medical care because of a lack of funds.” While he advocated adding “voluntary features” to Social Security, he said that the program’s promises must be kept. He borrowed from Franklin Roosevelt in saying that America faced “a rendezvous with destiny.”
Reagan borrowed more than rhetoric from FDR. Olsen assembles an impressive body of evidence that Reagan saw himself as FDR’s natural heir, carrying forward the best parts of the New Deal — those that treated Americans with dignity and respect in times of need, provided they worked to the best of their ability.
Reagan carried out those themes in practice when he was governor of California. He declined to roll back his state’s version of Medicaid for the poor, even though the program was barely a year old when he took office. He touted what he called a “Creative Society” as a non-social-engineering alternative to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” Reagan insisted that his vision involved an active role for government, not “some glorified program for passing the buck and telling people to play Samaritan and solve their problems on their own while government stands by to hand out Good Conduct ribbons.”
He continued in that vein as president, often insisting that “those who, through no fault of their own, must depend on the rest of us” would be exempt from budget cuts. He appointed a commission to preserve Social Security and pushed through a tax increase in an effort to extend its solvency.
Olsen points out that Reagan was a strong conservative who hated deadening bureaucracy, centralized government control, rule by elites, and Communism. But, for his entire life, he also believed that government could play an active role in securing the dignity of the individual in times of need.
In a 1958 speech, Reagan said: “In the last few decades we have indulged in a great program of social progress with many welfare programs. I’m sure that most of us in spite of the cost wouldn’t buy many of these projects back at any price. They represented forward thinking on our part.” In 1961, even as he opposed the creation of Medicare, he emphasized an alternative that would have helped poor seniors pay for private health insurance, even writing to a longtime friend that “if the money isn’t enough I think we should put up more.”
Historians have largely painted the two most significant presidents of the last century — FDR and Reagan — as ideological opposites. But Olsen makes a serious case that the reason Reagan cast four votes to elect FDR was that he wanted, in Olsen’s words, to “place a floor under every American’s standard of living without placing a ceiling above those who sought more.” Indeed, on the same day in 1982 that President Reagan issued a fulsome proclamation honoring FDR on the 100th anniversary of his birth, he noted in his diary: “The press is dying to paint me as trying to undo the New Deal. I remind them I voted for FDR 4 times. I’m trying to undo the ‘Great Society.’ It was LBJ’s war on poverty that led to our present mess.”
It is Olsen’s view that Republicans and conservatives are now in a political morass: “Government remains run by progressives or those espousing progressive values, and the only debates we influence are on the margin or about cost. Unless we change this, unless we change the very nature of the political debate, we will forever be little more than tax collectors for the liberal welfare state.” Relying on the imperfect vessel of Donald Trump to reinvigorate conservatism is a very risky bet. Instead, Olsen suggests a longer-term strategy that begins by examining just how Reagan was able to knit together a coalition that embraced every broad strain of conservative thought. Part of that involved building a movement that championed freedom without forgetting human dignity. The future success of the conservative endeavor depends on the Right’s finding its way back to striking that balance.