Is the conservative movement dead?
The answer, now that Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, seems to be “yes.” That’s according to some who cheer it and some who seem to lament it. Those who cheer it spring from the so-called alt-right, who have been insisting for months that conservatism is a “failure” and that it must be replaced with an ethnicity-based white solidarity movement, and from the Pat Buchanan paleoconservative wing of the party, which believes that free trade is economic voodoo, immigration from non-European countries is inherently problematic, and isolationism on foreign policy is the best way to protect the country.
Granting any of these groups leadership in the Republican Party spells disaster for conservatism, obviously – they’re outright advocates of overthrowing conservatism.
Take the alt-righters, for example. They openly state that they have no interest in conservatism or the Constitution – the ideas have been tried, and they have failed. The only way to preserve “Western civilization” is by allegiance to European ethnicity. What sort of “Western civilization” must be preserved? Not limited government; not individual responsibility; not equality of rights. The alt-right thinks that a white brand of ethnic polarization is the only way to protect against an invasion of Third Worlders, Muslims, and other undesirables.
The alt-right, needless to say, is thrilled with Trump, who may not share their motivations, but shares many of their police preferences.
Then there are the Buchananites. The Reagan coalition was famously based on three ideas: strong national defense, including realist interventionism when necessary; social conservatism; and free market economics, including free trade. Buchananism is based on opposition to free trade and little focus on reforming entitlements; isolationist national defense; and strong limits on non-European immigration. The only element Buchananism and Reaganism truly share is allegiance to traditional marriage and opposition to abortion. That’s why Buchanan couldn’t be happier with Trump – he’s more Buchanan than Reagan. Among those celebrating the transition from Reaganism to Buchananism is the author of the famous “Flight 93 election” essay, who wrote in celebration of Trump on precisely these grounds: “Since Pat Buchanan’s three failures, occasionally a candidate arose who saw one piece: Dick Gephardt on trade, Ron Paul on war, Tom Tancredo on immigration. Yet, among recent political figures—great statesmen, dangerous demagogues, and mewling gnats alike—only Trump-the-alleged-buffoon not merely saw all three and their essential connectivity, but was able to win on them. The alleged buffoon is thus more prudent—more practically wise—than all of our wise-and-good who so bitterly oppose him.”
Then there are the reluctant conservatives who seem to have surrendered to Trump. These people argue that the Era of Small Government is over, and that we’re now stuck in an infinite loop of moderate-left candidates running against far-left candidates. Rush Limbaugh seemed to say this yesterday on his program in praising the political “home run” of Trump’s new big government maternity leave policy: “Look, bottom line: I am the last person on earth who wants any expansion of government…I think just for people that are not ideological – which is a hell of a lot of people in this country. I think they’re going to respond so positively to this, and it’s gonna disappoint a lot of people.”
There may be truth to this. Perhaps we’ve already lost. As early as 2007, George Will wrote that Republicans had to acknowledge the American desire for “strong government” – i.e. big government. I acknowledged this problem, and wrote at the time, “Republicans, therefore, have a double task when it comes to economics: teaching and winning…It is a tough sell. It will require an articulate politician, and a courageous one – it is always easier to pander than to speak the truth.” Rush is one of those who has always focused on both teaching and winning; I trust that shrugging off Trump’s leftism isn’t the first move toward shrugging off the war against big government altogether.
But, starved of presidential victory, pandering has become an easier sell for many on the right. Thus, those who think that conservatism can never win an election comfort themselves – and small comfort it is – in the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. James Pinkerton, a fellow I like and a writer I respect, has penned a two-part Trumpism defense on these shaky grounds. He touts what he calls a “60 percent majority”: “If you think, as I do, that at least 60 percent of Americans believe that yes, people should be working, that yes, the rich should pay their fair share, and that yes, the global elites should be respectful of patriotic values, then we’re getting somewhere.” Any coalition, Pinkerton says, must be built on principles approved by 60 percent of Americans. As examples of such politicians, he uses Teddy Roosevelt, the anti-business “trustbuster” who ushered in the Progressive Era, including a bureaucratic government and the income tax, and Richard Nixon, who imposed price and wage controls, created massive new government bureaucracies, and poisoned the Republican brand. In the process of pushing for such a “60 percent majority,” he talks about raising taxes to punish companies like Apple for being “scofflaws” and creating huge new public works programs, as well as rejecting the “invisible hand” of the market in favor of a “‘visible hand’ – that is, direct government action to save our citizens from the perils of idleness and the resulting despair.” And Pinkerton says Republicans should hijack elements of the Democrat agenda, too.
If this is what victory looks like, what exactly does losing look like for conservatives?
Conservatism will only die when its leading advocates become its detractors. This has been my fear of the Trump transformation – that in order to defeat Hillary Clinton, Republicans were willing to do anything, including embracing Hillary-esque policy. That’s happening. It doesn’t have to; there’s a rational position that rejects Trump’s ideas when they represent leftism, but still supports him over Hillary. That’s Mark Levin’s position, for example: educate about conservatism while making a lesser-of-two evils choice. There are also those, like me, who refuse to embrace a Republican candidate who fights against basic conservative principles.
But too many Republicans are so eager for a victory for which they hunger that they are willing to put a stake through the heart of the cause for which they supposedly fight. If they succeed, victory will turn to ash in their mouths.