The character that brings change
Editor’s note: This paper is part of a symposium to justify prudent policies within the GOP.
We can start with one thing: Donald Trump is definitely not the future of conservatism. In fact, he’s not even his presence.
Yes, yes, Trump is the undeniable leader of the Republican Party, and even now he inspires a self-alarming cultic devotion among self-described conservatives. But that’s more a question of personality and style than politics. Despite the many attempts by his admirers to turn abstract clouds into coherent shapes, conservatism remains ideologically a bigger impact on Donald Trump than Donald Trump does on conservatism. There’s a reason Trump’s greatest admirers, after a while, no longer insist that he radically change conservatism, but instead list all of his conservative achievements, and that reason is that Donald Trump did not radically change conservatism.
Trump’s tenure included a round of tax cuts combined with too much federal spending; the rollback of business rules and the expansion of power generation; supplying the federal judiciary with judges selected by the Federal Society; Hostility towards international organizations such as the UN and WHO; and outspoken opposition to abortion and gun control. There were certainly a few unusual steps. On the issue of immigration, Trump was different from Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and John McCain, but not very different from Mitt Romney (except, perhaps, on asylum and family reunification). In terms of foreign policy, it reflected the reticent side of the pre-Eisenhower conservative movement, which had steadily revived its influence since 2008. And in trade, he broke more dramatically with postwar conservative orthodoxy than any recent Republican leader, if not entirely with Republican Party practice – which, as two Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush have shown, not so well with Orthodoxy matches how often is accepted. Overall, however, Trump’s presidency did not differ much in policy from a presidency led by Ted Cruz, for example.
In the case that Trump’s most ardent supporters have made, there has always been tension. On the one hand, they insist that Trump “take over” the rights after snatching them from the much-hated “donor class” of the bypass. On the other hand, they insist that this donor class should have loved Trump because he managed to do so many things that they always wanted a president to do. Of course, these two things cannot be true, which is why if you push too hard, the conversation will be reduced to tone and demeanor: “But he’s fighting!”
If this were true, it would be tempting to conclude that American conservatism needs a Trump-like figure who, while more combative than a typical politician, likes to swallow the entire catechism. The thing is, however, it’s not really true that Donald Trump “fought” more than anyone else. Trump was president for four years, during which time he made no sense of fighting for something that was not yet favored by the people he sent in the Republican primary. Despite its central role in his election campaign, the border wall was relegated to belated status until halfway through 2018 made it impossible to reach. The deal was also haphazardly dealt with: a handful of executive orders here, a press release here, a negotiator there, but no attempt to initiate anything that would survive the end of his presidency. On foreign policy, Trump spoke differently from the Conservatives usually – and at times he spoke shamefully when praising dictators in hopes he could grease them – but his actions have been largely mainstream, and at times his utter lack of respect for them The subtleties urged him to do things that Conservatives had talked about for decades, like moving the American embassy to Jerusalem.
Were Trump’s two performances particularly impressive? Not really, no. In 2016, Trump managed to beat Hillary Clinton, but he received no more votes than her, and during the four years of his presidency, his party bled from support at all levels of government except the U.S. Senate. In 2020, Trump expanded the number of votes he received but still got seven million fewer than his opponent, 78-year-old barely coherent Joe Biden, and then, after losing, set about promoting the party Losing control of the Senate.
“Ah, but he won.” That must mean something, right? Yes, he won once. However, it is by no means obvious that Donald Trump taught the Conservatives much about the election victory. As it is, the reason for Trump’s brilliance rests heavily on the fact that the two previous Republican candidates lost their presidential bids while Trump won his. However, this ignores the cyclical nature of American politics and the circumstances in which these unsuccessful elections were held. Worse, the White House is believed to be the only office within the American system of government worth winning. To claim that Trump was special, it has to be assumed that neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney would have beaten Hillary Clinton in 2016, and neither would any of the other Republican candidates who ran for nomination that year would have beat Clinton. and in a broader sense, Trump would have beaten Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012. But even here it is not clear why one would accept any of these things. In 2008, John McCain ran for the third year in a row against Barack Obama, a generationally talented politician and first black candidate for president, amid the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression and against the shadow of an unpopular and costly tenure foreign war. In 2012, Mitt Romney ran against the same Democratic candidate just as the economy was starting to improve, amid one of the most hostile media environments in American history. It’s not so surprising that they lost.
Were Trump’s two performances particularly impressive? Not really, no. In 2016, Trump managed to beat Hillary Clinton, but he received no more votes than her, and during the four years of his presidency, his party bled from support at all levels of government except the U.S. Senate. In 2020, Trump expanded the number of votes he received but still got seven million fewer than his opponent, 78-year-old barely coherent Joe Biden, and then, after losing, set about promoting the party Losing control of the Senate. If you were looking for advice on how to win elections, would you not look to the much vilified George W. Bush, who won both of his elections, rather than Trump? Or, if not, wouldn’t one look at Ronald Reagan, who ruled the scene like a colossus?
Asking these questions seriously means accepting the premise that conservatives have trouble winning elections or advancing their ideas. But they don’t – not really. Conservatism will always be harder to sell than its alternatives because it is about telling people hard truths, because it does not pretend to have all the answers at hand, and because it is fundamentally anti-utopian. And yet the political vehicle, the Republican Party, often prevails in the elections. Since 1994, when the Democrats’ long monopoly on legislative power finally broke, Republicans have ruled the House for up to six years and the Senate for up to nine years. As of 2006, only five states have not elected a Republican governor for at least one term. Texas and Florida, the Union’s second and third largest states, have not elected a Democratic governor or legislature since the mid-1990s, while both California and New York – the first and fourth more populous states – are a mix. If there is really something wrong with the Republican Party’s priorities, one might expect this to be more evident in the data.
So, yeah, you can put me firmly in the dinosaur camp. Or, to borrow a fashionable pejorative, you can serve me the “dead consensus” until I’m full. Why? Well because I don’t think it’s dead. In my estimation, the future of conservatism shouldn’t be too different from the past of conservatism, because most of what conservatives have historically stood for is still true. It is true that the Constitution is the best system of government we can live under, that we should carefully and explicitly amend it, and that we should require our politicians and judges to interpret it according to its original public meaning, and not with any linguistic meaning Fashions are currently taught in universities. It is true that a free and open market offers opportunity and prosperity, and while it is not a good idea to cut taxes indefinitely, it is definitely a good idea to keep them low. It is true that we cannot spend what we don’t have forever without going broke. It is true that government programs, however well meant, tend to lapse into inefficiency, indolence, ownership and dependency. It is true that the Bill of Rights contains timeless and inalienable freedoms rather than random preferences that can be cut away at the whim of the state. It is true that war comes to the weak and unprepared and that robust national defense is the best way to avert disaster. It is true that one cannot curtail religious freedom without curtailing one’s conscience, and that governments that curtail conscience find it difficult to turn back before it is too late. And it is true that character is important – yes, even when those of bad character are able to make positive change.
It is a matter of considerable irony that President Trump sold himself as a silver bullet that would kill the “zombie reaganism” but ended up showing the wisdom and perseverance of the very ideology he believed was sent to reform. They say that past is prologue. I hope that’s true.