Trumpism is Another Step in the Evolution of Conservatism, a Misstep
by Tony Wyman
They are foreigners! That’s what they are! And we want them out by the millions! And Trump supporters are willing to go to civil war if that’s what it takes to get it done! – Pro-Trump caller on the Republican line on POTUS Radio, 21 July 2019
Let’s be clear about what is happening to the Republican Party, shall we? The mainstream establishment wing of the GOP that ran the party since its inception is dead. And with its death goes the principles and values that made the party the logical place for some of this country’s greatest leaders to rest.
Men like Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, who fought for civil rights for all Americans, opposed the Vietnam War, calling for the withdrawal of all American troops in 1970, and, in 1991, was one of only two Republican senators to vote against war in Iraq; President Dwight David Eisenhower, who desegregated public schools, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1960, built the interstate highway system and warned against the corruptive dangers of the powerful military-industrial complex; and, President Ronald Reagan, who defeated the Soviet Union, freeing the world from the possibility of a nuclear war and the Russian people from the slavery of communism, all while restoring America’s confidence in herself and her future.
In today’s Republican Party, none of these men would be welcome.
Instead, they would be marginalized, pushed out of the party, shunned, like senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, and Representative Justin Amash, who quit the party on July 4th, after calling for the impeachment of Pres. Trump. He told CNN that other Republican members of Congress are also deeply disturbed by the president’s conduct, but they are fearful they will be the subject of nasty, personal, insulting tweets from Mr. Trump if they speak out against him. “It’s a big part of it. They’re afraid they’ll be attacked,” Rep. Amash, now an independent, said on CNN.
Fear of attack by the president kept most Republican leaders silent even after Mr. Trump levied a blatantly racist attack on four Democrat members of the House who are women of color, telling them to “go back where they came from” if they weren’t happy with America as it is today. As we all know by now, three of those House members are native born Americans and one is a naturalized refugee.
While a handful of Republican leaders criticized the president’s racist comment, only four voted with Democrats when the House took official action condemning it. And none brought up the irony that the president attacked the four Democrats for, in his view, being too critical of the country under his leadership. After all, Mr. Trump has made a career out of blasting everything in this country he doesn’t like. His slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is, after all, nothing more than a blanket condemnation of this nation for no longer being great, for being a country in decline, mired in decay and disrepair.
“For years, Trump has been disparaging his country, maligning its heroes, and praising its enemies,” wrote the Boston Globe recently. “He took office in January 2017 with the bleakest inaugural address in US history, describing America not as a place of optimism and accomplishment, but of ‘carnage.’ His acceptance speech at the Republican convention six months earlier had been even darker. Trump had sketched a grim and funereal portrait of the United States, portraying it as a nation mired in crime, chaos, poverty, and death — a pathetic victim of both ‘domestic disaster’ and ‘international humiliation.’ As he ran for the White House on a vow to make America great again, Trump repeatedly made it clear that he thought America was not great anymore.”
In fact, he ended his inauguration speech with a promise that sounded like it should have been delivered by a president after the nation suffered a great military loss or mired in grave economic slump, rather than by one taking office following eight years of sustained economic and job growth and an extended period of relative peace:
Together, We Will Make America Strong Again. We Will Make America Wealthy Again. We Will Make America Proud Again. We Will Make America Safe Again. And, Yes, Together, We Will Make America Great Again.
What is Trump Trying to Turn America Into?
Those are the words of a man who loves this country, who sees good in it, who is optimistic about its future? Or are they the words of a man who wants to tear it down so he can rebuild it into something more to his liking?
The latter is the opinion of many critics of the president’s including ones like Jennifer Horn, two-term chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party and a member of the GOP’s national executive committee. She wrote in USA Today this week condemning the president for transforming “…the party of Lincoln into a racist, nationalist movement that divide and destroys.” And she condemned silent Republicans for standing by silently while it happens.
My heart breaks as I sit here today in the final moments of a slow, three-year realization that the party of Lincoln is nearly dead, consumed by the ugly, destructive conduct of a dishonest, corrupt man who wears the stolen badge of Republicanism, transforming a once-great party into a racist nationalist movement that uses hate and fear to divide and destroy.
She pointed out that white supremacists, such as Richard Spencer, were delighted with the president’s bigotry. Adding, “Just as they did after Trump’s racist equivalence in the wake of the Charlottesville attacks, white nationalists across the country cheered the president’s Twitter assault on the four congresswomen.
Prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer called Trump talk and no action but congratulated him on being able to “win back” a sizable portion of what he called the deluded alt-right with a single tweet.”
She correctly points out that Pres. Trump is using “the worst kind of racism” to advance his quest for more personal power and to advance his political agenda, that his strategy is to use “… racist language in an attempt to enrage the masses and convince one American that another American is their enemy simply because they are different.”
The Mutation of “True Conservatism”
But what she’s missing is this: Mr. Trump is just the latest and most accelerated iteration of a mutation of conservatism that started several decades ago.
Conservative critics of Trumpism correctly point out that the president’s leadership falls well short of the ideals established by right-wing thought icons like Ayn Rand, H. L. Mencken, Max Eastman and others from an era where Mr. Trump’s authoritarian style, isolationist foreign policy, irresponsible spending and anti-free trade positions would make him a pariah with the right.
Conservatism back then, during the 1930s and 40s, when liberalism was transforming into its New Deal iteration, looked nothing like it does today. There was little interest in religion, morality, social engineering or nationalism among conservatives; instead, they were focused on predominantly two things: protecting individual liberties and combating the growing power of the state.
After World War II, conservatives discovered a new enemy: communism. Not only did conservatives dedicate resources and effort to rooting out domestic communists, largely under the overzealous leadership of Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, they transformed their largely non-interventionist foreign policy into one that aggressively combatted the expansion of the Soviet Union’s communist empire.
This change to an emphasis on foreign policy had a great impact on the Republican Party as it transformed its posture from one that was both anti-state and anti-war to one that remained as committed as ever to slowing the expansion of the power of the state, but that, now, had a much greater interest in using American military power to intervene in foreign affairs across the globe, particularly in areas thought to be under threat of communist expansion.
Following the 1964 drubbing of Republican presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater to Democrat incumbent President Lyndon Johnson, conservatives started to champion social and religious causes, something they hadn’t done in the past. Sen. Goldwater’s book, The Conscience of a Conservative, which Pat Buchanan once referred to as the conservative’s “new testament,” was largely responsible for this transformation. For the first time, conservatives, once thought of as “crackpots” in the GOP, had a game plan to promote their philosophy in communities and college campuses across the country.
“It contained the core beliefs of our political faith,” conservative pundit and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan told The Atlantic in 1995. “It told us why we had failed, what we must do. We read it, memorized it, quoted it…. For those of us wandering in the arid desert of Eisenhower Republicanism, it hit like a rifle shot.”
Over the next two decades, conservatism grew in the GOP, leading to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Many assumed that Mr. Reagan’s election meant the country had become more conservative, but, in reality, what had really happened was conservatives transformed their philosophy to more closely reflect mainstream America.
Whereas in the past, conservatives were disinterested in social issues, religion and cultural evolution, focusing much more on esoteric and abstract concerns such as individual liberty and the expansion of state power, issues that didn’t interest the vast majority of voters, they now troubled themselves with topics more often discussed around the dinner tables across middle-America. It wasn’t so much that America became more conservative as it was conservatives became more middle-American.
By the time of the two Bush administrations, the conservative movement mutated once again, this time becoming what came to be called “neo-conservative.” Gone were the ideas of fiscal restraint, capping state power and avoiding foreign entanglements. Those ideas were replaced by the largest expansion of the size of government since FDR and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And to win the White House and seats in Congress, the GOP focused its campaigns on social issues as much, if not more, as it did on economic and foreign policy issues.
The Rise of Trump
For the election of Donald Trump to become a reality, more than just the evolution of conservatism had to happen. He needed a complete transformation of the party and the collapse of the establishment moderates, to pave the wave for his ascension.
And that is what happened after eight years of failing to deliver on promises to reverse Obamacare and to blunt gains by progressives that alarmed the social conservatives who now formed the core of the GOP. Mainstream politicians like Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, were driven out by social conservative groups like the Freedom Caucus and the Tea Party who held them accountable for failing to deliver on promises to rollback Obamacare and to effectively address changes in America’s social fabric, like the mainstreaming of LGBTQ issues.
The inclusive and optimistic brand of Reagan conservatism that focused on growing America’s economic opportunities for all, while also increasing her influence overseas through engaged foreign policy and aggressive free trade, no longer resonated with a Republican base that was growing more and more concerned about divisive social and economic issues driven largely by Fox News and their peers in the far right media.
Depicting Democrats as America-hating traitors, coddling criminals and opening the country’s borders to violent and drug-dealing immigrants from Mexico and Sharia-promoting Muslims from places where American soldiers were dying was winning more hearts and minds among the GOP base than were speeches made by establishment conservatives about fiscal responsibility, individual liberty and the importance of free trade.
Mr. Trump, unlike his GOP competitors in 2016, recognized the anger percolating in a significant segment of the Republican base and developed a campaign strategy that separated him almost immediately from the rest of the pact. Since his election, he’s refined and built upon that strategy, one that is simple, but highly effective: appeal to people’s natural sense of tribalism, give them easy-to-identify enemies to hate, provide them simple, black and white answers to complex problems, and imply the other side is involved in some great conspiracy with “the deep state” to deprive his supporters of what is rightfully theirs.
Inevitably, where this strategy of the president’s is leading is the rise of nationalism based on white-identity politics and the division of segments of white America from the rest of the country. The president, in an attempt to keep his base energized for the 2020 election, will escalate his attacks on people of color, immigrants and those who observe religions not favorable to the typical MAGA supporter. He will try to define these people, and the Democrats in general, as less-American, somehow, than he and his supporters are. They won’t be just opponents; they will be enemies.
Why will he do this? Because it is a winning strategy, it appears, perhaps the only one that will keep him in the White House. How do we know this? Because the numbers tell us so. Following his racist tweet about the four Democrat House members, Mr. Trump’s popularity among Republicans actually went up five percentage points, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.
Redefining What it Means to be Conservative
The genius of Mr. Trump’s racist tweet, if you will, is it focused America’s political conversation exactly where the president wanted it to be. Instead of talking about Mr. Trump’s relationship with convicted child sex predator Jeffrey Epstein, the country’s social media was abuzz with arguments between supporters of the targets of president’s tweets, “The Squad” as they call themselves, and those who see them as proof the Democratic Party is moving too far to the left.
These arguments became definitional, as they often become in social media, practically forcing participants to choose sides. On one side were four darker-skinned substitutes for Hillary Clinton and on the other was Donald Trump, flawed though he may be, but the only thing between you and The Squad’s plan to impose upon you an American-hating socialist future. The choice was joining with the “Libtards” and siding with the socialists, according to self-proclaimed conservatives, or standing up for America and lining up behind the president. And, of course, lining up behind the president means you have to accept, at least to some degree, the real message of his tweet: that somehow these four women are less American than you and I.
This will, then, become the new definition of conservatism, that it is an identity, more than it is an ideology. This is why it makes no difference in his approval rating among Republicans when Mr. Trump changes his positions on issues, as he does more often than any president in history. The issues don’t matter because, in today’s conservative movement, ideology is no longer as important as identity.
Proof of this can be found in a brilliant study by Cambridge University political scientists Michael Barber and Jeremy Pope. They took two groups of Republicans and asked them whether they supported a position or opposed it. One group wasn’t told which side President Trump supported, while the second group was told. What they found was people who viewed themselves as “very conservative” were most likely to change their position on an issue if they thought Mr. Trump backed it, even if that position was seen as liberal by the conservatives in the group who had no idea where the president stood. What the experiment showed is group identity is now what it means to be a conservative.
That is, if conservatives choose to allow it to be.
Across the country, conservative thought leaders and intellectuals are battling amongst each other over this issue. What is conservatism in the age of Donald Trump? Is it his brand of nationalism that defines what a “real American” is by his ethnic origins or is it the civic patriotism that we’ve always promoted in this country, a sense of identity based upon the ideals and values of America as defined by our founding documents, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers.
Throughout our history, the American people have shown that we are willing to rally together and fight, if necessary, in defense of the ideals enumerated in these documents. Only once before did a large segment of our people decide that they preferred to identify based on blood and soil, and that division led to America’s Civil War.
Today, due to President Trump’s decision to divide Americans against each other, we face the early stages of a similar conflict, one that, hopefully, will not require violence to resolve. Americans today will have to decide how we define ourselves, just like our ancestors did in 1861. We will have to face the reality that a nation exists as a community only if the members in it agree that it does, only if they share a common set of values and principles. If we choose to abandon those values and principles for a new narrow and nativist definition of what it means to be an American, for Mr. Trump’s brand of nationalism, America will change forever.
As Anne Applebaum warns in her column in this week’s Washington Post, the question really belongs to today’s conservative movement.
The conservative movement is at a real turning point. But its most intelligent thinkers will soon have to decide whether they will continue to normalize Trump, providing him with the intellectual framework to indulge the dangerous impulses on display in Greenville, or whether they will try to create something that gives the Republican Party, at least, some viable alternative once Trumpism fails. If they can bring themselves to abandon the word “nationalism,” that will be a good sign.
Let’s hope they do. And let’s hope the next stage in the evolution of conservatism returns the movement back to its more positive and constructive days.