the national interest

Trump Handed the Agenda to Conservatives and They Blew It

President Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are all out of ideas. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Marxist philosopher Jason Barker has an op-ed in the New York Times celebrating Marxism, a philosophy, he claims, that has been proven entirely correct. After many celebratory words, Barker does briefly concede, 15 paragraphs in, that Marxism has run into a few snags translating its ideals into practice. “The subsequent and troubled history of the Communist ‘states,’” he concedes, leaves “a great deal to be learned from their disasters, but their philosophical relevance remains doubtful, to say the least.”

It is philosophically irrelevant that every nation-state founded on Marxist philosophy almost immediately metastasized into a repressive tyranny, he breezily insists. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the parties that ruled them all shared a common philosophy, and that this philosophy identified within their society an oppressor class whose political rights could and should be eliminated? No, no, reply the Marxists. All these real-world examples of governments attempting to actualize Marxist principles tell us nothing about Marxism.

The same process of abstracting away real-world failure can be seen in American conservatism. Unlike right-of-center parties found in other countries, the American right has never accepted the basic legitimacy of the New Deal. It has hysterically opposed every extension of government since the 1930s, and the failures of either their apocalyptic predictions to come true, or of right-wing politicians to roll back these dastardly extensions of federal power, have not inspired any wholesale rethinking of their creed. Like any strain of fanaticism, American conservatism sustains itself on the premise that it has Never Been Tried.

As the first and probably only stretch of complete Republican control of government nears its end, a grim melancholy has crept over many regular Republicans, who are wondering why they have so little to show for it. They have temporarily let up on enforcing regulations on pollution, labor law, and campaign finance, as every Republican administration does. And they have given wealthy people a large tax cut, as every Republican administration also does. But these measures are easily reversed and will not leave much of an imprint on the role of government in American life. Is this all there is?

“The truly extraordinary aspect of the current situation,” lamented National Review editor Rich Lowry in a recent column, is that “Republicans are content not to do anything else of significance in Congress this year … They aren’t trying to wring every last ounce of what could be their waning months of unified control of Washington.” Despite giving over his entire column to this theme, Lowry did not propose even a single example of a policy goal Republicans should be pursuing. Perhaps the lack of legislative action is not extraordinary at all!

Caitlin Owens reports today that many Republicans share Lowry’s angst. GOP sources “say Congress needs to pass more conservative legislation this year to bolster the case for why voters should keep the GOP in office.” Alas, there is a “catch.” Can you guess what it is? Yes: “They can’t agree what it should be.” They know the leaders have let them down by refusing to act, even if they have no idea what acts they ought to take.

The normal practice in the Trump era has been to point the finger at Trump for the failure of the party’s agenda. And it is certainly true that Trump has not helped his party govern — the president’s near-total ignorance of policy, and inability to learn about it, has regularly sabotaged efforts to identity and pursue priorities in Congress. But he has largely outsourced domestic policy-making to conservative-movement stalwarts like Paul Ryan and Mike Pence and demonstrated his willingness to sign whatever bills they put before him.

The fact that neither the editor of conservatism’s flagship publication nor the leaders of the Republican Congress can think of any additional bills that ought to be written should be seen as a devastating indictment of the conservative philosophy. Conservatives have hyperbolically decried every new advance of the welfare state — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare — as an existential threat to liberty and capitalism. They have proven unable to repeal any of these programs.

Decade after decade, they have attributed their failures to the fecklessness of their leaders. It has never occurred to conservatives to question the viability of their absolutist free-market philosophy itself. Conservatives continue to celebrate Ronald Reagan’s urgent warning in 1961 that the establishment of Medicare would lead first to the government telling doctors how many patients they could treat and where they would live, and ultimately to the total dissolution of freedom in the United States — “one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.” The moment of crisis of the welfare state never comes, but it simply moves further and further into the future. The fact that conservative voters themselves have no interest in eliminating or even paring back Medicare is not factored into the equation. The blame must fall on Republican leaders for, inevitably, selling out the philosophy.

Trump’s idiosyncratic personal style will make it especially easy for conservatives to fob off their latest failure on the leader’s lack of convictions. When he has left the scene, conservatives will agitate for a return to dogmatic purity, and wave away the Trump presidency as yet more proof that their philosophy has never been tried. But we should bear in mind that conservatives do have their hands on the controls of the ship of state, and they are making it perfectly plain they have no idea what to do with it.

Trump Handed the Agenda to Conservatives and They Blew It