Conservative intellectuals have spent most of the past four decades claiming — especially during periods of Republican ascent — to be winning the “war of ideas.” Hardly any of them bother to make such a boast now. Now that the Republican convention has given itself over to four straight nights starring Donald Trump — also featuring other unaccomplished members of his family along with some teens who were victimized by social media for wearing Trump gear — and abandoned its platform altogether for the platform equivalent of a MAGA hat, all the fun has been drained out of the exercise.
In place of the usual gloating, the right has been engaged in a furious intramural debate over whether to burn down the Republican Party in the wake of Trump’s expected (but hardly assured) defeat. Advocates for burning it down include Jennifer Rubin, Max Boot, George Will, Stuart Stevens, Charlie Sykes, Mona Charen, and Jonathan V. Last. Critics include David French, Rich Lowry, and Peggy Noonan. Somewhat in the middle lie Ross Douthat, David Brooks, Jonah Goldberg, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Kevin D. Williamson. In yesterday’s New York Times, former George W. Bush adviser Peter Wehner treats the burning as a (metaphorical) given and urges, “Any attempt to rescue conservatism from the ashes, then, has to begin with the defeat of Donald Trump in November.”
All parties to the dispute agree that Trump is deeply unfit for the presidency. They disagree about how broadly to define the moral and practical implications of that fact.
The anti-burners take a narrow view. The problem, as they see it, is Trump, and therefore his departure solves it. And it is certainly true that the current president has unique liabilities that no other Republican leader who succeeds him will share. However awful the next Republican leader may be, he or she will probably not use the office for personal profit, will tell lies numbering in fewer than five figures, will listen to their advisers, will spend the bulk of their waking hours working rather than obsessively watching television, and will be trained as a public servant rather than as a professional swindler and money launderer.
If Republicans’ goal is to replace Trump with a normal, noncriminal politician, they can achieve it without any systemic change. Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, or possibly even one of the Trump children would be capable of showing up every day, doing eight hours or so of actual work a day, and staffing the administration with people who do not secretly believe their boss is deranged.
However, the pro-burners believe the Trump experience has exposed some deeper rot. That strikes me as a logical conclusion to draw even for somebody who had no previous inclination to leave the Republican Party. I have immense admiration for my colleagues at New York. Suppose, however, that we appointed an editor who lacked familiarity with terms like circulation and advertising, whose notes to writers were scrawled indecipherably in crayon, and who seemed more interested in filching office supplies than any other aspect of the job. And suppose the staff either actively defended this editor or deflected criticism by pointing to David Remnick’s various foibles.
Well, I would naturally conclude I had misjudged the place badly. And if this editor eventually left, I would be looking for work at a publication whose staff had not been trying to extend his term.
If you take the broader view of the party’s problem, you quickly realize the problem is not just Trump himself but a party that would not merely cooperate with but actually idolize a grotesquely bigoted authoritarian. Once Trump disappears, Fox News will begin pummeling the next Democratic president with absurd lies and then building a new cult of personality around the next Republican who emerges as a leader, and that leader will pursue a more competent version of an essentially similar program: upper-class tax cuts, allowing business to self-regulate, ignoring large swaths of scientific expertise, and entrenching minority rule.
And if any Republicans wish to alter their fate from that trajectory, the solution is both simpler and more radical than anything they have acknowledged: They must sever the party from the ideological movement that has controlled it for a generation and driven it into its present dysfunctional state.
To the modern ear, the very idea of a Republican Party that operates independently of the conservative movement sounds preposterous, even oxymoronic. The movement’s association with the GOP is now so deep that almost everybody uses the terms Republican and conservative synonymously. But it was only about 60 years ago that the two had very different meanings.
A right-of-center leader in Britain, France, Germany, or Japan would not deny the need to do anything about climate change, oppose universal health insurance, or insist cutting taxes on the rich will pay for itself. For a period of time, the Republican Party seemed to be following the same course as right-of-center parties in other industrialized democracies today. Dwight Eisenhower accepted the contours and legitimacy of the New Deal while fighting many of the particulars. The conservative movement’s purpose was to oppose and reverse Eisenhower’s political vision for the Republican Party.
As detailed by books like Rule and Ruin, by Geoffrey Kabaservice, or Before the Storm, by Rick Perlstein, the conservative movement was once a minority faction within the GOP. It regarded the party’s leadership with about as much hostility as the Democratic Socialists of America today view the likes of Barack Obama and Joe Biden — lesser evils at best, outright traitors at worst.
The movement loathed Republican leaders for having accepted as a settled fact Franklin Roosevelt’s extension of the welfare and regulatory states — Barry Goldwater excoriated Eisenhower’s “dime-store New Deal” — and Harry Truman’s Cold War containment. It demanded an apocalyptic confrontation that would roll back big government at home and communism abroad.
Modern conservatives have created a mythical story of how they took over the party, sustained through endless repetition. The myth holds that they gained control of the party because they were thoughtful and responsible. William F. Buckley, their intellectual leader, “expelled the Birchers” — the far-right, conspiratorial John Birch Society — and thus, having purged the movement of its kooks, prepared it for governance.
The truth is very nearly the opposite. A former Buckley colleague, Alvin Felzenberg, has detailed that Buckley tread very carefully with the Birchers. Grasping that the movement was far too important to the right to alienate, he tried to placate its leader, Robert Welch, ultimately breaking with him while still endorsing the John Birch Society itself.
This small and seemingly esoteric point of historical interpretation is the root of the intellectual right’s systemic inability to face up to its problems. Conservatives have treated Buckley’s gentle and very partial break with the leader of the Birchers as his central legacy while dismissing many of his other positions as unimportant details. But those “details” are, in fact, the conservative movement’s DNA.
Buckley and the conservative movement defended Joe McCarthy, whose depiction of a vast secret Communist conspiracy and demands for aggressive rollback of existing communism closely tracked their own beliefs. They supported racial apartheid, first in the American South and then, after it was defeated there, in South Africa. They were supportive of right-wing authoritarianism both abroad and at home. Conservatives were skeptical of Richard Nixon because of his moderate policy agenda, but they closed ranks with him over Watergate. Nixon’s pragmatism repelled the right, but his authoritarianism attracted conservatives to him.
Center-right parties abroad are able to defeat left-wing appeals by co-opting popular elements. American conservatism is too rigid to do that. It regards democracy itself as a form of oppression — a system that enables the majority to oppress the wealthy minority by redistributing income via the ballot box. One of the predictable features of any American debate over tax levels is that conservative politicians or business leaders will compare the latest Democratic plan to something out of Hitler’s Germany.
Conservatives famously created a vast network of think tanks, media, and activist institutions, which they used to slowly take over the GOP. The takeover took decades to complete. Even by the time of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, conservatives only had a large foothold but had to share power with Establishmentarians. And so, while Reagan would sometimes follow the conservative line, at other times his moderate advisers would steer him toward course corrections. Reagan repeatedly violated conservative orthodoxy by supporting a series of tax hikes, cap-and-trade environmental regulations, a tax reform that raised effective rates on the rich, liberalized immigration, and détente with the Soviets.
Conservatives were able to swallow their anger over these betrayals because, at the time, Reagan offered them the closest opening to real power they had enjoyed since the Hoover administration. But as they consolidated their party takeover, they would eventually demand far more complete fealty. Even the pragmatism permitted under Reagan would become unacceptable.
The key break point in the history of the party came under George H.W. Bush. In 1990, Bush cut a deal with congressional Democrats to reduce the deficit. In return for (rather deep) spending cuts, Democrats prevailed on Bush to accept a small increase in the top income-tax rate. Conservative Republicans led by Newt Gingrich revolted against Bush and later credited their opposition with causing his defeat. After the Gingrich revolt — which later styled itself as a “Republican revolution” against Bill Clinton — conservatives drove out Bush’s remaining moderate advisers and consolidated full right-wing control over the party.
It would be an overstatement to paint Trump as representing nothing but the triumph of the conservative movement. In his personal defects, Trump is indeed sui generis. But the broad outlines of his agenda and his style do closely follow the trajectory of the American right: racism, authoritarianism, and disdain for expertise. The movement attracts disordered personalities like McCarthy, Sarah Palin, and Trump and paranoid cults like the John Birch Society and QAnon.
Above all, Trump follows the American right’s Manichaean approach to political conflict. Every new extension of government, however limited or necessary, is a secret plot to extend government control over every aspect of American life. Conservatives met both Clinton and Obama’s agenda with absolute hysteria, whipping themselves into a terror that rendered them unable to negotiate.
The right has thought this way all along. Reagan, in his ’60s-era incarnation as conservative insurgent spokesman, warned that unless Medicare was stopped, “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.” Conservatives are usually unable to roll back existing government programs and instead treat every new proposed extension as the final stand for freedom against socialist tyranny.
To be sure, some left-wing proposals really do overreach, and every country needs a healthy right to maintain some balance between state and market, traditionalism and social change. But the American conservative movement lacks the analytic tools to acknowledge what acceptable social programs look like. An inability to distinguish reasonable, well-designed government programs that address real market failures from Soviet-style oppression is a congenital defect in conservative thought.
The most libertarian-minded conservatives laugh bitterly at the idea that the modern party reflects their ideology. In a sense, they are right: The last two Republican presidents both attempted to roll back a major entitlement (Bush sought to privatize Social Security, Trump to repeal Obamacare) and were defeated and instead presided over an expanded government. But they have also clung as tightly as ever to the actual governing priorities of the movement’s power centers: low taxes for the rich, placing business lobbyists in charge of federal regulations, and appointing jurists who believe in rolling back the regulatory state. For all his supposed populism, Trump’s plan to revive the economy is just more tax cuts.
Trumpism is a natural by-product of the dissonance between the conservative movement’s ambitions and the limitations of democratic politics. Totalitarian plots lie around every corner: the New Deal, the civil-rights movement, peaceniks, the Clintons, Obamacare, and Black Lives Matter. Every policy matter, from Bill Clinton’s modest aim of reducing the deficit to Obama’s goal of a national version of Romneycare, becomes a culture war. Since the right is unable to engage with any of these issues in a practical manner, conservative politics is forced to operate entirely on a symbolic level.
Because the stakes of even the most mundane policy disagreement are existential, and because the right keeps losing, there is no release for the tension that keeps building. All the accumulated terror is simply off-loaded from the last Armageddon to the next. Trump is not even pretending to have a positive second-term program. His only goal is to stop the next Democratic administration because the next liberal program is always the one that will usher in the final triumph of socialism.
The most likely near-term outcome for a post-Trump GOP would look something like this: The party reconstitutes itself in opposition to everything the next Democratic president proposes, “rediscovers” its existential terror of deficit spending, throws itself into vote suppression and minority rule, and eventually returns to power for another round of upper-class tax cuts and a large-scale managerial debacle. I suspect many of the Republicans who privately or publicly loathe Trump would be satisfied with such an outcome.
But for those who want a Republican government capable of appealing to a majority of the country and devising real solutions to social problems and not collapsing into corruption, there is an alternative. That alternative is the sort of pragmatic center-right thinking being developed at the Niskanen Center and by some of the wonks at the American Enterprise Institute and a handful of other places.
It would mean breaking free of conservative dogma that forbids any consideration of new taxes, spending, or regulation. That, in turn, means undoing the habits of thought rooted in conservative-movement control of the party and returning to a vision along the lines of Eisenhower’s.
The hard thing about this is that it isn’t easy or fast. It took roughly three decades for Goldwater’s insurgents to become Gingrich’s revolutionaries. The 1964 convention had vicious fights between moderates and conservatives, the latter of whom voted down resolutions condemning the John Birch Society and supporting enforcement of the Civil Rights Act. Trump’s coronation will have no displays of dissent whatsoever.
It will take more than one defeat for the party to abandon what its cadres have been trained to see as the only possible path. But the Republican Party will never stop being a danger to American democracy until it can see the problem clearly. The task is not to save conservatism from Trump. It is to save the Republican Party from conservatism.