The Base Doesn’t Trust D.C. Conservatives Anymore

The need to reconstitute and reinvigorate the movement that has become establishment conservatism is a well-worn theme these days. Though nearly everyone recognizes the need, agreement about the way forward is nowhere in sight. In the run up to November, however, there is an increased urgency to find answers to the question of what the conservative movement, and the institutional Republican leaders who claim to be conservatives, have given to their voters sufficient to motivate them to come out again in November?

Too often the base has faced serial disappointment, a direct reflection of the failure of GOP and conservative leaders to adhere to the promises and processes put in place to avoid this disenchantment. More to the point, this disenchantment was precisely what D.C. Republicans swore up and down would never again occur if we just voted for enough of them. 

Well, it didn’t happen that way.

There is war in the streets. Statues are being toppled, individuals harassed, violent crime is surging, and the responses from congressional Republicans ring hollow: attempts at police reform (filibustered by Senate Democrats) and efforts to replace Columbus Day with Juneteenth. Well-meaning efforts, perhaps, but demonstrably weak and, practically speaking, displaying all the leadership qualities of a flailing pre-teen.

The conservative movement’s response to this inaction, meanwhile, has been limp op-eds, hashtag campaigns, and pointless beard stroking. “Leading conservative voices” are busy tagging white working-class Trump voters as racists. The White House, outside of a great speech and a welcome (if delayed) effort to charge individuals engaged in wanton destruction, seems otherwise intent on avoiding the culture war.

The Supreme Court, for which conservatives have fought mightily to secure a majority, has handed down a decidedly mixed bag of decisions this month. Two wins, one for religious schools and an exemption for religious employers from Obamacare’s birth control mandate, were offset by three big blows: the Court’s absurd argument pushing back against the Trump administration’s efforts to unroll President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a kick in the teeth to the pro-life movement in June Medical v. Russo, and Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch authoring an opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County, whose ripple effects will fundamentally transform how traditional conservatives are allowed to engage with society.

As Democrats sought to capitalize on their Supreme Court wins by enforcing the Equality Act, congressional Republicans did their best impression of dead plants. Only three Senate Republicans could be found to come to the floor and defend the way of life for millions of well-intended and sincere people of faith. The “representative” in representative government is apparently now viewed as merely a suggestion.

Of course, after two years of unified Republican control of the House, Senate, and the White House, in the first half of the Trump administration, Congressional Republicans only had corporate tax cuts, more war in Yemen, and a legal industrial hemp sector to show for it. So perhaps there should be no surprise over their limp reaction to today’s events.

This is all happening against the backdrop of an aggressive “woke” corporate culture working to make anything that’s not a progressive point of view socially unacceptable. From social media, to the financial industry, to Hollywood, even to sports commentary, the corporations that now act as the gatekeepers for access to American culture are systematically enforcing a code of Wokeness on their forums, platforms, and business models—ostracizing anyone who thinks otherwise.

Republicans in Congress have very little to say about it besides shrugging about how we can’t interfere with “private companies” like Google. As if Google was just another mainstreet mom and pop and not a corporate hegemon now controlling 90 percent of how the world sees the information they search for, rendering it more powerful and resourceful than some small countries.

Even President Trump, whose election represented a backlash against the corporatism of both institutional and establishment Democrats and Republicans, is struggling to focus on the issues that carried him to the White House.

While Joe Biden gave a speech this week touting the benefits of an America First economic plan—Trump’s signature issue—it was revealed that the White House has benched a Buy America executive order “amid objections from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.” Trump’s administration has always hosted tension between populist economic interests and a neoliberal influence. Lately, the latter appears to be winning.

In short, conservatism as both a way of life and a political movement is in crisis. And there has been none of the self-reflection, humility, or behavioral changes that should accompany the obvious failures that have led us to this point. Instead, we get furious justifications, condescending dismissals, navel-gazing about the economic theories of comparative advantage. Or worse, blanket apathy.

After years of our conservative institutions and leaders telling us “they have it in hand,” the last month has unmasked their claim as mistaken at best, and willfully exaggerated, at worst. Apathy and self-righteous justifications will be met by apathy and disgust by the voters in November. The only thing that can begin to bring this movement back to relevance is an intellectually humble reevaluation of how D.C. conservatism lost its ability to create a clear and coherent way forward for those who seek its leadership. But there is precious little time for the ship to begin righting itself. That work must begin in earnest—and begin immediately.

D.C.’s conservative movement needs a gut check, and they need one fast.

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About Rachel Bovard

Rachel Bovard is senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute and Senior Advisor to the Internet Accountability Project. Beginning in 2006, she served in both the House and Senate in various roles including as legislative director for Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and policy director for the Senate Steering Committee under the successive chairmanships of Senator Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), where she advised Committee members on strategy related to floor procedure and policy matters. In the House, she worked as senior legislative assistant to Congressman Donald Manzullo (R-Il.), and Congressman Ted Poe (R-Texas). She is the former director of policy services for the Heritage Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelBovard.

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