With this week’s Republican National Convention and the formal coronation of Donald Trump as the party’s 2020 presidential nominee, many have seized the moment to speculate about the political future of the Republican Party—and, by extension, the intellectual and pragmatic future of American conservatism itself.
The 2016 romp of Trump, the reality TV star-turned-commander in chief, upended decades of outmoded GOP orthodoxies and ushered in a seismic shift in American politics. Throughout the Cold War, and even in the two-and-a-half decades between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Trump’s infamous campaign-launching 2015 golden escalator descent, conservatism in America had assumed a credal, almost cultish tenor. What emerged as an instrumentality to retain a viable political coalition and counter the Soviet foe—”fusionism,” in the parlance of National Review, which morphed into Ronald Reagan’s “three-legged stool” platform—had, by at least the time of the lackluster 2012 Romney-Ryan presidential ticket, decayed into a hodgepodge of some claimed political truths with warmed-over policy nostrums befitting the idiosyncratic problems of three decades prior.
Worse, by 2012, it had become clear that the gap between what Republican voters in flyover country wanted and what bicoastal Republican elites in the political and donor classes deigned to offer their subjects was positively yawning. The median Republican voter wanted law and order secured, religion protected and promoted, immigration levels reduced, a more restrained (if, paradoxically, still forceful) foreign policy, and an unabashed defense of the greatness of the American regime and the American way of life. The median Republican congressman or senator, by contrast, whispered, in a hushed voice, conservative pieties to credulous voters while duping those very voters behind their backs with a neoliberal agenda, in thrall to Wall Street and Silicon Valley, that secured mass benefits for some at the expense of many.
The Trump phenomenon exposed this long-simmering dissension for the whole world to see. The old, washed-up hands of Conservatism Inc. expressed either bemusement or outright disdain. But the Trump revolt, especially viewed in tandem with its 2016 cousin, Brexit, is no passing phenomenon. The astonishing nightly ratings of Fox News host Tucker Carlson help demonstrate that, contra the old guard’s wistful pining, there will be no putting this nationalist, populist genie back into the bottle.
Many on both the Left and Right speculate whether the “Trump effect” might be dismissed as a one-off electoral fluke attributable to the president’s universal name-brand recognition and overwhelming personality. But decades of opinion polling belie this conceit. The reality is that there are more voters concerned with the core tenets of cultural Americanism—secure the border, limit immigration to promote assimilation, fight multiculturalism, support law and order, promote religion, and orient economic and foreign policy around a narrowly tailored conception of the American national interest—than there are voters wedded to the lofty precepts of Lockean classical liberalism. Reagan himself may have once asserted that “the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism,” but on this, the Gipper was wrong.
A conservatism that steadfastly refuses to grapple with changing circumstances, preferring instead to wax poetic from the stale hymnal of yore, is not conservatism at all. There is no epistemological humility—the cornerstone of Burkean conservatism—in consigning oneself to the ruinous confines of a performative perennial political minority. Humility comes instead from a willingness to reassess a moment in history and rethink the proper means to meet the timeless ends of politics—justice, human flourishing, individual liberty and the good life. There is no virtue, nor any moral high ground, in stubbornly refusing to change one’s ways.
Fortunately, though Trump was a crass wrecking ball to the old paradigm, many on the American right are now constructively engaged in helping to shape the future of our movement. That future will meet conservative voters as they are—rather than as elites would prefer they be. It will be more avowedly nationalist and worker-friendly and less tied to laissez-faire absolutism, in matters of economics. It will vehemently resist the siren song of liberal internationalism, preferring instead a foreign policy rooted in disparate alliances that, assessed independently, redound to the national interest. Above all else, it will be ordered toward the elevation of the inherent dignity of the American citizen and the robust defense of the American way of life.
Whether Trump wins or loses this November, American conservatism faces a crossroads. But there is only one proper path: that which recognizes the stakes of our roiling cold civil war and is unafraid to wield the levers of state power to promote good political order and subdue the civilizational arsonists who would burn down our nation. The fight will only get uglier in coming months, but thankfully, the path forward is clear.
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