Super Tuesday is upon us, and we find ourselves poised on the edge of a knife. It’s now clear Donald Trump is the most likely choice for the Republican nominee. To be sure, it isn’t over yet. Mathematically, there is still plenty of time for the country to come to its senses. But we shouldn’t sugar-coat the grim reality. Trump is now the presumptive nominee, and his nomination will be an absolute disaster.
Ready for some good news? If we can pull out of this death spiral, it’s still possible that Trumpism could end up being good for the country. Trump himself is an unbelievably awful candidate: personally unstable, politically incoherent, and morally repugnant. Hillary Clinton’s war machine will pulverize him. As a cautionary tale, though, Trumpism could end up being fruitful in innumerable ways.
If we learn the right lessons, we can see that, without Trump, the Republicans are poised to take meaningful steps towards addressing our real problems. Trump’s campaign has thrown light on those problems in a particularly terrifying way. That might actually be good, if we can pull back from the brink in time.
We already have a strong portfolio of ideas that are targeted to address the sources of America’s discontent. Marco Rubio in particular has already positioned himself to pick up this agenda. Ted Cruz’s rhetoric is somewhat less congenial, but if he became the nominee, he also could seize the opportunity to craft a forward-looking conservative vision, helping to defuse the culture wars and address the needs of a faltering middle class.
It’s Time to Reject Nostalgia Politics
Trumpism shows us the dangers of living in the past. The general principles of conservatism remain as applicable as ever, but we need to do a better job of updating our vision and message in response to changing tides. When large numbers of people feel left behind, there is always more danger of civic unrest. Trump voters do feel left behind. In their perception, the economy and the culture have simply moved on without them.
On a sober analysis, Trump’s policy offerings are like the slimy leftovers from the back of the fridge. They weren’t so bad several decades ago (although probably not as good as our nostalgic memories would suggest). Today, they’re positively disgusting. Nevertheless, we can understand the appeal for people who are just desperate for the familiar. Not liking what the future seems to hold, they hope the Mighty Trump is somehow strong enough turn back the clock.
He isn’t. Neither is anyone else. We can’t resurrect the America of our parents and grandparents. What we can do is look for more promising avenues forward. In fact, those avenues do exist.
America is more diverse than it used to be, back in the post-War era that so many remember as a golden age. It’s also more dynamic and culturally interesting, and in many respects offers far more worthwhile opportunities than our grandparents enjoyed. Unfortunately, economic change has collided with the evil fruits of a libertine progressive culture to give us a sizable group of people who are struggling to find a foothold. We’ve lately had regular reminders that people are angry, and that they want more respect. We need to take that seriously, but we also need to acknowledge the economic and social realities of our time. People who are unwilling to adapt cannot simply be gifted a respected social space.
Not seeing other options, they still intend to try. This gives us the nativism and economic nationalism of the Trumpists. They feel no doors are opening to them, so now they’re looking for a bruiser who can break a gateway back to the America they remember. We can understand this, however alarmed we may be by the eerie fascism-versus-socialism dynamic of our present politics.
How to Nuance Limited Government
How did we get to this juncture? In some respects, we might blame the Greatest Generation. Their battlefield heroics rightly inspire gratitude and awe, but their legacy on the domestic front has been more mixed. They’ve left us with a lot of decaying entitlement programs, but, worse still, with the nagging sense that cultural problems ought to be solved through some sort of Grand Social Bargain.
That was somewhat possible in the 1950s, when our culture was far less diverse and the Second World War had built up a huge store of national solidarity. It isn’t possible today. Democratic candidates keep promising us a new social bargain, and Trump effectively offers the same. But we need to reframe our thinking. In looking for ways to move forward together, we’re really looking for ways to move apart more gracefully.
This leads us naturally to the Tea Party, federalism, and limited government. Haven’t conservatives been on the right track for a long time, with their emphasis on individualism and personal responsibility? Aren’t these the correct answer to the nostalgia-politics problem? By loosening the grip of the state on our lives, and allowing markets and culture to develop naturally, we should be able to build a more opportunity-rich future that also leaves space for divergent-but-overlapping subcultures and moral communities. Conservatives have been singing this tune quite loudly over the past six years.
In a way, it’s exactly right. Yet we have Trumpism staring us in the face, apparently sweeping up many of the same people who marched in Tea Party rallies back in 2010. The lesson here is our push for federalism needs to be more nuanced than what we’ve mostly seen from principled small-state minimalists. The push for small government has become too ideological, and not sufficiently attuned to the social conditions of our time.
Let’s Think About Social Contracts
Conservatives can talk all day about the failures of entitlement programs, the welfare state, labor regulations, and the like. Most conservatives realize we can’t actually cancel these programs with the stroke of a pen. That’s not politically possible.
Nevertheless, listening to their discourse, one could be forgiven for thinking that many conservatives would like to do away with elderly entitlements, Great Society reforms, and labor regulations as quickly as might be. We’ve come to view these as components of our national decline, so we reflexively regard them as problems. This explains the ease with which we fall into mocking “welfare queens” and “the 47 percent.”
In fact there are problems with the mid-century social contract. But it’s one thing to recognize that the standing social contract is problematic, and quite another to cancel it peremptorily. Most Americans seem to feel these state actions are, at least to a great extent, legitimate. They are legitimized by a tradition and existing social understanding that was negotiated in good faith by previous generations. From that perspective, it’s the diehard small-statists who look like the lawless ones, unwilling to respect the significance of custom and tradition.
It’s a difficult conundrum. Conservatives are right that our present social arrangement is unsustainable. Great Society reforms are contributing to the social breakdown that is a major cause of unrest. Elderly entitlements can’t be continued into the indefinite future, especially given current birth rates. Nevertheless, these have become fixtures of our culture and tradition (as most Americans conceive of it), so we can’t just cancel them. Some kind of social re-negotiation will be needed. But how is that possible when the country is so deeply divided?
If there is an answer to this puzzle, it will need to lie in something more transitional than most committed, small-government conservatives would ideally prefer. Our goal, moving forward, should be to develop that kind of transitional agenda: one that pays its respects to the mid-century social contract, while easing us forward towards a more harmoniously diverse society, in which Americans expect less from their federal government and look more to their families, communities, and more-local governing bodies.
Finding the Road to Federalism
In our present electoral landscape, the candidate who has come closest to identifying such an agenda is Rubio. Where Cruz’s rhetoric is more heavily laden with resentment and nostalgia politics, Rubio has for some time been talking about the hollowing out of the middle class, the need for more cultural and economic dynamism, and the importance of mediating institutions (especially the family). He surrounds himself by cutting-edge policy advisors who are discussing these issues. He actually listens to what they say.
In his rhetoric and policy cues, Rubio is not at all like a Mitt Romney or a George W. Bush. He seems to grasp why the paradigms of the past few decades are no longer serving us well, and his policy cues indicate he is serious about crafting an agenda that can put us on the path to more federalism and less statist control. With Paul Ryan as speaker of the House, the conditions could be very ripe for realizing such an agenda.
What would this transitional agenda include? A few examples may suffice for the present. If we can’t peremptorily eliminate entitlements, we should try to make them smarter, for instance by eliminating work and marriage penalties in anti-poverty programs, or by adjusting Social Security to eliminate dis-incentives to personal saving.
We should look for ways to devolve power, giving states or even more local government a higher degree of control over poverty-relieving resources. Even if we need to keep subsidizing people to some degree, getting them back to work would be desirable for multiple reasons. Meanwhile, we should adjust our tax code to try to encourage more dynamism, which might mean both new businesses and new humans (e.g., growing families).
These are the kinds of solutions Rubio (and his various advisors) have supported or discussed. Detractors who suggest he is “just more of the same old thing” really haven’t appreciated the political and cultural currents that have shaped Rubio’s platform. He’s not just an empty, “electable” suit.
The real tragedy of this election is that America seems poised to raze the Republican Party to the ground at exactly the moment when its trajectory seemed most promising. In my experience, angry supporters of both Trump and Cruz (which is to say, the sorts of Cruz supporters who would prefer Trump to Rubio) cannot articulate with any specificity what agenda they would even want a bolder, braver Republican Party to enact. They envision much slashing and burning and breaking of furniture, but once everything is reduced to ash, they have almost no ideas for how we might begin to move forward as a nation.
Despair Comes of Broken Fantasies
This leads me to believe that the insanity of the present moment is to a significant degree the product of despair. It’s the kind of despair that seeps into a culture when we’re unable to set our sights on realistic goals, because we don’t have a clear sense what those would be. In such an environment, an angry nostalgia politics increasingly comes to dominate, and Trump has proven a master at capturing and intensifying those feelings.
Trump has no interesting answers to the problems of our day. Other conservatives do. They simply haven’t succeeded in broadcasting those answers with sufficient intensity and clarity. Given how thoroughly Trumpites have unmoored themselves from reality, we can’t help but worry that it may already be too late.
Far from “Making America Great Again,” Trump’s populism is the surest path to stagnation and civil unrest, and like the casinos that made his fortune, his universe is too noisy to permit rational discourse. Still, we shouldn’t assume that it’s too late. If this moment of madness passes, perhaps we can still find opportunities to insert some semblance of sanity into our political conversation.
Some conservatives have worried that even if Trump is beaten back, we may have to capitulate to some of his more repugnant measures (especially the protectionism and entitlement hoarding) for the sake of stabilizing the party. I doubt this will really be necessary if we can persuade people that something better could still lie ahead.
The fungibility of Trump’s message is instructive in itself—people hardly seem to care what he says so long as he gives them permission to believe in something. This is the nature of populism: emotion-heavy and content-lite. That’s why people who decried oppressive statism in 2010 were able to turn on a dime and rally around Trump’s interventionist plans to Make America Great Again.
In the midst of the nightmare, we might take comfort in this silver lining: if we wake up, there may still be a path forward. Once the emotions settle, the people who rallied to Trump’s dark flag could likely be energized by another kind of vision—if we give them one.
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