National Review senior editor Richard Brookhiser recently pronounced the conservative movement dead, murdered by “Donald Trump and his admirers.” In making this claim, Brookhiser distinguishes between admiring Trump, and voting for and working with him.
The latter are political calculations. Even if they are mistakes, they may be made in good faith. But, he argues, “to admire Trump is to trade your principles for his, which are that winning—which means Trump winning—is all.” This complaint invites an obvious rejoinder: What is wrong with winning? Isn’t it the aim of political movements?
Well, yes, winning is great, provided that winning means accomplishing the movement’s political goals. “Winning” without principles reduces politics to tribalism and lacks content beyond loyalty to the tribe. Electing and flacking for the tribal chief (in this case, Trump), may be a victory for the tribe, but it is not in itself a victory for conservatism. Consequently, conservatives need to reflect not only on how to advance our ideas through the Trump administration, but also on what political winning even means.
Trump’ Failures: A Bridge Too Far?
Trying to use Trump’s presidency to achieve conservative goals may be prudent. The conservative legal movement, for example, has succeeded in inducing Trump to nominate many excellent judges. However, many conservatives have subordinated their principles to serving Trump and protecting his enormous, but fragile, ego. Brookhiser justly singles out Christian conservatives for special scorn. Many of those who for decades lectured us on the importance of moral character are now offering Trump “sex mulligans” as his infidelities are exposed—as if cheating on his (third) wife with various porn stars were the spiritual equivalent of a sliced tee shot.
Trump’s demands for such loyalty make it difficult to try to use his presidency for conservative ends without becoming a hackish apologist for his many flaws. Of course, as Michael Brendan Dougherty notes, conservatism has always contended, and sometimes compromised with, cranks and creeps. But the extent of Trump’s flaws makes his presidency a unique challenge for conservatives, and attempts at striking a balance between principle and pragmatism tend to conjugate irregularly: I’m prudent, she’s impractical, and he’s a sellout.
But the problem facing conservatives is not just of balancing policy efficacy with integrity during the Trump administration. We must also consider what it means to win in politics, especially in a democratic republic like ours.
Politics Means that Others Have Power
We should perhaps begin by recalling T.S. Eliot’s adage that there are no lost causes because there are no gained causes. The human condition cannot be solved politically. Furthermore, there are no permanent victories, for in politics the only way to be sure of winning is to be a tyrant, since only absolute power will ensure that one gets one’s way on everything.
But even tyrants rarely achieve their aims. Absolute power is illusory, and what tyrants really crave is not policy outcomes, but satiation of an endless hunger in their souls. The alternative to such futile attempts at complete domination (which are anathema to the American system and ethos) is accepting that attaining political goals rests upon alliance-building and persuasion.
Except in a tyrannical mode, politics means that others also have power. Political success therefore entails rhetoric, persuasion, conversion, and deal-making, with their attendant risk of losing if the other side, right or wrong, is sometimes better at persuasion or coalition-building.
Even electoral victories do not ensure political victory, since many politicians will shift with the culture. Electing good politicians is important. It is wonderful to have principled officeholders who effectively advocate conservative ideas. However, politics being what it is, it is even more important to promulgate good ideas, making them popular enough that even bad politicians support them out of sheer self-interest.
The Long, Hard Work of Political Persuasion
This long, hard work of political persuasion can be seen in Trump’s actual political victories. Trump has made good judicial appointments, but he did not spend decades developing, debating, and defending originalism while building a strong bench of qualified future judges. That was done by the Federalist Society and its allies.
The increasingly popular tax bill Trump signed was the work of congressional Republicans, and it was full of policy ideas that conservative wonks and economists spent years working on. Trump’s appointees have been rolling back harmful regulations not because Trump knows much about them, but because conservative policy experts, lawyers, and others have spent years fighting them.
Trump didn’t build that. Movement conservatives did, over years of pursuing and promoting ideas they believed in, regardless of the immediate political payoff. Future conservative victories will likewise rest not upon allegiance to Trump (who craves respect and adulation much more than specific policy goals), but upon a continued willingness to engage in intellectual inquiry and political persuasion.
Political victory in a free nation is never guaranteed. It rests not upon unwavering support for the political leader of the moment, but upon what people believe and care about, and therefore on persuasion and cultural change.
There’s a Limit to How Much We Can Compromise
Alliances with flawed politicians and parties are necessary, but conservatives should not give allegiance to the “lesser of two evils,” and we must limit what we will accept from our allies. Without them, we are susceptible to evils like supporting a bigoted, lawless (alleged) child molester just to hold a junior Senate seat for a couple of years.
The Christian conservatives who did so are bidding against themselves in the devil’s auction house: tolerating increasing evil in exchange for decreasing political rewards. But what is needed is not a little more political power, but cultural renewal.
A conservative movement that is simply an appendage to politicians and parties is redundant. There is no shortage of hired guns and professional flacks on political payrolls. However, a conservative movement that maintains its honesty and integrity may shape our politics for the better, even when our politicians are not good men and women.
Winning does not consist of supporting a political leader, right or wrong, or insulting and infuriating the other tribe. Rather, winning is rooted in the hard work of persuasion and alliance-building. If the conservative movement forgets this truth, it will indeed die a deserved death.