How To Rebuild Conservatism After Trump

How To Rebuild Conservatism After Trump

People who love freedom in its various forms still need to work together to fight for it in the political arena. So we should start considering ways a new coalition can avoid old mistakes.
Matthew Cochran
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Reality television has always been about drama and spectacle, and Donald Trump has certainly brought that into the Republican primaries. Plenty of voices are calling it civil war or the death of the GOP, and they’re probably correct.

After his primary victories, the GOP is left with two options: broker the convention or nominate Trump. If they do the former, they forever lose Trump’s droves of supporters who are already voting out of frustration with the party establishment. If they do the latter, then they’ll have Trump on their hands—yet another unprincipled non-conservative candidate with a coincidental “R” after his name and serious character issues to boot. Either way, conservatives will continue to be politically homeless for a time.

I shed no tears over the situation, because it’s not really Trump that’s killing the Republican Party. A person with lung cancer might die from a lack of oxygen in the blood, but it’s the cancer that’s ultimately to blame. Likewise, Trump’s success is an indictment of the established cycle of American politics: We have two political parties that we loathe, but all we can do is take turns punishing one by rewarding the other.

Despite competing for the Republican nomination, Trump is enough of an outsider that he represents an attractive opportunity—the ability to actually punish both parties at the same time. This punishment is as deserved as it is reckless, but people who love freedom in its various forms still need to work together to fight for it in the political arena. It therefore behooves us to start considering ways a new coalition can avoid old mistakes.

Exclude the Old Establishment

Conservatives have become almost as dissatisfied with the Republican Party as they are with the Democrats. This dissatisfaction has held in common across most of the increasingly long list of conservative factions. Paleo conservatives, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, libertarians, nationalists, and more might be divided by priorities, but they are united in their belief that is has been far too long since the Republican Party has accomplished anything worthwhile on their behalf. Our federal government keeps growing, keeps dragging us further into debt, keeps eroding our liberties, keeps facilitating social decay, and keeps disrespecting our borders and natives.

Those who make politics their career see this dissatisfaction as a nuisance rather than the input of allies.

To be sure, progressivism is ultimately the ideological force behind these societal ills, and this fact is why there was a coalition of various flavors of conservatism in the first place—we have a common foe. Nevertheless, frequent Republican majorities in various branches of government over the past few decades have not coincided with a change in the progressive direction of the country.

Accordingly, the biennial plea of “otherwise the Democrats might win” has become impotent to motivate most conservatives to cast their ballot for the latest Keynesian statist. If there is one flavor in the conservative variety pack that’s generally satisfied with the GOP and its typical candidates, it’s the neoconservatives who, not coincidentally, comprise the bulk of the party’s key players. They may not be identical with the establishment, but they certainly accept and facilitate it. The rest of us, however, are dissatisfied.

Those who make politics their career see this dissatisfaction as a nuisance rather than the input of allies. It’s dismissed as naive idealism in the face of political realities. We supposedly just need to get over our desires for things like fiscal responsibility and religious liberty. Meanwhile, other conservatives cannot help but notice that the establishment consistently achieves its own non-negotiables—things like open borders, military adventurism, corporatism, and cronyism. If one judges by results, it is they who are the uncompromising ideologues. The Republican establishment has so abused those on whom they depend to achieve their ends that the rest of us are taking our ball and going home.

So, after decades of being given the choice between a Democrat and a slightly-out-of-date Democrat, the fracture between conservative political institutions and conservative voters—between the elites and the rank-and-file—has split wide open. These two groups together represent the manner in which conservatives have traditionally influenced government, and it is inevitable that these types of groups exist. Not everyone can commit themselves to the day-to-day work of politics, and in a republic, those who do require the votes of those who do not. When it comes to our current working arrangement, however, voters have discovered that this deal is getting worse all the time.

The establishment consistently achieves its own non-negotiables—things like open borders, military adventurism, corporatism, and cronyism.

If there is to be an establishment, then it cannot be the current one. In addition to the bad blood, the neocon ideology that drove it is a poor fit with the other varieties of conservatism. If there is any common ground with us at all, it lies in strong national defense. Even there, however, using global hegemony as the primary means to this end is repellent to many of us.

Neocons would be far more at home with the moderate wing of the Democratic establishment than with other conservatives. Indeed, the preference among some of them for Hillary Clinton over Trump underscores this. I embrace refusing to vote for Trump because he’s a corrupt, opportunistic liar. However, Clinton is the one candidate in the race who is as bad or worse on this score than Trump.

Any forthcoming alliance must be based on different terms. To be sure, there are ideological divides among conservatives. If politics is truly the art of compromise, then conservatives would be wise begin at home—each group is too small to achieve everything, and if we exclude neocons, there is much common ground. However, to achieve appropriate compromises, we need to correct two key mistakes with which the establishment killed the GOP. We need to fix both the broken notion of electability and the dysfunctional relationship between conservatism’s moderates and radicals.

Forget Electability

In theory, the Buckley Rule—choose the most conservative candidate who is electable—could be considered sensible politics in a republic. There is always disagreement, so different players need to compromise by letting go of lesser concerns for the sake of greater. The person who demands every jot and tittle of his platform is generally the one who gets none of it.

The ambassadors of electability consistently opt for politicians whose leftist views are merely smaller in magnitude than those of their Democratic opponents.

Yet electability has proven to be the bane of conservatives, who have watched their party’s compromises snatch defeat from the jaws of victory time and again. When selecting candidates, the ambassadors of electability consistently opt for politicians whose leftist views are merely smaller in magnitude than those of their Democratic opponents.

The establishment passes this off as a necessary evil and our rejection of it as political naiveté. They tell us no candidate who believes what we believe or would govern as we would govern would ever be elected by the country as a whole. They tell us we need to compromise.

But what does this prejudice against conservatism look like in practice? A candidate who wants to protect meaningful religious freedom is unelectable, but droves of politicians who bail out banks are electable. A candidate who believes our borders should be enforced is unelectable, but the guy who wants to grant amnesty to illegal migrants is electable. Positions like these have little to do with what voters demand or tolerate in a candidate—they merely represent the party elites’ unwillingness to compromise their own interests.

If conservative voters are too willing to compromise their principles, the elites have no one to blame but themselves for instilling the habit.

In contrast, if you need evidence that conservatives who have grown frustrated with intraparty politics are willing to compromise, you need look no further than Trump’s performance. He may hold a few conservative positions (and I say “may” because he meanders and backtracks so much that I have no idea what he really stands for) but he is certainly no principled conservative. While our elites have spilled much ink pointing this out, one cannot help but observe that this problem has never bothered them before.

Meanwhile, many conservative voters have concluded that the establishment does more to stymie their interests than Trump would (and it’s hard to argue that they’re wrong). If conservative voters have proven far too willing to compromise their principles, the elites have no one to blame but themselves for spending decades instilling the habit.

Whatever our faults, it has been unfortunate for conservatives that electability is so far removed from the voters who do the electing. The determination of electability is made entirely through an unaccountable meta-election carried out by the political elites—party officials, major donors, influential pundits—and managed exclusively by the mainstream media.

Don’t Let Mainstream Media Call the Shots

Even if we were to assume that the elites considered it their duty to represent their voters and faithfully carried out that duty (which is far more credit than I believe they are due), there is still a severe problem with allowing the mainstream media to be the venue. Among conservatives, liberal bias in the media is an accepted fact, but we fail to draw the straightforward conclusion that it is not in our best interests to allow them so much influence in picking our candidates.

Too many conservatives have been content to allow the media to frame the discussion and thereby call the shots on our platform and arguments.

The media is a sub-culture unto itself—one increasingly out of touch with voters. Their ideas of what constitutes a scandal are so alien to Americans as a whole that it borders on useless as a barometer for votes. An award-winning journalist can be appalled over Ted Cruz’s call for support from “the body of Christ,” but for America’s Christian majority, such language is nothing out of the ordinary. Media and party elites were aghast at Trump’s suggestion that we pause Muslim immigration until we get a better handle on terrorism, but it did the opposite of kill his popularity.

They are quick to apply labels like “sexist” and “racist,” and politicians are quick to grovel in response, but Americans are increasingly deadened to such charges. In such a stilted environment, the most conservative candidate who is electable is invariably the most conservative candidate who is liberal.

Too many conservatives have been content to allow the media to frame the discussion and thereby call the shots on our platform and arguments. If nothing else, Trump has done us the favor of revealing big media as a paper tiger. Bill Clinton was the “Teflon President” because he was their darling, but scandal fails to stick to Trump because, like so many voters, he gives little credence to what reporters have to say.

We have primaries for a reason. Let electability be determined by elections.

Now, part of this dynamic is that pinning a scandal on Trump is like making fun of a clown—highlight the big red nose and floppy shoes as you will, people knew what they were getting from the word “clown.” Nevertheless, a brazenly principled conservative who isn’t trying to curry favor or mince words can profit from that same dynamic. The media cannot help pointing and shrieking at “outrageous” conservative ideas any more than they resisted doing so at Trump. Conservative politicians need not fear their judgment because the media no longer have a good sense of what voters will put up with or appreciate.

Fortunately, there’s another path. We have primaries for a reason. Let electability be determined by elections. One might object that such elections are choosing Trump. Nevertheless, however long Trump’s list of failings, being unelectable is unfortunately not among them. Elites need to stop pushing electability, and voters need to stop listening to it.

Work With Our Radicals

Any alliance of conservatives will also need to change the way our moderates relate to our radicals. The great success of the Left has not been in winning elections, but in changing public opinion on a massive scale. Granted, part of this success has been their iron grip on big media and the education system. Nevertheless, these advantages are fading.

The great success of the Left has not been in winning elections, but in changing public opinion on a massive scale.

As these institutions ever deepen their dedication to social justice, they become less and less effective at their intended purposes—to inform and educate. Aside from cultural inertia, those purposes are why anyone avails themselves of such things. As the embers of their purpose finally go out, so will their relevance.

Even more important to the Left’s efforts is that their moderates consistently lay down cover fire for their radicals. For example, the moderate liberal might be against removing due process in adjudicating rape accusations on college campuses, but their disagreement will be laced with all sorts of rhetoric about the supposedly horrific plight of American women and how government must do more and more to resolve the issue. Moderates may argue against voting for Bernie Sanders because he is too extreme to win the general election, but they do so while acknowledging and appreciating what he stands for and what he contributes. They disagree with the particulars while respecting the persons and reiterating the core message. This relationship has effectively kept the cultural understanding of “moderate” moving steadily leftward for generations, and it has carried the mass of unprincipled centrists that dominate American voting along for the ride.

Because conservative moderates have failed to respect their radicals the same way, they have been dragged leftward just as much. It’s instructive to contrast the Left’s treatment of Sanders with the right’s treatment of Ron Paul. Back when the Republicans had this principled libertarian conservative run for president, the moderates simply joined the Left in calling him a crank or pretending he didn’t exist.

Unlike liberals, when conservatives encounter views that are more extreme than their own, the usual response is to disavow and disassociate. The Left and the media are quick to attack conservative ideologies, so egg them on. Moderates greatly fear the Left’s labels and accusations, so they quickly join the Left’s condemnation of those who are ostensibly on their own side. This distancing is rationalized by genuine disagreement, but the way the disagreement is carried out blurs the line between principles and gutlessness.

Unlike liberals, when conservatives encounter views that are more extreme than their own, the usual response is to disavow and disassociate.

Moderate conservatives tend to adopt the Left’s tactics and terminology when attacking conservative radicals. For example, there are plenty of good reasons to restrict immigration compared to what America does now. The moderate could treat it as a legitimate issue and dialogue about it. Or the moderate could compromise with the radical on political platforms.

A famously radical suggestion this election cycle was to halt Muslim immigration, but there are a lot of numbers between zero and the roughly 280,000 who come every year. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. When faced with the Left’s labels, the moderate usually caves and hops on the Left’s bandwagon to condemn the radical as a racist who must be silenced.

Or consider this video from the Our Principles PAC (organized by a former Romney campaign manager). It’s a collection of some of Trump’s ridiculous soundbites about various women. Trump is boorish towards pretty much everyone who opposes him, but they absurdly choose to call him out with the tired war-on-women rhetoric of the Left. They do this even though a huge part of his support is from his willingness to reject political correctness as decisively as he rejects good taste. They do even though it contributes to legitimizing a narrative the Left uses to club conservatives whenever any policy might tangentially affect women.

Moderate conservatives tend to adopt the Left’s tactics and terminology when attacking conservative radicals.

Adopting these tactics is easy and effective in the short term because they fit the media narrative. However, it is bad for conservatism as a whole because the moderates are sharpening the Left’s weapons, and the Left is happy to use them against moderates as well.

On top of that, conservative radicals are the ones who are ultimately going to savage liberal ideology in the court of public opinion. They are the ones who are going to attack with the greatest ferocity, experiment with novel approaches, and discover which ones gain traction. Moderate conservatives need radicals as their heavy artillery and skunkworks just as much as radicals need the moderates to reach America’s ideologically squishy middle. Working together, they could influence the direction of the country, just as the Left has. Instead, the moderates spent decades attacking the radicals more vociferously than they did the Left, and this election cycle, the radicals have finally responded in kind in a characteristically ferocious and novel way.

The GOP has certainly made a mess of itself. Established institutions that consistently betray those they are supposed to serve always whither and die in the end. If the only ones who benefit from an institution are the elites who run it, then it cannot sustain itself.

Elites are—by their very nature—the few, while the rest of us are the many. But life goes on, as do Americans who love freedom. It’s past time to recover our entrepreneurial spirit, remember our ideological and cultural roots, and cut a new path forward. Let’s just try to learn the right lessons from our recent history.

Matthew’s writing may be found at The 96th Thesis.

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