For those who recognize that Trump is a danger to conservatism as we know it, most of the talk revolving around the effort to stop him has been about finding the right third-party candidate. While that is a good start, more needs to be done.
Trump has been feeding the process story beast about his choice for the vice presidential nomination. It is interesting to hear what he has to say about who his running mate ought to be, but there’s an important detail that keeps getting overlooked: he doesn’t get to choose his running mate.
While delegates may be required to vote for Trump on the first ballot, making him the nominee, that is the extent to which they are bound to him. They are under no obligation to vote for his chosen running mate. The months of work Ted Cruz (and to a lesser extent, John Kasich) put into the ground in securing people who have a fealty to the conservative movement for those slots, while not denying Trump the nomination, could pay off, albeit not in the way they anticipated.
These activist delegates should nominate a real conservative for the VP slot on the GOP ticket. But this running mate shouldn’t be someone who tries to make Trump’s agenda palatable for conservatives. Instead, he ought to spend his time undermining Trump—especially when Trump advocates policy positions that have no place in the Republican Party.
Not allowing Trump’s non-conservative ideas to take hold during a campaign is an essential part of being able to preserve the conservative character of the party. A hostile running mate could combat that. Just imagine the running mate’s acceptance speech. Combat them the delegates must, even if it means resorting to such unprecedented tactics as saddling him with a running mate who is openly sabotaging his election.
Playing with the Fire of Populism
Why is this so important? Conservatives need to recognize how they allowed Trump to take over their movement and the party that was supposed to advance its ideas. Former Louisiana governor and onetime Trump critic Bobby Jindal highlights a big part of the problem when he explains away the GOP electoral successes of the last few years:
Oh sure, Republicans have won elections these last several years by being the anti-Obama, much as Obama won eight years ago by being the anti-Bush, and have made the same mistake of misinterpreting these victories as a mandate for our ideology.
Americans, especially Republicans, know they don’t like the Obama agenda, because it wasn’t working for them and their families. But conservatives confused that with some sort of fealty to conservative principles. They believed the same populist aversion to Obama that gave them the House and later the Senate would help sweep their presidential nominee into the Oval Office. That might have been a good bet, before it swept in Trump.
But populism is a dangerous force. Strong enough to propel Republicans to control Congress, it’s also strong enough to take over the Republican Party, as someone like Trump has shown. But the fact that the ideological core of the GOP, who find the very idea of President Trump repulsive, are apparently its minority, seems to make clear that the party cannot survive without populism. So what then?
It’s clear that populism on its own is not an option. Left to their own devices, most Americans will look at a government that “takes care of” so many different interest groups and wonder why their interests aren’t getting taken care of as well. Not instructed in conservative ideology, they won’t intuitively understand concepts like the idea that free trade, not protectionism, is in their best interests, and that entitlement reform is necessary, not optional.
To be clear, there probably never was a time in our lifetimes when ideology really ruled the day. It’s just that the Republican Party was either lucky enough not to run against naked populism, and they were better at explaining why conservatism serves the interests of the general population. We aren’t so lucky now, and they obviously aren’t doing a good job explaining why populists should choose conservatism. Now the genie is entirely out of the bottle, and it’s wishful thinking to assume it will just go back in all on its own, even if Trump loses the general election spectacularly.
Populism Requires Virtue
In many ways, this present-day battle with populism mirrors what countries had to contend with in democracy’s modern resurgence. In “Democracy in America,” having argued that to “wish to stop democracy would…appear to be to struggle against God himself,” Alexis de Tocqueville made the case that European democracies should become more like the American democracy instead of just allowing nature to run its course. However, he wrote;
Never have heads of state thought at all to prepare for [democracy] in advance; it is made despite them or without their knowing it. The most powerful, most intelligent, and most moral classes of the nation have not sought to take hold of it so as to direct it. Democracy has therefore been abandoned to its savage instincts; it has grown up like those children who, deprived of paternal care, rear themselves in the streets of our towns and know only society’s vices and miseries. One still seemed ignorant of its existence when it unexpectedly took power. Each then submitted with servility to its least desires; it was adored as the image of force; when afterwards it was weakened by its own excesses, legislators conceived the imprudent project of destroying it instead of seeking to instruct and correct it; and since they did not want to teach it to govern, they thought only of driving it from government.
As a result, the democratic revolution has taken place in the material of society without making the change in laws, ideas, habits, and mores that would have been necessary to make this revolution useful. Thus we have democracy without anything to attenuate its vices and make its natural advantages emerge; and while we already see the evils it brings, we are still ignorant of the goods it can bestow.
The same can be said for present-day populism, which is, more or less, undirected democracy. It is a force, and one that can be used for the good of the country. But left on its own populism is like “those children who, deprived of paternal care, rear themselves in the streets of our towns and know only society’s vices and miseries.”
The prescription for dealing with unbridled populism is the same as what Tocqueville prescribes for “democracy without anything to attenuate its vices.” It is pointless to struggle against it, much as it was impossible to struggle against the advance of democracy in the enlightened world. But conservatives find themselves in the same position as the people Tocqueville was making his case to.
Christian peoples in our day appear to me to offer a frightening spectacle; the movement that carries them along is already strong enough that it cannot be suspended, and it is not yet rapid enough to despair of directing it: their fate is in their hands, but soon it will escape them.
To instruct democracy, if possible to reanimate its beliefs, to purify its mores, to regulate its movements, to substitute little by little the science of affairs for its inexperience, and knowledge of its true interests for its blind instincts; to adapt its government to time and place; to modify it according to circumstances and men: such is the first duty imposed on those who direct society in our day.
Conservatives need to do the same for populism as was needed for democracy. Instead of allowing populists to define the conservative agenda, conservatives should define the populist agenda. For now, as Tocqueville writes, “their fate is in their hands, but soon it will escape them.”
Conservatives Should Define Trumpism
That being the case, it is important not to cede the party (and by extension the movement) to Trump, even if it means four years of Hillary Clinton in the White House. Four years of President Hillary will be terrible, of course, but it’s nothing compared to the dissolution of the conservative movement at the time the country needs it most, to be replaced with a purely populist movement at the time the country needs it least.
In that respect, George Will is absolutely right when he says that the responsibility of conservatives is to work to protect Congress and help Trump lose 50 states, “condign punishment for his comprehensive disdain for conservative essentials, including the manners and grace that should lubricate the nation’s civic life.” But Will is wrong if he thinks this alone would be enough to elect someone to combat the populist storm Trump would leave in his wake and keep Hillary to only one term in office.
Populism won’t instruct itself, it won’t reanimate its beliefs on its own. It won’t purify its mores, and it won’t stop relying on blind instincts and suddenly realize its true interests. Defeating Trump is important, for sure, but there’s also the need to make sure that populism gets steered in the right direction, and that the people caught up in it realize what really is in their best interests.
That Brings Us Back to Trump’s Veep
Running a third-party candidate goes a long way toward undermining Trump, and the right candidate can win a few “red states” outright and command enough vote share in others to assure Trump’s loss in November. But Trump losing the election isn’t enough; people need to understand why he needed to lose. That brings us back to the convention, and Donald Trump’s running mate.
To make Will’s goal of a 50-state loss closer to a reality, conservatives need someone who can get media attention while repudiating Trump, fracturing his base of support by insisting he doesn’t speak for conservatism, and explaining to the masses why his policies aren’t in the interests of the populists who voted for him.
It would be a great service to the conservative movement if someone like a Tom Coburn—an erudite spokesman of real conservatism who is capable enough to explain why Trumpism is not just morally and ideologically wrong, but practically wrong as well—would agree to serve in that role. With that, conservatives can begin the necessary and neglected work of remaking the populists into our conservative image.
Many conservatives are mourning “the death of the Republican Party.” They see this hostile takeover as their cue to abandon ship, ceding the party to the populists. But there is no reason to do so. The Republican Party is a great party, and whatever it would be replaced with won’t be any better. It is sick and weak, but with the right care, it can be restored to its former glory. Only if conservatives surrender it to the Trumpists will it really die. Conservatives need to stand up and fight for their party, because the Grand Old Party belongs to conservatives, not to the naked populists.