In theory, I should support a primary challenge to President Trump. I did not vote for him in 2016, and while this time I prefer him over any of the likely Democratic nominees, I am still part of the fifth of voters who like most of his policies but dislike him personally.
But somehow, the alternatives are even worse. The quixotic nature of primary challenges to sitting presidents always attracts oddballs, but the current batch of candidates represents a nadir of anti-Trump Republicanism — a (mercifully small) collection of has-been, might-have-been, and never-were candidates. Examining them is like strolling through a graveyard of dead and decaying GOP factions and politicians.
Former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld is a reanimated corpse of Rockefeller Republicanism, a breed of liberal accountants that once roamed the Northeastern seaboard. The surviving members of this vanishing species sometimes camouflage themselves as libertarians. Weld supports abortion, opposes religious liberty, and wants to execute the president for “treason.”
One-term former congressman Joe Walsh used to love Trump but now hates him. Is he a principled convert or just a grifter looking for new marks — does it even matter? Political junkies may know who Walsh is, but no one else does, and the same goes for Weld.
Mark Sanford’s name is better-known, but for the wrong reasons. The former governor of South Carolina became a national punch line and had to resign when his claim of “hiking the Appalachian Trial” was revealed as a cover for visiting his mistress in Argentina. A couple years later, he made a comeback and was elected to Congress, but lost to a primary challenger in 2018. He might be the most credible Trump opponent, but a relic of Bush Republicanism with a sordid personal history is unappealing.
Trump Challenged Past GOP Failures — and Won
None of these relics of the Republican past represents a viable future for the party, nor do they address the problems that allowed Trump to take over the GOP. They are not an electoral threat to Trump, and the president’s supporters would be wiser to ignore them than to cancel primaries. Despite his personal flaws, Trump has avoided a serious primary challenge because he has kept many of his campaign promises and because the remnants of Republican opposition to Trump have not reckoned with their own failures.
Although Trump has not kept his more extravagant promises, such as Mexico paying for the wall, he has delivered on many important points, especially with regard to judges. I did not trust Trump to appoint originalists, and I was wrong. Indeed, although it might be too early to be sure, Trump’s judicial picks look significantly better than those of his Republican predecessors.
The president has also stuck with the populist approach he ran on. He can be inconsistent about what he wants and is not always effective at implementing his ideas, but those weaknesses may not matter so long as his opponents remain unwilling to reconsider their ideology or to admit mistakes.
Many conservative victories were won in the decades before Trump, including victory in the Cold War, reducing crime, lowering taxes, rolling back gun control, welfare reform, and more. There were also failures, such as the morass that our Middle East military engagements have become and the Republican-appointed justices who saved Roe v. Wade.
Worse, the Republican Party and conservative movement seemed moribund — out of ideas and trying to run a Reagan-era playbook decades after Ronald Reagan left office. Trump’s willingness to challenge calcified Republican dogmas was essential to his success.
In particular, Republican leadership had embraced cheap labor policies on trade and immigration. They supported the decision to open our markets to China regardless of the costs to communities and our social fabric, and viewed immigrants as cheap workers for “the jobs Americans won’t do.” On foreign policy, the GOP had not reckoned with how unpopular it had become as wars dragged on with no clear goal or sense of what victory would look like.
The GOP Must Learn and Move Forward
There is no going back. We do not know how Trump will fare in 2020 or how a second term might unfold, but the Republican Party will not return to the dead pre-Trump consensus, which is why the extreme Never-Trump remnant wants to burn it down.
While they fantasize about political revenge, the future of a successful Republican Party and conservatism will belong to those who address the failures Trump has highlighted. Thus, the intellectual energy on the right is found among the populists and “national conservatives.” Trump’s disruption has forced conservatives to examine ourselves and formulate a conservatism that addresses current problems, rather than trying to resurrect Reagan.
This project is not, or should not be, one of crafting a political philosophy around Trump, nor should it remake the GOP in his image. Rather, it should cultivate and articulate a coherent conservative philosophy and develop policies that respond to the long-overlooked problems Trump and other populist movements have illuminated.
Some of the outlines are already visible. The GOP should be, and would likely succeed as, a party that recognizes the preeminence of flourishing families and communities to individual and national well-being. It would therefore be socially and culturally conservative and seek to mitigate some of the disruptions the global economy produces. It would thus be generally, but not dogmatically, supportive of free trade — aware of its downsides, especially when dealing with totalitarian regimes with no respect for human rights. It would still favor a strong military but without the illusion that we can or should remake the world in our own image.
This post-Trump conservative synthesis will not bear all of Trump’s baggage, but some of it will linger. For example, outreach to minority voters will likely be hindered for some time. And there will still be significant difficulties, both theoretical and practical. Our endless federal budget deficits are a moral and political challenge that Trump has not addressed and voters seem to want to wish away.
Also, although national conservatives often seem eager to exercise power, they ought to recall that government is a dangerous tool. Humans are limited and often ignorant. We go astray even with the best intentions, and we often do not even have those.
There are many ways in which post-Trump conservatism and a nationalist Republican Party could go wrong. But there is no way in which the anti-Trump remains of the old GOP can go right.