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The Character That Brings Change

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a symposium on vindicating a prudent politics within the GOP.

We can start with one thing, for sure: Donald Trump is most decidedly not the future of conservatism. In fact, he’s not really even its present.

Yes, yes, Trump is the Republican Party’s unquestionable leader, and, even now, he continues to inspire an unsettlingly cult-like devotion among self-described conservatives. But that’s a matter of personality and style, rather than of politics. Despite his admirers’ many attempts to make coherent shapes out of abstract clouds, it remains the case that, ideologically, conservatism has had a bigger effect on Donald Trump than Donald Trump has had on conservatism. There is a reason why, after a while, Trump’s biggest admirers stop insisting that he radically changed conservatism, and instead start listing all of his conservative achievements, and that reason is that Donald Trump did not radically change conservatism.

Trump’s term in office contained a round of tax cuts combined with too much federal spending; the rolling back of business regulations and the expansion of energy production; the stocking of the federal judiciary with judges picked by the Federalist Society; hostility toward international organizations such as the UN and WHO; and outspoken opposition to abortion and gun control. There were a few unusual steps, certainly. On the question of immigration, Trump differed from Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and John McCain, but not a great deal from Mitt Romney (except, perhaps, on asylum and family reunification). On foreign policy, he reflected the dovish, pre-Eisenhower side of the conservative movement that had been steadily reviving its influence since 2008. And, on trade, he broke more dramatically with postwar conservative orthodoxy than any recent Republican leader, albeit not entirely with Republican Party practice—which, as both Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush showed, does not line up with the orthodoxy as neatly as is often assumed. Overall, though, Trump’s presidency did not differ a great deal on policy than would have, say, a presidency run by Ted Cruz.

There has always been a tension in the case made by Trump’s most ardent supporters. On the one hand, they insist that Trump “took over” the Right, having wrested it from the much-hated beltway “donor class.” On the other hand, they insist that that donor class should have loved Trump because he managed to do so many of the things that they have always wanted a president to do. Naturally, both of these things cannot be true, which is why, if one pushes too hard, the conversation will be steered back to tone and attitude: “But he fights!”

Were this true, it would be tempting to conclude that what American conservatism needs is a Trump-like figure who, while more pugnacious in style than a typical politician, is happy to swallow the catechism whole. Thing is, though: it’s not really true that Donald Trump was more likely to “fight” than was anyone else. Trump was president for four years, and during that time he did not meaningfully fight for anything that wasn’t already favored by the people he dispatched in the Republican primaries. Despite its centrality to his campaign, the border wall was relegated to afterthought status until after the 2018 midterms had made it impossible to achieve. Trade, likewise, was approached haphazardly: a handful of executive orders here, a press release here, a negotiating party there, but no attempt to institute anything that would survive the end of his presidency. On foreign policy, Trump spoke differently than conservatives usually do—and sometimes he spoke disgracefully, as when he praised dictators in the hope he could butter them up—but his actions were mostly within the mainstream, and, occasionally, his total lack of regard for the niceties pushed him to do things that conservatives had been talking about for decades, such as move the American Embassy to Jerusalem.

Were Trump’s two showings especially impressive? Not really, no. In 2016, Trump managed to beat Hillary Clinton, but he did not gain more votes than she did, and over the four years of his presidency his party bled support at all levels of government except for the U.S. Senate. In 2020, Trump expanded the number of votes he received, but still got seven million fewer than his opponent, the 78-year-old, barely coherent Joe Biden, and then, having lost, set about losing the party its control of the Senate.

“Ah, but he won.” That’s got to mean something, right? Well, yeah, he won—once. But it is not at all obvious that Donald Trump has taught conservatives much about winning elections. Such as it is, the case for Trump’s brilliance rests heavily on the fact that the two previous Republican nominees lost their bids for the presidency whereas Trump won his. But this ignores the cyclical nature of American politics, as well as the circumstances in which those unsuccessful elections were held. Worse still, it presumes that the only office within the American system of government that is worth winning is the White House. In order to make the case that Trump was special, it must be assumed that neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney would have beaten Hillary Clinton in 2016, that none of the other Republican candidates who sought the nomination that year would have beaten Clinton, either, and, by extension, that Trump would have beaten Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012. But, again, it is not clear why one would assume any of these things. In 2008, John McCain ran for a third consecutive Republican term against Barack Obama, a generationally talented politician and the first ever black nominee for president, in the midst of the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression and against the shadow of an unpopular and costly foreign war. In 2012, Mitt Romney ran against that same Democratic candidate, just as the economy was beginning to improve, in the midst of one of the most hostile media environments in American history. It’s not that surprising that they lost.

Were Trump’s two showings especially impressive? Not really, no. In 2016, Trump managed to beat Hillary Clinton, but he did not gain more votes than she did, and over the four years of his presidency his party bled support at all levels of government except for the U.S. Senate. In 2020, Trump expanded the number of votes he received, but still got seven million fewer than his opponent, the 78-year-old, barely coherent Joe Biden, and then, having lost, set about losing the party its control of the Senate. If one were looking for advice on how to win elections, wouldn’t one rather look to the much-reviled George W. Bush, who won both of his elections, rather than to Trump? Or, if not, wouldn’t one look to Ronald Reagan, who bestrode the scene like a colossus?

To ask these questions in earnest is to accept the premise that conservatives have a problem winning elections or advancing their ideas. But they don’t—not really. Conservatism will always be a harder sell than its alternatives because it involves telling people hard truths, because it does not pretend to have all the answers at hand, and because it is fundamentally anti-utopian. And yet its political vehicle, the Republican Party, often prevails at the polls. Since 1994, when it finally broke the Democrats’ long monopoly on legislative power, Republicans have controlled the House for all but six years and controlled the Senate for all but nine. Since 2006, meanwhile, only five states have failed to elect a Republican governor for at least one term. Texas and Florida, the second and third most populous states in the union, have not elected a Democratic governor or state legislature since the mid-1990s, while both California and New York—the first and fourth more populous states, respectively—have had a mixture. If there is something truly wrong with the Republican Party’s priorities, one might expect this to show up more clearly in the data.

So, yes, you can put me firmly in the dinosaur camp. Or, to borrow a fashionable pejorative, you can serve me the “dead consensus” until I’m full up. Why? Well, because I don’t think that it’s dead. In my estimation, the future of conservatism should not be too different than the past of the conservatism, because most of what conservatives have historically stood for is still true. It is true that the Constitution is the best government system we can expect to live under, that we should amend it carefully and explicitly, and that we should demand that our politicians and judges interpret it according to its original public meaning rather than whatever linguistic fads are currently being taught at the universities. It is true that a free and open market yields opportunity and prosperity and that while it may not be a good idea to cut taxes infinitely, it is most definitely a good idea to keep them low. It is true that we cannot spend what we do not have forever without going broke. It is true that government programs, however well-intentioned, tend to collapse into inefficiency, inertia, self-dealing, and dependency. It is true that the Bill of Rights contains timeless and unalienable liberties, rather than contingent preferences that can be whittled away at the whim of the state. It is true that war comes to the weak and unprepared, and that a robust national defense is the best way to avert disaster. It is true that one cannot limit religious liberty without limiting conscience, and that governments that limit conscience find it hard to turn back before it is too late. And it is true that character matters—yes, even if those of poor character are capable of bringing about positive change.

It is a matter of considerable irony that President Trump sold himself as the silver bullet that would kill off “zombie Reaganism,” but ended up showing the wisdom and endurance of precisely the ideology he believed he’d been sent to reform. They say that past is prologue. I, for one, hope that’s true.

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