It is frequently said that Donald Trump has forever changed the Republican party and American conservatism. His most severe critics and his most passionate supporters tend to agree: He has razed both the party and the movement to their foundations.
But that’s all wrong: After this president departs, the GOP and conservatism will soon return to their previous forms—as beneficial and successful as they were before, though perhaps reformed in modest ways. And in the long term, Trump’s effects on the party and conservatism will be minimal because Trumpism has failed in terms of principles, people, and popularity.
First, let’s remember that American conservatism’s foundational principles have a long history and combine into a sturdy approach to governing. They reflect an understanding of human nature, including how to get the most of our natural strengths and compensate for our natural weaknesses.
American conservatives prize liberty, markets, federalism, localism, civil society, civic virtue, tradition, prudence, and small-scale democracy. This isn’t just some hodgepodge of values. It’s a mosaic for protecting personal autonomy while nurturing group solidarity, for making use of ancient wisdom while fostering ongoing beneficial change. We’ve learned that human flourishing requires both individual sovereignty and individual restraint; the distribution of power and the organic development of community; a recognition of timeless, immutable truths alongside the encouragement of incremental change; an appreciation for what we hold in common and the defense of America’s historical, invaluable pluralism. Likewise, we know that terrible things can happen when authority is centralized, when immoral people attain power, and when uniform decisions are forced by elite “experts.”
American conservatism doesn’t have one specific agenda encased in amber. It will always include differences of opinion and require a fusion of various camps. But American conservatism has a discernible disposition, a constellation of evolved practices and institutions, and a set of rules of thumb for governing. In short, American conservatism reflects a complex, evolved understanding of how to best foster the good life.
The intellectual basis of this tradition can be traced back centuries—to Aristotle and Aquinas, Locke and Montesquieu, Smith and Burke, Madison and Tocqueville. But after World War II, writers like Hayek, Nisbet, Kirk, Oakeshott, Buckley, and Friedman offered updated and expanded arguments that helped construct modern American conservatism. It took time and effort to translate these concepts into policy and politics. But that deliberate process contributed to Goldwater’s trailblazing 1964 nomination, Reagan’s landslide in 1980, and the Federalist Society’s auspicious 1982 founding. It later informed George H.W. Bush’s stellar 1988 convention speech, the GOP congressional takeover in 1994, George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, and the Tea Party revolt of 2010.
So today’s conservatives have been handed down a coherent approach to governing, as well as a way to think about specific contemporary issues. Of course, recharging and refinement are always needed. And so there have been waves of internal reform—there was Cold-War conservatism then supply-side conservatism then Contract-with-America conservatism then compassionate conservatism then reform conservatism and perhaps capacitating conservatism. Conditions change, priorities shift, and views evolve, so we continually make micro-adjustments. But because conservatism sits on a mountain of accumulated wisdom—thanks to fixed truths and the lessons of experience—we preserve the essentials of our approach.
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Set against this invaluable tradition, Trumpism simply cannot compete. Its intellectual core is all but hollow. Its leader is as rudderless philosophically and as ignorant policywise as imaginable. Some writers have tried to assemble the president’s thoughts into a coherent framework, but they have been thwarted by his shifting positions, his hiring of staff with divergent views, and his routine disposal of principled aides and cabinet secretaries.
Other writers and thinkers, such as those engaged in fleshing out “national conservatism,” are attempting to develop a culturally conservative program that is consonant with the president’s mindset. That’s a worthwhile project. Particularly useful are efforts to show how various conservative principles are in tension and how, in recent years, the elevation of markets and individual liberation have come at the cost of tradition and community cohesion. But these writers and thinkers have not yet clearly explained how they square an energetic nationalism with federalism, localism, associational pluralism, and individual rights. Nor have they yet produced anything like an actionable agenda for those actually governing. In time, this intellectual work will likely contribute to the movement’s evolution, but its development will have to proceed independent of Trump’s unmoored thinking and rash acting.
We should acknowledge President Trump’s elevation of conservative judges and efforts to scale back the administrative state. But those are hardly Trumpian innovations; they are, of course, evergreen issues among conservatives. Similarly, the president’s tough stance on immigration reflects views that have been building on the right since at least late in the George W. Bush era, Trump’s attacks on the “swamp” sound like Tea-Party slogans circa 2010, and his opposition to cultural progressivism is familiar to anyone modestly familiar with conservatism over the last several generations. An ideas revolution Trumpism is not.
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Nor has Trumpism given rise to an army of future governing leaders. The most prominent Trumpian figures haven’t risen because they are thought leaders, policy entrepreneurs, or public-sector administrators. Rather they’ve gained celebrity primarily through their reflexive, vociferous defense of the president’s behavior du jour, whether his tax cuts and tariffs or Twitter antics and international intrigues. Loyal lieutenants they have been; independent-minded, budding successors of a movement, not so much.
Given its dearth of both governing principles and deputies prepared to govern, Trumpism’s continuation would depend on future leaders’ constantly seeking Trump’s counsel. But that’s not how politics works. Parties are fiercely loyal to their presidents while they are in office but then they quickly move on. There is little sentimentality in politics. Democrats left LBJ behind in 1969 and immediately moved past Carter in 1981. Republicans did the same to Nixon-Ford in 1977 and George H.W. Bush in 1993. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all won two terms, but not long after they walked out of the Oval Office, their parties had them in their rearview mirrors. The only president of the last half century with a sustained influence on his party’s politics and philosophy was Reagan; and—heavens—Trump is no Reagan.
It’s impossible to know which individuals will emerge as the GOP’s leaders post-Trump, but we should appreciate how little fidelity they will have to the ex-president. Trump treats others as dispensable. When he no longer possesses power, many Republicans—especially those who’ve been insulted by him—will surely be glad to reciprocate.
But beyond that, the talented, ambitious individuals most likely to vie for the party’s leadership achieved political success, and they saw conservatism ascendant, and they were formed by events that occurred long before Trump’s election. Consider Generation-X and late-Baby-Boom figures like Charlie Baker, Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Nikki Haley, Larry Hogan, Mike Lee, Susana Martinez, Kristi Noem, Rob Portman, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Ben Sasse, Tim Scott, and Scott Walker. They were elected to state legislatures, the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and governorships before Trump took his escalator ride.
They came of age during the extraordinarily successful Reagan era. They witnessed the GOP landslide of 1994. They saw “W.” twice elected. Most surfed the Republican tidal waves of 2010 and 2014. They were part of the GOP at its highest water mark in a century. All of that happened pre-Trump.
Their political views were all probably shaped to different degrees by Carter’s malaise, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” the Bork and Thomas hearings, the Soviet Union’s collapse, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1996 welfare reform act, the Clinton impeachment, September 11, the Great Recession, Heller, and Obamacare. All of these formative events occurred before the Trump administration.
In other words, the individuals who will succeed Trump have memories of—and a vision for—politics, policy, and governing leadership that exists outside of Trumpism. Though some of these individuals have been entirely too deferential to the president’s misguided policies and too accommodating of his appalling behavior, their conservatism flowered prior to this president’s taking office. And though it sometimes appears to have gone dormant, we should anticipate its revivification.
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Trump’s profoundly polarizing and consistently unpopular presidency will soon create the political environment conducive for conservatism’s reawakening. Politicians prefer to win, and few will want to be associated with Trump’s style or substance. The president’s crudeness, cruelty, carelessness, incuriousness, and congenital mendacity have turned off broad swaths of the public. According to FiveThirtyEight and RealClear Politics, Trump’s approval rating has continuously floundered below 50 percent, typically closer to 40 percent, since the beginning of his term. RealClear averages show him behind in the polls to Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris, and Buttigieg despite a strong economy. A recent Washington Post-Schar School poll found that 60 percent of Americans, including 29 percent of Republicans, don’t think he upholds adequate standards for ethics in government. The same poll found that 28 percent of Republicans believe Congress was right to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump. An early October Fox News poll found that 51 percent of Americans believe he should be impeached and removed.
So despite the conventional wisdom about Trump’s transformation of the political right, his actual long-term influence will be modest at best. The inability to produce a coherent governing philosophy; loyal, able governing acolytes; or a popular mandate will always have that effect.
At the close of Donald Trump’s tenure, the Republican party and American conservatism will still be pro-life, small-government, and culturally traditionalist. In fact, Trump’s belligerence, venality, and nationalizing tendencies will probably rekindle the right’s fondness for prudence, civic virtue, and federalism. I suspect many future Republican leaders will be tougher on immigration, more sympathetic to working-class concerns, and more skeptical of trade deals, but shifts on those issues were already underway pre-2016. Trump, no doubt, advanced them, and that’s not nothing. But it’s not groundbreaking
President Trump’s huge personality can give the impression (to the impressionable) that he’s a larger force than he actually is. But we should remember that even the smallest objects cast long shadows when the sun is setting behind them. Once Republican leaders recognize just how trivial his ultimate influence on the right will be, the more they can do to speed the close of this era and the dawning of a new one.