Symposium | America After Trump

Reform Conservatives, Time to Step Up

By Sam Tanenhaus

Tagged conservatismDonald TrumpNeoconservatismRepublicansRonald Reagan

The good news: Donald Trump’s campaign laid to rest, at long last, the moldering corpse of “movement conservatism,” with its empty rhetoric of “limited government” (except when it comes to, say, reproductive rights) and “constitutional conservatism” (which would undo the 15th, 16th, and 17th Amendments). The bad news: What comes next may be worse—a new authoritarianism or the return of the pre-World War II old right. So, at least, many Cassandras have come forward to warn us.

Maybe—but not necessarily. Trump’s populist message rang true with blue-collar heart-landers who in some cases preferred Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton and in the end preferred Trump to her. This story was building even before the primary season began. In November 2015, George Packer in The New Yorker interviewed steelworkers in Canton, Ohio. Most were already for either Sanders or Trump. In a post-mortem after Election Day, New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise talked to Ohio voters who went for Obama in 2012 and then went for Trump.

To Democrats this is anomalous and frustrating. But a harsher lesson was dealt to the band of right-wing ideologues now wandering in the postelection wasteland of blasted dreams: the journalists, policy intellectuals, and think tank activists whose careers and fortunes have been tied to the conservative movement. It has been good to them for many decades now, beginning with the Joe McCarthyites and opponents of the Brown decision who flourished—in the pages of American MercuryHuman Events, National Review—in the 1950s; the Nixon-era “New Right” polarizers who feasted on the “white backlash” politics of the 1960s and 70s; the Commentary neoconservatives who adored Ronald Reagan in the 1980s; their offspring who buoyantly waged the culture war (in The Weekly Standard and on The Wall Street Journal editorial page) in the Clinton and Bush 43 years and then migrated over to Fox News when Obama was elected. This last stop was the terminus in the transformation of “a counter-establishment of Washington intellectuals” into “a Washington establishment of counter-intellectuals” (the terms are Mark Lilla’s).

They gambled heavily on a Trump loss, and there is payback very possibly to come. Some in the Trump palace guard were, we now know, keeping score when Bill Kristol tried to mount a third-party alternative (remember David French?), when the foreign policy hawk Max Boot avowed (to the Times) his preference for Stalin—or even, God help him, Hillary Clinton—over Trump, and when Robert Kagan warned of the gathering storm of American fascism. Party elders will be haunted as well by Mitt Romney’s futile attempt to derail Trump in March, calling him “a phony, a fraud” whose “promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” The rest was more scathing still: “He’s playing members of the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat. His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president.” He rounded it off with this: “And his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.”

But with those last six words the air went out of the attack. It was the exhausted prayer of Reaganism, repeated yet again, the only nostrum that mainstream conservatives had to sell in 2016, whether the pitchman was Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, or Marco Rubio. And it came almost 30 years after Reagan left office. Since then the GOP had lost the popular vote in five of the next six, now six of seven, presidential elections. And you had only to go on YouTube to see Romney, the GOP’s senior moralist, sheepishly accepting Trump’s endorsement, in Las Vegas back in 2012. And, to be fair, the old religion is still with us. The supply-sider Paul Ryan has a binder full of free-market policy notions. The horse trader McConnell is ready to dispense favors and pork. And the one-time laughing stock Reince Priebus—whose post-2012 “autopsy” was trampled by the Trump stampede—converted to the winning side just in time. The snazziest Trump brand is the “new unified Republican government,” in Ryan’s sheepish post-election phrase. Only its king is strangely non- or pre-ideological.

See, for instance, the almost two dozen “verbalists,” in the old-time conservative epithet, who bravely attacked Trump in National Review last winter. His sin? Being a liberal. Not mentioned? His birtherism—either because they didn’t consider it a trespass or because these thought-leaders suspected, correctly as it turned out, that it wouldn’t seem so to the people they were trying to reach.

Some did know there was something rotten at the core of this appeal. There were, most conspicuously, the reform conservatives. E.J. Dionne wrote about them in Democracy in the summer of 2014 (as I also did, simultaneously, in The New York Times Magazine). Their ranks include, among others, the writers Ross Douthat, Yuval Levin, Ramesh Ponnuru, Reihan Salam, the Hill political operative and policy expert April Ponnuru, and the A.E.I. economist Michael Strain. Bright and young (mostly in their thirties), they are also engaged and forward-looking. Some had been arguing, throughout the Obama years and even before, that Reaganism was finished, and the GOP needed a new agenda, friendlier to working people and more mindful of their struggles. Policies good for “Club for Growth” Republicans—cheap labor at home and abroad as well as regressive taxes—were hurting the party’s loyal base of “Sam’s Club” voters, the Rust Belt right we’re now hearing so much about, as though it materialized out of thin air. In truth it had been there for many years, and some conservatives knew it. Ross Perot found them in 1992. Pat Buchanan did too. But the official GOP tuned them out. “For years,” Salam wrote in January 2016, “elite conservatives have ignored grassroots opposition to mass immigration, and Trump’s rise is their reward.” Trump had opened up a new Republican “culture war,” only it was being fought within the party.

The Reformicons had seen all this. Mightn’t they also see the advantage in joining Trump’s campaign, or at least tossing some ideas his way? With luck they might tame or teach him. That was the function William F. Buckley Jr. and his allies had performed, in print and in private tutorials, when the conservative movement was taking shape. Last winter, when the primaries were beginning, I reconnected with the Reformicons to see if Buckley’s example might make sense this time, too. One after another in the group admitted they were in a quandary. Trump was getting a lot right, but it was only making them feel more isolated. “The Trump phenomenon vindicates our theory,” Douthat told me, “and it suggests troubling things about how a populist economic message actually works.” Levin agreed. “Trump is a kind of Rorschach case of confirmation bias. People like me, who thought Republicans were crazy for ignoring working class voters? Trump proves it. They were crazy.”

But why, they asked, did it have to be Trump, with this “left-wing” trade policies, his class warfare, his indisposition toward “Madisonian” principles, his bigotry and name-calling? It all “speaks to a subset of white people,” April Ponnuru said of Trump’s message. “It’s nationalist. Building a wall, calling Mexicans rapists, anti-China. His numbers with Latinos are terrible.” (In fact, they would turn out to be better than Romney’s.) There was a deeper problem. “It’s not just that people underestimated Trump,” she lamented. “They overestimated the strength of the party.” She had just left a job on Jeb Bush’s campaign. He was a dismal messenger and never got traction. This wasn’t a shock. The big talent was supposed to be Marco Rubio. He was the Reformicons’ first best hope. When I interviewed him in March 2014 he feelingly itemized the difficulties of a single mom he knew in Miami and talked about apprenticeship programs for high school dropouts who weren’t college material but still could find useful, decent-paying work. But in the campaign all this fell away. Rubio became the voice of alarmist dogma—the “clash of civilizations” was upon us—and he went down in flames in the New Hampshire debate.

That left only Ted Cruz, in some ways the worst of all. He may have the keenest mind in the Republican Party, in all of politics perhaps, but he has opportunistically squeezed all that brainpower into the Procrustean coffin of the old dogma. Pull the string, and out tumble the facile talking points: “religious liberty,” “principled conservatism.” It made even his admirers cringe. Ramesh Ponnuru is a friend of Ted Cruz. Both are protégés of Robert George, the Princeton political scientist who was the premier conservative intellectual during the Bush years. But when we talked about Cruz in February 2016, Ponnuru was unsparing: “He would not be in the conversation if he hadn’t shut down the government. That’s where he made his bones. ‘Let’s have a health care debate.’” What had it led to? Nothing. “He doesn’t have a health care policy. He has three talking points.”

There was, horrifyingly, only Trump. And he’s what the GOP has now. There is no running from him. Yet there is still reason to think the Reformicons could find a place in Trump world, if only they will candidly assess their position, and his. There is much to deplore in Trumpism, but at least some things to embrace. His populism is not at odds with their pleas in defense of the overlooked, under-loved “white working class.” A useful source here: the Ur-thinker of Trumpism Samuel Francis, a paleo-conservative culture warrior and white nationalist who died in 2005, ten years after he was dismissed from The Washington Times after he was caught espousing white-identity politics. Francis, as it happens, was also erudite. He read a lot of Gramsci and was a devotee of the ex-Trotskyist James Burnham, National Review’s most respected presence in its first years. Francis fused Gramsci’s theories on “hegemony” with Burnham’s theory of the hidden “managerial elite” into an attack on the conservative establishment, which, he argued, had betrayed the forgotten “Middle American proletariat.”

In the 1990s, Francis was an informal adviser to Pat Buchanan and placed great hopes in Buchanan’s platform, and the populist notes it hit: “cultural identity, national sovereignty, and national interests” as well as economic protectionism and “curtailing through a five-year moratorium, all immigration, legal as well as illegal.” Reaganites kept missing this. They also missed, Francis said, that many Americans, not just Democratic “takers,” depend on the federal government—for “housing loans, educational programs, defense contracts, and health and unemployment benefits.” The Reformicons know this too. The trouble is they don’t like to say it publicly and don’t want to ally themselves with an avowed white nationalist—or race “identitarian” in the new term used by Francis’s fans in the alt-right, like Richard Spencer (who published a posthumous book by Francis over the summer). This raises the always troubling question of whether working-class issues can be separated from race politics. Douthat and others know that this must be solved, and know too that Trump has made it worse. Two years ago they were worried too, but for a different reason. “You could damage us badly,” one of them told me when I was reporting on them for the Times—if I depicted them as closet liberals, he meant. They would be chased from the movement temple.

Well, the temple is now a smoking ruin. Time for the reformers to come forward and admit some truths. One is how little separates their thinking from Trump’s. Levin, for one. He is very much an establishment figure—a veteran of the Bush Administration, an ally of Paul Ryan, and the editor of a rigorous policy quarterly, National Affairs. Levin’s recent book, The Fractured Republic, was meant to be a kind of Burkean manual for a new, non-Trumpian Republican era. But it could also be adapted to the new Rust Belt right. The picture it gives of a forlorn Middle America resembles the bleak portrait Sam Francis drew a generation ago. Like Francis, who in 1991 called for conservatives to “begin working in and with schools, churches, clubs, women’s groups, youth organizations, civil and professional associations, the military and police forces, and even in the much-dreaded labor unions,” Levin, a critic of both “the Great Society welfare state” and the supply-side excesses of Reagan Revolution, calls for a “pluralism of communities,” in which power reposes in local “mediating institutions”—from “families to local communities (including local governments), religious institutions, fraternal bodies, civil-society organizations, labor groups, and the small and medium-sized businesses that make up much of the private economy.” This is the pre-movement conservative ideal espoused by writers like August Hecksher, Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck. It lives on in the writing of Rod Dreher and Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative, which may overtake National Review and The Weekly Standard as the most important journal on the right—if it hasn’t already.

This conservative vision is pastoral, and Trump in his gilded penthouse—and soon in the White House—is a decidedly un-pastoral figure. What is he instead? We don’t know. And he doesn’t either. Okay: he is uninformed. But he’s unformed, too. It can’t hurt to suggest ideas and arguments that might lend humane shape to his Administration. He has completed the first part of the Reformicon mission, blowing up the remnants of the old movement. Why not help him finish the job while also challenging the right to purge itself of its racial and cultural toxins? As Trump himself might put it: What have they got to lose?

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Read more about conservatismDonald TrumpNeoconservatismRepublicansRonald Reagan

Sam Tanenhaus is a former editor of The New York Times Book Review and the author of The Death of Conservatism.

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