Reports of conservatism’s brain death are greatly exaggerated. The right is more intellectually vibrant today than it has been in decades—at least since the early 1990s, when Pat Buchanan and Jack Kemp enlivened the conservative debate, and neocons, paleos, and libertarians offered markedly divergent views on how to confront the post-Cold War world. The intellectual vigor of today’s right can best be seen in a number of quarterly journals, particularly in two that represent stark differences in philosophical direction: National Affairs and American Affairs. Though each of the two resists easy ideological labeling, National Affairs has generally been associated with the “reform conservative” movement, while American Affairs is the closest thing there is to a theoretical journal of the populist right.
The quarterly that had the most powerful effect last year was an older one, however. After the Journal of American Greatness, a bracingly provocative and anonymously authored pro-Trump website, shut down, the quarterly Claremont Review of Books became the platform for JAG’s star attraction, “Decius”—the nom de plume of Michael Anton, who now serves on President Trump’s National Security Council. Decius’s Claremont Review essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” served as a declaration of a new and more urgent—or, as critics would say, apocalyptic—American right. It caught the attention of influential Trump backers who subsequently promoted Anton for a position in the new administration.
The Claremont Review has in fact published many articles over the past two years that have heralded the rise of new thinking on the right. Christopher Caldwell, for example, has written in its pages about taking a realistic view of Vladimir Putin and giving the devil his due: “By certain traditional measures,” he argued, “Russian president Vladimir Putin is the pre-eminent statesman of his time.” Caldwell has also sounded Trumpian notes on immigration and trade issues. The Claremont Review’s editor, Charles Kesler, and scholars affiliated with the think tank that publishes it, California’s Claremont Institute, have meanwhile sought to explain Trump in terms of their own “West Coast Straussian” school of thought. By their lights, Trump’s populist appeal arises from a reaction against the unaccountable, undemocratic “administrative state” in Washington.
But the principal successor to the Journal of American Greatness is American Affairs, launched this year by several writers who had been involved with the JAG. Its editor is Julius Krein, a 31-year-old Harvard graduate who left a career on Wall Street to commit himself to the intellectual fray, first as one of the founders of the JAG, and now at the helm of the new quarterly. Joining Krein as deputy editor is Gladden Pappin, a fellow Harvard alumnus, just a few years Krein’s senior, who is an assistant professor of politics at the University of Dallas and senior adviser of the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. The first issue of American Affairs included an essay by Michael Anton, writing under his own name and appearing after he had become the NSC’s deputy assistant to the president for strategic communications. (A disclaimer noted that his essay had been written before he joined the administration, however, and officially reflected only his own views.)
American Affairs announced its debut last February with an intellectually—and financially—star-studded event at the Harvard Club in New York. It was an eclectic gathering: As I walked in, I saw Sam Tanenhaus ahead of me, William Kristol to my left, and soon I was talking to Paul Starobin, the former BusinessWeek Moscow bureau chief and author of a realist essay on Russia in American Affairs’s second number. Republican mega-donors Rebekah Mercer and Roger Hertog were on hand, as were unorthodox center-left thinkers Mark Lilla and Michael Lind—the latter a member of the journal’s board of advisers. The night’s panel discussion, introduced by Krein, included Peter Thiel and the New America Foundation’s Anne-Marie Slaughter. The event and the journal soon earned write-ups in the New York Times, Politico, and, with predictable chilliness, The Nation.
“The reception has been very warm,” Pappin says, with the journal quickly garnering “a wide audience on the left and right” and “being followed widely in Europe” as well as in the United States. But he and Krein are wary of their quarterly being identified as strictly a Trump organ. “The initial coverage of American Affairs framed the journal much more narrowly than we framed the journal’s mission ourselves,” Pappin notes. “The limits of the initial coverage were apparent by our second issue: articles on neo-Confucian political theory are hard to fit under the label of ‘Trumpism.’”
By mid-August, after President Trump had blamed left-wing antifa as well as alt-right extremists for the violent protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to one woman’s death, Krein had come to repudiate his support for the president. “I Voted for Trump. And I Sorely Regret It,” declared the title of an essay Krein wrote for the New York Times. Krein did not, however, retreat from the criticisms of “the neoliberal policy consensus” that he had published in the JAG and American Affairs. As Pappin indicated, American Affairs never saw itself as a vehicle for one politician’s agenda. Now it occupies the difficult position of being perceived as a Trumpian journal at odds with Trump himself. But such difficulties have been healthy for some publications: Partisan Review arguably had a relationship to the hard (indeed, pro-communist) political left parallel to the one American Affairs now has with Trump.
Whatever its editor’s views of the president, American Affairs retains a clear affinity with the currents that brought Trump to power, particularly the nationalist and anti-globalist spirit of his supporters, including the most ideologically sophisticated among them. For those who want to understand the Trump moment in terms beyond those of the president’s own Twitter feed, American Affairs remains valuable. And it’s all the more revealing of the crossroads at which the right stands when it’s contrasted with National Affairs, the policy quarterly founded eight years ago as a publication of what has come to be known as “reform conservatism.”
Its editor, Yuval Levin, is just as circumspect about tying his journal to current politics as the editors of American Affairs are. “I wouldn’t want to equate National Affairs and reform conservatism,” he says, though he adds that “we have certainly been a home for some important work by people who’ve been termed reform conservatives.” The labeling came largely from the outside, when journalists writing in 2013 sought to identify conservative intellectuals who could give the right a new direction in the wake of Mitt Romney’s presidential defeat. Levin and his magazine figured prominently in that search. In his New York Times blog, Ross Douthat, himself often counted among the reformers, referred to the “reformicons,” as he called them, as a loose group that included writers such as Reihan Salam (Douthat’s co-author on a book called Grand New Party); National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru; Jim Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute; Yuval Levin; and others. The following year, the New York Times Magazine featured Levin and ten other policy-minded conservative writers—several of whom were also contributors to National Affairs—in a cover story on reformicons asking, “Can the GOP Be a Party of Ideas?”
That story, by Sam Tanenhaus, illustrated why National Affairs might not avidly embrace the reform conservative label. While Tanenhaus was working on it, one of the political champions of reform conservatism, Representative Eric Cantor, then the House majority leader, was crushed in his Virginia Republican primary re-election effort by an insurgent Tea Party candidate, Dave Brat. Tanenhaus called National Affairs “the citadel of reform conservatism,” but today, with Trump having done to wonkish Republicans on a national scale what Brat did to Cantor in Virginia, reform conservatism appears politically dead. Yet National Affairs lives on. It may have been the victim of unreasonable early expectations: There is a certain parallel here to the fate of Senator Rand Paul, whose well-wishers were encouraged by a New York Times Magazine cover story to believe that the “libertarian moment” might soon arrive. That dream, too, was shattered, or at least postponed, by Trump.
Levin says he’s “reasonably encouraged by the modest early progress” of his journal. “I think we’ve helped conservatism start to think harder and better, and I think that work will pay dividends in the years to come—when it will be badly needed.” He adds that he sees conservatism, from Burke onwards, as “inherently a reforming inclination,” and thus reform conservatism is really just “applied conservatism—a policy-minded American conservatism.” In concrete terms this entails, he says, “a transformation of the welfare state into more targeted forms of assistance to the vulnerable aimed at working through rather than against the private economy and civil society and rooted in social conservatism, constitutionalism, subsidiarity, and a commitment to competition founded in epistemological modesty.” In short, National Affairs’s conservatism is less radical in its outlook and prescriptions than American Affairs is. The welfare state can be made to serve conservative ends, and the free market and American civil society are basically healthy. America and the world are not in the grip of a malign “neoliberalism” or lost to a post-capitalist “managerial revolution” in economic organization.
Levin, 40, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and is the author of several books, including last year’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. He also was a domestic policy adviser in the George W. Bush administration. One of the qualities that made reform conservatives appear influential beyond their small numbers was their access to Republican leaders and the elite media: Paul Ryan, along with Eric Cantor, was an ally of the reformicon tendency, and reformicons have had a presence at the Washington Post through contributors such as Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, both former Bush speechwriters, as well as at the New York Times with Douthat. For a time, the reformicon group seemed to connect conservative thinkers and writers directly with officeholders: It was an insider formation, in contrast to the outside eclecticism of American Affairs, which is not part of the capital’s Republican-conservative universe.
Donald Trump is not of that universe, either. But Levin does not find everything about the president’s program unfamiliar. “Obviously, there’s a grave concern about Trump among most of the people associated with this notion of ‘reform conservatism,’” he says. “And I think a lot of that concern, beyond sheer concern for the country, has to do not with Trumpism being somehow the opposite of what we’ve offered but with it being a kind of funhouse mirror distortion of what we’ve offered.” Trumpism, says Levin, had the effect of “discrediting some of the ideas we have worked to advance—on immigration, certainly, but in the direction of a more populist conservatism generally.” A defining element of reform conservatism has been its technocratic approach to populism, as paradoxical as that may sound. Michael Gerson once described the main reform conservative policy initiatives as “wage subsidies (through an expanded earned-income tax credit), payroll tax cuts, apprenticeship programs, dramatic increases in the child tax credit and a welfare system that requires work in exchange for benefits.” These are modest policies—small beer, by Trump’s rhetorical standards—that may or may not have salutary effects (in truth, they’re a mixed bag) but lack visceral appeal with voters and the imprimatur of economic orthodoxy among Capitol Hill conservatives. Just try to imagine them getting past the House Freedom Caucus.
The adverse headwinds of party politics do not seem to discourage the thinkers attached to National Affairs, however. As Levin notes, Trump’s political success has accomplished one thing for reform conservatism: “It has exploded the notion that the Republican electorate is implacably committed to what have long been understood as Reaganite litmus tests that point toward libertarianism.” The weakening of small-government orthodoxy’s hold over the GOP strengthens the reformicon case, Levin says, a case he describes as “something akin to ‘two cheers for capitalism,’ with the third cheer held back by concerns about the market’s effects on social cohesion, family, and community.” Drawing a parallel to politics past, Levin concludes: “That puts us in something like the original neoconservative position, and that’s certainly where I find myself in any case.”
Indeed, National Affairs owes a debt to the early domestic form of neoconservatism and its flagship policy journal, The Public Interest, founded by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell in 1965. “The Public Interest was our foremost model” for National Affairs, Levin says. “In form and function, in disposition, and in our sense of purpose we are very influenced by their example.” The difference between the two journals, says Levin, is, “We are a conservative magazine, which the PI certainly wasn’t in the beginning and really wasn’t even in the end.” When The Public Interest debuted, its centrist policy outlook, grounded in social science, was arguably more at home in the Democratic Party—at least the Democratic Party of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Senator Scoop Jackson—than in the GOP. The Democrats have moved to the left since then, and the intellectual heirs of Irving Kristol, such as one finds in National Affairs, have been unembarrassed about embracing the Republicans and conservatism. Or at least that had been the case before Trump.
National Affairs does not touch on foreign policy, and some reformicons have noted that the domestic agenda dear to many of them during the George W. Bush days was entirely sidelined by Bush’s wars. Whether a reform conservative president—a Marco Rubio, perhaps—would stay out of the foreign morasses that bogged down Bush is, however, a doubtful proposition, to say the least. In the absence of a clear alternative foreign policy, what’s to stop any reform-minded Republican from repeating Bush’s mistakes?
There is a contrast here with American Affairs, which includes foreign policy among its areas of concern. Yet based on what American Affairs has published so far, it is easier to discern what their preferred policy is not than to discern what it would be. The journal’s editors say their “overall approach to foreign policy” accords with an idea Michael Anton expressed in the journal’s first issue: namely, that “correcting the errors of the neo-interventionists does not require adopting those of the paleo-isolationists.’” But what does that mean? A story in the second issue by George Mason University’s Colin Dueck and two co-authors from the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation—“Reclaiming American Realism”—does not call for any significant changes in the U.S. posture of global primacy. Even George W. Bush was happy during the 2000 campaign to talk about “a humble foreign policy” that would not involve nation-building. Practically no one in the foreign-policy community openly acknowledges a desire for new wars, but clearly there is a steady demand in Washington for regime change in the non-democratic world. That demand has been served whenever the occasion arises for meddling, as happened in Iraq and Libya. U.S. foreign policy, and conservative orthodoxy about it, requires just as deep and thorough a re-examination as domestic policy does. Why does it work the way it does—and why have its outcomes been so reliably appalling in recent years?
American Affairs is in many respects a radical journal, in the etymological sense of going to the root of the matter. The journal seems to offer less than two cheers for capitalism, in part because its leading thinkers do not believe that capitalism, on the classical Adam Smith model, exists in the world today. Instead, capitalism has been replaced by economic managerialism—a concept that Krein explored in the first issue with an essay on the thought of James Burnham, with added insights from Krein’s own experiences in the world of modern finance. The second issue contained an essay by Michael Lind delving further into the Burnhamite analysis of an economy where managers and bureaucrats in the private as well as public sector wield more power than the nominal owners of capital. Lind called attention to John Kenneth Galbraith’s debt to Burnham, and revisited a 1902 book by the British social philosopher John A. Hobson—Imperialism: A Study—which seemed to anticipate features of the modern global economy’s class structure. Lind sees the United States and Europe as facing a long-term choice between an Asia-like economic model (involving “a cross-class compromise between the managerial elite and the working-class majority”) and a Latin American one (in which dire economic inequality results in constant conflict between oligarchs against populists). The problem with our managerial elite since the end of the Cold War, he argues, is that they have steered the country toward becoming more like Latin America.
A key theme, perhaps the defining one, in American Affairs is the restoration of political community in the face of a post-political economic and cultural elite’s demands for transnational integration. “We have a strong interest in revitalizing the standpoint of political economy, that is, rejecting the separation of economic and market analysis from political context,” Gladden Pappin says. In the journal’s second issue, the French political theorist Pierre Manent considers how the old “left-right” political divide came to lose its significance in matters such as trade and immigration, while a new division between “respectable” and “populist” movements arose. The liberal consensus has decided that certain formerly political questions have now been definitively settled on liberalism’s own economic and cultural grounds. Thus, unlike the old left-right contest, in which each side acknowledged the other’s legitimacy, in the new contest the populists are deemed simply beyond the pale because they adhere to old, now politically incorrect notions of political community and what powers are proper to it. As Manent explains:
The ‘effectual truth’ of the Right, like that of the Left, ultimately rests on what it considers its community of reference. The community of reference of the Right is, or rather was, the nation; the community of reference of the Left is, or rather was, the class, the working class or the classes populaires. Throughout all the comings and goings, through all the accidents of history, the unifying principle of the Right or Rights was the nation, and the unifying principle of the Left or Lefts was the class. The Right and the Left professed two versions of the people: for the Right, le peuple national; for the Left, le peuple social.
The doctrine now triumphant, congealed into a pedantic and arrogant orthodoxy, can be summarized as follows: Peoples or classes—indeed, human communities or associations in general—do not have any sovereignty or intrinsic legitimacy. They cannot make up the framework of human action. The only humanly significant realities, the only ones which are entitled to incontestable rights, are the individual on the one hand and humanity on the other; between these two, strictly speaking, there is nothing of worth. This doctrine applies in different areas: in economic terms, against any form of protectionism; in political terms, against any form of national sovereignty; in moral terms, against any intermediary group whose legitimacy might contradict the rights of the individual or of humanity.
Anyone who does dare to speak out for the old forms of political community is now anathematized as a far-right nationalist or a far-left socialist (or, in France, communist). Dissidents may also be labeled “illiberals,” as one American Affairs writer, the Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony, recently noted in the Wall Street Journal:
Anyone who advocates nationalist and religious ideas in the wrong circles gets tossed straight into the basket of illiberals, with Messrs. Putin, Erodgan and Kim.
This is worth thinking about with care. A country where you can no longer advocate a nationalist or religious viewpoint without being stigmatized in this way is a place where only one political party is legitimate: the liberal one. The illiberal party is going to be put out of business, whatever it takes.
The flip side of this is that American Affairs needs a way to define the American political community—the nation—that does not descend to the stereotypes painted by liberals. Hazony and his Herzl Institute colleague Ofir Haivry attempt in the second issue of American Affairs to recover an Anglo-American conservatism that is distinct from liberalism and authoritarianism alike. They find it in a lineage of political thought stretching from John Fortescue in the 15th century to John Selden in the 17th and Edmund Burke in the 18th. This tradition of a constitutionalism rooted in biblical religion and English national history, they argue, rejects John Locke’s rationalism as well as the absolutism of Thomas Hobbes or Robert Filmer. It certainly is not anyone’s idea of a crude, ethno-nationalist “tribalism,” although it is not any kind of universalism, either.
Such arguments may seem far removed from real-world politics. But Pappin believes that philosophical distance from polls, elections, and policy battles can be useful. “We do not necessarily know what political ideas or strategies will be relevant next,” he says. “Journals that pursue a highly policy-oriented approach risk becoming quickly dated and risk defining themselves by the search for influence.”
Not that American Affairs is all high-flown theory. The journal has run essays on infrastructure, foreign aid, and electricity policy. The second issue’s editorial responded to a bevy of questions about where the editors stand on specific issues. Here, too, American Affairs could sound radical: Regarding personal taxes, the editors wrote, “In today’s circumstances, reducing upper-income tax rates is unlikely to address core economic challenges in any significant way. We are equally skeptical that tinkering with line-item tax incentives will achieve meaningful results. The child tax credit, for example, strikes us as unobjectionable, but its likely impact would be insignificant.” They also departed from mainstream conservative thought in healthcare policy. “In general,” they wrote, “we support universal health care administered by the government.”
But American Affairs may be less about remaking conservatism than simply transcending the leftover ideologies of the late 20th century. For all of the journal’s rightward tilt, it has made overtures to the left as well. When Pappin and Krein debated two editors from Dissent last May in New York, they made a point of seeking common cause with their progressive counterparts—though the Dissent editors seemed far from amenable. The third issue of American Affairs even includes an essay titled, “Make the Left Great Again.”
Does the future belong to a reformed National Affairs-style conservatism or to a more radically revised right (or left) led by American Affairs? A qualified, disinterested judge might be Samuel Goldman, director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University and literary editor of the venerable conservative quarterly, Modern Age. (It was founded in 1957 by Russell Kirk.)
“My concern about what’s been called Reform Conservatism or the Reformicons is that in their presentation they miss the forest for the trees,” Goldman says, “and they sometimes give the impression that what they’re interested in is technocratic fiddling,” something that Goldman sees as valuable but of limited appeal. “One reason that I think that candidates they favored were unsuccessful,” he continues, “is that they could tell you a lot about what they wanted to do to your taxes, but they didn’t really have a story about who they were, what they wanted to do, and how that would help ordinary people.”
American Affairs, by contrast, is “in some ways the opposite. They have a fantastic story and a very powerful account of what’s gone wrong and also where we should be going. In that case, the question is the details. And although it’s described as a policy journal, I didn’t see very much policy in the first issue.”
Goldman, 37, shares with Krein and Pappin a Harvard connection—he earned his Ph.D. there. Unlike any other editor at a conservative quarterly, though, Goldman also has a background in punk rock, which he played in bands in high school and as an undergraduate at Rutgers. Becoming a conservative was, he jokes, an even better way to shock authority figures than being a punk rocker: “Nothing is more annoying and offensive than a young conservative.”
Goldman’s approach to conservatism is distinct from that of the big policy journals. He places an increasing emphasis on literature, particularly the novels of George Eliot, “because her presentation of social relations is among the most humane of which I know, and in some ways that’s been a kind of antidote for me to the bitterness and nastiness of the last few months.” Goldman elaborates, “Eliot presents people as people, not as social or ideological caricatures, and that means both good and bad, but valuable as they are. One of the important features of a more literary or imaginative or cultural perspective on conservatism is that it reminds us of what’s really important and what’s really to be conserved, which is the possibility of humane personal existence, for real people.”
At Modern Age, Goldman was working in tandem with the journal’s editor, the prolific scholar Peter Augustine Lawler, a self-described “post-modern conservative.” Under Lawler, Modern Age this year took on a new currency, with essays by Yuval Levin, Goldman, and others on the meaning of conservatism in the age of Trump. But Lawler fell ill suddenly and died in May, leaving the journal to his successor.
While I was at work on this essay, I learned that I had been chosen to be that successor. The hour is too early for me to digress on my vision for Modern Age, but I hope I can do honor to the standards Peter Lawler set. And I look forward to the quarterly begun by Russell Kirk taking its place alongside National Affairs, American Affairs, and the Claremont Review of Books in the revival of the conservative mind.
Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative and incoming editor of Modern Age.
American politics is awhirl. Donald Trump’s transformation of the right is the clearest sign of it. But the left is reborn, too—in outraged opposition to the new president and with the example of Bernie Sanders pointing his young admirers toward democratic socialism. Any ideology that fails to adapt to this radically altered environment will die. Can libertarianism, a philosophy at odds with Sanders’s democratic socialism as well as Trump’s populist nationalism, survive?
Its formulas are well known: gun rights and gay rights; lower taxes and less military spending; civil liberties and maximum market freedom; open immigration and free trade. To critics, all this adds up to an amoral, if not immoral, philosophy. But in the pages of Reason last summer, two of libertarianism’s leading minds set out to refute that impression and change the way the heirs to classical liberalism think about themselves. William Ruger, the Charles Koch Institute’s vice president of research and policy, and Jason Sorens, founder of the Free State Project, introduced the concept of “virtue libertarianism.”
The most dogged defenders of the right to do as one pleases—to buy and sell freely, even drugs and sex—must still draw and act upon moral distinctions, they argued. Not everything that is uncoerced is good. Virtue is not only right in itself but is an indispensable support to a free society. Vice, by contrast, breeds dependence and servility: “we have set up for failure those who, for whatever reason, suffer from greater impulsiveness, hedonism, laziness, hopelessness, or greed,” Ruger and Sorens warned. Moral interventions—not government interventions, but judicious praise and blame—are essential to the health of society.
“To respect others, we must act beneficently and generously toward them, not just refrain from taking their freedom,” Sorens and Ruger contend:
In some cases, this means providing approbation and disapproval of certain choices to foster a culture consistent with human flourishing and a free society. For example, we should applaud those who pursue excellence in education, the arts, and sport as well as those who give their time and money to help their local communities. We should also not be afraid to hold up life-long committed marriage as an ideal for those with children. Harder in our current age, but equally important for a good society, we should not shy away from expressing disapproval of rent-seekers (those who demand special government privileges), those who harm themselves and their families through habitual intoxication or gambling, and those who idle away their time and talents in frivolous pursuits. … if someone wants to drink his life away, that should be legal but strongly disapproved or even shunned.
This is a libertarian alternative to tackling moral and social problems through government. “Prohibitions, SWAT raids, and prison terms for non-violent criminals are all poor ways to grow a healthy moral ecology. Society has better, more-just alternatives.” The same strictures all libertarians apply to the use of formal power are upheld by virtue libertarians—but the moral pressure that others eschew, they employ. The goal of virtue libertarianism is to regulate society by manners and morals, as far as possible, rather than the blunt instrument of law.
It’s an idea that would have been familiar in an older America, and though its proponents don’t want to turn back the clock—they recognize how much moral progress has been made with respect to minority rights, for example—their vision is distinctly traditional, rooted in an understanding of virtue that extends from Aristotle to the American Founders. If Trump aims to make America great again, Ruger and Sorens would make morality bourgeois again. But is that enough to make libertarianism matter to the 21st century?
Just three years ago, libertarianism laid plausible claim to being the future of American politics. The New York Times magazine ran a cover story on what it called the “libertarian moment”; two months later, the cover of Time proclaimed Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky to be “the most interesting man in politics.” The senator’s father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul, had made libertarianism a powerful force in the Republican Party with his presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012, which won no primaries but set records for small-donor fundraising and forged new cadres of grassroots activists. If Ron Paul had achieved so much with a radical libertarian message that often shocked GOP sensibilities, then surely his more mainstream son would do even better.
Instead the younger Paul’s presidential bid fizzled last year: he won fewer votes in Iowa than his father had received four years earlier, and the senator ended his campaign before New Hampshire. The 2016 Republican contest evolved into a struggle between, on the one hand, two factions that had dominated the party since the Reagan era—orthodox conservatives and establishment moderates—and, on the other, the insurgent nationalism of Trump. Libertarianism was left out.
That presented an opportunity for the Libertarian Party. Since 2008, it had tried to capitalize on Ron Paul’s success with Republican voters by nominating former GOP officeholders as its presidential candidates: first former congressman Bob Barr; then former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson in 2012. Last year the LP nominated Johnson a second time, with another ex-GOP governor, William Weld of Massachusetts, as his running mate. They had hopes, stoked by polls throughout the summer, of winning 10 percent or more of the popular vote. Even 5 percent would qualify the party for federal matching funds.
The major-party nominees were the most unpopular in history, and Republicans, it was thought, were especially reluctant to support their man. How could a third-party ticket of two Republican governors go wrong? Yet in the end Johnson and Weld received only 3.3 percent of the popular vote. This was not entirely their fault: however unpopular Trump and Clinton may have been, the Republican and Democratic candidates represented such starkly contrasting policies and values that even voters who considered the election a choice among evils were apt to have a preference. The only way to stop the candidate they feared more—whether that was Clinton or Trump—was to vote, reluctantly or not, for the other major-party contender.
Still, the result was disappointing: was this all that libertarians could hope for in the very best-case scenario? Critics ascribed Johnson and Weld’s failure to their campaign’s ideological tilt. Despite being ex-Republicans—though Weld, to be sure, was a notably liberal GOP governor—the Libertarian candidates made a “play entirely to the left,” as Austin Petersen, one of Johnson’s former rivals for the LP nomination, told Reason. The Johnson-Weld ticket was far from advancing anything like virtue libertarianism or addressing conservatives’ fears that, as Ruger and Sorens put it, “the movement will precipitate the unmooring of society from its moral anchors.”
Presidential politics does not tell the whole story of libertarianism’s fortunes, however. Since 2008, a small but staunch bloc of libertarian-leaning Republicans has emerged in Congress, including Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, as well as Senator Paul. Their allies include Reps. Dave Brat of Virginia and Mark Sanford of South Carolina, and also the congressman Trump picked to lead the White House Office of Management and Budget, South Carolina’s Mick Mulvaney.
In the policy realm, libertarianism is well-served by think tanks such as the Cato Institute, and the movement has a presence on campuses in the form of Americans for Liberty and Students for Liberty, two organizations launched in 2008. (Ron Paul’s influence is obvious here, too.) The Koch brothers and their funding network support libertarian causes, and key libertarian positions, such as marijuana decriminalization and a more restrained foreign policy, enjoy widening popular support.
Libertarianism has a toehold in American public life. But can it ever have more than a toehold? Why, when it has such impressive resources—billionaire financial backing, cadres of intellectuals and activists—isn’t it more successful in politics or, more importantly, in policy? How can libertarianism grow?
The question might seem irrelevant to conservatives and progressives, the dominant ideological forces within the major parties and—at least until Trump’s nationalism takes institutional root—in the country as a whole. But there are reasons why libertarianism should matter even to non-libertarians. The ideology’s adherents help to keep both conservatives and progressives honest—and from becoming intellectually complacent. They are exquisitely sensitive to government abuses: libertarians are an early-warning system for tyranny. They serve as a kind of conscience, too, in reminding the left and the right, as they embark on value-laden programs of government-directed social change, that there are costs even to pursuing well-meaning policies, and that some powers are too great to be entrusted even to good men in the name of a noble cause. Government can be an instrument of self-righteous arrogance; libertarians of all kinds, by the nature of their ideology, supply a balancing virtue of humility.
Conservatives, especially those of the older sort, have a particular interest in the well-being of libertarianism: libertarianism in some form is a vital component of “fusionism”—the philosophy, promoted by National Review senior editor Frank Meyer, that fuses elements of both libertarianism and traditionalism. Indeed, the conservative movement that developed in the early years of the Cold War saw itself as a return to classical liberalism: Ronald Reagan told Reason in a 1975 interview, “If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.”
What led to the emergence of a libertarian movement separate from conservatism was a split over the Cold War—libertarians were doves, orthodox conservatives tended to be hawks—and the counterculture of the 1960s. The virtue libertarianism that Ruger and Sorens promote is not marketed only to the right, but it holds promise for repairing the breach that occurred with conservatives over the hedonism of the ’60s. Conservative and libertarian realists have already been close allies since the first Gulf War, jointly opposing neoconservative wars and humanitarian interventionism.
But the greatest promise virtue libertarianism holds is in returning the philosophy to its roots in the classical liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries, when liberalism became one of the dominant political forces in the English-speaking world (and to a lesser extent in France and elsewhere on the European continent). What led to the rise of classical liberalism is worth recounting. It began with religious liberty. Dissenting Protestants demanded the freedom to worship according to their consciences and to participate in civil affairs, though they often refused to extend such tolerance to Catholics. Political liberals were inconsistent too, but as a philosophy liberalism came to enshrine the principle of tolerance and civil liberty for all believers—and, by extension, nonbelievers as well. Far from being hostile to religion, classical liberalism was fathered by faith and cherished its virtues.
In large part, that was true also of classical liberalism’s economic program, as rising Protestant minorities who excelled in commerce and industry sought to reform the quasi-agrarian policies of the old order. Thrift and industriousness were the virtues that underwrote the rise of capitalism, and as a political and philosophical adjunct to the economic system, liberalism provided a means to understand and defend the new commercial society.
A third critical component of classical liberalism was its commitment to constitutional order—to expanding the franchise and other political reforms but only so long as property and other rights were secure. In this, liberalism was a reforming corrective to the forces that opposed any widening of the electorate and at the same time a check upon tendencies toward direct democracy and mob rule. Political prudence was a cardinal virtue of liberalism at its best.
In all this, liberalism enjoyed the support of the middle class—it was veritably the political expression of the bourgeoisie. Yet it could command surprising support even among working men, though it was not much loved by the farmer or clergy of the established religion (which is why the Church of England was “the Conservative Party at prayer”). In America, where Protestantism and commerce held greater sway than in Britain, liberalism seemed almost to be the heart of the country’s political tradition, to the point that Americans who began to think of themselves as “conservatives” during the Cold War nonetheless insisted that American conservatism was true liberalism—and New Dealers had no right to the name. The word “libertarian” was a conscious attempt to reclaim liberalism’s heritage.
The conditions that gave rise to liberalism in the first place bear comparison to the politics of today. The culture war between the religious right and the secular left is more than a little reminiscent of the battles between Dissenters and Establishment, and between Protestants and Catholics, in the European politics of the past. The principles of commercial society stand again in need of clarification and defense, not against feudalism, mercantilism, or 19th-century socialism, but against crony capitalism, administrative statism, and the mixed economies of the Keynesian left and economically nationalist right. The old class basis of liberalism, however, is imperiled: the truly bourgeois businessman and shopkeeper has been replaced by the salaryman and bureaucrat. There are still honest entrepreneurial capitalists, small and large, but they are politically disorganized and outflanked. Finally, instead of a fight for formal democratic representation, as in the 19th century, we now have a situation in which a universally enfranchised adult electorate nevertheless experiences frustration at a dwindling sense of control over government.
The old liberalism was not an ideology for scholastics and oddballs; it was bourgeois and mainstream. Libertarianism today, on the other hand, is often a ménage of three rather strange bedfellows. First is an unshakable but dispassionate attachment to markets—an attitude of free-market technocracy more enamored of formulas for liberty than with liberty itself (to say nothing of virtue). Second, a pop-minded contrarianism that mocks the pieties of traditionalism and political correctness alike. And finally, on the Ron Paul side, there is an anti-elitist as well as anti-government populism. These strains in themselves all have merits. But they don’t add up to much political strength: the anti-government populists have numbers but are also more right-leaning—and specifically Trump-leaning—than the free-market technocrats and pop-culture contrarians, who lean to the center or left. The technocrats have academic respectability but little popular following, while the pop libertarians include some moderately well-known celebrities—magician Penn Jillette, for example, and Lisa Kennedy, a former MTV veejay now seen on Fox Business Channel—but no one of the media stature of, say, the former longtime host of The Apprentice.
There is today nothing quite like the old bourgeois Protestant base to which the original liberalism appealed. But there are at least four politically significant groups that seem ripe for the virtue-libertarian message.
The first are center-right Republicans: those disillusioned by neocon foreign policy; religious, or at least respectful of religion, but not hard-line culture warriors; and committed to the old Cold War conservative economic agenda of free markets rather than economic nationalism. Fusionism was once the leading philosophy among American conservatives—at least according to surveys taken by Young Americans for Freedom in the 1960s—but today it’s without an institutional home or voice, as movement conservatism has come to be dominated by a new mix of right-wing tendencies that now includes neoconservatism, Christian conservatism, and Trumpian nationalism.
The second group pulls together truly “liberal” Democrats who are horrified by the excesses of identity politics and by the prospect of the Democratic Party taking a hard-left turn in reaction to Trump. These Democrats would have been primed for the transition to neoconservatism once upon a time—and they may yet become an element of a neocon revival if libertarians don’t get to them first. These liberal Democrats are few in number but occupy some important places in academia. They are staunchly committed to free speech and the legacy of the Enlightenment. But they aren’t primarily motivated by free-market economics. Virtue, however, is a language that may appeal to them.
Third is a group that might be called the religious center-right, which seeks a non-nationalistic political ideology—one grounded in values rather than identity—and a resolution to the culture war that affirms respect, tolerance, and some clearly drawn lines for conscience in the public sphere.
Fourth, there are the “pragmatic populists,” eager to pare back the power of Washington and the role of credentialed elites in running red-state Americans’ lives, but who nonetheless have the patience to pursue reformist policies. Theirs is a slow-and-steady rather than impulsive populism, and the farsighted prudence of virtue libertarianism may be a good fit for their temperament.
The common ground of all these groups is that they want a sober, serious, but not half-hearted or technocratic political philosophy, one with enough strength to resist the excesses of the left and right alike. Even if these elements can be brought together by virtue libertarianism, they probably do not amount to a majoritarian force. But a movement need not command a majority to shape the way politics operates. The idea is to occupy the strategic center, not with a narrow elite but with a wide segment of normal Americans—above average in income and education, perhaps, but not culturally rarefied in the way that celebrities, think-tank wonks, and academics are. The ideology for this coalition is one that can appeal to what once would have been called the newspaper-reading bourgeois middle.
But isn’t this style of politics what Rand Paul attempted? And doesn’t his weak performance in 2016 suggest that it has no hope?
The opposite is true: if virtue libertarianism had been widely known before Paul launched his candidacy, he might have drawn considerable strength from it. Paul’s campaign was hobbled from the start by the misidentification of the Kentucky senator’s philosophy with the other “brands” known as libertarianism. To conservative talk-radio hosts and even veteran Goldwater Republicans—as I can attest from personal conversations—Rand Paul’s libertarianism meant either his father’s no-compromise approach or Reason’s countercultural proclivities. The idea that libertarianism could mean something different—something mainstream, practical, and conservatively virtuous—seemed hard for them to believe.
Republicans who reflexively dismissed Paul and turned instead to more easily understood orthodox conservatives like Ted Cruz would have had an easier time supporting someone like the Kentucky senator if they had been familiar with virtue libertarianism.
But virtue libertarianism can serve an even more important role in politics. Clear ideas and publications or other institutions that express such ideas are the launchpad of insurgent candidacies. Rand Paul had the disadvantage of not having a distinct base of ideas to draw upon: he had movement conservatism, which was more aligned with more orthodox candidates, and he had versions of libertarianism that were unrepresentative of his views and temperament.
The role of ideological institutions in laying the intellectual groundwork for political change cannot be exaggerated. Breitbart was critical to the Trump phenomenon—just as its former editor, Steve Bannon, is a key player in the new administration. Ron Paul’s rise as Republican insurgent was foreshadowed by the online popularity of “paleo-libertarian” institutions such as the Ludwig von Mises Institute and LewRockwell.com, the latter published by one of Ron Paul’s former chiefs of staff. National Review, of course, and its brand of conservatism were instrumental in transforming the Republican Party of the 1950s into the party of the Reagan era. The New Republic had been similarly important to progressives a century ago.
Classical liberalism was the hallmark philosophy for a full century. Virtue libertarianism may not be able to match that influence, barring the unlikely revival of the old bourgeoisie. But it has the potential to revive commitments to liberty and virtue alike in American politics. For that alone it deserves attention and applause.
Daniel McCarthy is editor-at-large of The American Conservative.
Donald Trump is president-elect, and the panic-stricken sensationalism that characterized the mass media’s coverage of his campaign has not let up in the slightest since his victory over Hillary Clinton. If you believe what you read in the papers, America has evidently been seized by neo-fascists. Fringe racial agitators have been treated to lavish profiles in the nation’s leading newspapers and magazines, which present them as virtual spokesmen for Trump and his voters. Trump himself continues to be portrayed as corrupt or, at best, a man who has absolutely no idea what he’s doing.
Yet the media is mostly deceiving itself, and what happened on Election Day should have prompted our commentariat to reconsider its biases. Trump, dismissed all along as someone who could not possibly win the White House, defied the polls and pundits alike, and he did so not by appealing to a few hundred white nationalists but by claiming victory in purple and blue states. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan responded to Trump’s appeal to middle- and working-class America. If the media had better understood Trump’s message, his success would not have been such a surprise. And if Hillary Clinton had understood it, she still wouldn’t be president—the magnitude of her defeat on the electoral map was greater than John Kerry’s in 2004—but she would have made the contest closer.
Clinton did win the popular vote, and Republicans cannot rest easy in the belief that the advantages federalism grants their party will keep them in power forever. But if Trump makes good on his economic promises and keeps out of the kinds of nation-building wars he condemned on the campaign trail, his support will only grow over the next four years. Trump’s victory in November was a proof of concept: he demonstrated that an innovative kind of conservatism—closely akin to the paleoconservatism that Pat Buchanan championed—can win in a wider range of states than Bush-style conservatism ever could. Having shown how broadly this approach can succeed, he (and others) can now deepen and develop it, increasing its margins of support to the point where it becomes truly a majority force.
That will require imagination, and 21st-century conservatism will necessarily develop in part through trial and error. Trump’s lack of experience in government does present risks—but without such risks there would be no possibility of breaking with the failed policies of the last 15 years.
Our politics needs a new beginning. Our media would be well served to look at the world through fresh eyes as well. The American Conservative has been careful to give its readers a better sense of the nation’s—and world’s—realities. And just as changes are coming to government and the war of ideas, changes are coming to TAC, too—without, of course, altering our commitment to principle over party and ideas over ideology.
This issue is my last as editor, as I hand the reins of the magazine founded by Pat Buchanan, Taki Theodoracopulos, and Scott McConnell to Robert Merry, an editor, scholar, and conservative ideally qualified to carry on the magazine’s traditions and raise it to new heights. Welcome, Robert, and thanks to the readers and writers who have made my tenure as editor a joy. Happy New Year, and onward to a new America in 2017.
The polls and pundits were wrong: Donald Trump not only outpaced expectations, all the way to the White House, but early exit polls suggest he did better with Hispanics and other minorities than Mitt Romney did. The Obama coalition did not turn out for Hillary Clinton. And the media was blindsided by the results because it had spent over a year portraying Trump as an unelectable extremist. The one-sidedness of the prestige media—which featured as conservative and Republican voices on its op-ed pages and TV programs only anti-Trump figures such as Michael Gerson, David Brooks, Bill Kristol, and Stuart Stevens—deluded the elites themselves about the mood of the country.
The prospect of a Clinton-Bush race 18 months ago was revolting to the American public, so much so that Republicans humiliated Jeb Bush in the primaries and awarded their nomination instead to the most anti-establishment candidate, Donald Trump. The Democrats, with some skulduggery, gave their nomination to Hillary Clinton, a figure who embodied the political establishment of the last 25-odd years. She had voted for Republican wars as well as ginning up intervention in the Libyan conflict. She was as close to the big banks as any politician in America. And she was not only the inevitable nominee of the Democratic Party, she seemed inevitably to be the next president. But the American people disagreed, and so did Donald Trump.
Trump won on themes of overhauling our foreign policy—America doesn’t win any more, he rightly observed—and renegotiating trade deals that have failed to serve the American workforce. He wants to secure the border and ensure that immigration is lawful and limited. Trump’s words have sometimes been blunt, and his policy proposals have often been eclectic—that’s to be expected; he’s a businessman, not a professional politician or wonk. (That’s exactly what the public was not voting for.) But his broad themes have been themes that readers of The American Conservative have understood as central to the task of preserving our country and upholding the principles of a republic, not a world empire.
The hard work begins once President Trump is sworn in, of course. He’ll have to build a cabinet of other leaders with Trump-like qualities, and complementary traits, assembling a team of advisors and policy-makers who will faithfully implement his vision. Trump faces a challenge similar to the one Ronald Reagan confronted and had only partial success in overcoming: namely, that of finding enough good people to take the reins of government. Without the president discovering better new talent, the usual suspect will quickly return: the ones who gave us the Iraq War and whose economics led to the Great Recession.
As difficult as this task may be, the first step, ridding America of the political dynasties that have ruled it for the better part of two decades, has been accomplished, and now the next battles can be fought—and, if Trump sticks to the themes that got him elected, won. This is an historic hour, and America has possibilities anew—possibilities that would have been forever precluded by an endless succession of Bushes and Clintons.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.
The 2016 election presents the starkest choice American voters have faced in at least 40 years. On one side is a nominee unlike any the country has seen before: a billionaire businessman and celebrity without a day’s experience in political office. On the other side is the first woman ever to be a major-party’s nominee: a woman with experience as a U.S. senator and secretary of state and who has already lived in the White House as first lady.
Hillary Clinton represents everything the country’s political elite believes in: the perpetuation and exercise of U.S. global power; trade deals and immigration for the sake of the economy; a privileged position for the big banks; and a culture of steady liberal progress that transcends the limits of the nation state and the historic West.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, is satan: an old, rich, white man of “isolationist” and nationalistic tendencies who transgresses against every stricture of political correctness (and a good many precepts of common decency). For at least the last 24 years, every election has pitted a Republican globalist against Democratic one, both candidates unblinking in their support for NATO and NAFTA: Bush (I), Clinton (I), Dole, Gore, Bush (II), Kerry, McCain, Obama, Romney. And now Clinton (II). But Trump breaks the mold.
So what—he’ll lose, won’t he? Yes, probably. But if he does, he’ll lose like Barry Goldwater or George McGovern: that is, not in a landslide, but in a way that redefines politics even in defeat. And unless a technologically driven economic miracle similar to the one that took place under Clinton (I) happens under Clinton (II), the public’s appetite for anti-globalist politics will only grow. Pat Buchanan raised the issues of war, trade, and immigration 20 years ago, but they lost salience amid the prosperity of the 1990s. By 2000 even right-wing voters were contented enough to settle for another Bush—especially against the then explicitly progressive John McCain—rather than take a risk on Buchanan. But after the Iraq War and the Great Recession, after killing bin Laden and Gaddafi only led to new waves of terror, voters on the right have proved more willing than ever to reject the post-Cold War consensus. Voters on the left, especially millennials, have begun to do so as well, as Bernie Sanders’s campaign illustrated. The consensus is under siege from the nationalist right and the democratic-socialist left alike—and that’s something Hillary Clinton, the personification of the consensus, is unlikely to know how to fix.
If Trump wins, he will be the most transformative president for his own party since Bill Clinton. Pro-life Democrats, welfarist Democrats, and Southern Democrats were all swept away or willingly left the party during the Clinton years. Would President Trump similarly cause an exodus of Republicans—or would he prove to be the anti-Clinton in more ways than one, bringing new elements into the party and broadening its ideological compass, just as he would seek to reverse Clinton’s trade, immigration, and foreign policies? Could a nationalist politics also be pragmatic and accommodating—and where would this leave conservatives?
All of this is only grist for speculation, but some things can be said with certainty, especially in foreign policy. First, the rise of a nationalist right with Trump and the parallel—but occasionally intersecting—rise of libertarian foreign-policy perspectives with the efforts of Ron and Rand Paul and the tug of non-interventionism even on Gary Johnson (a man who seems to know little and care less about world affairs) poses a standing challenge to primacist internationalism of what can fairly be called the Clinton-Bush consensus. Whether Trump or Clinton is the next president, there will be a struggle over the basic direction of U.S. foreign policy, a struggle pitting primacists on left and right alike against thinkers who prioritize the nation state and the national interest.
Second, Russia will be a flashpoint of strategic contention in the next administration, whether that means President Trump seeking a new relationship with Moscow or President Clinton setting out to confront and chastise Putin for involvement in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere. The military risks—up to and including the ultimate risk of nuclear war—are grave. Yet also deserving of serious consideration is a cultural question: what is Russia’s relationship to Western civilization, particularly to its Christian roots, in an age of jihadism, mass migration, and European secularization? The civilizational and the strategic questions are, of course, related—in complex ways that are apt not to be appreciated by the reductionist thinkers of the liberal consensus. (If anything cannot be described in terms of human rights or GDP, liberals don’t believe it exists or can matter—except perhaps as a pathology.)
Third, President Trump or President Clinton will be faced equally with the strict limits of American military power in terms of personnel, materiel, money, and morale. The costs of veterans’ care and new military hardware will only rise, while the “sequester” that has controlled defense spending since 2013 will remain a target for hawks and pork-lovers in both parties. The American people, meanwhile, are alarmed by ISIS and the prospect of Islamist terror yet weary of sending their children to fight and die in foreign lands. Whether President Trump wants to fight ISIS and “take their oil” or President Clinton hopes to engineer regime change in Syria without “boots on the ground” (except for special forces and “advisors,” of course), the American public’s skepticism of further Mideast misadventures may give Congress an opportunity to reassert its constitutional role in war and foreign policy. But does Congress have the guts to live up to its duty?
Fourth, and relatedly, there is the unavoidable fact that American policy in the Middle East and the wider Islamic world—what Andrew Bacevich calls America’s War for the Greater Middle East—has failed. Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama was able to wrap-up the Afghan War, now by far America’s longest-lasting conflict, one that has no clear end or goal in sight. Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen bleed, as do the civilian casualties—mere “collateral damage”—of drone strikes throughout the region. Obama has already discovered that simply continuing the policies established by George W. Bush provides no answers, and no matter how much continuity Clinton may wish to see between her administration and Obama’s (assuming she wishes to see any), a new approach to the Middle East and Islamic world appears imperative. And will be all the more so if Trump becomes president. Should America be militarily involved in the region at all?
The struggle to answer these questions and address these challenges will begin the minute the results of the vote on November 8 are known: globalists and interventionists in both parties have their programs ready to go and their personnel ready to fill the ranks of the next administration, no matter who wins. The other side—the coalition of peace, restraint, and realism—is still new and largely ad hoc. But it must be ready, too, and The American Conservative will do its part to make it so. The conference we have been advertising for a few weeks now—set for November 15, one week after the election—will be a first salvo in the war of ideas over the next administration’s foreign policy. We have conservatives and libertarians, current and former office-holders—including James Webb, former senator and former secretary of the Navy—and leading scholars and journalists (such as Andrew Bacevich and James Pinkerton) lined up to discuss these issues (and more).
I hope you can join us for “Foreign Policy in America’s Interest: Realism, Nationalism, and the National Interest.” The event is free, and it takes places at George Washington University’s Jack Morton auditorium from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on November 15. You can register here. And you can help us make this event a success—and keep The American Conservative going strong—by making a secure electronic donation here.
A new era is beginning in American politics, not only one that will see nationalism and globalism contend for the soul of the next administration but one that will give rise to new permutations of conservatism, realism, and libertarian foreign-policy thought. Whether we are to have a world of sovereign nation-states or one in which a single imperial superpower contends with increasingly fragmentary post-national and sub-national threats around the globe will depend on the decisions that are made in the near future: in the next few years. There is peril in either direction, but self-government still depends on the nation-state. TAC has been laying the groundwork for a return to the national interest and America’s republican tradition in foreign policy since its first issue in 2002. And in the next administration, amid the battle to redefine conservatism, TAC aims to make a decisive difference.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.
Shock gave way to relief this summer as America’s political establishment—rattled by Donald Trump’s success in winning the Republican nomination—reassured itself of his inevitable defeat come November. For a moment Trump seemed to have created a new style of politics, one that threatened to mobilize working-class voters against the establishment in both parties. But in the weeks following the Democratic National Convention, as Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers remained comfortably ahead of Trump’s, pundits discounted the risk of class war.
Trump’s voters were not really so hard hit anyway, a report by Gallup claimed. “His supporters are less educated and more likely to work in blue collar occupations,” wrote Jonathan Rothwell, a senior economist at the polling firm, “but they earn relative[ly] high household incomes, and living in areas more exposed to trade or immigration does not increase Trump support.” Trump’s voters were most strongly characterized by their “racial isolation”: they live in places with little ethnic diversity. Thus race, not class, explains the 2016 election—or so outlets like Vox and the Washington Post concluded.
But there’s another side to the Trump phenomenon that is less about Trump or his voters than about the elites they are against. Resistance to the bipartisan establishment keeps growing, and even if Trump loses to Clinton in a landslide, he has carried the rebellion further than ever before by winning a major party’s nomination.
Since the Cold War ended, U.S. politics has seen a series of insurgent candidacies. Pat Buchanan prefigured Trump in the Republican contests of 1992 and 1996. Ralph Nader challenged the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party from the outside in 2000. Ron Paul vexed establishment Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012. And this year, Trump was not the only candidate to confound his party’s elite: Bernie Sanders harried Hillary Clinton right up to the Democratic convention.
What do these insurgents have in common? All have called into question the interventionist consensus in foreign policy. All have opposed large-scale free-trade agreements. (The libertarian Paul favors unilateral free trade: by his lights, treaties like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are not free trade at all but international regulatory pacts.) And while no one would mistake Ralph Nader’s or Ron Paul’s views on immigration for Pat Buchanan’s or Donald Trump’s, Nader and Paul have registered their own dissents from the approach to immigration that prevails in Washington.
Sanders has been more in line with his party’s orthodoxy on that issue. But that didn’t save him from being attacked by Clinton backers for having an insufficiently nonwhite base of support. Once again, what might have appeared to be a class conflict—in this case between a democratic socialist and an elite liberal with ties to high finance—could be explained away as really about race.
Race, like religion, is a real factor in how people vote. Its relevance to elite politics, however, is less clear. Something else has to account for why the establishment in both parties almost uniformly favors one approach to war, trade, and immigration, while outsider candidates as dissimilar as Buchanan, Nader, Paul, and Trump, and to a lesser extent Sanders, depart from the consensus.
The insurgents clearly do not represent a single class: they appeal to eclectic interests and groups. The foe they have all faced down, however—the bipartisan establishment—does resemble a class in its striking unity of outlook and interest. So what is this class, effectively the ruling class of the country?
Some critics on the right have identified it with the “managerial” class described by James Burnham in his 1941 book The Managerial Revolution. But it bears a stronger resemblance to what what others have called “the New Class.” In fact, the interests of this New Class of college-educated “verbalists” are antithetical to those of the industrial managers that Burnham described. Understanding the relationship between these two often conflated concepts provides insight into politics today, which can be seen as a clash between managerial and New Class elites.
The archetypal model of class conflict, the one associated with Karl Marx, pits capitalists against workers—or, at an earlier stage, capitalists against the landed nobility. The capitalists’ victory over the nobility was inevitable, and so too, Marx believed, was the coming triumph of the workers over the capitalists.
Over the next century, however, history did not follow the script. By 1992, the Soviet Union was gone, Communist China had embarked on market reforms, and Western Europe was turning away from democratic socialism. There was no need to predict the future; mankind had achieved its destiny, a universal order of liberal democracy. Marx had it backwards: capitalism was the end of history.
But was the truth as simple as that? Long before the collapse of the USSR, many former communists—some of whom remained socialists, while others joined the right—thought not. The Soviet Union had never been a workers’ state at all, they argued, but was run by a class of apparatchiks such as Marx had never imagined.
Among the first to advance this argument was James Burnham, a professor of philosophy at New York University who became a leading Trotskyist thinker. As he broke with Trotsky and began moving toward the right, Burnham recognized affinities between the Soviet mode of organization—in which much real power lay in the hands of the commissars who controlled industry and the bureaucratic organs of the state—and the corporatism that characterized fascist states. Even the U.S., under the New Deal and with ongoing changes to the balance between ownership and management in the private sector, seemed to be moving in the same direction.
Burnham called this the “managerial revolution.” The managers of industry and technically trained government officials did not own the means of production, like the capitalists of old. But they did control the means of production, thanks to their expertise and administrative prowess.
The rise of this managerial class would have far-reaching consequences, he predicted. Burnham wrote in his 1943 book, The Machiavellians: “that the managers may function, the economic and political structure must be modified, as it is now being modified, so as to rest no longer on private ownership and small-scale nationalist sovereignty, but primarily upon state control of the economy, and continental or vast regional world political organization.” Burnham pointed to Nazi Germany, imperial Japan—which became a “continental” power by annexing Korea and Manchuria—and the Soviet Union as examples.
The defeat of the Axis powers did not halt the progress of the managerial revolution. Far from it: not only did the Soviets retain their form of managerialism, but the West increasingly adopted a managerial corporatism of its own, marked by cooperation between big business and big government: high-tech industrial crony capitalism, of the sort that characterizes the military-industrial complex to this day. (Not for nothing was Burnham a great advocate of America’s developing a supersonic transport of its own to compete with the French-British Concorde.)
America’s managerial class was personified by Robert S. McNamara, the former Ford Motor Company executive who was secretary of defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. In a 1966 story for National Review, “Why Do They Hate Robert Strange McNamara?” Burnham answered the question in class terms: “McNamara is attacked by the Left because the Left has a blanket hatred of the system of business enterprise; he is criticized by the Right because the Right harks back, in nostalgia if not in practice, to outmoded forms of business enterprise.”
McNamara the managerial technocrat was too business-oriented for a left that still dreamed of bringing the workers to power. But the modern form of industrial organization he represented was not traditionally capitalist enough for conservatives who were at heart 19th-century classical liberals.
National Review readers responded to Burnham’s paean to McNamara with a mixture of incomprehension and indignation. It was a sign that even readers familiar with Burnham—he appeared in every issue of the magazine—did not always follow what he was saying. The popular right wanted concepts that were helpful in labeling enemies, and Burnham was confusing matters by talking about changes in the organization of government and industry that did not line up with anyone’s value judgements.
More polemically useful was a different concept popularized by neoconservatives in the following decade: the “New Class.” “This ‘new class’ is not easily defined but may be vaguely described,” Irving Kristol wrote in a 1975 essay for the Wall Street Journal:
It consists of a goodly proportion of those college-educated people whose skills and vocations proliferate in a ‘post-industrial society’ (to use Daniel Bell’s convenient term). We are talking about scientists, teachers, and educational administrators, journalists and others in the communication industries, psychologists, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the expanding public sector, city planners, the staffs of the larger foundations, the upper levels of the government bureaucracy, and so on.
“Members of the new class do not ‘control’ the media,” he continued, “they are the media—just as they are our educational system, our public health and welfare system, and much else.”
Burnham, writing in National Review in 1978, drew a sharp contrast between this concept and his own ideas:
I have felt that this ‘new class’ is, so far, rather thin gruel. Intellectuals, verbalists, media types, etc. are conspicuous actors these days, certainly; they make a lot of noise, get a lot of attention, and some of them make a lot of money. But, after all, they are a harum-scarum crowd, and deflate even more quickly than they puff up. On TV they can out-talk any of the managers of ITT, GM, or IBM, or the administration-managers of the great government bureaus and agencies, but, honestly, you’re not going to take that as a power test. Who hires and fires whom?
Burnham suffered a stroke later that year. Although he lived until 1987, his career as a writer was over. His last years coincided with another great transformation of business and government. It began in the Carter administration, with moves to deregulate transportation and telecommunications. This partial unwinding of the managerial revolution accelerated under Ronald Reagan. Regulatory and welfare-state reforms, even privatization of formerly nationalized industries, also took off in the UK and Western Europe. All this did not, however, amount to a restoration of the old capitalism or anything resembling laissez-faire.
The “liberal democracy” that triumphed at “the end of history”—to use Francis Fukuyama’s words—was not the managerial capitalism of the mid-20th century, either. It was instead the New Class’s form of capitalism, one that could be embraced by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as readily as by any Republican or Thatcherite.
Irving Kristol had already noted in the 1970s that “this new class is not merely liberal but truly ‘libertarian’ in its approach to all areas of life—except economics. It celebrates individual liberty of speech and expression and action to an unprecedented degree, so that at times it seems almost anarchistic in its conception of the good life.”
He was right about the New Class’s “anything goes” mentality, but he was only partly correct about its attitude toward economics. The young elite tended to scorn the bourgeois character of the old capitalism, and to them managerial figures like McNamara were evil incarnate. But they had to get by—and they aspired to rule.
Burnham had observed that the New Class did not have the means—either money or manpower—to wield power the way the managers or the capitalists of old did. It had to borrow power from other classes. Discovering where the New Class gets it is as easy as following the money, which leads straight to the finance sector—practically to the doorstep of Goldman Sachs. Jerry Rubin’s journey from Yippie to yuppie was the paradigm of a generation.
Part of the tale can be told in a favorable light. New Left activists like Carl Oglesby fought the spiritual aridity and murderous militarism of what they called “corporate liberalism”—Burnham’s managerialism—while sincere young libertarians attacked the regulatory state and seeded technological entrepreneurship. Yet the New Class as a whole is less like Carl Oglesby or Karl Hess than like Hillary Clinton, who arguably embodies it as perfectly as McNamara did the managerial class.
Even the New Class’s support for deregulation—to the advantage of its allies on Wall Street—was no sign of consistent commitment to free-market principles. On the contrary, the New Class favors new kinds of crony finance capitalism, even as it opposes the protectionism that would benefit hard industry and managerial interests. The individual-mandate feature of Obamacare and Romneycare is a prime example of New Class cronyism: government compels individuals to buy a supposedly private product or service.
The alliance between finance and the New Class accounts for the disposition of power in America today. The New Class has also enlisted another invaluable ally: the managerial classes of East Asia. Trade with China—the modern managerial state par excellence—helps keep American industry weak relative to finance and the service economy’s verbalist-dominated sectors. America’s class war, like many others, is not in the end a contest between up and down. It’s a fight between rival elites: in this case, between the declining managerial elite and the triumphant (for now) New Class and financial elites.
The New Class plays a priestly role in its alliance with finance, absolving Wall Street for the sin of making money in exchange for plenty of that money to keep the New Class in power. In command of foreign policy, the New Class gets to pursue humanitarian ideological projects—to experiment on the world. It gets to evangelize by the sword. And with trade policy, it gets to suppress its class rival, the managerial elite, at home. Through trade pacts and mass immigration the financial elite, meanwhile, gets to maximize its returns without regard for borders or citizenship. The erosion of other nations’ sovereignty that accompanies American hegemony helps toward that end too—though our wars are more ideological than interest-driven.
So we come to an historic moment. Instead of an election pitting another Bush against another Clinton, we have a race that poses stark alternatives: a choice not only between candidates but between classes—not only between administrations but between regimes.
Donald Trump is not of the managerial class himself. But by embracing managerial interests—industrial protection and, yes, “big government”—and combining them with nationalistic identity politics, he has built a force that has potential to threaten the bipartisan establishment, even if he goes down to defeat in November.
The New Class, after all, lacks a popular base as well as money of its own, and just as it relies on Wall Street to underwrite its power, it depends on its competing brands of identity politics to co-opt popular support. For the center-left establishment, minority voters supply the electoral muscle. Religion and the culture war have served the same purpose for the establishment’s center-right faction. Trump showed that at least one of these sides could be beaten on its own turf—and it seems conceivable that if Bernie Sanders had been black, he might have similarly beaten Clinton, without having to make concessions to New Class tastes.
The New Class establishment of both parties may be seriously misjudging what is happening here. Far from being the last gasp of the demographically doomed—old, racially isolated white people, as Gallup’s analysis says—Trump’s insurgency may be the prototype of an aggressive new politics, of either left or right, that could restore the managerial elite to power.
This is not something that conservatives—or libertarians who admire the old capitalism rather than New Class’s simulacrum—might welcome. But the only way that some entrenched policies may change is with a change of the class in power.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.
In 2002, Andrew Bacevich published the first and in many ways most important history of the 9/11 era. Except that book, American Empire, was written before the 9/11 attacks. What Bacevich had done—by looking at the continuity of U.S. foreign policy under the first President Bush and (the first?) President Clinton—was to discern the fundamental habits, ideology, and institutional arrangements that would lead us into the wars of the George W. Bush years and beyond.
Bacevich’s ideas stood on their own (with acknowledged debts to Charles A. Beard and William Appleman Williams). But the ideas were reinforced by a credible biography—Bacevich was a soldier-scholar who had served in the U.S. Army for 23 years before becoming a professor of international relations. He had seen combat. And he was an eloquent writer as well as a scholar—a combination not to be taken for granted. American Empire and Bacevich’s subsequent books read as if they were written by a man who lives by his pen. Which is now the case, following Bacevich’s retirement from Boston University in 2014.
Along with these qualifications comes a moral vision. Bacevich is a conservative and a Catholic, though not a “Catholic conservative” in the sense in which that term is usually meant. In drawing upon progressives like Beard and Williams for his critique of a republic that was corroding into empire, Bacevich made the connection between consumerism as a way of life and the foreign policy of liberal hegemony. His is an old American voice, warning not only against going abroad in search of monsters to destroy but also against the loss of civic virtue. He has given his readers cause to reconsider the ethics of accumulation and expansion, as well as to rediscover the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.
This is worth stressing because of the nature of the war we are in—not this war or that war, in Afghanistan or Syria, but the ongoing war to tame the world for American ideals and markets. The spirit that drives Washington’s post-Cold War foreign policy—and drove much of our earlier foreign policy, too—arises from a view of history and a set of concepts that are compelling, flattering to ourselves, and wrong. To challenge this national orthodoxy, embedded as it is in our elite institutions and popular culture, takes courage and talent of an unusual kind. The task demands a historian with a feel for ethics and history as an organic whole, one who can tell the real story not just accurately but convincingly. That’s what Andrew Bacevich does.
Even his friends may not agree with him on every point. He favors a return to conscription to restore the citizen-soldier ideal—and to raise the cost of war high enough that more citizens will take it seriously. Whether that would be enough to dissuade their leaders from launching more wars like the one in Iraq is open to question. Other admirers of Bacevich are more sanguine than he is about global trade and consumer prosperity enduring—indeed flourishing—absent an imperial foreign policy. But even these optimists stand to learn something from the ethical restraint of Bacevich’s prescription. The lesson he imparts is one of self-discipline, not socialism.
Bacevich’s latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, is a bookend of sorts to American Empire. The earlier work was heavy on theory and institutional development, the groundwork for the wars of the early 21st century. The new book covers the history itself—and argues persuasively that the Afghanistan, Iraq, and other, smaller wars since 9/11 are parts of a larger conflict that began much earlier, back in the Carter administration.
Whatever the character of America’s involvement in the Middle East before 1980, when Bacevich’s account begins, it was not a war, at least not in terms of American casualties. “From the end of World War II to 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in that region,” he notes. “Within a decade,” however, “a great shift occurred. Since 1990, virtually no American soldiers have been killed in action anywhere except in the Greater Middle East.”
Operation Eagle Claw, Carter’s ill-fated mission to rescue Americans held hostage in Iran, was the first combat engagement in the war. Iran would continue to tempt Washington to military action throughout the next 36 years—though paradoxically, attempts to contain Iran more often brought the U.S. into war with the Islamic Republic’s hostile neighbor, Iraq.
The sequence of events, lucidly related by Bacevich, would be a dark absurdist comedy if it weren’t tragically real. To check Iran, the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–88, whose final phase, the so-called “Tanker War,” involved direct U.S. military engagement with Iranian naval forces. (Bacevich calls this the real first Persian Gulf War.)
Weakened and indebted by that war, and thinking the U.S. tolerant of his ambitions, Saddam then invaded Kuwait, leading to full-scale U.S. military intervention against him: Operation Desert Storm in 1991. (By Bacevich’s count, the second Gulf War.) President George H.W. Bush stopped American forces from pushing on to Baghdad after liberating Kuwait, however, because—among other things—toppling Saddam would have created a dangerous vacuum that Iran might fill.
A decade of sanctions, no-fly zones, and intermittent bombing then ensued, as Washington, under Bush and Clinton, would neither depose Saddam Hussein nor permit him to reassert himself. Finally, George W. Bush decided to risk what his father had dared not: invading Iraq with the objective of “regime change,” he launched a third Gulf War in 2003. The notion his neoconservative advisers put into Bush’s head was that, with only a little help from American occupation and reconstruction, the void left by Saddam Hussein’s removal would be filled by a model democracy. This would set a precedent for America to democratize every trouble-making state in the region, including Iran.
Yet the first Bush had been right: Iran, as well as ISIS, reaped the rewards of regime change in Baghdad. And so America is now being drawn into a fourth Gulf War, reintroducing troops—styled as advisors—into Iraq to counter the effects of the previous Gulf War, which was itself an answer to the unfinished business of the wars of 1991 and the late 1980s. Our military interventions in the Persian Gulf have been a self-perpetuating chain reaction for over three decades.
Iran released its American hostages the day Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president: January 20, 1981. So what accounts for another 35 years of conflict with Iran and Iraq? The answer begins with oil.
Bacevich takes us back to the Carter years. “By June 1979, a just-completed study by a then-obscure Defense Department official named Paul Wolfowitz was attracting notice throughout the national security bureaucracy.” This “Limited Contingency Study” described America’s “vital and growing stake in the Persian Gulf,” arising from “our need for Persian-Gulf oil and because events in the Persian Gulf affect the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
“Wolfowitz adhered to an expansive definition of the Persian Gulf,” notes Bacevich, which in that young defense intellectual’s words extended from “the region between Pakistan and Iran in the northeast to the Yemens in the southwest.” Wolfowitz identified two prospective menaces to U.S. interests in the region: the Soviet Union—this was still the Cold War era, after all—and “the emerging Iraqi threat”; to counter these Wolfowitz called for “advisors and counterinsurgency specialists, token combat forces, or a major commitment” of U.S. forces to the Middle East.
(Bacevich is fair to Wolfowitz, acknowledging that Saddam Hussein was indeed an expansionist, as the Iraqi dictator would demonstrate by invading Iran in 1980 and seizing Kuwait a decade later. Whether this meant that Iraq was ever a threat to U.S. interests is, of course, a different question—as is whether the Soviet Union could really have cut America off from Gulf oil.)
Wolfowitz was not alone in calling for the U.S. to become the guarantor of Middle East security—and Saudi Arabia’s security in particular—and President Carter heeded the advice. In March 1980 he created the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF), predecessor to what we now know as the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which has military oversight for the region. The RDJTF’s second head, Lt. Gen. Robert Kingston, described its mission, in admirably frank language, as simply “to ensure the unimpeded flow of oil from the Arabian Gulf.”
Iraq and Iran both posed dangers to the flow of oil and its control by Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies—to use the term loosely—of the United States. And just as the U.S. was drawn into wars with Iran and Iraq when it tried to play one against the other, America’s defense of Saudi Arabia would have grave unintended consequences—such as the creation of al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was outraged when, in 1990, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd declined his offer to wage holy war against Saddam Hussein and instead turned to American protection, even permitting the stationing of American military personnel in Islam’s sacred lands. “To liberate Kuwait,” writes Bacevich, bin Laden had “offered to raise an army of mujahedin. Rejecting his offer and his protest, Saudi authorities sought to silence the impertinent bin Laden. Not long thereafter, he fled into exile, determined to lead a holy war that would overthrow the corrupt Saudi royals.” The instrument bin Laden forged to accomplish that task, al-Qaeda, would target Americans as well, seeking to push the U.S. out of Muslim lands.
Bin Laden had reason to hope for success: in the 1980s he had helped mujahedin defeat another superpower, the Soviet Union, in Afghanistan. That struggle, of course, was supported by the U.S., through the CIA’s “Operation Cyclone,” which funneled arms and money to the Soviets’ Muslim opponents. Bacevich offers a verdict on this program:
Operation Cyclone illustrates one of the central ironies of America’s War for the Greater Middle East—the unwitting tendency, while intently focusing on solving one problem, to exacerbate a second and plant the seeds of a third. In Afghanistan, this meant fostering the rise of Islamic radicalism and underwriting Pakistan’s transformation into a nuclear-armed quasi-rogue state while attempting to subvert the Soviet Union.
America’s support for the mujahedin succeeded in inflicting defeat on the USSR—but left Afghanistan a haven and magnet for Islamist radicals, including bin Laden.
Another irony of Bacevich’s tale is the way in which the end of the Cold War made escalation of the War for the Greater Middle East possible. The Carter and Reagan administrations never considered the Middle East the centerpiece of their foreign policy: Western Europe and the Cold War took precedence. Carter and Reagan were unsystematic about their engagement with the Middle East and, even as they expanded America’s military presence, remained wary of strategic overcommitment. Operation Eagle Claw, Reagan’s deployment of troops to Lebanon in 1983 and bombing of Libya in 1986, and even the meddling in Iran and Iraq were all small-scale projects compared to what would be unleashed after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The military bureaucracy took advantage of the removal of one enemy from the map—Soviet Communism—to redirect resources toward a new region and new threats. As Bacevich observes, “What some at the time were calling a ‘peace dividend’ offered CENTCOM a way of expanding its portfolio of assets.” Operation Desert Storm, and all that came afterward, became possible.
The Greater Middle East of Bacevich’s title centers strategically, if not geographically, upon Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. But its strategic implications and cultural reach are wide, encompassing Libya, Somalia, and other African states with significant Muslim populations; Afghanistan and Pakistan (or “AfPak,” in the Obama administration’s parlance); and even, on the periphery, the Balkans, where the U.S. intervened militarily in support of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. That Clinton-era intervention is examined in detail by Bacevich: “Today, years after NATO came to their rescue,” he writes, “a steady stream of Bosnians and Kosovars leave their homeland and head off toward Syria and Iraq, where they enlist as fighters in the ongoing anti-American, anti-Western jihad.”
Much as George W. Bush believed that liberal democracy would spring up in Saddam Hussein’s wake, the humanitarian interventionists who demanded that Bill Clinton send peacekeepers to Bosnia and bomb Serbia on behalf of the Kosovars thought that they were making the world safe for their own liberal, multicultural values. But as Bacevich notes, the Balkan Muslims joining ISIS today are “waging war on behalf of an entirely different set of universal values.”
Bacevich’s many books confront readers with painful but necessary truths. The final lesson of this one is simple: “Perpetuating the War for the Greater Middle East is not enhancing American freedom, abundance, and security. If anything, it is having the opposite effect.”
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.
The end of May has brought terrible news for Donald Trump, as conventional wisdom would have it. Over Memorial Day weekend, the Libertarian Party nominated two Republican ex-governors, Gary Johnson and William Weld, as its ticket for November, while Bill Kristol assured Twitter that there would be neoconservative-friendly “independent” on the ballot as well. Hillary Clinton led Trump by just 1 point in the RealClearPolitics aggregate of national polling, but as polls catch up to these events, Trump is sunk. Isn’t he?
Not so fast. First, take a look at the electoral map Trump inherits from Mitt Romney. The 2012 Republican nominee did not, of course, win enough states to become president, but where he did win, he won by comfortable margins: those are Trump’s margins now. Of the states Romney won, there were only two that he took by less than 10 percent: North Carolina and Georgia. Trump seems like at least as good a cultural fit for the Republican elements in those states as Romney was. And the states Romney won by “only” ten points—the next closest GOP margins—were Missouri and Indiana, which seem apt to be all the more enthusiastic about this year’s nominee.
Indiana and Missouri were two of the best states for Gary Johnson as the Libertarian nominee in 2012; they respectively gave him 1.91 percent and 1.57 percent of their votes. If Johnson/Weld does fully twice as well in 2016—which, for reasons to be mentioned shortly, is improbable—a 4 percent and 3.1 Libertarian vote in those states would still not stop Trump from winning them. Even a doubling of the Libertarian vote in Georgia, another place where Johnson ran ahead of his national percentage in 2012, would not tip the scales: the Libertarian Party vote would go from less than 1.2 percent of the vote to about 2.4 percent, in a state that Romney won in 2012 by nearly 8 points.
But couldn’t Johnson do much more than 100 percent better in 2016? After all, Trump and Clinton have the highest negative ratings of any major-party nominees since CBS began polling on the question in 1984. This creates an opening, if ever there was one, for another option—if not a Libertarian, perhaps a candidate with Bill Kristol’s “Renegade Party.”
Unfortunately for Kristol and Johnson, that’s not how politics works in 21st-century America: the sky-high negatives for both nominees mean there is in fact less space than usual for a third-party (or fourth-party) challenger, for the simple reason that voting against someone they hate is more important to more voters than voting for someone they like. The most important numbers for Trump aren’t ones that might attest to his popularity but those that demonstrate disapproval of Hillary Clinton. Votes against Clinton, in the abstract, could be votes for Johnson or the Kristol candidate, but in practice voters who are serious about stopping Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party will all but inevitably vote for the major-party alternative: Trump and the GOP.
Look again at the list of states where Gary Johnson performed best in 2012: voters in places like Alaska and Wyoming had the luxury of casting their ballots for an exotic species of Republican, called a “Libertarian,” because a Republican was sure to win the state anyway. Johnson’s 2012 ticket underperformed its national average in states like Ohio, Florida, and Virginia. No battleground state appears in the ranking of places where the Libertarians did best. (A few Democratic states, where again the outcome was predetermined and Republicans might as well vote for a Republican subspecies, do make the list: this explains why Illinois is more Libertarian than Virginia.)
My small-l libertarian friends bristle at being labeled “conservatives” or “Republicans,” but at the ballot box a difference is hard to discern: the Libertarian Party has never nominated a well-known ex-Democrat to its ticket but has frequently nominated Republicans such as Ron Paul, Bob Barr, Gary Johnson, and William Weld. Wayne Allyn Root, the LP’s 2008 vice presidential nominee, is an eager Trump supporter today. And not only the nominees but also the Libertarian Party’s voters, to judge by the numbers, seem mostly to be “alternative Republicans.”
What might seem like a greater threat to Trump is a Kristol candidate targeted specifically at Virginia, whose D.C. suburbs are perhaps the only place in the country where NeverTrump Republicans could make a critical difference in November. (Other states have plenty of anti-Trump Republicans, but those states are so Republican anyway that the defections don’t matter, just as defections to the Libertarian Party don’t.) Yet it’s not clear that there is a Virginia-marketable neoconservative Republican who wouldn’t risk taking as many votes from neoconservative-friendly Clinton as from Trump. In Virginia, splitting the vote for war, NAFTA, and more immigration between Clinton and a Kristol candidate might work to Trump’s advantage, in much the same way that the divided field in the Republican primaries did.
All this only means that Trump should do as well as Romney did in the electoral college; the alt Republicans and #NeverTrump effort have little chance of costing Trump anti-Clinton votes, which is what most Republican votes are. (One of the flaws in my analysis of the Trump phenomenon early on was that I continued to believe most Republican voters were attached to their party and wanted to nominate someone “electable”; in fact, a plurality of Republican voters hates the establishment in both parties and wants to take a stand against it, even if that means nominating seemingly “unelectable” candidates like Trump or many a Tea Partier.)
Romney fell far short of beating Obama, of course, and since 2012 the country’s demographics have only moved further in a Democratic direction, as more millennials come of voting age and the white proportion of the electorate declines. Surely this dooms Trump, even if Republican divisions do not.
Except it doesn’t, not by itself. Jamelle Bouie suggests that “If Trump could reverse the yearslong decline and bring white turnout back to its 2008 levels—74 percent—then he could win with another couple percentage points among whites [more than what McCain received] … This would give him teetering Democratic states such as New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, as well as the three largest swing states: Florida, Ohio, and Virginia.”
(Higher white turnout in 2016 compared to 2012 strikes Bouie as a more plausible winning scenario for Trump than one in which Trump gets a much higher proportion of a 2012-sized white vote: for the latter to work, he would need “an increase of nearly six points over the [GOP’s] white share in 2012, matching Ronald Reagan’s performance in 1984.”)
Even where 21st-century demographics are concerned, Trump may have more of a shot than his dismal polling among young people and racial minorities suggests. Clinton is weak with young voters as well, and the tensions between Clinton’s establishment liberal supporters and the young left have already led to severed alliances and think-tank purges. Trump has an opening—if not to add young voters to his older and whiter base then nevertheless to deprive Clinton of their votes by hammering home her failures. And if Trump could win even in the Republican primaries with forceful opposition to the Iraq War and secretive trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—causes that resonate with Sanders-leaning young voters—he stands to do better still with those positions in the general election. Clinton personifies the old consensus that Obama’s millennial vote was trying to get rid of when it embraced “Hope and Change.”
Trump has shown he’s prepared to campaign much more aggressively on foreign policy than Bernie Sanders has ever dared. And for a preview of how Trump will perform against Clinton in a debate, just recall how he performed against the GOP’s closest counterpart to Clinton: Jeb Bush. Trump will press her hard on Iraq, much harder than Sanders has done. He’ll hit her on Libya, too. Trump also won’t be any kinder than Sanders has been about Clinton’s coziness with the big banks. The young left may be in for a surprise—one that’s unlikely to lead many to vote for Trump but that may drive deeper the generational wedge between them and Clinton.
The 2016 race pits a decades-old center-left establishment against a newly invigorated populist right. That populist right has already defeated the decades-old center-right establishment of the GOP. It has a fighting chance against Clinton, if Trump sticks to his issues and doesn’t attempt to become a more generic, Romney-like Republican on questions of war and industrial policy.
As for immigration and ethno-racial politics, there could be some surprises here, too. Trump’s critics in the media identify him with the racist and anti-Semitic trolls who support him on Twitter; but millions more Americans identify the Democratic Party with the Social Justice Warriors and other activists whose antics and occasionally violent acts have been widely broadcast on national television over the past two years. If Clinton repudiates this Social Justice left, she risks further alienating her young left base; if she fails to repudiate them, she stands to alienate more of Middle America.
Hillary Clinton represents everything that Trump voters, Republicans, Sanders voters, and Middle America have come to hate: the Iraq War, secretive trade deals and job losses, suffocating political correctness, and the risk of “unrest.” The liberal establishment in both parties—free-market liberal in the GOP’s case, left-liberal in the Democrats’—has known all along how much suffering and resentment its policies have generated. But party elites imagined that none of it mattered: what could voters do, pull the lever for Bush instead of Clinton? Clinton instead of Bush? The fix was in, and had been since the first George Bush took office.
Only now, to the insiders’ dismay, voters have an establishment and an anti-establishment choice. In 2008 they selected the relatively less establishment figure, Barack Obama, in the Democratic primaries and general election alike. In 2016, voters are asked to cast their ballots for the Democrat who didn’t represent hope or change eight years ago. Is Clinton any fresher today?
Trump won’t lose any of Romney’s states. Can Clinton really hold all of Obama’s? Probably not: Ohio still has some white working-class Democrats, and Trump’s prospects of winning them seem a lot better than Mitt Romney’s ever were. Trump surprised everyone with his successes in Pennsylvania’s GOP primary; if he can do five points better than Romney in the general election there, the results will be catastrophic for Clinton. Florida remains as much of a battleground as ever: there’s no indication that any trouble with Latino voters will cost him the Sunshine State. This election is as finely balanced and close as 2012 was, and that brings it down to a referendum on the status quo of the last 20 years: should the era of Bush and Clinton continue, or is it time for something new—even if what’s new is named Donald Trump?
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative. Follow @ToryAnarchist//
Last July I wrote that Donald Trump was merely a “blip,” a novelty candidate who couldn’t do much better than 17 percent in the polls. He would swiftly go the way of Herman Cain.
In August, I still didn’t believe the Trump hype. The 2016 race, I predicted, would see an early surge for a religious right candidate, followed by the inevitable nomination of the establishment favorite, probably Jeb Bush. After the Iowa caucuses, I was sure my scenario was playing out, only with Rubio in place Bush.
I was as wrong about Trump’s popularity as it’s possible to get. But I got a few things right, and it’s worth accounting for how I could miss the big story while getting much of the background right.
The simplest answer, if an incomplete one, is that Trump filled exactly the space I expected to be taken by the establishment’s candidate. The race has indeed come down to the front-runner and the candidate with the most appeal to the religious right (Cruz). Only the front-runner isn’t the establishment’s man, it’s Trump.
One mistake I made at the outset, in my July story, was to discount the value of Trump’s celebrity and command of the media relative to Jeb Bush’s super PAC millions. Earned media beat paid media hands down. But something more fundamental accounts for Trump’s success and Bush’s failure, a change in the Republican electorate that I willfully overlooked.
Evidence of that change was plain for all to see: Republican voters who once had seemingly prioritized electability were now prioritizing outsiderdom. The Tea Party had illustrated this as far back as 2010. In Delaware, a state not known as a hotbed of right-wing activity, Republican voters that year sacrificed a chance to win a U.S. Senate seat with the moderate Rep. Mike Castle and instead nominated a right-leaning minor media figure who had never held elective office: Christine O’Donnell. She was only the most telling of several weak outsider candidates the Tea Party propelled to victory in Republican contests and then defeat in November, that year and in subsequent cycles. The Tea Party did, of course, also notch up several victories with outsider candidates: with Rand Paul and Mike Lee in 2010, for example, and with Ted Cruz in 2012. All of these Tea Party Republicans, winners and losers, beat establishment shoo-ins. Republican voters seemed less concerned about winning or losing than about nominating someone who would take on the GOP’s insiders as well as the Democrats.
But those were mostly midterm elections, at any rate congressional or state elections, and surely the presidential nomination was another matter entirely. Grassroots activists might swing the outcome of an off-year primary or a state convention, but presidential primaries brought out your unexcitable, pragmatic, bread-and-butter Republicans, the ones who had nominated Ford in ’76, Dole in ’96, and who did, in fact, nominate Mitt Romney in 2012.
The party seemed to follow a pattern from 1968 onwards of always nominating the most familiar name, usually the previous cycle’s runner-up: Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush I, Dole, Bush II, McCain, and Romney. And the only nominees since World War II who weren’t favored by the party’s elite, Goldwater in 1964 and Reagan in 1980, were only partial exceptions to the GOP’s establishmentarian bent. Goldwater had paid his dues as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and the conditions of the 1964 election made that year’s nomination a rather dubious prize for whoever might win it. Reagan, meanwhile, had been governor of California and only won the nomination in 1980 after having been rebuffed in 1976 and 1968.
Romney’s cruise to the nomination in 2012 fit exactly the model I expected—the one I went badly wrong with by applying to the 2016 race. I should have paid closer attention to something that had surprised me in 2012, something that in retrospect was an obvious harbinger of Trump: Newt Gingrich’s victory in that year’s South Carolina primary. That was significant because South Carolina, despite its reputation for being a right-wing state, had in fact been an establishment bulwark in past cycles. To be sure, John McCain, whose insurgent candidacy in 2000 was styled as more reformist and progressive than George W. Bush’s, was opposed by right-leaning Republican voters as well as establishmentarian ones in that year’s South Carolina contest. But South Carolina had also blocked Pat Buchanan in 1996, and for all the vaunted strength of the religious right in the Palmetto State, Christian conservatives like Mike Huckabee always lost South Carolina, even when they won Iowa.
Gingrich’s victory, however, showed that by 2012, South Carolina voters were not interested in robotically voting for the most supposedly electable candidate—the establishment’s pick and the last cycle’s runner-up. And if I’d really paid attention, I would have noticed that whoever the voters supporting Gingrich were, they were not the kind of religious right voters whose behavior elsewhere–in Iowa, for example—might be predictable. South Carolina in 2012 previewed a 2016 cycle in which neither electability nor ideological purity would be voters’ top priority. (Gingrich is viewed by many progressives as the living embodiment of conservatism, but on the right Gingrich has long been seen as a wildly heterodox figure. Gingrich is fervently but informally backing Trump this year.)
If Gingrich was a surprise in South Carolina four years ago, bigger surprises over the last two years should have been as much of a wake-up call as I, or anyone else, needed. In 2014, Republican primary voters in Virginia toppled the House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, and nominated a right-leaning economics professor with no political experience in his place. Cantor, along with Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan, was touted by insider Republicans and the conservative establishment in DC as a “Young Gun”—the future of the Republican Party. But actual Republican voters opted for an alternate future. And last year, the rising tide of insurgency in the GOP took down an even bigger gun—if not a young one—the House speaker himself, John Boehner. After Boehner’s resignation, Paul Ryan picked up the gavel with some reluctance. Many mainstream journalists and establishment conservatives in the media have suggested that Ryan could be the GOP’s nominee this summer in a contested convention. I suspect Ryan can read the writing on the wall better than that: his fate will be the same as his predecessor’s and the same as his fellow young gun’s if he gets on the wrong side of the outsider wave.
Cantor’s fall and Boehner’s resignation showed that the establishment, whose fearsome power I overestimated in my predictions about Bush and Rubio, had already been crippled before Trump arrived on the scene. The Tea Party had shown, too, that from Delaware to Utah to Kentucky to Texas, Republican voters were as hostile toward their party’s establishment as they were toward Democrats. Maybe more so, in the case of places where hopeless candidates like O’Donnell were nominated, giving establishment Republicans a black eye but guaranteeing the Democrats a Senate seat. The Trump phenomenon expresses much the same priority among Republican voters: better to lose with Trump, a plurality of Republicans are saying, than win with Bush or Rubio. (And a fortiori, better to win or lose with Trump than lose with Bush or Rubio.)
My theory from August that the runner-up in this year’s contest would be the religious right’s champion has been half-correct. Cruz is indeed the second-place candidate in terms of votes and delegates, and Cruz has been winning those voters who are most religious—though Trump has proved to have plenty of pull with evangelicals himself. But in August I highlighted the differences between the religious right and other conservative voters. Cruz, by contrast, has become the candidate of movement conservatives, the religious right, and, however reluctantly, the Republican establishment itself, yet all of that is still not enough to beat Trump. I had thought that the split between the religious right and Goldwater-Reagan conservatives explained their failure to beat the establishment in years past. But even together with the establishment, they can’t overcome the outsider insurgency and the Donald.
But that leads me to reaffirm my analysis from July, when I got Trump and Bush so spectacularly wrong. Because what I did get right I was even more right about than I knew. Namely:
none of the factions—the libertarians, the religious right, the Tea Party—have much life in them. After all the sound and fury of the Obama years, no quarter of the right has generated ideas or leaders that compellingly appeal even to other Republicans, let alone to anyone outside the party. … The various factions’ policies aren’t generating any excitement, which leaves room for an outsize, outrageous personality, in this case Trump, to grab attention.
Trump succeeds because of more than outsize personality, of course. He attracts some support from everyone who thinks that Conservatism, Inc. and the GOP establishment are self-serving frauds—everyone who feels betrayed by the party and its ideological publicists. Working-class whites know that the Republican Party isn’t their party. Christian conservatives who in the past have supported Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson also know that the GOP won’t deliver for them. Moderates have been steadily alienated from the GOP by movement conservatives, yet hard-right immigration opponents feel marginalized by the party as well. Paleoconservatives and antiwar conservatives have been excommunicated on more than one occasion by the same establishment that’s now losing control to Trump. They can only applaud what Trump’s doing, even if Trump himself is no Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul.
Conservative Republicans™ somehow maneuvered themselves into a position of being too hardline for moderates and non-ideologues, but not hardline or ideological enough for the right. Trump, on the other hand, appeals both to the hard right and to voters whose economic interests would, in decades past, have classed them as moderates of the center-left—lunch-pail voters.
What’s even more remarkable is that movement conservatives, who have been given plenty of warning, ever since 2006, that their formula is exhausted, keep doing the same thing over and over again: they’ll dodge right, in a way that right-wingers find unsatisfactory but that moderates find appalling; then they’ll weave back to the center, in a way that doesn’t fool centrists and only angers the right. Immigration—which was another of George W. Bush’s stumbling blocks, lest we forget—has been the issue that symbolized movement-conservative Republicanism’s futility most poignantly. It’s not even clear that most GOP voters agree with Trump’s rhetorical hard-line on immigration—they just like it better than the two-faced talk of the average Republican politician.
Trump has a plethora of weaknesses, as general election polls amply demonstrate. But just look what he’s up against within the Republican Party: that’s why he’s winning. I should have recognized that last summer, but I thought voters would never break their habit of preferring “electable” candidates. It turns out that voters have much more capacity to learn and adapt—even if only by trial and error—than Republican elites do.
Donald Trump will go to the Republican convention in Cleveland with more delegates than anyone else. But it’s still possible he won’t have an outright majority. The mechanics of a contested convention have been covered at length in TAC and elsewhere. But what about the politics—who actually emerges as the Republican nominee?
The simplest answer is Ted Cruz. He’ll have the second largest number of delegates, as well as the symbolically important second largest number of popular votes. Although his Senate colleagues dislike and have been slow to endorse him, he has in fact assembled a broad coalition of support on the right, from former Jeb Bush advisors to the Senate’s most policy-minded conservative, Mike Lee. Cruz is the obvious pole around which to consolidate anti-Trump forces.
A two-man contest between Trump and Cruz is clarifying for movement conservatism. Cruz is what movement conservatism consciously created—somewhat to its own regret. The Texas senator checks every ideological box for the movement, from cutting government to talking tough in foreign policy to opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Cruz wants to restrict immigration, but he’s more favorable toward free trade than Trump is. That’s roughly where the center of gravity for movement conservatism lies as well. The trouble is that Cruz has used these issues to advance himself in a way that has embarrassed his fellow movement conservatives. Instead of being kept in line by his adherence to movement orthodoxy, he has exploited his mastery of that orthodoxy to make himself a star.
Trump, on the other hand, is what movement conservatism has unconsciously created—a populist, economically nationalist backlash against a movement whose priorities are chiefly those of wealthy and upper-middle-class whites. This is even true where social issues are concerned: the poorest white Americans may not be supporters of same-sex marriage or abortion rights, but when given the choice they prioritize other issues more fundamentally connected to their lives. In this, lower-class whites are similar to black and Hispanic Americans, who remain firmly part of the Democratic coalition—despite much talk from movement conservatives about black and Hispanic qualms over abortion and homosexuality—because economics and group status are the things that matter most.
The practical, short-term question for Republicans choosing between Trump and Cruz is not so much whether either of them can beat Hillary Clinton—that may ultimately depend on her legal troubles—as it is which of them will do the least damage to down-ticket Republicans. U.S. Senators Mark Kirk (Ill.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Pat Toomey (Penn.), and Rob Portman (Ohio) are all vulnerable, as is the Senate seat being vacated in Florida by Marco Rubio. Cruz is less toxic for the party overall—he may be widely disliked by his colleagues, but as controversial as he is, he’s nowhere near as controversial as Trump. Yet one might wonder whether Cruz is really the stronger top of the ticket for struggling Republicans in some of these battleground states, where Trump’s working-class demographic could be critical.
In any event, the long-term, existential question may supersede short-term calculations. This is the question of exactly whose party the GOP is supposed to be and how it can again win elections at every level. The lower-class whites who respond most favorably to Trump have been an indispensable but subordinate element in the Republican coalition for decades. Trump has revealed just how sharply at odds this group’s attitudes are with those of the GOP elite. And looking at the policies that the most elite Republicans support—policies identified with Marco Rubio, for example—it’s obvious that they are intended to build a new base for the party while the white working class is consigned to gradual decline. Trump voters’ jobs are being eliminated by technology and trade deals, while the voters themselves are to be replaced by a larger Republican share of the Hispanic vote.
Ted Cruz, despite his Canadian-Cuban background, hardly seems like the leader to usher the Republican Party toward a multicultural future. But if Cruz is only a halting step forward, in the eyes of the most enlightened Republicans, Trump would be a great leap backward. The Republican elite might have preferred Rubio, or anyone else but Trump, over Cruz. Yet it’s hard to see any other choice emerging at the convention. The notion that Cruz or Trump delegates—who together will make up the overwhelmingly majority—would switch to Kasich seems farfetched. A failed candidate from earlier in the presidential contest, say Scott Walker or Rick Perry, might be more plausible, but not by much. Again, why would Cruz people defect?
Leading Republicans who haven’t been candidates this cycle are no better prospects. Mitt Romney is a two-time loser already, and Paul Ryan, although he has not ruled out standing as a candidate at the convention, is not suicidal: trying to unite the party in July, then beat Hillary Clinton in November, would be quite a trick. Ryan resisted even taking up the House speakership, having seen how the party’s congressional schisms brought down Boehner. Would he take a greater risk with a presidential bid?
Movement conservatives and the Republican establishment are stuck together for now, and they’re stuck with Cruz, who represents the only prospective nominee who can claim legitimacy as the alternative to Trump. And however imperfect he might be, Cruz would do more to advance the elite plan to remake the GOP for the 21st century than Trump would—especially if Cruz loses in November. His defeat could then be pinned on his being too conventionally right-wing, too Trump-like himself, and on Trump voters bolting the party. That would give the establishment all the more reason to call for a return to the policies associated with Rubio and the 2012 Republican “autopsy.” The failure of Cruz’s Reagan-vintage conservatism would clear the way for a new kind of right in 2020.
The white working class isn’t extinct yet, however, and Trump represents a radical alternative for the GOP: a 21st-century Nixon strategy. The racial polarization involved in this has been getting plenty of attention, but the economic dimension should not be overlooked. Trump is not only making promises to American workers that by opposing trade deals he’ll keep good jobs in this country, he’s also bidding for votes by refusing to make cuts to popular government programs. From Social Security to federal funding for Planned Parenthood, voters who want tax dollars to provide services are hearing a pitch from Trump. It’s clear enough where this leads: to a Republican Party that bids with the Democrats to offer voters the most benefits. And if the bidding starts among working-class whites, that doesn’t mean that’s where it will end. If the dream of elite Republicans is to win blacks and Hispanics by appealing to values, the Trump strategy may ultimately be to appeal to their economic interests in much the same way as Democrats have traditionally done.
In simple terms, the elite Republican plan is for the GOP to be a multi-ethnic party whose economics are those of the elite itself; the Trump plan is for the GOP to be a party that politically plays ethnic blocs against one another, then bids to bring them together in a winning coalition by offering economic benefits for each group. Neither of these approaches is guaranteed to succeed, of course: non-white voters who already prefer the Democrats may continue to do so despite a liberalization of the GOP’s immigration policies, while the Nixon-Trump strategy risks being outbid by Democrats—who are historically more accustomed to promising government services—and sacrificing a growing number of non-white voters for a shrinking number of working-class whites.
In a healthy party these factions, Trump and anti-Trump, might learn from one another, the anti-Trump side coming to recognize how it has failed the white working class and the need to provide for it once more; the Trump side acknowledging the demographic realities of the 21st century and the toxicity of strident identity politics. Alas, the GOP has shown no capacity at all for learning from the mistakes of the Bush era—the establishment’s support this cycle for another Bush and for the Bush-like Rubio is proof of that—and the same is likely to be true of learning from the Trump crisis, or of Trump learning from the candidates he has vanquished.
Perhaps Cruz might do what the Republican establishment and Donald Trump cannot, reconciling the demands of the white working class with those of burgeoning cohorts of Hispanic and Asian voters. If he hopes to prevent Trump from assembling a delegate majority ahead of the convention, Cruz will have to broaden his appeal beyond the most religious and ideologically orthodox blocs of the GOP. Those very conservative or devoutly evangelical voters have allowed Cruz to win caucuses and closed primaries in some deep-red states, but they cannot counter the sheer mass of voters that Trump brings out in larger and more politically mixed states. For Cruz, broadening his appeal will be no easy thing, when his entire political profile is based on being the most strictly orthodox movement conservative of all. Orthodox conservatism has served white working-class voters poorly, and now that they’ve been offered an alternative by Trump, they’re taking it.
Cruz’s window of opportunity to halt Trump’s progress toward a delegate majority is closing quickly. The Utah caucuses on March 22 give him a shot at another state-wide win, and the Arizona primary that day will put to the test the question of whether John McCain’s home state prefers an orthodox conservative or the very unorthodox Trump. No polls have been taken since last year, but Trump would seem to be the favorite to win Arizona. And after that, the race heads to turf that’s likely to be exceptionally difficult for Cruz: Wisconsin’s primary on May 5, then New York’s on April 19. Unless Kasich can bleed Trump in Wisconsin, the prospect of blowout victories for Trump loom in April.
Trump has overwhelmed all opposition so far on the strength of earned media. The disparity between Trump and Cruz as a ratings draw for cable television will only continue to favor Trump as the race inches onward. Cruz and Kasich risk losing all their media oxygen in the coming weeks, and without that, building momentum to cut into Trump’s winnings will be excruciatingly difficult. Almost as hard as creating a new order out of the chaos of a contested convention. The irony of Cruz’s position is that the party’s future now hinges on how well he can do with an orthodox conservative message drawn from its past.
Rand Paul’s campaign for the White House ended with a fifth-place finish in Iowa. But Senator Paul has a more important job than running for president, and the conclusion of his presidential bid lets him get back to it. He does, of course, represent the people of Kentucky in the United States Senate. But he represents something else as well: the best foreign-policy traditions of the Republican Party.
However ill-starred his presidential effort, he remains the country’s most widely recognized conservative realist. And before he or anyone like him can become president, Rand Paul will have to help his party reform.
That task will not be easy. But a look at the record shows that it is far from impossible—even as it also illustrates why 2016 was not to be Paul’s year.
Foreign-policy restraint has a deeper history in the Republican Party than its hawkish reputation would suggest. Not for nothing did Bob Dole, as the party’s nominee for vice president in 1976, remark: “If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans—enough to fill the city of Detroit.”
A veteran of World War II himself, Dole was hardly saying that America should not have fought any of those wars. But the collective toll, for the good as well as the bad, was staggering. All of them began under Democrats.
Republicans were not the war party; in fact, they were the party of grand diplomacy in the latter half of the 20th century. Richard Nixon not only opened the way for China’s integration into the world economy, he contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union by cracking apart the communist world. Ronald Reagan, caricatured as a warmonger by the left, ushered the Cold War toward a peaceful resolution by negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev. Even George H.W. Bush, under whom our long wars in the Middle East began, deserves praise for supporting German reunification while urging caution over the USSR’s disintegration.
If Republicans don’t get much credit for having long been the less interventionist party in practice, it’s not hard to see why. Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan all cultivated images—more than an image, of course, in Ike’s case—as war-winners, not doves or doubters of American power. They presented themselves as practical patriots who had the answers for foreign-policy messes created by the Democrats. Yet neither party was quite what it seemed. The Democrats had more outwardly dovish popular elements, but they always had—and still have—a highly interventionist elite. The Republicans often employed hawkish rhetoric but had a relatively restrained elite. Until recently, that is—as recently as the last Republican president, George W. Bush.
This history put Rand Paul in a difficult position. As an acknowledged “conservative realist” who had spoken out against the Iraq War on the campaign trail and opposed interventions in Libya and Syria as a senator, Paul was more openly dovish than any recent Republican nominee—indeed, arguably more so than Eisenhower, Nixon, or Reagan had been. Add to that the inevitable association of Rand Paul with his father Ron Paul’s strict libertarian noninterventionism, and the Kentucky senator seemed an awkward fit for a party that has usually liked to talk tough, even as it formerly practiced sound diplomacy in office.
Throughout his campaign, and indeed before it, Senator Paul was caught between conflicting impulses among his staff and supporters, and perhaps in his own mind as well. From one side came the argument that by minimizing his foreign-policy differences with other Republicans—by loyally voting with the party against President Obama’s Iran deal, for example—Paul could follow the same path to power that figures like Reagan had trod. The important thing was not to be a spokesman for a less interventionist foreign policy but to become president and actually implement a more realistic foreign policy. According to this line, the failure of Rand Paul’s campaign has to be attributed to his inability to break away from his father’s reputation—and his own. A Republican realist not named “Paul” might one day succeed with this stealthy approach.
But on the other side of the argument, Ron Paul’s campaigns enjoyed much greater success than his son’s—by any measure: fundraising, votes, or influence—by doing just the opposite, accentuating the elder Paul’s sharp differences with the rest of the GOP, especially in foreign policy. Had the younger Paul run like his father, while leveraging his higher media profile and the advantages of being a senator, he would have surpassed Ron Paul’s 2012 successes, which included a third-place finish in Iowa and second place in New Hampshire. Rand Paul would be on his way to the nomination—or at least still in the race heading into the multi-state showdowns in March.
Yet the truth is that Rand Paul could not win either as Ronald Reagan or as Ron Paul. What worked during the Cold War does not work today: Reagan, like Nixon and Eisenhower before him, could run to the right and to the center in foreign policy at one and the same time. Whatever language a Reagan might use on the stump, voters could look to his party’s foreign-policy record and predict that he would not pursue a recklessly interventionist strategy. In primaries and general elections alike, the great Cold War Republicans could strike a balance between words and past deeds. But that’s impossible today: the two Bush presidencies, especially the second, have erased the GOP’s reputation for sensible foreign policy and radicalized the debate within the party.
The post-Cold War ascendance within the conservative movement of neoconservatism and the religious right—both of which favor a values-driven foreign policy—has further changed the way Republicans think about America’s role in the world. The Eisenhower-Nixon-Reagan synthesis of values and pragmatism tilted toward pragmatism, and the party accepted that. Today’s party is left without a synthesis to embrace—for neither the Bush record nor movement conservatism provides one. The Bush record is simply one of failure, while movement conservatism offers only hype and histrionics.
Ron Paul’s campaigns were essential for unveiling the decayed edifice that Republican foreign policy had become. Traditional Republican realists might have thought the Texas congressman went too far in the direction of total noninterventionism, but Ron Paul served realists well by demolishing the pretenses of figures like Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and the entire 2008 and 2012 Republican fields. The elder Paul’s reward was millions in moneybomb contributions from small donors and a strong performance in the first contests four years ago. But that was all—and it’s all a Ron Paul-style campaign is ever likely to achieve. What Ron Paul did was indispensable, but he did not find a way to change foreign policy, only to critique it.
Rand Paul’s task, and that of a new generation of Republican realists, is to go further—to not only reveal the flaws of their party’s foreign policy but to work out a practical alternative. That task comes before winning the White House, and it has to begin on two fronts: one involves devising and articulating policies to strengthen American security through greater restraint—rather than weakening that security by touching off conflagrations around the world—and the other involves building the networks and institutions to support a return to conservative realism. The materials for creating a post-neoconservative center-right are already available. Talented young conservatives—not least among evangelicals—are clear-eyed about the disasters of the Bush years, and they dearly wish to find an alternative. A leader has to provide one—which is what Rand Paul, or someone like him, must do.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.
Donald Trump appears to have won all 50 delegates in Saturday’s South Carolina Republican primary, but this hasn’t stopped certain pundits from proclaiming Marco Rubio the real story. Rubio took second place with just .2 percent more of the vote than Ted Cruz received. While Cruz was supposed to have an advantage given the state’s large evangelical vote, Rubio had the endorsements of key figures in the state’s political establishment, notably Governor Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott. That Trump beat both of his main rivals anyway, and that neither of those rivals decisively beat the other, is a testament to Trump’s success. This was a tougher test than he’d faced in New Hampshire, and he passed.
Jeb Bush did not—and so he dropped out. In 2000, his brother had used South Carolina as a firewall against John McCain—who had won New Hampshire—by uniting the evangelical and establishment vote behind that year’s Bush. And in 1996, South Carolina helped save Bob Dole from Pat Buchanan—another indication of power of the establishment in the Palmetto State. This year the establishment was divided between Rubio and Bush (who had the endorsement of South Carolina’s other senator, Lindsey Graham). But then the right was divided between Trump and Cruz. (John Kasich and Ben Carson, each of whom received about 7 percent of the vote, also contributed to the fragmentation.)
Cruz has grounds for complaint about the way Rubio has been anointed by the media. Consider: if Rubio had finished .2 percent behind Cruz, instead of .2 percent head of him, would any of the pundits now calling Rubio a winner have changed their tune? The nice thing about being the insiders’ favorite is that it doesn’t matter whether you finish second or third—you’re still on top.
Conventional wisdom now has it that Rubio will vault ahead by soaking up Bush’s support. But wait a minute: what support? If Rubio had received every vote that went to Bush in South Carolina, Trump would still have won. And Bush’s support in South Carolina, where he spent millions and flew in his brother to stump for him, was greatly inflated relative to his support just about anywhere else. In the only February poll of Georgia, one of a dozen states that will vote March 1, Bush was at 3 percent. In Arkansas, he was at 1 percent. Even in Virginia—a swing state where Rubio is within striking distance of Trump—adding Bush’s 4 percent to Rubio’s 22 doesn’t beat Trump’s 28. (And in Virginia, Kasich has been polling ahead of Bush. At least some Bush voters are likely to opt for Kasich over Rubio.)
Rubio is picking up additional donors and endorsements as he becomes the establishment’s consensus choice—but then, all of Bush’s once overwhelming financial backing and his anointment by the establishment and media a year ago didn’t do him much good in the end. (I too thought Bush would be a juggernaut with all that behind him: I was wrong.) Yes, such things are better to have than not to have, as are the votes Rubio will reap from Bush’s departure. But these are marginal gains: they don’t transform the race.
The primaries on March 1, however, really will be transformative, and in complicated ways. Each of the three prime contenders for the nomination—Trump, Cruz, Rubio—will have something to brag about on March 2. Cruz should handily win Texas and ought to have a shot in Oklahoma as well. Rubio can win Minnesota; he’s a plausible candidate for Tim Pawlenty voters, just as he is assuredly the candidate of the Tim Pawlenty pundits who hyped the Gopher State governor’s chances in 2012. Virginia is in play for Rubio, and Colorado as well. Trump faces a new challenge in having to campaign in several places at once—he’s proven he can win states like New Hampshire and states like South Carolina, but can he win Massachusetts and Georgia on the same day, while fighting elsewhere as well? In some of the Super Tuesday contests, the fact that Ben Carson is still in the race may prove more significant than Jeb Bush’s dropping out. If Carson draws large enough percentages of evangelicals, he can make the difference between a Cruz victory or a Trump victory—or in Colorado especially, a Rubio victory against both of them.
Kasich has little chance of winning anywhere on March 1, but a few respectable second- or third-place showings should keep his campaign alive long enough to score its first victory—a delegate-rich one—when Ohio votes on March 15. That same day, Florida will be a make-or-break for Rubio: if he loses to Trump (or Cruz) in his home state, it’s hard to see what his argument is for remaining a viable prospect for the nomination. If Rubio wins Florida, however, he’ll not only have a weighty delegate bloc, he’ll have made a prima facie case for his strength in the general election. Indeed, for all the factiousness of the Republican contest, the fact that the GOP has candidates who may hold special appeal for the battleground states of Ohio and Florida in November must be a source of comfort. And notably, Rubio and Kasich are the Republicans who poll best against Hillary Clinton in hypothetical general-election match-ups.
But it’s a long way yet until November, or even the GOP convention in July. And if Trump has disrupted Republican politics so profoundly—ending, for now, the Bush dynasty and defying all pundits’ expectations—who’s to say he can’t also rip up the playbook in a general election? As for Cruz, he’s the one rival to beat Trump so far, and he’s beaten Rubio more often than not. (Again, imagine how different press coverage would be if Rubio, rather than Cruz, had finished third in New Hampshire.)
After Iowa, I predicted that the Republican establishment, movement conservatives, and a superficial media would concoct a narrative that would help make Rubio the nominee. Just as the Trump phenomenon itself has been media driven, or was at the start, a media-driven Rubio storyline could do wonders for the Florida senator. (The money and organizational resources that come with being the establishment’s pick are also nothing to scoff at, however inadequate they proved to be for Jeb Bush.) Only Rubio’s disastrous debate performance before New Hampshire and his fifth-place finish in that first primary made it impossible to stick to the story.
Now it’s back. And I still think this elite bias in his favor is one of Rubio’s strongest assets. But there’s a difference between acknowledging that hype matters and actually believing it. Based only on the outcomes so far, Trump is the solid frontrunner and Cruz, not Rubio, is his nearest rival. That might change a week from Tuesday, but it’s what voters up to now—not the pundits—have decided.
I met Justice Scalia only once. He spoke at Washington University in St. Louis while I was president of the College Republicans there, and I attend a lunch with him and a half-dozen faculty and other students. What stands out in my memory is Scalia’s answer to a professor who asked whether he objected to demographic quotas on the Supreme Court—that is, whether the idea that there now had to be at least one black justice, at least one female justice, etc., was a problem. Scalia cheerfully said it was not, as long as those who filled the quotas were qualified. After all, there had been quotas of other kinds in the past, he noted, such as a requirement that the court should have a distinct Southern representation.
Scalia’s death throws into question another, more important balance on the court, the ideological one. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and all the Republican candidates on stage in South Carolina on Saturday night said that President Obama should not bother trying to nominate anyone to fill Scalia’s vacancy. Let the next president make the appointment, they say, and let this be something voters decide when they choose that president in November. In terms of textbook civics the suggestion is appalling, but the political realities are clear-cut: a Republican Senate—indeed, a Republican judiciary committee—will not grant a lame-duck Democratic president a chance to replace a Republican justice in an election year. The court had a 5-4 Republican majority before Scalia’s death, though the mercurial Anthony Kennedy—Scalia’s fellow Reagan appointee—kept the court from reliably aligning with the Republican right. Even the most moderate Obama appointee would give America the most liberal and Democratic court in 30 years.
Republicans are, of course, taking a risk: should a Democrat be elected as president in November with significant coattails in Senate races, the result would be a much stronger hand for a successor from Obama’s party to play in picking judges. But some Republicans see the risk as a clarifying one—indeed, as something that will unify the party around an electable candidate, one not named Donald Trump. The GOP establishment certainly sees the case for a candidate like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush strengthened by this turn, while Ted Cruz, the only 2016 aspirant with judicial experience, is banking on it helping him. Trump has so far defied the litmus tests of movement-conservative orthodoxy, but the idea that one must vote for a viable Republican for the sake of getting Supreme Court justices who will re-moralize America and defend free markets through their constitutional jurisprudence remains a knockdown argument for many voters on the right.
No matter what happens, conservatives who hope that Supreme Court appointments will turn the tide of the culture war are apt to be disappointed. Since the brutal Robert Bork hearings, a generation of lawyers aspiring to land on the Supreme Court one day has learned to keep quiet about controversial subjects. That first of all makes identifying reliably right-wing nominees difficult, and it further means that having acquired a habit of avoiding conflict even a right-leaning nominee might not have much spirit for battle once on the court. Certainly it’s hard to imagine any new justice following Scalia’s example as an outspoken cultural combatant. Justice Alito is not quite another Scalia, and future justices promise to be more in the mold of John Roberts.
For this reason, even if movement conservatism enjoys a brief renewal of its consensus in the wake of Scalia’s death, in the long run Scalia will be seen as the last really unifying figure of the postwar American right. Paleoconservatives and right-leaning libertarians, as well as the establishment right, idolized Scalia, and the promise of another Scalia kept them all in the Republican Party—or at least voting for Republican presidents. Scalia was the embodiment of conservative opposition to the liberal jurisprudence of the ’60s and ’70s, and that opposition was the glue that held the conservative movement together over the last 40 years, as the end of the Cold War and the waning electoral power of welfare liberalism attenuated other sources of unity.
Ironically, the best chance the Reagan right might have for gaining a new lease on life, in an era when talk about tax cuts and military build-ups has become passe, could rest with a revival of judicial liberalism. But probably even that would not restore the matrix out of which the Reagan consensus came. War, immigration, trade, and political correctness are the issues that quicken conservatives’ pulses these days, and the Supreme Court is not the left’s driving force in any of them. That could change—but until it does, the right will be more divided by policy differences than unified by a common foe in the judiciary.
Antonin Scalia was a titan of his time. But there are no more Scalias waiting to take the stage, and in the years to come the Supreme Court may not be the stage that matters most.
Rand Paul’s campaign strategy worked brilliantly—for Ted Cruz. For Rand, it’s led to him dropping out before the first primary. Staunch libertarian supporters of his father’s two campaigns believe Rand should have run more like Ron. But it’s worth examining why he didn’t and why neither Paul has come close to the nomination.
Rand Paul’s team last year seemed to expect a three-way race with Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, in which a candidate who could unite the right would win. To that end, before the campaign began Paul built ties to the Heritage Foundation—the bastion of movement conservatism—and aggressively courted evangelicals of the sort who ultimately delivered victory to Cruz in Iowa this week.
The Kentucky senator would not campaign, as his father did, as a libertarian insurgent. Instead, Rand would be the total package, the libertarian who was as passionate about Israel as any evangelical, who would restrict immigration just as the party’s grassroots demanded, and who would be a rock-solid Heritage conservative, albeit one for the 21st century. He would not be the candidate of any niche.
Against Bush and Rubio this might have been a winning strategy. But who needed Paul to put on this act when Ted Cruz can do it better? Cruz was a closer fit for the evangelicals, and though Cruz is hated by movement-conservative insiders, he was always better positioned to be an all-purpose right-winger than was Paul, with his libertarian legacy. The mainstream media buzz that made Rand Paul “the most interesting man in politics” didn’t help him with Republican voters, and while newsmakers remain fascinated with the idea of Rand as a new kind of Republican, they’ve found it more effective to cast Marco Rubio for that role simply on account of how he looks. To figure out why Paul is a new sort of Republican requires reading whole paragraphs; to see why Rubio is, just glance at a photo.
Several of the rationales for Rand’s failure have the merit of being true. His team can’t be blamed for overestimating Jeb Bush—everyone did, myself included. And Cruz has proved to be a more adept retail politician than his reputation inside the halls of power suggested he would be.
The rise of ISIS certainly undercut Paul’s foreign-policy appeal, while in domestic policy—unlike his father in 2008 and 2012, Pat Buchanan in the 1990s, or Bernie Sanders among Democrats today—Rand didn’t have an economic position distinct from rivals’. The Kentucky senator was unique in his commitment to civil liberties and reining in domestic surveillance, but those are hardly issues that drive Republicans to the polls. Rand might have snatched the media’s attention from Trump if he’d been the sole Republican (presently in office, that is) to support the Iran deal, and he would have energized more of his father’s base by being more outspokenly anti-interventionist. But how far would that have taken him?
There’s a perfectly good case to be made that this just wasn’t Rand Paul’s year and nothing his campaign did could have made much difference. Even his poor showing in Iowa (fifth) relative to his father’s performance in 2012 (third) has to be kept in perspective: in 2012 the evangelicals’ favorite, who was then Rick Santorum, took first place; the establishment’s favorite, Mitt Romney, took second in a virtual tie. In 2016, those Romney voters were always more likely to go for a Rubio than a Rand Paul, and the evangelicals were always be more apt to go for a Cruz. Even in the best-case scenario, without Donald Trump seizing the anti-establishment vote that went for Ron Paul in 2012, third place would have been about as good as Rand could have expected.
That Ben Carson actually beat Rand for fourth place only underscores the point: Iowa is a state in which the evangelical vote has muscle to spare, and a “libertarian-ish” Republican named Paul is never going to overcome the religious right there. Just because caucuses have smaller turnout than primaries does not mean the proportion of libertarian-ish voters is going to be any more favorable.
Had Rand Paul run another Ron Paul campaign, he might have done better—but not well enough. Campaigns fueled by insurgent enthusiasm have a lousy track-record against even establishment opposition as underwhelming as Bob Dole and Mitt Romney. What would make an insurgency this year—or in 2020, for that matter—any different?
As the Trump phenomenon has shown, there are many more anti-establishment voters than there are libertarian voters. But even anti-establishment voters—perhaps 30 percent of the GOP—are not enough to take the nomination. If Cruz can take Trump down quickly enough, he might yet beat Rubio by combining the religious right with the anti-establishment vote, but considering that Trump is stronger than Cruz almost everywhere, that seems unlikely. (Cruz polls better as a second choice candidate than Trump does, which is one indication that Trump would not benefit as much from Cruz getting sidelined as Cruz would benefit from Trump’s absence.)
All of this is a grim picture for libertarian-leaning Republicans and others who have put their hopes in one or both of the Pauls. A libertarian “fusion” candidate, like Rand Paul this year, is unlikely ever to surpass someone like Cruz who offers a more visceral appeal to non-libertarian right-wingers (religious or hawkish); while an insurgent libertarian, like Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012, is limited to getting more or less the same anti-establishment percentage that goes for a Trump or Buchanan—which has never been enough to beat the establishment.
The one thing neither Ron Paul nor Rand Paul tried is to court the establishment’s own voters—that is, those Republicans who just want a respectable, electable nominee. The problem with this approach is not that libertarianism can’t be respectable or electable; on the contrary, modestly libertarian attitudes can be found quite readily among center-right Republicans. Rather it’s that libertarians are romantics. Right-wing libertarians prefer dreams of populist uprisings or systemic collapse to the unglamorous and frankly dirty work of politics and policy, while center-left and dead-center libertarians tend to be technocratic types who disdain association with conservatives of any stripe. Their fantasy is of a world that keeps naturally getting nicer through guiltless sex and global commerce. Ahh!
America is nowhere near as anti-establishment or anti-statist as right-wing libertarians want it to be, while libertarians unsympathetic to the right are too mild to confront the love of power that in politics trumps the love of money and love of pleasure alike. Right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats both have much tougher agendas than non-right libertarians can handle. So those libertarians wind up with no firm allies—despite their hopeless infatuation with the left—while right-wing libertarians have mostly ineffective ones: unpopular populists, for example.
Ron Paul didn’t have illusions about any of this. His campaigns were educational rather than directly political; winning the nomination—let alone the White House—wasn’t the point. That’s not to say his efforts and those of his campaign staff (I was one of them in 2008) weren’t sincere: pushing as hard as possible for the nomination was the best way to advance the educational effort as well. But knowing what the odds against his winning were, Ron Paul fought on because there was always something else to be achieved.
Rand Paul was also clear-eyed: his aims were political, not educational, and the libertarian populism that served his father well would not win Rand—or anyone else—the presidency. So he broadened his brand; unsuccessfully, as it turns out. Movement conservatism is a rigid thing that doesn’t reward the ideologically entrepreneurial qualities that make libertarianism attractive to so many Americans of different backgrounds. A libertarian Republican has many novel views, for a Republican, about civil liberties, foreign policy, armistice in the culture war, and a capitalism that aspires not to be cronyism—all this can open the party to people turned off by the GOP’s presently bellicose brand. (Including younger religious conservatives and disillusioned Eisenhower Republicans.) But evangelical voters and movement conservatives are the Republican constituencies least appreciative of those ideas— less appreciative even than the average Romney or Dole voter.
Rand was right to try to broaden libertarianism’s political appeal, but he was mistaken in trying to become the most orthodox right-winger in the race at the very same time. Rather than trying to combine relatively well-defined and incompatible ideologies—libertarianism, religious rightism, and movement conservatism—a future contender might be better off trying to combine libertarianism with old-fashioned Republican pragmatism, the non-philosophy of the so-called establishment. Rubio shows how the neoconservatives have done this, fusing their stark ideology to an appearance of moderation and electability. Libertarians and reality-based conservatives can do likewise.
This does not mean failing to appeal at all to the more self-consciously right-wing elements in the party. The neoconservatives do, of course, have their own sway with evangelical right. But Bill Kristol never prefers the likes of Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum as the Republican nominee; the preferred vehicle for neoconservatism is always a respectable, electable one. That’s not because respectability and electability are inherently neoconservative traits—far from it—but rather because neoconservatives are more interested in winning office and shaping policy than they are in proving their right-wing bona fides. They know how the GOP works.
This is heresy, however, to anti-establishment populists, who prefer to lose with their ideological credentials intact rather than win by going mainstream. It’s also heresy to those who want to believe the Republican Party is deeply right-wing and principled rather than confusedly center-right and pragmatic. But the GOP is a national party: it can’t represent only the saved; it has to be a party of the damned, too—whether in religious terms or the mock-religious terms of ideology. It’s a party of sinners, statists, and sellouts just like any other party that actually wins office.
The campaigns of the two Pauls have been learning experiences for libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives. Ron Paul built a fundamentally nonpolitical movement, and others—including Rand—channeled its energies into political successes from the local level up to a race for the U.S. Senate. Rand Paul recognized that something more was needed to get to the White House, and he tried a plausible formula that turned out to be more plausible for Cruz than Rand. Another insurgent libertarian campaign won’t achieve anything that Ron Paul’s campaigns didn’t already achieve in 2008 and 2012; and another libertarian effort to be the most orthodox right-winger can be expected to end just like Rand’s. But libertarians and libertarian conservatives have another approach to try, one that co-opts the establishment foe that cannot be beaten by frontal assault. That’s an effort both political and educational, and it requires what for any ideologue is the hardest thing: learning to become the mainstream.
Politics is more about organization than raw enthusiasm. Donald Trump was beaten last night by Ted Cruz’s organization in Iowa—and more significantly, they will both be beaten by Marco Rubio’s organization nationally. That’s because Rubio’s organization is not only his campaign but the Republican establishment and conservative movement as well. He can even count on the organized power of the mainstream media aiding him, for while the old media may dislike Republicans in general, they particularly loathe right-wing populist Republicans like Cruz and Trump.
A divided right is the classic set-up for an establishment Republican’s nomination. Cruz and Trump draw upon the same base of voters. Rubio, it’s true, has establishment rivals to finish off in New Hampshire—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich. But Rubio has been within a few points of Bush and Kasich in recent New Hampshire polls, and after Iowa it’s not hard to imagine him gaining three or four points, probably more, over the next week. Cruz, who hasn’t been far ahead of the moderates in the Granite State, might also gain a few points, but those will most likely come at the expense of Trump, who to be sure has plenty of margin to spare. Although it’s possible that Trump and Cruz will finish first and second in New Hampshire by splitting a big right-wing turnout, Rubio seems to have a good shot at placing second by swiftly becoming the establishment’s unity candidate.
Jeb Bush may hate his fellow Floridian, but Bush has a family—a political dynasty—to think about. The whole family’s political fortunes depend on Republicans, and establishment Republicans at that, winning again. Does Jeb want to be the Bush who turned his party over to Trump or Cruz (hardly beloved by his fellow Texan George W.) and their uncouth supporters, only to lose in November? The family’s rich and influential friends know the score, and they’re on the phone with Jeb right now telling him to get out. His son, George P., will do just fine in a Rubio administration, and who knows, maybe Jeb himself can be ambassador to Mexico.
The story of how Rubio won the establishment’s civil war is the story of just how adroit the neoconservative “deciders” really are. Neoconservatives compounded the George W. Bush administration’s Iraq folly, but because Bush was the brand name attached to the disastrous policies of 2001-2009, the Bush family suffered the consequences far more than did the obscure policy hacks and think-tank propagandists (and their billionaire backers) who egged the administration’s warhawks on. The neoconservatives have turned against the Bush family in part because it’s damaged goods, in part because the Bushes had started to catch on: George W. began to reconnect with foreign-policy realists in his second term, and while Jeb may count Paul Wolfowitz among his advisers, he also consorts with James Baker, anathema to the neocons.
Heading into 2016, neoconservative foreign policy needed a new, untainted brand and a less experienced, more malleable candidate—someone who wouldn’t be as wary as an old Bush might be. In Marco Rubio, everything was ready-made. The fact that Rubio’s brand isn’t foreign-policy failure—the legacy the Bushes must live with—but rather that of a fresh-faced Hispanic, a new and different kind of Republican, meant that the media and public would not guess that what they were in store for was more of what was worst in the George W. Bush administration. As if to taunt the forgetful, the Rubio campaign adopted as its slogan “A New American Century”—counting on no columnist or newscaster to remember the name of the defunct Kristol-Kagan invasion factory. Rubio has been similarly blunt in his hawkish statements throughout the Republican debates.
Conservative realists as well as libertarians are apt to be dismayed by Rand Paul’s fifth-place finish in Iowa, ahead of Bush by roughly two points but behind Ben Carson by nearly five. Ron Paul had finished third in 2012, with 21 percent of the vote compared to his son’s 4.5 percent this year. But anything short of the nomination is only worthwhile as a learning experience and as an opportunity for further organization, and in that regard Paul’s well-wishers need not be discouraged. Though the Republican Party has reverted to a hawkish disposition since 2013, there is still a better-organized counter-neocon faction in the party today than there was in 2003, when the Iraq War began, or even 2006, when Republicans paid the political price for the war. And it’s notable that the top finishers in Iowa, Trump and Cruz, while being far from realists or libertarians, are almost equally far from being neoconservatives. The party’s foreign-policy attitudes are more diverse today than they were even in 2012.
Both libertarians and conservative realists got carried away by their own hopes in the five easy years between 2006 and 2013, when the domestic political climate and world events alike took a favorable turn for realism and made things maximally difficult for neoconservatives and hawks. Today things are hard for everyone—though the hawks and neoconservatives are fortunate in having an avatar like Rubio, whose youth, looks, and race make even those who should know better yearn to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The danger is that libertarians and traditional conservatives will learn the wrong lesson now: the problem is not exactly that Rand Paul was not more like Ron Paul in his unbending libertarianism or more like Trump in his rabble-stiring populism. To be sure, Rand came off as sometimes tentative and embarrassed about his principles, and in trying to appeal to the hawkish evangelical right he only alienated his base while failing to win much new support. But while his father did better in 2012 and Trump did better still this year, neither of them had what it takes to actually win. The insurgent right is extraordinarily bad at politics and consistently mistakes raw enthusiasm for effective electoral power. Ron Paul couldn’t leverage his third-place Iowa finish in 2012 the way Rubio’s allies are set to capitalize on his third-place finish this year because the extra-political as well as political organization that Rubio commands dwarfs anything that the libertarian or populist right possesses, and the neoconservatives have been much more effective at devising narratives and message-frameworks that the mainstream media and the business class can support. Trump might get second place, Ron Paul might get third, yet both remain fringe figures to the opinion-forming classes.
Rather than face this fact, too many true believers on the right prefer to retreat into fantasy—indulging in dreams of third parties or sudden popular uprisings or the triumph of disembodied ideas over mere flesh-and-blood politics. Yet better, more far-sighted organization in politics and the media is the only way to advance worldly change. The neoconservatives have understood this better than anyone.
And so the neoconservatives have won the civil war for the Republican establishment, beating the semi-neocon Bushes and elevating their preferred candidate, Marco Rubio, to the role of establishment savior. The unified neoconservative-establishment bloc now waits for Trump and Cruz to bleed each other dry, before Rubio finishes off whoever remains—probably Cruz. Should all proceed according to plan, the fresh-faced establishment Republican champion then goes to face the haggard old champion of the Democratic establishment, Hillary Clinton, in November. Whoever wins, the cause of peace and limited government loses. Yet even then there will come a backlash, as always before, and next time perhaps an opposition will be better prepared.
For 175 years the United States was not a country known for its self-consciously conservative thought. America’s “Tories,” after all, had been on the wrong side of the Revolutionary War. The names of our great political parties—Whig, Republican, Democratic—were everywhere else labels for liberal or radical groupings. Americans may have had their own kind of conservatism, but they rarely called it that.
But something changed after World War II. Not only did books with titles like Conservatism Revisited, The Case for Conservatism, The Conservative Mind, and Conservatism in America appear in rapid succession between 1947 and 1955, but distinctly conservative ideas—not merely pro-business or anti-communist ones—were unmistakable in works by authors such as Richard M. Weaver and Robert Nisbet. Observers called this efflorescence of the intellectual right “the New Conservatism.”
Why did conservatism enjoy a revival at this, of all times, even in as unlikely a place as America? War is the answer: specifically, the disillusionment that thinkers of conservative temper experienced as a result of World War II.
Europe’s turn to totalitarianism before the war had already prompted the first stirrings. “The success of literal ‘National Socialists’ whether Hitler or Stalin, is in their vote-getting synthesis of romantic expansive nationalism with a planned economy,” wrote Peter Viereck in the April 1940 issue of The Atlantic. “In contrast, we conservatives must synthesize the good in the latter, not with despotism, but with freedom—that is, with all our ancient civil liberties, tolerance of minorities, and a peaceful internationalism of Law.”
Viereck was “twenty-three years of age, unemployed, short of cash,” yet confident. His outlook was like that of Guy Crouchback, protagonist of Evelyn Waugh’s “Sword of Honor” trilogy of World War II novels, at the beginning of the conflict. With Nazis and Soviets on one side and the Christian West on the other, everything was clear to Crouchback: “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.”
But at the end of the war Stalin controlled half of Europe with the West’s acquiescence. For Crouchback, as for his author, this amounted to unconditional surrender of the very principles of civilization for which the West had fought.
Richard Weaver, soon to be a professor of rhetoric at the University of Chicago, felt the same way. The war was over, but, he asked a friend in 1945,
is anything saved? We cannot be sure. True, there are a few buildings left standing around, but what kind of animal is going to inhabit them? I have become convinced in the past few years that the essence of civilization is ethical (with perhaps some helping out from aesthetics). And never has the power of ethical discrimination been as low as it is today. The atomic bomb was a final blow to the code of humanity. I cannot help thinking that we will suffer retribution for this. For a long time to come I believe my chief interest is going to be the restoration of civilization, of the distinctions that make life intelligible.
Weaver’s 1948 book, Ideas Have Consequences—one of the first classics of postwar conservative literature—was, he explained in its foreword, “a reaction to that war—to its immense destructiveness, to the strain it placed upon ethical principles, and to the tensions it left in place of the peace and order that were professedly sought.”
A year later Viereck published Conservatism Revisited, which gave the “New Conservatism” its name. But it was a work by another young scholar, four years hence, that would connect this philosophy with the popular imagination. That scholar was Russell Kirk, and his book was The Conservative Mind.
Bradley J. Birzer begins his definitive new biography of Kirk—Russell Kirk: American Conservative—with his subject stationed in the Utah desert, at Dugway Proving Ground, where the U.S. Army Chemical Weapons Service put its wares to the test. “Coming here,” wrote Kirk to his friend Bill McCann in 1942, “tends to make me lean toward the Stoic belief in a special providence—or perhaps more to the belief of Schopenhauer that we are punished for our sins, in proportion to our sins, here on earth.”
Military life instilled in Kirk a lasting hatred of regimentation. “Greater self-love has no government than this: that all men must wear khaki so that some men may be taught to brush their teeth,” he wrote in a 1946 essay about the prospect of a peacetime draft, one of his first published pieces.
He was even more scathing in a 1949 short story. “America, I Love You” tells of one Private Dahmer, who as Birzer relates “proudly destroyed Albrecht Dürer’s house and stole the fourteenth-century charter of the village of Kempten. It turns out that Dahmer also raped a woman in Munich.” Kirk has Dahmer explain why he intends to remain in the Army after the war: “you’re a king. You take a little stuff from the officers, sure; but then you get a chance to kick somebody else around, half the time.”
Kirk responded to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki much as Richard Weaver did: Americans were wont to talk of “progress,” he wrote to McCann, but “apparently, it has been progress toward annihilation, an end to be accomplished, perhaps, by the improved atomic bomb? We have dealt more death and destruction in the space of ten years than the men of the Middle Ages, with their Devil, were able to accomplish in a thousand.”
That was not the war’s only irony: “the expulsion of American Japanese from the West Coast … might, if necessary, be compared to a number of other well-known exoduses.” While fighting fascism, America had taken its own steps down the road to something similar.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that after the war Kirk left the country to pursue graduate studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Before joining the Army he had already written a master’s thesis at Duke University on John Randolph of Roanoke, a Virginia statesman more Jeffersonian than Thomas Jefferson himself. Kirk didn’t repudiate Americans like Randolph in his St. Andrews doctoral dissertation—which became the basis for The Conservative Mind—but he came to see them as variations on a deeper theme of Anglo-American civilization, whose conservatism was rooted in the life and thought of Edmund Burke.
“In essence, The Conservative Mind offered the West not only something to love but proof that such things had been loved since the eighteenth century and, before that, since antiquity and the Middle Ages,” Birzer writes. There was a personal as well as a philosophical motive behind it: Kirk had come to Scotland in 1948 with a younger woman with whom he was in love. She left him. “Too much a brother, too much a father, too much a preceptor, too much a husband—these things, and my exceeding love, made an end of me,” he wrote in his diary. “With Rosy gone, what am I seeking now from life?” His answer: “An invigoration of conservative principles.”
After he completed the dissertation in 1952, Kirk expected it to be published back home by Alfred A. Knopf. But Knopf wanted drastic cuts, so instead the book was brought out by Henry Regnery in 1953, to an avalanche of reviews. The Catholic press loved it. The liberal literary establishment generally did not—but they took it seriously.
Hostility from one quarter was unexpected. Frank Chodorov, editor of the libertarian Freeman, had been irked by the readiness of conservatives like Viereck to accept the New Deal. Now that Kirk had delivered what was hailed as the New Conservatism’s magnum opus, Chodorov assigned a reviewer to take him down. The task fell to Frank Meyer, an ex-Communist turned libertarian-conservative fusionist. “Collectivism Rebaptized,” Meyer’s 1955 attack on Kirk and the “New Conservatives”—among whose ranks Kirk did not, in fact, wish to be counted—became a cause of enduring animus, not only between Kirk and Meyer but between Kirk and libertarians generally.
Meyer’s involvement in National Review, which launched that same year, made Kirk suspicious. But the magazine’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., succeeded in courting him—much to Kirk’s detriment, Birzer contends. “Kirk’s involvement with Buckley and the National Review as well as with the Goldwater campaign lessened his reach and allowed his opposition to question his integrity and consequently the integrity of nonpolitical conservatism.” T.S. Eliot—who had been much impressed by The Conservative Mind and arranged for its publication in Britain—had warned Kirk of this danger in 1956:
I fear that a reader of ‘The National Review’ who does not already share 100% Mr. Buckley’s opinions, might gradually get the impression that it was a vehicle of prejudice, and that all issues were decided in advance. I think that would be a great pity from the point of view of the need for a sane Conservatism in American life…
Two rather different things, both called “conservatism,” came together in the 1950s, with Kirk at the center of their confluence. There was the Burkean philosophical conservatism—the so-called New Conservatism—that Viereck and Kirk had developed in their separate ways. Then there was the resurgent political conservatism—economically liberal, in the “classical” sense, with a vein of populism and nationalism—that gathered force in National Review and the campaign to draft Goldwater for the 1960 Republican nomination. These two conservatisms overlapped, including to some extent in Kirk himself. But they were not the same thing.
Birzer argues persuasively that Kirk’s conservatism is better understood as a kind of “Christian humanism” than as anything overtly political. Kirk incorporated Stoicism and other classical influences with a gothic and sometimes unorthodox Christianity—spiced with a dash of the occult—into his worldview. In 1964 he became a Catholic during his engagement to Annette Courtemanche, yet even thereafter, Birzer suggests, “Kirk was a Stoic pagan who later added Catholicism to his Stoic paganism.”
Chodorov and early on Buckley—in God and Man at Yale, for example, published in 1951—thought of themselves as “individualists” not “conservatives.” (Chodorov threatened to “punch in the nose” anyone who called him a conservative.) But “conservative” was what progressives had called their opponents since before the New Deal, and now that Kirk had traced a respectable lineage for conservatism, the word became popular with many people who had formerly identified as individualists, anticommunists, or simply Republicans. They changed their label, but not their politics.
One of these two conservatisms was aimed at getting power—if only, in theory, to fight communism and bolster free markets. The other was aimed at humanizing power by reforming character and culture, and while Kirk did not join Viereck in embracing the welfare state, he applied the demands of humanism to markets as well as to the state.
The clearest difference between the two conservatisms arose in foreign policy: humanist conservatives, Christian or otherwise, were less apt to support military interventions or restrict citizens’ civil liberties in the name of fighting communism. “A ‘preventive’ war, whether or not it might be successful in the field—and that is a question much in doubt—would be morally ruinous to us,” Kirk wrote in A Program for Conservatives, his 1954 sequel to The Conservative Mind.
Caught up in the Goldwater movement and controversies of the Vietnam era, “Kirk became increasingly hawkish in foreign policy in the 1960s,” Birzer reports. But in the years before his death in 1994, his noninterventionism was stronger than ever: in “attempting to demolish the work and the ideas of the neoconservatives,” Birzer writes, Kirk “found a new intellectual vigor.” He opposed the 1991 Gulf War and shocked a Heritage Foundation audience by observing “not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.”
Yet to characterize Kirk—or Weaver, Viereck, or any of the postwar philosophical conservatives—as simply “antiwar” would be a mistake. Their distinguishing characteristic was not what they were against but what they were for: restoring the roots of civilized conduct in literature, philosophy, and personal character.
Kirk’s quip at Heritage earned him accusations of anti-Semitism, which Birzer shows were not only unjust but ironic. His most vicious detractors included certain disciples of Leo Strauss, yet Strauss and Kirk had been mutually supportive friends. Indeed, in 1957 Kirk launched the journal Modern Age in part to defend Strauss against liberals’ aspersions, and he resigned from the quarterly the following year after coming to believe one of his colleagues was anti-Semitic. Kirk wrote of his vision for Modern Age, “I have been endeavoring to steer clear of bigotry, intolerance, eccentricity, and preoccupation with the hour’s political controversies—the curses of American conservatives.”
Birzer, who not coincidentally holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair of History at Hillsdale College, provides as much insight into Kirk’s life as Kirk’s work provides into conservatism. His chapters on less known dimensions of Kirk, including his family life and fictional oeuvre—one novel, Old House of Fear, outsold anything else he wrote, including The Conservative Mind—are superb. But most valuable of all is the reminder this biography serves of how conservatives like Kirk sought to recover civilization from the ashes of war and collapse: one book, one line, one thought at a time.
There’s much more to say—but Birzer says it best in Russell Kirk: American Conservative.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.
Four years ago, Newt Gingrich led national polls of Republican voters, nearly 28 percent of whom indicated they supported the former House speaker. Mitt Romney was close behind at 24 percent, however, and in Iowa polls of prospective caucus-goers suggested that Ron Paul might beat them both—Paul getting 22 percent, Romney 21 percent, Gingrich 14 percent.
The polls were wrong. Gingrich would only win South Carolina and his home state of Georgia. He didn’t even make the top three in Iowa, where Romney and Paul placed second and third—and the surprise victor, who nine days before had been polling behind Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann as well as Paul, Romney, and Gingrich, was Rick Santorum. He, not Gingrich, would be Romney’s toughest competitor for the rest of the campaign, winning 10 more contests after New Hampshire.
This year Donald Trump polls better than Gingrich did in 2012, both nationally and in the early states, and no establishment contender in 2016 has the support that Romney did last time. But Santorum’s 2012 upset might still tell us something about what to expect on February 1. Santorum’s performance showed that Iowa voters were even more focused on social issues than pollsters and pundits had realized. Religious right caucus-goers voted their consciences, and when they asked themselves whether Romney or Gingrich or Ron Paul best represented their views, they disregarded the choices that polls and the media had given them and voted for Santorum instead.
This could be good news for Ben Carson, whose moribund campaign actually polls better in Iowa today than Santorum’s did nine days before his win in 2012. Then again, Trump has advantages this year that Gingrich did not have in 2012—most importantly, the endorsements of Phyllis Schlafly and Sarah Palin. But if the Santorum vote in 2012 really was a conscience vote, I have a hard time believing that Iowa evangelicals in their hearts of hearts identify more with Trump than with Carson. These voters—as their support for Santorum in 2012 and Huckabee in 2008 demonstrates—know who they are and what they believe in. They are rock steady, not swayed by media buzz or the showbiz glitz of a modern presidential campaign. They are also organized: their churches and religious groups are ready-made battalions that translate directly into political strength.
The left-wing canard about the religious right is that its adherents are—as a Washington Post reporter famously wrote—“largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command.” And among the non-evangelical right, there’s a reluctance to admit that Christian conservatives really do have fundamental differences with other Republicans. Elite centrists in the GOP who do indeed recognize the religious right as a separate species from themselves nevertheless tend to perceive the evangelical vote as basically populist rather than distinctly values-driven.
Left, right, and center thus all run the risk of underestimating how focused and distinct Christian conservatives can be, especially in an environment like the Iowa caucuses, where such voters predominate in numbers great enough that they need not worry about coalition-building. The Iowa caucuses are, in fact, practically the only opportunity these voters have to “send a message” in national politics—to testify in action to what they really believe.
That doesn’t mean that a surge for Ben Carson (or much further down in the polls, Mike Huckabee or Santorum himself) is the only possible outlet for evangelicals’ political intensity. My guess is that there is at least as good a chance that this intensity will lead to a bigger than expected turnout for Ted Cruz, who seems to have been successful at positioning himself as a plausible avatar for the religious right. An unexpectedly big win for Cruz could put a dead stop to Donald Trump’s momentum, robbing him of the limelight in which he has flourished and dampening, if not overcoming, his support in New Hampshire.
To be sure, the Santorum 2012 vote isn’t the only group that might yield a surprise in Iowa’s caucuses, where turnout is small enough that intensity and organization can trump—if you’ll pardon the expression—media exposure and general polling. Rand Paul has staked his campaign on getting younger and more libertarian Iowans to caucus; he’s confident in his ground operation, and he argues that his voters are not counted by conventional polling.
But if the religious right vote is historically even stronger in Iowa than analysts expect based on polls, the opposite is true of Iowa’s Paul-family vote: in 2012 Ron Paul underperformed in the caucuses relative to his polling beforehand. He had a shot at first place but finished third. No matter how good Rand’s ground operation may be, the supply of libertarian-minded voters in Iowa is simply unlikely to be enough.
Marco Rubio, meanwhile, has to hope that a large slice of Romney’s 2012 Iowa vote (roughly 25 percent of caucus participants) finds Trump and Cruz alike unacceptable—and that those voters pragmatically opt for Rubio instead of Jeb Bush. My hunch, however, is that the conventional wisdom is backwards: Christian conservatives are much more certain about how they want to vote than pundits give them credit for being, while middle-of-the-road Republicans are much more indecisive and impulsive this year.
(For Trump, the worst case scenario would be for the conventional wisdom to be half-right: a rally of electability-focused centrists to Rubio, coupled with stronger-than-expected evangelical support for Cruz. That would almost certainly set up a Cruz-Rubio race for the rest of the primary season, leaving Trump where Gingrich was in 2012.)
Donald Trump has proved all skeptics wrong so far. Maybe he really has changed the nature of Republican presidential politics, such that precedents from years past no longer apply. Maybe. But that notion has yet to be put to the test that counts—in real presidential primaries and caucuses.
A Republican from the party establishment enters the presidential race and immediately tops the polls. A few months later, he trails a politically inexperienced but media-mesmerizing businessman. The story of Jeb Bush and Donald Trump? Yes—but also the story of Mitt Romney and Herman Cain in late 2011. And a glimpse back at the early months of GOP contests in 2008 and 2012 suggests what’s to come in 2016: a Christian conservative leaps to first or second place, surprising the pundits, only to lose at last to the inevitable establishment nominee.
This is no inscrutable design of fate. The Republican Party’s knack for nominating Bushes and Romneys and McCains has a reason, just as there are reasons why certain kinds of opponents catch on. Nate Cohn of the New York Times supplies a piece of the puzzle in a story headlined “The Surprising Power of Blue-State Republicans.” But there’s a deeper philosophical explanation for why the GOP perpetually fails to nominate another conservative like Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan—conservatism itself has lost its identity to politics.
The truth is that leaders like McCain, Romney, and the Bushes represent the GOP as a whole better than right-wing candidates do. Contrary to caricature, the GOP is not just the party of the South and relatively underpopulated states in the Midwest. Cohn’s headline calls the power of blue-state Republicans surprising, but it shouldn’t be: the majority of Americans live in blue states—that’s why Obama won the last two elections—and one would expect a national political party to draw a great proportion of its presidential delegates from the states where more Americans actually live.
Geography is ideology, at least in part. Blue-state Republicans may still identify as conservatives, but their conservatism is quite different from that of their red-state counterparts. As Cohn reports:
According to an analysis of Pew Research and exit-poll data, blue-state Republicans tend to be more urban, more moderate, less religious and more affluent. A majority of red-state Republicans are evangelical Christians, believe society should discourage homosexuality, think politicians should do what it takes to undermine the Affordable Care Act and want politicians to stand up for their positions, even if that means little gets done in Washington. A majority of blue-state Republicans differ on every count.
The blue states hold the keys to victory for establishment candidates: “Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney won every blue-state primary in 2008 and 2012,” Cohn notes, “making it all but impossible for their more conservative challengers to win the nomination.” Indeed, “Mr. Romney lost all but one red-state primary held before his principal opponent dropped out of the race”—that opponent being Rick Santorum, who a few months earlier had seemed utterly hopeless. Santorum lost his Senate seat in blue-state Pennsylvania in 2006. But in red-state presidential primaries six years later, he was formidable.
The division between blue-state and red-state Republicans by itself, however, is not enough to account for the party’s seeming inability to nominate anyone to the right of Romney or McCain. There remains a mystery: in the past generation, even as the GOP has come to be viewed as more right-wing than ever, conservatives have actually fared worse in its presidential primaries. In just 16 years between 1964 and 1980, conservatives won the Republican nomination twice. In the 36 years since Reagan left office, conservatives have never won it.
There were plenty of blue-state Republicans in the days of Goldwater and Reagan, of course, and even back then the party had distinct factions of conservatives and liberals—“Rockefeller Republicans,” as they were called. Why, then, did conservatives succeed in 1964 and 1980 but never again?
The answer lies in a development that appeared for the first time in 1988: the emergence of a distinct religious right or social-conservative candidate. That was Pat Robertson, who carried four states and won a little over 9 percent of the overall primary vote—behind Bob Dole’s nearly 20 percent and George H.W. Bush’s 68 percent. Robertson’s modest campaign, however, was like a hairline crack in the foundations of the political right. Since then in every election there has been a strong social-conservative contender in the Republican contest: Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996, Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012.
The gap is filled by George W. Bush, an establishment candidate who, as a born-again Christian himself, was “a uniter, not a divider” in appealing to religious conservatives. And he left nothing to chance: his “compassionate conservatism,” inspired in part by the evangelical thinker Marvin Olasky, was pitched directly to Republicans of strong religious sensibilities, and he was eager to accept whatever help Catholics like Fr. Richard John Neuhaus could provide in building interdenominational political alliances. Bush’s efforts came up short in November 2000, when he failed to win the popular vote—in part, his campaign believed, because not enough churchgoers went to the polls for him. But his re-election in 2004 was widely credited to success in mobilizing “values voters.”
Before 1988, religious conservatives voted with other conservatives. The religious right wasn’t yet organized in 1964, but “moral” voters were a significant component of Goldwater’s base, sometimes to the candidate’s own embarrassment. (He vetoed the distribution a short film, “Choice,” intended by his supporters to rally voters with alarming images of race, sex, and crime.) Reagan in 1980 was the first Republican hopeful, and then nominee, to benefit from effectively organized social-conservative groups like the Moral Majority.
The development of the religious right or social conservatives as a bloc discrete from conservatives generally proved to be the undoing of the right in Republican presidential primaries. But this differentiation into two distinct strands of conservatism, represented most of the time by competing avatars in GOP primaries, was not the result of hubris or short-sightedness on the part of religious conservatives. On the contrary, it represents a real philosophical divide that can be seen in the different emphases, attitudes, and even positions taken by social-conservative champions vis-à-vis other conservatives.
The bottom line is that however different a Romney or McCain might be from the average conservative Republican, figures like Huckabee and Santorum are even more so. In tone, social conservatives are apt to be either provocative (Buchanan, Santorum) or “folksy” (in the case of Huckabee and George W. Bush). On issues, the religious right’s candidates have tended not only to emphasize homosexuality and abortion more strongly than other Republicans, but significantly they have also staked out more blue-collar economic positions, most notably in the case of Buchanan but to varying degrees with Huckabee and Santorum as well. (George W. Bush tried to square the circle and failed: his compassionate conservatism was never accepted by the right’s old guard, who sensed that the adjective implied an unflattering judgment about their free-market philosophy.)
These candidates represented, all in their own ways, a very different worldview from that of the Goldwater-Reagan type of conservative. Christian conservatism is a clear enough idea that it finds independent champions, and it’s politically well enough organized that those champions can be “competitive losers” every four years: never winning the nomination but always finishing with the second or third highest aggregate vote totals. To state the obvious, if Christian conservatism were really as similar to the rest of the right as the conservative movement likes to insist, there would not be a “market” for a separate “product.” The one candidate since 1988 to bridge the divide, George W. Bush, left almost all conservatives feeling disappointed or betrayed by the end of his presidency.
It’s not a coincidence that this ideological and political differentiation expressed itself immediately once the Reagan era had reached its end: before Reagan, an all-purpose conservative represented to the religious right—whether organized or nascent—a candidate who might give them the kind of country they wanted. Goldwater’s defeat avoided the disillusionment that victory would have brought. Reagan, however, showed that a general-purpose conservative once elected could only go so far: he appointed Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, after all. Reagan himself did not come in for much blame, but the spiritually diffident conservatism that he and Goldwater represented—neither was more than nominally religious—was no longer enough.
The mythology promulgated by the conservative movement has it that a candidate who naturally expresses both Christian conservatism and Goldwater-Reagan conservatism must be out there somewhere. But the record of three decades since Reagan won the nomination with support from both camps suggests otherwise: in a full generation, there has never been a candidate equally appealing to both kinds of conservative. What reason is there to think there ever will be one?
Christian conservatives may no longer be the only ones who have this problem. Libertarians have had cause to celebrate in recent elections, as they too seem to have emerged as a distinct force in the GOP, with presidential standard-bearers of their own in the form of Ron Paul and Rand Paul. But here again, what this differentiation suggests is that libertarian Republicans have a vision distinct from and to some degree incompatible with—unsubstitutable for—that of other conservative Republicans. When religious conservatives came to this awareness, the results proved ruinous as far as winning the GOP presidential nomination went, for themselves and for the older Goldwater-Reagan conservatives. Will libertarians avoid the same trap?
Conservatives of one faction or another may be tempted to see this sorry scene as a failure of team spirit. But that would be a mistake, and a counterproductive one. Christian conservatives are not being narcissistic when they field and flock to their own candidates rather than to some generic right-wing Republican—a Reagan-of-the-week of the Fred Thompson or Rick Perry variety, for example. They are being true to their beliefs, including their political beliefs—just as more pragmatic conservatives are being true to theirs in rejecting candidates like Huckabee and Santorum.
The proper way to address principled differences is not by disguising them. Once, before an entrenched conservative movement existed to assure the right that every GOP nominee was the gold standard in conservatism, the right had a few institutions that put a bit of daylight between themselves and the Republican Party, and these institutions—notably periodicals such as the ’50s and ’60s National Review and Modern Age—devoted themselves to working out a coherent yet capacious worldview, not by insisting on a politically convenient orthodoxy but by honestly confronting the differences between various schools of thought. Ironically, as intense as the intellectual battles were, and as inconclusive as the quest for an agreeable-to-all “fusionist” formulation proved to be, in practice traditionalists and libertarians voted together for Goldwater and Reagan. They did so for their own reasons, and that was quite enough.
The situation has been reversed ever since Reagan: every movement magazine, TV pundit, radio host, and think-tanker has come to insist upon a single, bland, homogenized ideology devised for maximum political convenience. The lively fights on the right used to be in the pages of its books and magazines; now they are at the ballot box, where the only winners turn out to be establishment Republicans—and ultimately liberal Democrats.
The right, not just the Republican Party, is deeply culturally and geographically divided—much as the country is. That can be a source of strength, if it leads to rigorous testing of premises and policies, to re-learning the arts of persuasion and principled coalition-building: that is, building coalitions not on the basis of fabricated principles but on honest differences openly engaged. But all this is more than a political task, and alas, the real dirty secret of the Republican establishment’s success has been getting the right to bet everything on partisanship.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative.
Rand Paul tells the Washington Post‘s Dave Weigel that Thursday’s Republican presidential debate will pit him against rivals who “want to blow up the world.” He has reason to use stark language. After weeks of negative press, single-digit poll numbers, and lackluster fundraising, Senator Paul needs a “Giuliani moment”—something that will do for his campaign what a showdown with “America’s mayor” did for his father’s effort after the first debate of 2007.
In fact, Rand Paul has the opportunity to do much more than his father ever could. But he’s missing it: Rand’s “Giuliani moment” is the Iran deal, and it calls for action, not words.
Rand’s support for the deal would transform the politics of the Republican race at a stroke. He would also risk losing rather than gaining support—when the deal was announced, 30 percent of Republicans supported it, and those votes could have been Rand’s. Polls since then have been mixed and most indicate Republicans oppose the diplomatic effort, even overwhelmingly so.
But that’s where the Giuliani example is relevant: no pollster or campaign professional would have told Ron Paul to stand up to Giuliani like that—on an issue, national security and terrorism, that Giuliani owned and where Republican voters overwhelmingly disagreed with the Texas congressman. But Ron Paul did it anyway, and in so doing he pulled off something political pros usually believe is impossible or irrelevant: he changed voters’ minds.
He didn’t change nearly enough to win a single primary, of course, either in 2008 or in 2012. But Rand Paul starts from a stronger position and higher profile than his father had before that debate. If Rand dared, instead of being yet another single-term senator vying for the nomination, he could overnight become the most important player in the GOP on the biggest foreign-policy issue of the day. He’d get invited to every talk show as the one Republican with the audacity to side with the president to make a deal for peace. He’d be denounced, too, by every neocon outlet. In other words, he’d get the full-spectrum attention that Donald Trump now commands, knocking him out of the headlines, if not off the top of the polls.
He’d also be a legislative leader, a man Democrats and Republicans alike would have to court ahead of the vote on Iran. The pressure would be extraordinary, but if he stood by his support for the deal, he would have a polarizing and rallying effect, bringing other Republicans around—however many could be brought around—and shattering the GOP pro-war consensus that the neoconservative media has worked so hard to create.
Rand would perhaps even be in a position to demand legislative concessions from the Democrats and Obama; leadership would also be leverage. That might not be enough to defund Planned Parenthood—but consider what the public would be presented with if Rand Paul clearly supported the president on issues like Iran and sentencing reform but clearly separated from Obama and the Democrats on abortion and taxes. He’d give all voters something to think about, cutting across the left-right divide that has only meant defeat for Republicans in the last two presidential elections.
Instead, the strategy Rand’s team have devised for him is much more cautious, and its dividend so far has been dwindling support. But it doesn’t matter if a candidate drops into the single digits in the pre-primary season, and even if Rand’s fundraising could be better—Bush, Cruz, and Rubio beat him easily last quarter—he’s still a top-tier candidate. His playbook is to win on bread-and-butter Republican issues, demonstrating his support for tax cuts by literally cutting through the tax code with a chainsaw, courting Christian conservatives by calling for an end to federal funds for Planned Parenthood, keeping his libertarian supporters on board by opposing the NSA’s domestic surveillance, and reaching out to several groups at once—including libertarians, Christians, and some liberals—with criminal-justice reform.
His approach to two thorny questions—immigration and foreign policy—has been in line with this bread-and-butter strategy. There’s a vocal and somewhat large bloc of voters who say they want to restrict immigration, and while they may not tend not to vote in such a way as to prove their commitment—Tom Tancredo would have been a force in 2008 if they did, and John McCain would not have been the GOP nominee—an appeal to restrict immigration certainly won’t lose Rand many primary votes. By contrast, explicit noninterventionist appeals won’t win many: there aren’t legions of foreign-policy voters to begin with, and what few there are in the Republican Party are mostly hawks.
The logic of this play-it-safe strategy is impeccable. But it’s a logic that works against Rand Paul: after all, if voters want a bread-and-butter Republican, they have better options. Ted Cruz is a better orator, Marco Rubio is more charismatic, Scott Walker has an executive record. Christian conservatives aren’t going to choose Rand Paul over spiritual kin like Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee just because Rand, like the rest of the field, is antiabortion. (For one thing, the religious right suspects that in his bones Rand Paul is just too libertarian to fight till he bleeds against same-sex marriage.) Paul’s foreign-policy maneuvering, meanwhile, has the curious effect of leaving him the candidate least liked by hawks but no longer much loved by doves. What his campaign team has devised is actually a winning strategy for Scott Walker—or even Jeb Bush.
The dilemma for Rand is that his core supporters are with him because they believe he really is different from the rest on foreign policy, but to reach beyond that core he has to downplay the difference. Rand can’t do well as just Mr. Small Government because more Republicans seem to want Walker for that role, and Cruz can also compete for it. Rand’s core supporters don’t have a reason to go to another candidate, but there aren’t enough of them to make him the nominee. And there are fewer of them the more he triangulates.
His most devoted supporters dismiss those who are abandoning ship as “purists.” But there’s a spectrum: at one end are those who won’t settle for less than another Ron Paul, which Rand was never going to be. At the other are those who will stick with Rand no matter where he stands—either out of personal loyalty or out of an undying hope that he doesn’t really mean it when he falls in with GOP orthodoxy. But most of his potential support lies between the extremes, and that middle ground is where he’s failing to make the sale.
Going into the race Rand Paul could seemingly count on two iron-clad advantages: he would have plenty of funding, whether from Silicon Valley or from an army of small donors like those who backed his father. And he would have a ready-made bloc of activists composed of the more pragmatic of his father’s supporters and additional battalions of grassroots conservatives brought into the liberty movement by the senator’s ecumenical outreach. Paul’s struggle to win support either from the Silicon Valley or from a volume of grassroots supporters comparable to his father’s indicates there’s something about his campaign that fails to persuade the very people who should be most easily persuaded.
Rand’s strategy, unlike his father’s, is all about winning. But what no campaign professional likes to admit is that not every client has a chance of winning. The way the party’s attitudes presently stand, Republicans are not ready for Rand Paul. He could try to change the party so it’s ready for someone like him in 2020 or 2024. But instead he’s changing himself to be like the party of today. And he’s losing.
There are no shortcuts when it comes to altering the nation’s political course. If you want a very different foreign policy from what Republicans (and indeed Democrats) are used to, you can’t sneak it in by winning a single presidential election—just as you can’t stop abortion or erase the tax code with one November victory. A great deal of persuasion is necessary before the elections will follow, and the relationship between elections and public persuasion has to be mutually reinforcing: persuade more, then win more, then use your higher profile to persuade still more and win still more. That’s how you build a movement. It’s the only way.
Rand’s father faced a party that was even less ready for anyone with his principles. But he shook up the GOP and changed the way voters thought about his issues, to the point that his son, without any elected experience, could beat a well-funded establishment candidate in a 2010 Senate primary. There’s no question that without Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign, there would have been no Senator Paul.
Now Rand is in danger of reversing the momentum not only of his own campaign but of the liberty movement whose leadership he inherited. Ron Paul’s efforts in 2008 and 2012 helped set the stage for liberty Republicans like Justin Amash and Thomas Massie, as well as Rand, to win in 2010 and 2012. No similarly libertarian Republican won in 2014 or has yet to appear in prospect for 2016. This isn’t Rand’s fault: the issues environment has been more difficult for liberty candidates these past two years. But a movement needs leadership most of all when it faces adversity—someone who will risk his neck to ensure there are more Thomas Massies and fewer Tom Cottons sent to Washington in the future.
This Giuliani moment is a test of Rand Paul’s courage. If he fights for realistic diplomatic initiatives like the Iran deal, he may yet lose the nomination, but he’ll make political success for those with his principles—including himself—more likely in the future. Conversely, it will prove to be a mistake as well as a disgrace if Rand Paul is running for president to be someone rather than to do something—all the more so if who he’s trying to be is not who he is but who the other Republicans are.
How worried should Republicans—and everyone else—be about Donald Trump, the man who’s turning the party’s presidential contest into a circus rodeo? Not very. What his popularity blip reveals is just how weak the right has become.
Herman Cain was polling as high as 26 percent between October and November 2011. Trump has a long way to go to match last cycle’s comic-relief candidate. The occasionally bankrupt billionaire’s best number so far has been 17 percent. His polling average, even after weeks of hype, is about 10 percent. Bernie Sanders, by contrast, has been routinely polling around 15 percent against Hillary Clinton. Sanders is a more popular figure than Donald Trump, but he obviously isn’t as good for television ratings—he’s never had his own reality program—so Ten-Percent Trump is the guy who’s treated as a threat to America’s political establishment.
How many of the Trump ten percent are actually, in any serious way, Donald Trump voters? Maybe half. Trump’s strength is less a sign that his demagoguery is catching on than that Republican voters haven’t been sold on any of the more sober alternatives to Jeb Bush. Trump is filling the generic anti-Bush, anti-establishment slot in the race. Whoever filled that slot would be getting double-digit support, and chances are any other candidate who had successfully secured this role would be polling higher than Trump is now. What the Trump phenomenon shows is not that the GOP is tilting in a radical direction but the opposite. Walker, Paul, Rubio, Cruz, and the rest aren’t appealing to the most excitable people in the party. That’s a sign that the GOP’s aspiring leadership is ultimately rather anodyne.
Trump has obvious advantages over the others in staking his claim to be the anti-Bush. Everyone knows his name, and he’s willing to speak vehemently about immigration, an issue on which Bush is vulnerable. But it’s doubtful that the hardline anti-immigration vote has boomed from the 2 percent support earned by Tom Tancredo in 2008 to something on the verge of taking over the party. And it’s most likely that Trump’s effect on the GOP’s immigration policies will be the opposite of what his supporters want: to undo the damage Trump is inflicting on the party’s Hispanic outreach efforts, the party leadership will further marginalize immigration restrictionists. Fringe candidates like Trump usually don’t succeed in prompting others to raise up their banner: Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign certainly did no wonders for opposition to trade deals, support for which has since become an article of faith for Republican and Democratic presidents alike.
Any other candidate who now tries to take on immigration will be tarred by association with Trump. And no other candidate is going to have the flamboyant appeal he has, so it looks as if anyone else who campaigns on this will reap few of the rewards Trump has reaped but draw all of the obloquy Trump has called forth. That’s even more of a losing proposition than Trump’s own bid.
The other candidates know this. They’re not worried about their standing in the polls in summer 2015, they’re worried about their cash flow and ad buys for Iowa and New Hampshire. Every indication so far is that Jeb Bush will annihilate his competition: his fundraising take is beyond anything his rivals can hope to match—even the next two combined—and the heir apparent has led almost every GOP poll since he first indicated he would run.
If the right could unite behind a single alternative, he might have a chance. The anti-Bush would be several things: in style, combative rather than mild; in ideology, hard right rather than pragmatic; on immigration, against it rather than for it. Immigration is the hot-button issue where Bush is most at variance with the party’s right wing, so it’s an effective wedge against him. But it’s not one other candidates are well-positioned to exploit. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul have both, like Bush, made efforts to present themselves as kinder, gentler Republicans. (Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.)
Walker has been more outspoken on immigration, but he seems reluctant to cast himself as a hard-right candidate—he’s benefited from an ambiguous identity as both a hero to the right and someone who has yet to alarm centrists. Ted Cruz might be demagogic enough to aspire to be the next Donald Trump, but in taking up immigration he’s inconvenienced by the fact that he’s Canadian-born and was until very recently a subject of Her Majesty Elizabeth II.
Trump’s bubble tells us little about the 2016 race. What it says about Republican ideology, on the other hand, is that none of the factions—the libertarians, the religious right, the Tea Party—have much life in them. After all the sound and fury of the Obama years, no quarter of the right has generated ideas or leaders that compellingly appeal even to other Republicans, let alone to anyone outside the party. The Ron Paul revolution has become a Rand Paul Thermidor. There is no philosophical insurgency this year. Instead, there’s a sense that the right is becoming a prisoner to formalism: the religious right, the libertarians, and the Tea Party are all reduced to repurposing ideas minted decades ago. The various factions’ policies aren’t generating any excitement, which leaves room for an outsize, outrageous personality, in this case Trump, to grab attention.
The field’s failure here isn’t about satisfying an appetite for novelty, it’s about the failure of new circumstances to generate fresh applications of principle from the leading figures of the different factions. From Rand Paul we should be hearing something we didn’t hear much from his father, namely how libertarianism and noninterventionism can be made politically viable—especially in the hard cases, not just the relatively popular and easy ones like surveillance reform. From Huckabee and Santorum and Carson we should be hearing about what it means to be a moral minority in a country that has already accepted same-sex marriage; they could even be talking about the Benedict Option and whether the religious right’s mode of political engagement remains an alternative to it. (Judging by the GOP race itself, Obergefell doesn’t seem to be lighting any populist fires.)
There are difficult questions today that Ronald Reagan and the Cold War right never had to address. But they aren’t questions that the factional candidates or their ideological proxies are answering. None of them represents a 21st-century conservatism. Nor, of course, does Donald Trump.