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The Secret of Trump’s Success

Donald Trump, the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party?

How could a non-conservative become the nominee of the conservative party when he clearly is not one at all? The uncomfortable fact is that conservative intellectuals and leaders have been working for years to make the term become meaningless, so some charlatan was inevitable.

What is the public face of conservatism today? A bunch of angry men and peevish women on Fox News speaking in the three second soundbites required for admission into celebrity space with slogan answers anyone could predict before they open their mouths. Talk radio at least allows a few minutes for some depth but even many of the magazines are mostly aimed at Twitter level.

It is all meaningless slogans: anti-taxes, anti-government, pro-life, pro-defense—who could disagree—or really care?


What message are they sending? Audience-building anger, first at President Obama, at almost anything he does. Then, anger at all groups supporting the president. Then anger at Republicans in Congress because they do not defeat that president, from those who also claim to be Constitutionalists but ignore the presidential veto and that Congress lacks the votes to impeach him. And anger at the Supreme Court for operating as a super-legislature by those who failed to complain when Republican presidents appointed them.

Now there is much to be angry about—entitlements threatening bankruptcy, courts becoming the supreme national legislature to determine the culture, regulations killing the economy and jobs, the Federal Reserve undermining the currency, a bureaucracy so overwhelmed its stasis frustrates all useful work, even Republican leaders not intelligently confronting Obama. But these do not fit on Twitter. Sloganeering is the easier course.

So when a Donald Trump comes along and is angry using the same catchphrases, why not support him? He was a celebrity par excellence and no one told ordinary conservatives what the mantras mean. So the uninformed and the inert rose to support him. Trump likes big government programs and might even increase entitlements as they near bankruptcy? Obamacare is not all that bad? He likes Planned Parenthood although they sell fetus parts? Free trade is not all it is cracked up to be? He wants more power for the president?

Who cares? He is angry against the right bad guys and he knows enough slogans to get by.

How did Trump get his conservative bona fides anyway? National Review was the founding magazine of the conservative movement. But its current editor [1] initially welcomed Trump into the presidential race as filling a vacuum to speak out on controversial issues, although he later called him a “philosophically unmoored political opportunist.”

A former chairman [2] of the American Conservative Union gave Trump a preeminent speaking platform at the leading conservative forum, the Conservative Political Action Conference, following a $50,000 contribution from the mogul to the organization. After these two endorsements, who could say Trump was not conservative?

Liberalism could correctly brag that conservatism barely existed in the U.S. until the success of Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom in 1944, making the first intellectual case for modern conservatism. It was read by William F. Buckley Jr. and other early National Review editors such as Frank Meyer and Russell Kirk, who created an intellectual journal in the 1950s to translate the philosophy into politically relevant form.

Buckley explained that his role in founding the magazine and the movement was simply to bring the leading right-of-center intellectuals together and force them to synthesize each other’s ideas into a more-or-less coherent whole.

The early adherents ranged from monarchists to anarchists but somehow after prolonged serious intellectual debate they had created the modern conservative movement. Their disciples founded think tanks and other cultural and political institutions, published additional books and magazines and created activist organizations that developed the cadre that won the Republican nomination in 1964—and finally the presidency under an early adherent, Ronald Reagan.

It had its successes but it has been obvious for years that conservatism had lost its moorings [3]. Trump simply sealed the movement’s end. He has already proved the slogans have no overall coherence and the mainstream media trumpeted the charade as the essence of conservatism. It turns out the media [4] gave Trump $2 billion in free media (Hillary Clinton only got half that amount) to do the job.

Take the mantra of Republican leaders that “we all agree upon” reducing taxes. But remember what Reagan said about them. Right at the beginning of his presidency, he proclaimed he was not reducing spending and taxes primarily to save money but to return power to the states and people. There was a broader philosophy behind the slogan. That is what has been lost.

A serious conservatism needs to turn from the allure of power and celebrity and get back to serious deliberation, re-learning how to synthesize conservatism’s traditionalist and libertarian elements for today’s world. Inventing showy abbreviated conservatisms—neo, social, paleo, reform—distract from the fundamental necessity of synthesis. While Buckley and Reagan still have much to teach the movement, things have changed and new fusions of principles and events have become essential.

Indeed, the best thing about Trump’s success is that conservative intellectuals seem to be starting to think again, realizing slogans are not enough. With a bit of luck The American Conservative and other serious forums just may find the way back.

Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution [5], and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and one of his campaign strategists.

29 Comments (Open | Close)

29 Comments To "The Secret of Trump’s Success"

#1 Comment By KD On March 16, 2016 @ 10:53 am

Beyond conserving zilch, you forgot about that howler, “limited government”.

When was the last time a Republican President actually reduced the Federal Government, instead of expanding entitlements and further federalizing education?

#2 Comment By Scott_api On March 16, 2016 @ 11:10 am

“How could a non-conservative become the nominee of the conservative party”

The Republican party stopped being the conservative party in the mid 90’s. About that time they became the ‘against whatever the Democrats are for’ party. Conservatives continued to support them, but it was one way.

#3 Comment By Roy Fassel On March 16, 2016 @ 11:15 am

“Liberalism could correctly brag that conservatism barely existed in the U.S. until the success of Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom in 1944, making the first intellectual case for modern conservatism.”

This is so much nonsense.

Read Hayek’s own words….”why I am not a conservative”….


#4 Comment By SDS On March 16, 2016 @ 11:20 am

“Indeed, the best thing about Trump’s success is that conservative intellectuals seem to be starting to think again, realizing slogans are not enough”

Surely, you jest….

Maybe one day; but there is certainly no sign of “thinking” by “Conservative Intellectuals” yet…. as there don’t appear to be any, currently…..None that care to be recognized as such, anyway….

#5 Comment By Lee On March 16, 2016 @ 12:05 pm

Uninformed? Reagan cut spending? What?

Sure, Reagan peddled the notion a 1 Trillion dollar debt was a horror campaigning against Carter. Next Reagan and Tip O’neill buddied up for the spending spree from hell. The national debt increased 186% by the end of Reagan’s term.

Con, Inc. has always been F.O.S.

Trump’s “uninformed” supporters are well aware of reality, it’s a concept National Review and the empty slogan GOP establishment should explore.

#6 Comment By bt On March 16, 2016 @ 12:12 pm

I wrote this on another piece recently: Conservatism has never been ready or prepared to accept the fact that it has largely succeeded in setting the agenda for the lat 40 years.

Conservatives have not won all the fights, but you’ve won quite a few. Today’s democrat presidents are more conservative than Richard Nixon or Dwight Eisenhower. Clinton in particular was a republican with some colored and gay friends.

But now after all that, what’s next? Following the low-tax, low-government route has not led to heaven on earth, and the movement is intellectually incapable of offering anything new or relevant to deal with what’s bothering people right now. — All that is said that we haven’t been conservative enough, let’s keep doing it, just wait and see. See what? Jindal’s Louisiana? Slash away at public schools and colleges some more?

That’s the background condition that allowed Trump to steal your pony.

#7 Comment By Nicolas On March 16, 2016 @ 12:15 pm

Find their way back to what? The imperialism and me-too welfare statism that have characterized conservatism for 60 years? Judged by its own claims, conservatism has been a failure. Like the public schools, the reformers are likely to be the same architects would designed the previous failures. It’s not likely that the right will embrace Mencken, Nock, and Hayek, whose “Why I am not a conservative” is worth rereading.

#8 Comment By Joseph Laughon On March 16, 2016 @ 12:35 pm

This is to the correct response to Trumpism. Not nakedly crawling towards the seat of power a la Christie, Carson and Kudlow. Not anger and resignation.

#9 Comment By knoxharrington On March 16, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

The Republican Party is not a conservative party if it ever was one. Reagan is an anomaly, and the exception which proves the rule. Does anyone seriously believe that either Bush was a conservative? I certainly don’t. I’m tired of the handwringing over Trump – the only problem the party has with him and is that he has not been fully indoctrinated into the cult – yet.

#10 Comment By ojc On March 16, 2016 @ 12:41 pm

Precisely…Reagan’s agenda, a thoughtful if flawed confrontation of serious issues, became Reaganism, an ideology. Ideology only seems principled. In reality, it is sloganeering, as you have noted. And it degenerates eventually into the will to power. Isn’t that where we stand today?

#11 Comment By tz On March 16, 2016 @ 12:46 pm

Ryan and McConnell passed that horrendous Omnibus. Ryan is speaker because the GOP is deaf – Boehner was deposed because he would preemptively surrender, and we got someone worse.

We support real conservatives, and they get cheated and manipulated out of winning elections.

We are told if we elect conservatives, we will get conservatism. It hasn’t happened for decades. We wanted Obamacare repealed, not funded.

We wanted Planned Parenthood defunded and Ryan and McConnell fund it and you complain about Trump He likes Planned Parenthood although they sell fetus parts? – But he actually says to defund it if they keep doing abortions and I actually believe Trump.

It’s broken. Cruz is CFR/Goldman Sachs – check his wife. Somehow that is supposed to be constitutional and conservative? An outsider? Not part of the Establishment? And the rest are all worse.

Trump is funding his own campaign, and at least the half of the things on which he is genuinely conservative on everyone believes he will really do them, and I’m not sure how keeping millions of illegals here is Conservative, nor letting the Crony capitalists in China and Mexico take our jobs is conservative. Or TARP. Or the trillions in defects. Or the various military quagmires. Or funding Obamacare and Amnesty.

No one talks about that – or no one Conservative does, or they seem to be saying business as usual under Obama is the current definition of Conservatism.

Either “Conservative” is meaningless, or it means something I cannot recognize as any kind of traditional American values, not unlike “Liberal” used to mean what today is described as libertarian and now means socialist or communist.

Since it has shown it can’t be changed from the inside, voters have concluded it would take a Trump or Carson to fix it. Carson wasn’t presidential material, but Trump has his history as a businessman, and is self-funding, and we expect he will do what he says – even the things we don’t like. But we would rather have someone who keeps his word than one who is just another empty suit.

#12 Comment By Jake V On March 16, 2016 @ 1:24 pm

Quote: “How could a non-conservative become the nominee of the conservative party when he clearly is not one at all?”

I voted for Cruz in the primary. So you know where I’m coming from.

My conservative friends who are Trump supporters are under no illusions that he is a closet conservative. Most believe him to be either a moderate or a liberal. But they also believe that he will actually build the wall to keep out illegal immigrants and stop the drug runners, whereas any other Republican candidate will just talk about and – if elected – never get around to doing anything conservative.

#13 Comment By Tyro On March 16, 2016 @ 1:38 pm

Your angry republican uncle does not care about conservatism’s “moorings.”

He wanted to kick ass in Iraq and torture some Muslims, kick the hippies and show up his over educated liberal niece and finally have a president who will do something about all the stuff going on that he reads about in those email forwards he gets. Trump is that candidate.

#14 Comment By bt On March 16, 2016 @ 2:06 pm

Many of these comments are just as I expected:

Your answer to all of this is we haven’t been conservative enough, like Reagan. Never mind that the national debt tripled under Ronald Reagan.

When do you guys plan to do any self-criticism? If no one has succeeded in repealing Social Security and Medicare, when do you all come to terms with the fact that there is not a majority of Americans who support that? There’s not even a majority of GOP voters who support that. Let’s not even get into what young people are thinking about you guys.

As the original article asks, what now?

Anyone who says we haven’t been conservative enough is knowingly or unknowingly saying “more of the same please” and next time we’ll get it right!

And that’s leaving a big opening for anti-candidates like Trump.

#15 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On March 16, 2016 @ 2:42 pm

“but Trump has his history as a businessman, and is self-funding”

“they also believe that he will actually build the wall to keep out illegal immigrants and stop the drug runners”

Sad, but true. A businessman with 4 bankruptcies, two resumes worth of failed ventures going back to the USFL. Self-funding? He rents/leases his assets (office space, jet, etc.) from himself. One media outlet believes he may run the first “for profit” national campaign!

And the wall? People don’t come to the US to rape and murder. They come here to work. And the drug dealers? Just capitalists responding to the market (demand).

#16 Comment By Brian On March 16, 2016 @ 4:15 pm

“The companies fleeing from Trump were happy to be in bed with him so long as it suited their business interests.”

I mean, my God, could Rich Lowry have written anything more beautiful in lacking self-awareness?

#17 Comment By Randal On March 16, 2016 @ 4:32 pm

Is all this complicated over-thinking really necessary just to avoid admitting to yourself that it’s all about immigration?

#18 Comment By Dennis Brislen On March 16, 2016 @ 6:05 pm

The canard that Buckley created NR to bring together “conservatives” is once more proffered. Lost in translation is that WFB, a product of the CIA and the east coast establishment, had no intention of promoting the conservatism of the recently deceased “Mr. Republican” Bob Taft.

Quite the opposite. He was there to bury Taft antiwar, anti-globalism post WWII republican restoration forever in favor of internationalism by military global presence enhanced with Treaty defense obligation.

In short order all who demonstrated residual affection or allegiance to “Old right” principles found themselves purged.

As the old song says. “…alas and lack-a-day…”

#19 Comment By the unworthy craftsman On March 16, 2016 @ 6:11 pm

“Now there is much to be angry about—entitlements threatening bankruptcy, courts becoming the supreme national legislature to determine the culture, regulations killing the economy and jobs, the Federal Reserve undermining the currency, a bureaucracy so overwhelmed its stasis frustrates all useful work, even Republican leaders not intelligently confronting Obama. But these do not fit on Twitter. Sloganeering is the easier course.”

The Trump voters couldn’t care less about “entitlements threatening bankruptcy”. Like most other Republicans, they are pro-SS and pro-Medicare.

Trump voters couldn’t care less about “job killing regulation”. They want government interference in the market–to prevent offshoring and job loss. That’s why they’re voting for Trump.

Trump voters couldn’t care less about “The Fed undermining the currency.” You must have confused Trump voters with Ron Paul libertarians or Mises.org goldbugs.

Stop attributing economic libertarian positions to Trump voters. A vote for Trump is a vote against 3 decades of movement conservatism/Cato Institute dogma.

#20 Comment By connecticut farmer On March 16, 2016 @ 6:29 pm

Not sure what the author means by “modern” conservatism. He would do well to re-examine Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind”. Conservatism, rightly understood, dates back at least to Burke, some 150 years prior to Hayek. Of course, Burke (and probably Hayek) would be appalled at what passes for “conservative thought” these days. So we are left with a billionaire windbag representing the Republican Party, with a billionaire wannabe who in theory could be facing a criminal indictment representing the “Party of The People.” Some choices!! On the other hand, the political process had long since deteriorated to the level of pro wrestling so none of what is transpiring should come as any surprise.

#21 Comment By Johann On March 16, 2016 @ 6:54 pm

@Roy Fassell, Hayek was really making the point about the confusion between the classical European liberal and the US liberal vs conservative. The US liberal was and is very much anti-classical liberal. When it comes to economics and government control, the US “liberals” are decidedly illiberal, i.e conservative because they are for government control and regulation. The US definitions for liberal and conservative seem to have arisen from moral/social values. When it comes to moral/social values, most US liberals are indeed liberal, and most US conservatives are indeed conservative.

#22 Comment By Clint On March 16, 2016 @ 9:03 pm

Trump is attracting Republicans, Democrats and Indies, while winning The GOP Candidacy and opposing liberal interventionists and neoconservative interventionists.

In my opinion, we’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that frankly, if they were there and if we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems; our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would’ve been a lot better off. I can tell you that right now.

We have done a tremendous disservice, not only to Middle East, we’ve done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed, the people that have wiped away, and for what? It’s not like we had victory.

It’s a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized. A total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion. I wish it were spent right here in the United States, on our schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart.

#23 Comment By JCM On March 17, 2016 @ 10:43 am

For what it is worth, Mayberry struck me as something of a police state. Anything out of line would get you in the clinker. No African-Americans–a KKK paradise. The town’s motto might as well have been: “we picked our own cotton.”

#24 Comment By Christopher Manion On March 17, 2016 @ 5:17 pm


1) Without the John Birch Society, Goldwater would never have carried California in the June 1964 primary.

Yet WFB, according to his son, had as his first priority to purge the movement of the JBS and other undesirables.

2) Without immigration, Trump would still be building casinos and hotels (unnecessary foreign wars come in a close second). Yet Don, who has been right so many times including when it’s unpopular, doesn’t bring those issues up.

On immigration: As Thomas Sowell writes, an immigrant brings his culture with him. The Catholic bishops who are receiving tens of millions in taxpayer funds to welcome illegals are not telling them about the Federalist Papers. They’re teaching them how to apply for welfare – just like they did back home (only here it’s more generous).

On war: Most of those who embraced the “conservative” label since Reagan celebrated making the world safe for democracy, by force if necessary. Many made their careers – very lucrative, in some cases – by doing so. It’s understandable that they resent how Trump has called them out – even poor Jeb! won’t defend his brother. How mean of Trump to embarrass Jeb! like that!

Unlovely issues, unmentionable histories. The Memory Hole is alive and well in the Republican Party.

#25 Comment By Rick Johnson On March 17, 2016 @ 5:58 pm

When an existential threat to one’s country and culture is perceived, when the threat of demographic displacement to a traditional people is imminent,when all appears to be lost forever of one’s understanding of a place in civilization, Trumpism transcends the two parties and ALL the petty ideologies residing on the head of the proverbial political pin.

The conservative ideology has never put food on a plate for a family, has never fought in the trenches against REAL enemies,and can never serve as an underpinning of “kith and kin, blood and soil.” Kirk knew this, surely Burke did too, but the present generation of “movement conservative thinkers” are but intellectual and financial parasites. Trump is going to take away your rice bowl. Figuratively, go starve.

#26 Comment By redfish On March 18, 2016 @ 1:29 am


When was the last time a Republican President actually reduced the Federal Government, instead of expanding entitlements and further federalizing education?

Presidents don’t write legislation.

This is one of my biggest frustrations with the direction conservativism has taken, actually. Conservatives have forgotten what the role of the President is. Every Presidential candidate they put up talks about how, if elected, they’re going to “fix the economy”, “create jobs”, “shrink the government.” That’s not what a President does.

On the other hand, Republicans are so scared that Hillary could win that they want to sabotage any democratic, authentic third-party effort, that they forget the role of the Congress and Senate. Think Hillary might win and want to put a wedge against that? Make sure you win the Congress and the Senate. Don’t appoint every Court nominee she puts up just because the media pressures them into it because they call the nominees “mainstream”. Don’t let her assume executive powers not warranted by the Constitution.

Conservatives are so obsessed with winning that they’ve forgotten the basics. So its not surprising that Trump, who promises everyone “you’re going to win so much you’ll be tired of winning” is doing well in the Republican Party.

#27 Comment By tzx4 On March 18, 2016 @ 9:31 am

Overall an intriguing essay.
Clearly the Right has been in thrall to an unchanging over simplistic dogma for decades, executed by blinds orthodox true believers.
It would, no it will , no it is refreshing to see some dynamism being forced on the stale old ideology.
I do have one nit to pick, is not “He likes Planned Parenthood although they sell fetus parts?” a slogan. Even if this is an absolute truth, the larger nuanced truth is it is an organization that does proves so many other services. Being into the baby parts slogan is falling for simplistic propaganda.

#28 Comment By Myron Hudson On March 18, 2016 @ 1:33 pm

I fear that if Trump is elected, then despite all efforts by conservative intellectuals like those at TAC and Reason, Trump will come to embody all that is and has been conservative. The same way that we have always been at war with Oceana. The manipulation of the tribes by media outlets is our new reality.

Could be worse. We could all be on track to turn into Kansas, Louisiana or Wisconsin, those petri dishes of ‘conservative’ failure.

#29 Comment By ek ErliaR On March 18, 2016 @ 3:08 pm

This still begs the essential question: The republic or the empire; the two are fundamentally opposed and conservatives seem unable to surrender their collective dreams of empire.