Imagine if he announced this week that he is no longer a Republican, or rather that the GOP is no longer his party, a move that would be absolutely unprecedented in our history. How many people in the White House would head for the exits immediately? Would Mike Pence resign the vice presidency or stay on in the hope of somehow benefiting from a future Trump stumble? Would impeachment be on the table suddenly?
But once the dust settled, think of the possibilities. Divorcing the GOP might allow Trump, finally, to concentrate on those aspects of his platform — shoring up our entitlements, undertaking a vast program of infrastructure spending, fixing or quitting our ludicrous trade deals, coming up with a superior, more humane health-care program, not fighting unnecessary wars — that are viewed with indifference or outright loathing by much of the Republican Party in Congress and by vast swathes of the wider GOP-aligned parts of the media.
This wouldn’t just be an amazing second act for Trump’s flying circus of a political career. It would also, in a single Death Star-like instant, destroy the illusion that the calcified two-party system accurately represents the views and aspirations of some 300-plus million Americans.
Trump has no patience for the ideological fixations of a guy like Ryan, and is done pretending otherwise. Moreover, nobody likes the GOP Congress, including Republican voters, so why would Trump cozy up to them at all?
One big reason for that antipathy to congressional conservatives is that not that many Americans are conservatives, or at least conservative in the sense that old guard Republicans like Ryan can recognize. The fact is, there are two big political persuasions in America today: liberalism, and the right-wing populism Trump embodies. Then there are numerous smaller, marginal political groupings, such as socialists and social democrats, libertarians, and now conservatives.
Trump, we were reminded throughout the Republican primaries, is no conservative. To the extent he has serious beliefs on policy, he’s agnostic on higher taxes for the rich, has opined on the need for a more robust social safety net and infrastructure, pledged to protect entitlements that conservatives like Ryan are obsessed with cutting, rejects democracy promotion abroad, has little use for traditional sexual morality, and so on. For these reasons and more, the flagship publication of the conservative movement, National Review, dedicated an entire issue to lambasting Trump as the primaries got underway.
As it turns out, the Republican base wasn’t very conservative either, and gave the Trump the party’s nomination rather quickly. Dumbfounded conservatives organized themselves into the online battalions of #NeverTrump, which tended to promise that Trump’s vulgarity and deviations from conservative scripture would be punished in the general. And we all know the end of that story.
#NeverTrump lives on in the world of punditry and a few think tanks, and may in time fashion a replacement for Trumpism that’s attractive to rank-and-file Republicans. But for now, conservatism has receded to become just another ideological interest group, a niche concern whose footprint in our political discourse vastly outstrips its support among actual voters.
Donald Trump has done a lot of bad things, but one good thing he’s done is to smash the Republican Party’s establishment. Don’t you get the sense that these guys think that all they have to do is to wait Trump out and they can get back to business as usual? Maybe I’m short-sighted here, but I don’t see how that happens. Politico did a poll last month, and look what it found:
The poll shows more GOP voters think Trump is looking out for the party’s best interests than think McConnell (R-Ky.) is. By a more than three-to-one margin, they say that Trump is more in touch with Republican voters and that Trump is more honest.
More evidence Trump has the upper hand, at least among Republicans: McConnell’s favorability rating among GOP voters is down over the past three weeks, and half of Republicans say Trump’s attacks against him were appropriate.
And get this:
Trump is more honest than McConnell, Republican voters say, 55 percent to 14 percent.
Perhaps most saliently, Republican voters say — overwhelmingly — that Trump is more in touch with them. Sixty percent say Trump is more in touch with GOP voters, compared with only 16 percent who say McConnell is.
Jonathan Tobin says that Trump doesn’t have what it takes to launch a viable third party, but that fact should not comfort the establishment:
Even in failure, Trump has sown seeds of dissension that will ensure that what follows is very different from what preceded him. No matter how dysfunctional his presidency becomes, Trump and Bannon will blame all defeats on the wicked establishment and most of his base will believe them. The uneasy coalition of fiscal conservatives, foreign-policy hawks, libertarians, and social conservatives that elected Ronald Reagan and sustained Republicans in the decades since then may have been fatally fractured. Until the party has a leader around whom it can unite with a vision of Reaganite conservatism — something that probably can’t happen until 2024 — conservatives are fighting an uphill battle against an incumbent president who has already tilted the playing field against them.
“America First” may be an empty ideology that offers few answers to the country’s problems, but its appeal and the resentment it helps engender against conservatives will not dissipate just because Trump loses an election or two. The Times’ prediction notwithstanding, the two-party system is safe. We can’t know exactly what a post-Trump Republican party will look like, but we can be sure that it will be very different from the conservative party that nominated the Bushes, John McCain, and Mitt Romney and that not many in the grassroots will mourn it.
So, where does that leave us?
For us conservatives, maybe one way to start answering the question is to ask a few questions of ourselves. Let’s try this:
Are you satisfied with the GOP?
What’s wrong with the party?
It’s moribund, a prisoner to ideas that were fresh thirty, forty years ago. The thing it seems to care for more than anything is tax cuts. It learned nothing from our disastrous Iraq adventurism. It makes a lot of noise, but when it comes right down to it, it can’t get much done. For example, repealing Obamacare. I’m pretty sure that I’m a lot more favorable towards government health insurance than your average Republican, but these Republican lawmakers shot their mouths off for years on repealing Obamacare, and when they had the opportunity to do it, they couldn’t pull it off. They can’t govern. It’s hard to say what the national GOP stands for other than tax and economic policy that favors the wealthiest, and foreign-policy hawkishness.
Why aren’t you a Democrat, then?
Because I am a white, heterosexual conservative Christian male. The Democratic Party thinks I’m the enemy. No matter how willing I am to give them a chance on economic policy and foreign policy — and might even prefer them to the Republicans — they are deeply hostile to people like me.
Besides, let’s be honest: the Democrats are also a party of Wall Street and Davos, just like the Republicans.
Does Donald Trump speak for you?
No. He’s a belligerent, incompetent loudmouth. He doesn’t have any discernible principles beyond self-aggrandizement. He’s not a conservative in any serious sense. I’m glad he’s nominating judges, and I think he has some good instincts. But his lack of discipline is severely hampering his ability to get things done. I think he would sell anybody out if he thought it would be in his interest.
Why do you say you’re a conservative if you’re fed up with the Republican Party, and you don’t count yourself as a Trump supporter? What else is there?
Well, you see the problem. My conservatism is primarily cultural and religious. I endorse Russell Kirk’s definition of conservatism. It’s hard to see that in the GOP today. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, I dunno. I generally vote Republican because I think — or at least I hope — that they’ll do less harm than the Democrats. I would love for the Republican Party to give me a reason to vote for it again, as distinct from voting against the Democrats.
Would you like to see a third party?
Yes, absolutely. A party that is socially conservative and economically nationalist, and favored a strong safety net, even if it meant higher taxes on the very wealthy? A party that is skeptical of getting ourselves involved in other people’s wars? You bet. A party that stands for fairness for all Americans, not giving special privileges based on identity? Absolutely.
I also want a pony.
Well, that was a fun exercise. What about you, conservative readers?