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The Right Message After Trump

Voters want more than slogans and insults. Conservatives must win with better ideas.

Reflecting on the coming nomination of Donald Trump, former Ronald Reagan associate Peggy Noonan hits where it hurts: “A large portion of the Republican base no longer sees itself as conservative, at least as that has been defined the past 15 years by Washington writers and thinkers.”

The no less perceptive progressive intellectual William Galston described the nomination of Trump as “the third major revolution in the Republican Party since World War II.”

Noonan believes Trump’s success was in reaction to George W. Bush’s attachment to neoconservatism and Barack Obama’s to “international climate change agreements and leftist views of gender, race and income inequality,” both of which ideologies came across as indifference to real people’s problems. Trump represented himself as being “on America’s side,” humanizing both abstractions and eschewing traditional ideologies, standing against both obviously failed alternatives.

It has been apparent for years that the problem is more basic than Trump. It is mostly us. Three years prior to running for president, Trump was introduced as a compatriot at the premier Conservative Political Action Conference, after making a $50,000 donation. Trump was on Fox and Friends Monday mornings for several years, received extended exposure from his 30-year friend on the O’Reilly Factor, and appeared on Hannity 41 times. Of course, that is dwarfed by the $2 billion of free TV Trump received from the mainstream media, including Fox, during the nomination process (three times that of second place Hillary Clinton). But his airtime started with presumed conservatives.

Conservatives have spent the last eight years complaining about President Obama with slogans and personal invective, but without answering populist angst. To some extent this was rational, since most people do not have time for long explanations and therefore could not have been convinced by sophisticated alternatives anyway. A successful message would require newsworthiness and time. There was an opportunity for Congressional Republicans and conservative leaders to make news. If they used Obama’s whole eight years, citing constant examples of government failure and striking alternatives, they might have been able to make a message sink in.

Every day the Washington Post provides the material, bursting with stories about government programs that do not work. People avoid this because they want to believe that inefficient government is caused by a bad person or the wrong party. Only constant examples to demonstrate a pattern of failure can overwhelm this prejudice. Citizens knew the status quo did not work, but it required examples to prove the larger reality that the welfare state itself was the problem. Unfortunately, both conservative politicians and policy leaders split into two camps, those who wanted to govern and those who wanted to send messages. The former were playing into Obama’s hand and the later played to Fox News and talk radio rather than to the unconvinced electorate.

It’s understandable that public officials want to be part of the governing process. Voters want to hear that all is right or at least that it can be easily fixed, and are encouraged by a simplistic and unsympathetic media seeking advertising revenue, which very much includes Fox. Public officials were easily coopted. However, those opposed to a governing strategy in favor of messaging also proposed too-easy solutions that linked them to a failing status quo.

The one exception was Obamacare. It is the one example where a majority is still basically on the Republican side. Even there much of the argument was too personal against Obama and alternatives were not provided or explained. On other policies, the failure was that virtually all Republicans in Congress and their support systems insisted on “governing” when the president had no intention of cooperating with them. Governing becomes a co-conspirator with the president when it expects that a tweak here and there will make things right.

The public is not so easily fooled. The result was eight years of losing battles against Obama without educating the public or even the base, which was promised success and then inevitably disappointed. Trump then picked up the pieces. Even if Trump were not the nominee, the likely result would still be eight more years of tweaking at the edges, and failure. With him, Democrats may gain control of both houses of Congress and force both “governing” Republicans and conservative revolutionaries into total policy irrelevance.

The progressive welfare state is now firmly established and will become more so with the election of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Centralized government, however, is dead on its feet and nothing Trump or Clinton can do will address the fundamental problem: Washington cannot manage the complex morass now and both candidates’ solutions for doing more will only make things worse.

This actually presents a great opportunity for conservatives. It is time to learn from Trump what politics is supposed to be about—to have a message and know how to communicate it. The difficulty is that conservatives no longer have a coherent message and even if they did, they think policy position papers are how to communicate one.

Conservatives who do have a message are split across the board: reform conservatives who think better national programs will make it all work and federalists who think only decentralization will change the dynamics; protectionists who fear trade and those who consider it essential to world prosperity; believers in markets and those who believe in central regulation; those for the U.S. as world policeman and those for a limited role; those who would have the Supreme Court force secular “freedom” on provincial rubes and those who find religious freedom an absolute right. There is no coherence at all.

First, conservatives—or at least some of them—must agree on a new synthesis. Once there is some coherent message, Trump can teach conservatives a great deal about communications: act like one believes what one says; do not back down to get universal approval; act boldly with some irreverence and good humor; smile or even laugh.

Then, assuming markets are part of the new synthesis, begin with the minimum wage. It is the Democrats’ number one priority even though most of its intellectuals know that too high a rate puts people out of work. Trump supports it too. How about a Trump-like teachable moment? Up his and Hillary Clinton’s $15 an hour minimum to $100 or $1,000 to really help folks get higher wages and higher unemployment. Call them cheap and heartless when they demur.

Or how about confronting the universal solution of “jobs”? Take some of the enormous funds otherwise wasted on election ads and have the Koch brothers bet Trump a million dollars for each U.S. job lost or gained if he limits trade?

Or challenge Trump or Hillary on why anyone would believe their 76th jobs program will work when none of the previous 75 did? Make them promise to resign for making false promises if the jobs do not appear after two years in office.

Or demand to know why the uncaring candidates are not being bold enough to propose mandatory single-sex open bathrooms and showers for all?

Finally, demand elimination of all federal taxes. Economics Professor Dwight Lee proposes collecting no national taxes but requiring that states give 25 percent of every dollar they raise to the Feds (to be elaborated in a forthcoming Mercatus Center publication). This would solve the Articles of Confederation problem that the states did not give funding to the national government and would shift most federal programs back to the states where the Founders believed they belong. It would be popular and drive even Trump crazy.

Critics need to get into the flow of the new Trump world and play the game. The new rules are not about governing—but call for winning supporters joyfully with better ideas.

When conservatives are neither snarling nor wimpish but having fun with politics, the public will get it. That will allow time to quietly re-do the message and build a new movement on ideas and good humor. This way conservatives can prepare for the day when Trump or Hillary fails, since voting against either possibility is a sucker’s bet.

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



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