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What Kind of Conservative Will Trump II Be?

The former President, despite some long standing preferences, is not a predictable ideologue.

Credit: BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty Images

If the former President Donald Trump returns to the White House, a big question will be what kind of conservative he will be in a second term. Many of his strongest supporters would like to see him permanently shift the Republican Party in a more populist and nationalist direction.

Trump made some progress toward this goal in his first term, nudging the GOP away from George W. Bush’s positions on trade, immigration, and foreign policy. But he did not make an entirely clean break in either personnel or policy. His biggest accomplishments were a tax cut, a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, and a successful military campaign against ISIS.


You could quibble with whether the Jeb Bushes of the world would have stood by Brett Kavanaugh or nominated someone as conservative as Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg so close to an election where Democrats were leading in the polls. That was the difference between the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the disappointments of the last three Republican administrations.

Otherwise, Trump’s record was arguably not that different in the big picture than any other more or less successful Republican presidents would have been. Hearing Trump talk about corporate tax cuts and more high-skilled immigration raises the possibility that not much would change in a second term. His endorsements in Republican primaries remain all over the map. It’s worth noting that the main candidate in the 2024 GOP presidential race for reverting to the pre-Trump party served in his administration.

For this reason among many others—the 22nd Amendment would make Trump ineligible to run again in 2028—a lot is riding on the vice presidential pick. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) is a more ideologically consistent Trumpist than the former president himself. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has traveled in that direction in recent years, although he has a record on foreign policy and immigration that ought to give populists pause. Other options are even more conventional than Mike Pence.

But a president can transform a party without being the perfect embodiment of everything his strongest supporters would like to see. Ronald Reagan was far more ideological than Trump, much better read on political philosophy and economy, and had considerably deeper roots in the conservative movement. The Gipper was nevertheless not everything his boosters from the Goldwaterites to the neoconservatives hoped for—except for an accomplished chief executive.

Reagan pursued conservative policies that whipped stagflation and helped win the Cold War. But he succeeded as much by ignoring his comrades as by heeding them. Not everyone who liked his tax cuts was happy with the size and scope of the federal government, to say nothing of the budget deficits, by the time he left office.


Conservatives, especially with the neo- prefix, who cheered Reagan’s moral clarity about communism often took a dimmer view of his diplomacy and arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. He believed in a strong military—used sparingly. None of this prevented an idealized version of Reaganism from taking over the Republican Party, even if two Bushes got to be president.

This idealized Reaganism was in many respects inferior to the real thing. But it has had considerable staying power. Moreover, it is instructive for Trump.

Unlike Reagan, Trump’s most consistent political positions have been the sense that foreigners take unfair advantage of the United States, only with the help of our own government in Washington and the American political elite. This informs his populism and nationalism, though it is not a sufficient basis for a new conservatism in itself.

Otherwise, Trump has at times fancied himself a moderate business Republican and paid protection money to New York Democrats. He was briefly Jesse Ventura’s instrument for challenging Ross Perot for control of the Reform Party by way of running against Pat Buchanan, 16 years before winning the Republican nomination and the White House on a platform of lightly secularized Buchananism. 

It is possible that Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis was ready to keep this movement going, though by the crucial juncture of the Republican primaries the choice was Trump or Nikki Haley. Truer believers than Trump himself will staff his White House if he is able to beat President Joe Biden.

That’s not nothing. We don’t know for a certainty what Trump will do about Ukraine or whom he will pick for secretary of state. He shows political creativity on things like not taxing tips—which would at a minimum help make the GOP a more working-class party in substance rather than just rhetoric—but is also maddeningly inconsistent. If he sees what he thinks might be a good deal, he will take it, whether his negotiating partner is Paul Ryan, Chuck Schumer, or Kim Jong Un.

Your own view of what constitutes a good deal may differ. But for a certain corner of the right, it beats any available alternative.