Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

‘Why Not Trump?’

Conservative establishment's panic over the Donald is likely too little, too late
‘Why Not Trump?’

Two views of Trump and his supporters, from conservatives who hate Trumpism:

1. From Martin Cothran, the view that Trump and his followers are anti-intellectual morons who are destroying intellectually serious conservatism:

What can you say about a movement of people that stands and applauds the incoherent babbling of Sarah Palin in her endorsement of Donald Trump and then blindly dismisses the serious and reasoned arguments of twenty-two veteran conservative thinkers writing in the flagship conservative magazine without even addressing what they said?

What we are witnessing is a wholesale repudiation of conservatism by a substantial faction of this nation’s conservative political party. The late William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder and long-time editor of National Review said in the early 1980s that “all the philosophical action is on the right.” He was right then. But he could not say that today, not in a national party that can’t seem to understand any political thought longer than 140 characters, and which thinks that the assertion “It’s going to be great” constitutes political eloquence.

2. From Peggy Noonan, the idea that this might be true, but there are good reasons why so many people prefer him to the standard-issue GOP politicians. Donald Trump may be a bad deal, but when compared to the same old same old from the Republican Party, he looks better. She says instead of bitching about how unserious Trumpism is, some mainstream GOP candidate ought to take the message its popularity sends seriously. Noonan poses questions that this unnamed GOP candidate ought to pose, and answer, in a speech. Excerpt:

If Mr. Trump is not a conservative, why is that bad? That is, what’s good about conservatism? Why is it pertinent and necessary? If the GOP base is a big, broad jumble that includes people reliant on entitlements who also see progressive social ambitions as destructive to the nation, how does conservatism speak to them?

What do you imagine a Trump presidency would look like? His supporters think he’ll go in there and clean out the stables. Would he? Could he? Can you?

What’s wrong with a little disorder? Does Trumpism enliven our political life with zest and unpredictability, or does it diminish our political life with unthinking emotionalism and shallowness?

Why is it important that a president have previous governmental experience? (Here I will add that I have seen longtime officeholders start out with fire and idealism, only in time to learn too well what isn’t possible. “We can’t get that through.” “We lost on that one last time.” They quietly give up; their sense of reality becomes a lethargic pessimism. Mr. Trump, new to political office, would not know what’s impossible. Leaders like that, if they also have talent, wisdom, popularity and organization, can occasionally make the impossible happen. Is it worth the chance?)

Most important, did Mr. Trump come from nowhere? Did the GOP establishment make any mistakes the past 15 years? [Emphasis mine — RD] If so, how can the damage be repaired? Was the Republican elite, like the Democratic one, essentially uninterested in the eroding power and position of the American working class? Were GOP leaders insensitive, cynical and selfish regarding public disapproval of and anxieties about illegal immigration?

What if both No. 1 and No. 2 are true to some extent? I think they are. Yes, Trumpism and its popularity are demolishing intellectually serious conservatism. And yes, the GOP and the conservative establishment made that job easier for them by the way they have governed.

As a reader of this blog e-mailed about Trump’s awfulness, “Compared to what?” He meant by that, Trump is a badly flawed messenger, but he’s all conservatives who are sick of the party line have. Another reader of this blog, a conservative who opposes Trump, e-mailed to say that he believes the GOP and the conservative establishment deserves to be demolished for their misrule, but that he can’t back Trump because the cost to the country would be too great.

Yet as reader Sam M. has pointed out, it is not clear what Trump supporters actually want, besides a wall between the US and Mexico, and what that represents about immigration. It doesn’t sound like they want smaller government, but rather a government that doesn’t work against them. Do they want a more isolationist US foreign policy? You might think so, given Trump’s criticism of the Iraq War, one that I certainly share (the GOP’s refusal to come to terms with the Iraq catastrophe is a good reason not to trust it). But beneath that “make America great again” bluster is some big-stick swagger. Well, which is it?

Far as I can tell, the main impetus behind the Trump phenomenon is the conviction that GOP establishment politicians are not for these voters and their interests. I think Cothran is right to say that far too many Trumpistas are settling for flim-flam. But I think Noonan is also right to say, indirectly, that flim-flam is no less flim-flam when it presents itself as the standard rhetoric and policy positions of the Republican Party elites.

If Mr. Trump is not a conservative, why is that bad? Put another way, “If Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and the rest are conservatives, why is conservatism good?” It is not clear that any of them have an answer to that question, or think that they have to answer it. Frankly, I think Trump is no kind of answer, but I cannot plausibly answer the “If Trump is not a conservative, why is that bad?” question, given what “conservative” means in the context of these presidential candidates.

It is unquestionably true that discourse on the Right, especially at the popular, talk-radio level, has long been characterized by incessant boundary policing and hard-core identity politicking (this is what the epithet “RINO” means). It really is anti-rational and anti-intellectual — but this is the kind of politics of emotion that the GOP establishment has been happy to encourage and exploit. Now comes Nemesis, in the form of a cocksure tycoon from Reality TV. Maybe the kind of people who rally around Trump see what passes under the label Conservatism™ and believe that if that’s what conservatism is, they would rather have something else — and it’s not the liberalism of the Democratic Party.

Noonan’s are the kinds of questions the mainstream Republican candidates should have been asking themselves — and answering — six months ago. But they, like many of us, thought Trump was going to go away once people got to know the real Donald. Well, guess what? Eight days away from the Iowa caucuses, and Trump is a slight favorite.  He’s a heavy favorite in the next two contests, in New Hampshire and South Carolina. As my colleague Noah Millman has pointed out, believing that Trump can be stopped if he wins that trifecta is a form of magical thinking.

I would like to point out that back in August 2015, Noah was asking the questions that no Republican competitor of Trump’s was asking, when it might have done them some strategic good. Such as:

Or are we going to say we can’t elect him because he’s a jerk and a blowhard and has said awful things about women? Really? More awful than the things Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee have said about gay people? More inflammatory than the things virtually every Republican candidate has said about Russia or Iran? (I’ll take a leader who believes “Persians are great negotiators” over “Iran is run by a messianic suicide-cult” any day.) Or because he’s a man with terrible taste? You don’t think Trump would actually build a classier ballroom than Washington’s got now? Have you been to Washington lately?

Yes, Trump is basically executing a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Is that supposed to make the civic-minded shudder? Does the Republican Party strike you as a particularly civic-minded organization? Is there any organization you can name more deeply deserving of being hostilely taken over in this manner?

No! More Millman:

Trump has articulated a vision of what the president’s job is, and that is to be the chief negotiator for the United States. If that’s the job, who, among his competition, looks like he or she would do it better? Who has provided any evidence that he or she would do it better?


Donald Trump’s greatest weakness as a candidate has always been the utter ridiculousness of the proposition. Now that he is actually a plausible contender for the presidency, either as a Republican or as an Independent, it will take more than derision to beat him. It may take an actual reason why he would be a worse president than another contender — and a reason that resonates with the broad swath of Americans who are not wedded to the core ideological commitments of either of our major parties.

So? Why not Trump?

Note well: Millman was asking these questions five months ago. 

The NR symposium attempts to answer, forcefully, the main question: Why not Trump? At this point, though, does anyone who doesn’t already agree with the answers really want to hear them?

Finally, here’s a NYT review of two new books about how conservatism ran itself into a ditch, one by the liberal commenter E.J. Dionne, the other by conservative commenter Matt K. Lewis. Excerpt:

Dionne and Lewis both conclude their books with suggestions on how to fix the right. Dionne argues that conservatives need to recapture the reformist spirit that Dwight Eisenhower embodied: They have to come to terms with the modern world in order to steer it in a more congenial direction. Lewis argues that conservatives must recover the enthusiasm for ideas they had in the Reagan era.

Neither recommendation is particularly convincing (indeed, Dionne almost acknowledges as much in his typically belt-and-braces conclusion). The right has powerful incentives to continue on the same path. The fact that the electorate is smaller and whiter in off-year elections means that the Republican Party has a strong grip on the House of Representatives, and the fact that even a wooden candidate like Mitt Romney came within a few points of winning the 2012 election means that it can justify doubling down on the same old strategy.

Moreover, the forces that are disfiguring the right are likely to spread in future years, consuming the Democrats in much the same way as they have consumed the Republicans. The stagnation of the living standards of average Americans is creating widespread angst. The culture wars are extending to new areas. The ­Internet-enabled news-cum-entertainment industry stokes political resentments even as it creates epistemic anarchy. Interest groups are finding ever more ingenious ways to pretzel the political process. Interesting times don’t remain confined to one part of the political spectrum for very long.

I agree with reviewer Adrian Wooldridge that neither remedy, as he characterizes them, sound plausible. Republicans in particular need to get over their captivity to Reaganism, which was a solution to problems America faced over 30 years ago, before deindustrialization and globalization, before China, before global terrorism and the anarchization of the Middle East, before mass immigration, before the Internet, before the collapse of the family became general. But it’s puzzling that the reviewer doesn’t account for Trump. “The right has powerful incentives to continue on the same path,” he writes. Except it is now being poleaxed by a disincentive that until the day before yesterday was unthinkable by the conservative establishment: Donald J. Trump.

UPDATE: A reader points to this blog post by Roger Simon. Excerpt:

Many of their arguments revolve around whether Trump is a “true conservative.”  Instead of wading into the definitional weeds on that one — as they say on the Internet, YMMV — allow me to address the macro question of what the purpose of ideology actually is. For me, it is to provide a theoretical basis on which to act, a set of principles.  But that’s all it is.  It’s not a religion, although it can be mistaken for one (communism).

Ideology should function as a guide, not a faith, because in the real world you may have to violate it, when the rubber meets the road, as they say.  For those of us in the punditocracy, the rubber rarely if ever meets the road.  All we have is our theories. They are the road for us.  If we’re lucky, we’re paid for them.  In that case, we hardly ever vary them. It would be bad for business.

Trump’s perspective was the reverse.  The rubber was constantly meeting the road.  In fact, it rarely did anything else.  He always had to change and adjust.  Ideological principles were just background noise, barely audible sounds above the jack hammers.

When National Review takes up arms against Trump, it is men and women of theory against a man of action.  The public, if we are to believe the polls, prefers the action.  It’s not hard to see why.  The theory has failed and become increasingly disconnected from the people.  It doesn’t go anywhere and hasn’t for years. I’m guilty of it too. (Our current president is 150% a man of theory.) Too many people — left and right — are drunk on ideology.



Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here