Why the Right Changed (Or Yet Another Conservative Manifesto)
There’s something like a creation myth surrounding how the Trumpian right came to be. It goes like this: in the days before time itself (i.e. 2015), the conservative movement was mired in stagnation and accommodation. Then a new dawn broke. Donald Trump rose over the hill like a great sun and laid waste to old conservative shibboleths. He then birthed a new movement, one more nationalist, less libertarian, determined to meet the challenges of its day and unafraid to fight.
Like any good origin story, this tale has its limits. It is not true, as is sometimes said, that libertarians were unilaterally running Republican economic policy before Trump showed up; libertarians would struggle to run a lemonade stand let alone a major political party. But the broad strokes of that narrative nevertheless get at something real. Conservatism has changed palpably since Trump took that fateful trip down the golden escalator. It’s become more in hock to him, more concerned with class, more pugilistic, more sensitive to how free trade and foreign wars have affected the heartland.
Conservatives have already written a zillion manifestos explaining all this, and far be it from me to toss another log on the fire. Rather than regurgitate what they’ve already said, I want to explore a few reasons that perhaps don’t get mentioned as often.
The Rise of the Zoomers: Politics is a strange business. I’m 34 years old; I’ve got (hopefully) most of my life still in front of me, yet I’m a creaking Methuselah so far as Washington, D.C., is concerned. The energy in this town comes from the young, and that increasingly means Gen. Z, those born after 1996. The Zoomers, as psychologist Jean Twenge notes in an interview with Abigail Shrier, are in many ways starkly different from their prior cohorts. They’re more plugged into social media, more likely to delay their major life milestones, lonelier, and more pessimistic.
No surprise, then, that Gen. Z conservatives would be, respectively, more skeptical of Big Tech, more eager to recover institutions like marriage and family life that they see their friends putting off, more worried about atomization, and more radical in their dispositions. On that latter point, consider that my fellow Millennials have some memory of the 1990s, a decade when America at least seemed to work well. The Zoomers don’t; for them, it’s been wars, recessions, pandemics, political dysfunction, all the policy failures of the past 20 years heaped on top of each other. Is it any wonder they don’t think parsing the text of the Takings Clause or exhuming Ronald Reagan from the grave is going to cut it anymore?
The Crash-Landing of the Fiscal Hawks: It was 2009 and Barack Obama had a plan to battle the recession: throw gobs of money at it. In response, many right-leaning economists predicted doom. If the government juked the economy to the tune of hundreds of billions, as Obama wanted to do, it would result in too many dollars chasing too few goods amid a recovery that was going to happen anyway. This would mean inflation, a return to the dire 1970s, perhaps even a prolonged or double-dip recession triggered by rising prices.
None of this happened. Instead both interest rates and consumer prices mostly stayed low, leading Congress to believe it could borrow essentially without limits. This ushered in, post-Tea Party, a new era of mass federal spending without any kind of serious fiscal constraints. The damage to libertarian arguments was stark. If government could spend, why shouldn’t it? The lack of any tangible consequences to major federal expenditures forced fiscal conservatives back onto hypothetical forecasts and ideological contentions, which always wilt in the face of practical circumstances. By the time Trump embraced easy money and big government, it was in many ways just a sign of the times.
That being said, inflation is and always will be a check on federal expansion, and right now inflation is very real. If it gets bad enough, it could force Congress to make tough decisions. This in turn could force the right to rediscover some affinity for limited government, albeit perhaps more begrudging than before.
Supercommittees and Sequestration: The Tea Party, from a bird’s-eye view, had a compelling ethos: don’t tread on me, the state has grown too big, the government must answer to the people. And so the Gadsden flags flew—but from a policy perspective, this critique was always going to be less than sexy. When rhetoric met reality, the result was supercommittee squabbling over deficit reductions and words like “sequestration” that made your saliva taste like acid. Even the occasional government shutdown couldn’t detract from what a grueling business shrinking the state really was.
Put simply, the anti-Obama right at a policy level grew boring. And because those who understand the mundane details of government mostly live in Washington, and because Washington is reflexively opposed to Washington ever having to cut back, the Tea Party was ultimately chewed up and spat out. Their lone accomplishment was the sequester, which was quickly gutted by that noted state-slashing Randian Paul Ryan. The path was clear for a more visceral kind of right-wing politics, one concerned with large cultural matters rather than the Export-Import Bank’s charter, one more relatable to everyday life and digestible on social media.
And no one does visceral like Donald Trump.
The Full-Speed-Ahead Left: This one gets brought up more often but I’m still going to mention it because it’s so important. Ten years ago, the most left-wing president since LBJ was still pretending he opposed gay marriage. Today, the race is on to abolish gender, destroy children’s sports, normalize puberty blockers for minors, teach that whiteness is evil, and cancel anyone who glances even slightly askew at the telescreen.
The cultural left has become like one of those platformer video game levels where there’s a giant buzz saw chasing you and you have to stay ever ahead of it (I told you I was old). Unrelenting social change is the order of the day. Keep up or die. No surprise, then, that it’s the social conservatives who now appear to be standing athwart history yelling stop. That drag queens should not be twerking in front of children is not “new thinking”; it dates back to approximately forever. And it’s that space, where politics meets circumstance meets common sense, that movements catch fire and elections are won.