The Conservative Movement Collapsed Before Trump

Back in August 2014, I wrote a piece called Why Presidential Horserace Pieces are Boring. It was a response to an article that Al Hunt had just published in Bloomberg News that took a (very) early look at the state of the presidential contest on the Republican side. In my response, I noted the weaknesses of the candidates who were already being mentioned as likely contenders, and then I went on to give my own view of the state of the race as it then stood.

For context, please note that Jeb Bush didn’t announce his candidacy until June 15th, 2015 and Donald Trump didn’t announce his candidacy until the day after Jeb. That Jeb got in did not surprise me, but Trump had cried wolf so many times about running for president that when he actually got in it was something that I had not seen coming.

So, in this analysis, Trump isn’t contemplated and Jeb is only mentioned as someone who people keep mentioning because the other candidates are so flawed.

The reason I am rehashing this old piece now is because there’s a big discussion going on about why Trump is doing so well, why he wasn’t attacked earlier, and who’s responsible for his success.

There’s a reason that people keep sampling the list of possible contenders and keep spitting them back out. Just as Mitt Romney fell behind every opponent at some point or another only to come out on top in the end, there’s a reason people keep going back to Jeb Bush. He can check every box on the list except the one where the Republican base allows him to win with a message that can change the Electoral College.

Simply put, the Republican primary voter holds a set of beliefs that are nowhere near close to being acceptable to enough states to win the Electoral College. In the past, they’ve fallen in line for candidates like Poppy, Dole, McCain and Romney, only to be disappointed in victory or devastated in defeat. It’s getting increasingly hard to convince them to be practical, especially when the watered-down version of conservatism hasn’t brought them the electoral or practical victories they seek. Why should they believe that Jeb Bush would do better than McCain or Romney did? Why would they support a candidate who promotes Common Core and comprehensive immigration reform?

Throughout recent history, the pragmatic streak within conservatism has won out in these presidential nominating contests, but only by rendering the “practical” candidate unelectable. The obvious answer is to get behind someone who can run less as a conservative than as a traditional Republican, but they are more inclined to test the idea of nominating a fire-breathing conservative who won’t trim their sails. Better to go down swinging than to unilaterally disarm by caving on principles within your own party.

So, these articles can be modestly interesting, but it doesn’t matter if Huckabee might split the evangelical vote and make things difficult for Ted Cruz or if the neoconservatives can find a champion to beat back Rand Paul. It doesn’t matter if Christie’s polls have recovered somewhat or if Marco Rubio is dead in the water. None of that matters unless or until someone emerges who has a plan to change the Electoral College. That means winning some states that no Republican has won since 2004 or maybe even 1992. You’ll know such a candidate has arrived on the scene when you see them taking unorthodox positions and nonetheless getting showered with campaign cash donated by enthusiastic supporters. Rand Paul wants to be that guy, but he isn’t.

Rand Paul most definitely wasn’t that guy. It turns out, that guy was Donald Trump.

I have to confess, I did not anticipate that we’d get his kind of hybrid campaign that appeals to the base’s id but not to their desire for a true-believing conservative.

Looking back, however, I had identified the reason that the Cruzes and Rubios would offer a failed strategy for winning the general election, and why someone like Jeb would fall flat with this Republican electorate. The obvious answer was to find a candidate who would take “unorthodox positions and nonetheless get showered with campaign cash donated by enthusiastic supporters.” Even better, as it turns out, was to get a billionaire to do this who doesn’t even technically need to be showered with donations just so long as he has the adoration and support of enough people to win the nomination.

We will read about Trump’s high negatives and his alienation of key constituencies. Obviously, his success is fracturing the Republican Establishment, some of whom will be ready to jump to a Clinton candidacy (if not, necessarily, a Sanders one). But he has one advantage over all his competitors. He’s not running on an unpopular down-the-line conservative agenda. He’s already tacking to the middle on things like Planned Parenthood; he’s totally disowning the disastrous neoconservative worldview (even as he’s more bellicose in many ways); he’s as rhetorically opposed to free trade deals as Bernie Sanders. He’s appealing to a lot of people who are not part of the traditional Republican base, or who have been politically disengaged. He, unlike the other candidates, has the potential to change the Electoral College map.

We can argue about whether he will change it for the better or the worse, but for a party that has only won the popular vote once since 1988, the potential for change is preferable to the assurance of no change.

People are focusing on the Frankenstein monster element of this, which is basically that the Republicans made promises that they couldn’t keep. They made promises that they had no intention of keeping. They waged doomed battles simply to boost their email lists and to raise money. They stoked fear and paranoia and hatred and anti-intellectualism.

That’s all true. But that alone doesn’t fully explain Trump’s success.

What the Republicans failed to do is to adjust to losing in 2008 and 2012 and come up with a new kind of conservatism that could win where McCain and Romney had lost.

And that left a giant opening for someone like Trump to walk right through and begin denouncing everyone on the right as dopes and idiots and ineffectual morons.

One of the reasons that the Republican Establishment has no answer for Trump is that their alternatives (basically, now down to Marco Rubio at this point) have never had an answer for how they could make the modern brand of conservatism a winner on the presidential level.

If you are definitely not electable, then you can’t convince people to vote against Trump because he’s unelectable.

So, it’s true that Trump is tapping into pathologies that the right has been nurturing for years and especially during the Obama presidency, but that only explains half of his success. It doesn’t explain why Trump can denigrate every important conservative and conservative institution in the country and still win the support of Republican primary and caucus goers.

In other words, the Conservative Movement collapsed before Trump, not because of him.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.