Waiting For Their Nixon

A small but influential group of conservative intellectuals hoped that this presidential cycle could produce a ice-breaking debate in the GOP ranks over the party’s iron commitment to certain economic and fiscal orthodoxies that had proved impolitic to middle class voters, including the white working class voters (remember “Sam’s Club Republicans”?) who had recently become a key segment of the party base.

Well, the “reformicons” got more than they bargained for. As Josh Barro’s New York Times op-ed over the weekend archly pointed out, the current GOP presidential front-runner shares their disdain for the old-time religion of tax cuts for the wealthy financed by “entitlement reform,” and the hostility many of them have for comprehensive immigration reform as well. But your typical urbane reformicon is horrified to look into the political mirror and see the scary clown face of Donald Trump leering back at him or her.

It’s an awkward thing: The reform conservative movement, to the extent it exists, is pointy-headed, technocratic and soft-spoken. Mr. Trump is none of those things. But his campaign has helped bolster a key argument from the reformocons: that many Republican voters are not devotees of supply-side economics and are more interested in the right kind of government than in a simply smaller one.

“There were a lot of people who wanted to think the Tea Party is a straightforward libertarian movement,” said Reihan Salam, the executive editor of National Review. But he said Mr. Trump’s ability to lead the polls while attacking Republicans for wanting to cut entitlement programs showed that conservative voters are open to “government programs that help the right people.”

Indeed, so long as “the right people” means their own selves and “the wrong people” are those people. It’s always been a bit ironic that the reformicons claim a sort of kinship to the Tea Party, but prefer pols like Marco Rubio even as the Tea Folk themselves gravitate to the Sarah Palins and the Donald Trumps. And so they are torn between the impulse to declare Trump-o-mania a vindication of their prophecies and the healthy desire to distance themselves from racist demagoguery. One very prominent reformicon Barro talked with, David Frum, has the obvious if unappealing analogy in mind:

In an analogy that won’t make anyone very comfortable, [Frum] said Mr. Trump could be useful in the same way George Wallace was in 1968: “Wallace talked about a lot of issues, many of them pretty dismaying, but he also seized on the crime issue. Crime was rising fast, and it was not an issue that respectable politicians wanted to talk about. The result was that Richard Nixon stole his issue and deracialized it.”

Well, not exactly. Pressed on whether Nixon’s anticrime language could really be considered deracialized, Mr. Frum argued Nixon “diminished its racialism and incorporated it into something like a workable policy agenda.”

If Mr. Trump is Wallace in this analogy, then the reform conservatives are still waiting for their Nixon. Whether that’s a hopeful prospect or an alarming one is up to you.

So reformicons are joining the ever-swelling ranks–right there next to an awful lot of Democrats–of those who view Trump the way some fifth century Christians viewed Attila the Hun–as a Scourge of God sent to rebuke arrogant and decadent imperial elites. But I’d advise they avoid mirrors.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.