The Increasingly Comprehensive Conservative Betrayal Meme

Part of the convoluted dance that movement conservative types are performing with respect to Donald Trump’s campaign is to attribute his success to the righteous rage of “the base” over being fooled repeatedly by Republican elites, and then pivot to a prediction that said “base” will figure out Trump’s fooling them, too. That’s not the easiest series of steps to pull off, but one conservative pundit who has sort of mastered it, Mark Hemingway of the Weekly Standard, has a version of the first maneuver that’s worth quoting:

The post-Reagan track record of GOP nominees is basically a rebuke to conservatives: George H.W. Bush raised taxes and gave us David Souter; Bob Dole was the consumate insider and moderate; George W. Bush created a new entitlement and a new cabinet-level federal agency and let debt spiral out of control; at times John McCain seemed almost ashamed to campaign on conservative ideas or pushback against Barack Obama’s “historic” candidacy; and Mitt Romney’s history as a health care technocrat couldn’t convince voters he was in actuality “severely conservative,” as he (awkwardly) put it.

Not one of these five post-Reagan candidates have left conservative primary voters feeling like the GOP reflects their priorities. Essentially, party elites have managed to shift the Overton Window on the Buckley Rule, i.e. “Be for the most right, viable candidate who could win” too far to the left. And thanks to Trump, GOP voters have woken up to this fact and are not happy about it.

You wouldn’t know from reading this that Poppy Bush won the nomination by attacking Bob Dole from the right on taxes, after an eight-year march to the right from his pre-1980 record; that McCain and Romney repudiated big chunks of their prior “moderate” heresies; or that George W. Bush probably had as much conservative movement support in 2000 as Reagan had in 1976 or 1980. To the extent that anybody’s been moving the Overturn Window on the Buckley Rule, it’s the conservatives who have convinced themselves that there is a hidden majority out there for extremist candidates.

In any event, Hemingway does speak for a lot of conservative activists who don’t seem to have noticed things like the gradual acceptance in Republican discourse of memes like Agenda 21 or the Second Amendment as encompassing the right to armed revolution that used to be associated strictly with the John Birch Society and other fringe groups. And of course the actual Ronald Reagan would not fare too well with today’s conservatives. But it’s helpful to understand how these people think.

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.