The Conservative Movement Died Last Night

[I did my initial reaction to yesterday’s events at my green place, but I’m truncating part of that for our format here at the Washington Monthly. If you want to see my reaction to the Democratic side of the equation, go there…]

This has been the most hard to predict campaign in memory, but some things have gone pretty much the way I thought they would. I knew Hillary Clinton was a colossus who was too strong to beat from the left despite the obvious widespread hunger for exactly that. And I knew that the Republicans had only one real presidential candidate (Jeb Bush) and that he would be the toughest of sells to the Republican base…

…The big event last night had nothing to do with the Democrats, however. The big event was Donald Trump winning in Indiana, Ted Cruz suspending his campaign, and the Republican Party as we’ve known it ceasing to exist.

I’ll be writing about the many ways in which we’re now living through a seismic political event. I’ll be writing about it a lot, because there are so many facets to this.

By way of an introduction, I want to give you an astute observation from Josh Barro:

It is easy to find examples of parties where ideologically orthodox members felt sold out by moderate leaders who softened party platforms. Think of Tony Blair in the UK or Dwight Eisenhower in the US.

But at least those moderate leaders tend to be broadly popular with the public and to win elections. That allows those ideologically orthodox party members to get half a loaf — in the form of implementation of a watered-down version of a party platform.

Trump has somehow found a way to throw away the ideologically extreme ideas that orthodox conservatives cared about while actually making the party less popular. His nomination is a recipe for conservatives to sell out and lose anyway.

I have a couple of quibbles with this. It’s kind of annoying to refer to Donald Trump as a “moderate leader.” Hopefully, I don’t have to explain.

It doesn’t detract too much from his point though, assuming that Trump actually loses. But, even if he wins, it’s a big loss for Movement Conservatives.

Barro explains this, too, although again using the assumption that Trump will lose.

Trump will run “opposing free trade, promising to protect entitlements from cuts, questioning the value of America’s commitment to military alliances, and shrugging at social changes like the growing acceptance of transgender people.” As Barro notes, “All three of the supposed “legs” of the Republican coalition stool — libertarian economics, social conservatism, and militarism — are at risk from Trump and the populist-imitator candidates he will spawn.”

There’s a sense in which few Republicans truly care about all three legs of the stool, but simply tolerate one or two of them to get the other(s) that really motivate(s) them. But virtually all Republicans care passionately about either fiscal or social conservatism, or about international affairs and conservative principles in foreign policy.

You might think that Trump is enough of a chameleon to get away with using an Etch-a-Sketch to erase his performance in the primaries, and he probably is. But he isn’t going to erase his plan to build a wall, and he isn’t going to start trumpeting neoconservative principles in foreign policy, and he’s not abandoning his attacks on free trade. On social issues, he’ll probably tack back to the middle, which is sensible and sound electoral strategy, but will still leave social conservatives feeling like they’ve had their party stolen out from under their feet.

Think about what I’ve written about Sarah Palin over the years. The real damage she did was in getting Republicans to lower their standards for what a vice-president or a president ought to be. She broke a very meaningful and valuable norm simply by being so blatantly unprepared for the job.

Without Palin, I doubt you get the kind of candidates who flamed out for the Tea Party, and I doubt you get Donald Trump.

Trump will force loyal Republicans to support or tolerate or grudgingly accept many of the things they’ve spent their whole lives warning us would lead to armageddon. When that happens, many of them will change their core beliefs and their standards for what a Republican should be and what they should represent. When it’s over, assuming he loses, the party will never be the same. They will never go back to those three legs of the stool. And, if he wins, the party will definitely be transformed into something unrecognizable.

There are areas where this will cause actual party shifting. At first, free-traders will move to the Democrats simply because they’ll get a fairer shake and because they’re appalled by Trump. But they won’t find a party to go back to later, and they’ll rightly conclude that a taxing, regulating party that isn’t anti-business is a better home than a xenophobic gathering of anti-elite rageoholics. Neoconservatives will vote for Hillary out of genuine panic that Trump might get the nuclear codes, but they can’t afford to be politically homeless because their livelihood is built on influence. They’ll find that a party that supports the postwar consensus on American internationalism is preferable to one that wants to encourage nuclear proliferation and destroying our alliances in Europe, the Far East, and the Arab world. Conservative intellectuals (like George Will) aren’t the biggest demographic, but they’re important to the Conservative Movement. They will leave Trump’s party and try to rebuild something to take its place. Some will simply find the anti-intellectualism of the Republican Party has become too much, and they’ll make peace with the Democrats. Others will come limping along later when their efforts to remake what has been lost become obvious failures.

And this assumes that Trump actually succeeds in Etch-A-Sketching his racism out of the fall campaign. He’s stuck with the Wall, although he can try to deemphasize it. But if he can’t beat his rap for being an out-and-out racist, he’s going to lose “respectable” people from all over this country who now send their white kids to the most amazingly pluralistic schools. If the Republican Party gets branded as a National Front party, they’re not just losing the youth for generations, they’re losing an enormous chunk of tax-averse educated professionals. This is also how the Republicans could conceivably lose the House of Representatives, which was something unthinkable pre-Trump.

Now, I can anticipate some reactions to this.

A lot of Democrats, particularly Sanders Democrats, don’t want to hear that the result of their labors will be a party newly filled with free-traders, militarists, tax-averse white professionals, and conservative intellectuals. My response is twofold.

First, they have nowhere else to go but out of politics altogether, and that isn’t going to work for a lot of them. So, get your welcome mat out, because this is how a major party achieves LBJ-like dominance. It’s not by purity, but by winning the argument in decisive fashion.

Second, at least initially, the Sanders wing of the party will have more influence and juice than they had before. That’s because they will have representation at the convention and support for a lot of their ideas from the majority of traditional Democrats, including most of Clinton’s supporters. What will be interesting to see is how some of those ideas might fare if they are picked up by Trump and then rejected in emphatic fashion in November. That would be unfortunate if you care about fair trade, for example. Nonetheless, the progressive instincts of the Democratic Party will be enlivened at least for the initial stages of a Clinton presidency. The newcomers won’t be anything but padded numbers until substantially later, and no sooner really than when Clinton seeks reelection.

I just want to add one additional thought. The Republicans have been here before and bounced back in short order. They won the presidency four years after Goldwater got thumped and six years after Nixon resigned. They’ve made huge gains on the state, local and federal level during midterm elections in the Obama Era.

But think about this.

They accomplished their turnarounds in the 1960’s and 1970’s by going after the Democrats’ soft spot in the South. Where is the Democrats’ soft spot now?

Certainly, you can look at the Rust Belt and the grumpy mood of the white working class, but there’s nothing on the scale of Jim Crow. How do the Republicans bounce back and begin a realignment of the realignment?

I’m willing to argue now that they can’t do it as a party of the Conservative Movement. Demographics were pushing against them anyway, and it was only working on life-support because it still gave them majorities in the House.

Whoever designs their comeback will have to come up with a new coalition as different from Bush’s as Nixon’s was from Eisenhower’s. The key problem was summed up by Barro: “Trump has somehow found a way to throw away the ideologically extreme ideas that orthodox conservatives cared about while actually making the party less popular.”

Assuming he loses, Trump will leave nothing whatsoever to build upon, because the smoking husk that remains of the Republican Party won’t have a future in a viable winning national party coalition.

They’ll discover that they’re the problem that needs to be Etch-A-Sketched.

Martin Longman

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