The conservative movement has struggled mightily to defeat the presidential campaign of Donald Trump — so far, to no avail.
But, according to one political scientist, the failed efforts of #NeverTrump may be due to the conservative establishment’s declining strength.
George Hawley, a professor of political science at the University of Alabama and author of the new book “Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism,” talked with The Daily Caller this week about the Trump phenomenon and how it is affecting the conservative movement.
“The conservative movement would be in serious decline even if Trump had stayed out of this race,” Hawley told TheDC. “The movement simply does not know what to do in a world where big business is allied with the cultural left, secularism is on the rise, changing demographics are weakening the GOP’s base of support, there is no evidence that regime change and democracy are panaceas for terrorism, and we have economic problems that won’t be solved with another tax cut.”
In his opinion, Trump’s candidacy has merely exposed the already-present weaknesses of the conservative establishment, particularly GOP voters’ lack of concern for its continued health.
“All the major figures of the conservative intelligentsia denounced Trump and the public responded to their critiques with indifference. This demonstrated that huge numbers of voters, even those who regularly vote Republican, simply do not care about the conservative movement. Trump showed the world that the conservative movement is a Potemkin village. Or to switch metaphors, it is an army with many well-compensated officers, but very few grunts,” Hawley said.
To the Alabama professor, the movement has become an “increasingly anachronistic” ideological phenomenon that has done little to adapt to the post-Cold War era.
“Even during its early years, it only possessed a minimal amount of logical coherence and internal consistency. But a movement dedicated to limited government intervention in the economy, traditional moral values, and a commitment to maintaining a powerful military presence overseas made a certain degree of sense in the mid-20th century. It is not clear that this coalition can or should hold together today,” he said.
In “Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism,” Hawley defines the political right as an umbrella term for ideologies that hold some other value higher than equality (in contrast, the Left holds equality as the highest value). The work covers groups and individuals who have been excluded from mainstream conservatism — such as radical libertarians, paleoconservatives and secular rightists — and how so-called purges have helped define what is mainstream conservatism.
But the inability of conservatives to purge Trump from the Republican Party shows that outlets like National Review are losing the power to set the boundaries for acceptable discourse, in Hawley’s opinion.
“The organized conservative movement simply does not have the clout it enjoyed during its halcyon days. There is no current equivalent to William F. Buckley, a universally respected figure capable of casting a heretic from public life,” he told TheDC. “The media environment has also changed. Being shut out of National Review and the other major conservative publications no longer destroys a conservative’s career — just ask Ann Coulter. There are no more gatekeepers capable of keeping certain ideas out of sight.”
Hawley says that one of the most interesting things about Trump is how he has no set ideology — even though his current platform resembles the paleoconservatism of Pat Buchanan — but is simply an unstoppable force wreaking havoc on the old conservative consensus.
“‘Trumpism’ does not have an obvious ideological framework. Trump is instead acting as a wrecking ball. He is demolishing the old ideological consensus within the GOP and among conservatives. If he wins the presidency, he will play a major role in shaping what comes next. If he loses, he will simply leave a vacuum,” the political scientist stated.
That ideological vacuum could be filled by a number options, according to Hawley’s estimation.
“Some will try to reassert the old conservatism, or a more progressive variation of the old conservatism. Others will push for a libertarian approach. Some will openly embrace some kind of white identity politics,” he remarked.
At the time of writing his book, the Alabama professor saw libertarianism as the most likely beneficiary of a conservative crack-up due to its well-established institutions, numerous public intellectuals and a promising candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in the form of Kentucky Senator [crscore]Rand Paul[/crscore]. But after Paul’s dismal performance in the GOP primary and the unprecedented success of The Donald, Hawley is not so sure the future for libertarianism is as rosy as it seemed in early 2015. (RELATED: The Ron Paul Movement Dies With A Whimper)
When it comes to conservative efforts to prevent Trump from winning the GOP nomination, Hawley warns that if the party embraces the #NeverTrump line, it risks permanently alienating key constituencies.
“There is already talk of punishing Trump supporters. A few minor conservative figures have started keeping lists of people who got behind Trump, presumably to shut them out of public life once this campaign comes to an end. The trouble with this plan is that the GOP cannot survive if it permanently alienates Trump’s base. Such a purge may be successful, but it will also hasten conservatism’s decline as a powerful political force,” he told TheDC. (RELATED: The Fanciful Dream Of A #NeverTrump Third Party)
He also doesn’t see many conservatives learning any lessons from Trump’s candidacy, regardless if he wins the nomination or not, and they will in all likelihood double-down on the unpopular policies they currently support.
“I do not expect many conservatives will question the basic premises of their ideology. Post-Trump, most conservatives will continue to champion tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, moral values (nebulously defined), and a hawkish foreign policy,” the professor concluded.
Hawley isn’t surprised to see a surprising number of conservatives hope for Trump to lose the general election if he becomes the GOP nominee.
They will be able to say, ‘See, we told you so!’ They will then try to go back to business as usual, hoping for the best — never mind that demographic changes will only weaken the GOP’s position further in four or eight years,” he believes.
However, it will be a different story if the flamboyant billionaire manages to win the White House.
“If Trump wins the nomination and the general election, despite conservative efforts to stop him, the conservative movement will be completely irrelevant going forward.”