If Donald Trump really wants to win the Republican nomination, and advance the cause of less government and greater freedom, I sure wish he’d read Arthur Brooks’ new book, The Conservative Heart. Brooks explains that conservatives have a brand problem. The only way to solve this is for conservatives ourselves to do a better job presenting our ideas and cause. He lays out the steps that conservatives can take to build a true social movement capable of advancing the conservative agenda — and thereby create a better, fairer country.
Much of his advice is familiar, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Conservatives must realize we have a small window to make an impression with an audience or individual: We must use those precious first moments judiciously. We have to paint a positive vision of why we support the ideas we do, and offer a vision of the country that we all want to live in. We must cheerfully demonstrate that we empathize with the challenges Americans face, sincerely want to help people in need, and have a positive, reality-based plan for making life better. We have to take our message beyond our base to those who currently don’t agree with us — and even to those who vehemently disagree with us.
Reading Brooks’ book is a reinvigorating pep talk for those of us in the conservative movement who have been long been making our case for our ideals. I recognized and accepted how I have often failed to lead with the best arguments, emphasized economics and money when I ought to have been talking about better lives and real opportunity, and been too oppositional rather than aspirational. I can do better, and plan to.
Yet a quick look at the headlines and review of the conversations about politics that dominate our culture deflates any sense of optimism. Changing the conservative brand is an uphill battle when so many of our supposed representatives seem to do everything possible to confirm the worst stereotypes about us.
Which brings me back to Donald Trump. Those who follow politics and policy closely know that Donald Trump is hardly a conservative standard bearer. Yet he is running for the Republican presidential nomination and leading in the polls. People will take what they hear from, and about, Donald Trump and it will linger as a part of the GOP’s reputation long after Trump’s campaign fizzles.
Perhaps Donald Trump really didn’t mean to imply that he thought Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly — who during the first GOP presidential prime debate had questioned him about his offensive statements about women of all things — was menstruating when he told CNN “There was blood coming out of her eyes… Blood coming out of her wherever.” Perhaps, but we do know that he also called her a “lightweight” and “highly overrated,” just as we know that he called Rosie O’Donnell a fat pig. Here’s something else we know for sure, this is now a discussion that Americans are hearing: Did the GOP front runner repeatedly insult a well-respected female journalist using a jaw-droppingly sexist insult?
Even when Republicans aren’t actively working to perpetuate the worst stereotypes about them, much of the media seems happy to pick up the slack and seize on any statement that could further ingrain the negative perception of the GOP. Thus when Jeb Bush carelessly includes “people need to work longer hours” in his response to a question from a New Hampshire newspaper about his economic plans, this is endlessly repeated as evidence that Republicans think Americans are lazy and need to work harder. Sadly, it doesn’t matter that everyone following politics and policy knows exactly the real problem he was invoking — too many people who wish they had full time jobs can only find part-time work or have left the labor force entirely for want of a job — he’d made a misstep and everyone was going to hear about it.
Certainly Gov. Bush should take Arthur Brooks new book to heart and make sure he handles the next question better. His entire answer is a perfect example of what conservatives instinctively do wrong, talking about economic growth, workforce participation rates and percentages rather than about people and the kind of society we all want. Yet a brand makeover won’t be easy when we aren’t just fighting our own bad habits, but cultural institutions that very much want to perpetuate the cartoon version of our cause.
The task is hard, harder than it should have to be, but that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile. And conservatives can take comfort in this: In spite of the challenges, and all our flaws and failures, about three in ten Americans still identify themselves as conservatives, and typically that’s a greater share than those who identify as liberal. Imagine if we did a better job representing their beliefs? Obviously there must be something to our ideas, and the American people must see past the cartoonish media more often than we might fear. Now it’s time for each of us to move forward and take care to make our best case every time.
Carrie Lukas is managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum.