The Coming Conservative Crackup?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
Font Size:

Does the rise of Donald Trump signal the end of conservatism as we know it? It’s premature to write the obituary, but one has to wonder if the patient isn’t terminally ill.

Generally speaking, the modern conservative movement in America has represented three wings, loosely defined as a) classical liberals/libertarians/fiscal conservatives, b) social conservatives, and c) national security/foreign policy/defense hawks.

Philosophically speaking, at least two of the three wings (fiscal and social conservatives) have every reason to oppose Trump, and the third wing (national defense hawks) should probably favor Marco Rubio or Lindsey Graham.

By my count, Trump should be 0-for-3. The fact that Trump is surging in the polls — despite this — suggests something is up.

But I don’t want to brush aside these assertions without going into some detail. Let’s start with the fiscally conservative wing. It’s easy to accuse free marketers of merely wanting to support “Wall Street” and big business — but this suggests that free markets and big business are synonymous (they aren’t) and that pecuniary interests — not philosophical beliefs — are their primary driving force (it’s insulting to suggest these deeply held political beliefs are based solely on making fat cats richer). Most fiscal conservatives really want entitlement reform (meanwhile, Trump is playing the “Mediscare” game and pandering to those who want to “keep government out of my Medicare”). And many libertarians actually believe in open borders and free trade — that more people equals more good ideas and innovation (Trump, of course, is playing the anti-immigration card).

I could go into Trump’s comments about raising taxes and other topics, but I think I’ve made my point.

But how about social conservatives? Here we have a guy who has lived a rather interesting lifestyle, who has publicly said he doesn’t ask God for forgiveness, and whose policy ideas seem to lack compassion. Or, as Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, put it: “Someone who has divorced two wives, someone who has been involved in the casino industry that is predatory of the poor, and yet says that he has nothing to be forgiven of, nothing to apologize for. I think that speaks to someone’s character.”

As previously noted, defense hawks represent the third wing of the conservative movement. And though Trump has boasted that he’s “the most militaristic person you will ever meet,” one would assume that a voter primarily interested in national defense might prefer someone with the experience of a Marco Rubio or Sen. Lindsey Graham (or one of the other candidates). (And that doesn’t even count Trump’s comments about P.O.W.s.)

* * *

Could it be that the paradigm has shifted? Could it be that the three-winged movement has been replaced by Trump’s “three-ringed circus”? Could it be that the conservative movement is no longer driven by a coalition of fiscal conservatives, people of faith, and those concerned about foreign policy, but instead is driven by a coalition consisting of working class whites, blue collar populists, and anti-immigration hawks?

It is possible that the world has changed, and the Old Right (which is more similar to what we see in Europe) has returned. As Michael Brendan Dougherty argues over at The Week (where I serve as a contributing editor),

Trump may turn out to be a blip in this election cycle. But some days Trumpism looks like the future. Instead of parties divided by questions of political economy — crudely speaking, socialism or capitalism — we may be having debates between the globalized economy and actual communities: market or nation. The character of cities and places will be put against the demands of an invisible hand. Parties committed to diversity and breaking up the traditional cultures of their nations will find themselves allied with big business and the engines of the global market. Parties committed to preserving the national character may find themselves defending the 20th century’s legacy of national welfare states.

This would suggest that the future won’t be primarily about left versus right, but us versus them.

From a personal standpoint, this would be very troubling. What is all this “ruling class” talk if not a form of class warfare? Personally, my political philosophy is very much at home in a conservative movement that finds social conservatism and classical liberalism to be compatible and coherent.

Dougherty isn’t the first to spot this trend. Over at The Federalist, Ben Domenech penned a terrific post the other week, asking “Are Republicans For Freedom Or White Identity Politics?” When I asked him how this might personally impact us, he responded: “Sometimes parties die. Not there yet.”

Maybe not — but it’s probably not too soon to have our exit strategy mapped out. Will we be forced to make a binary choice between belonging to a political philosophy on the Right that is openly nationalistic and xenophobic — or one on the Left that supports (among other evils) infanticide?

It’s been a trope forever, but we could really have a “stupid” party and an “evil” party on our hands.

Matt K. Lewis