One of the good things about Twitter is that it serves as a sort of canary in a coal mine. You’ll see narratives bubbling up long before they make their way into columns or TV hits. Recently, I’ve noticed a concerning liberal meme that goes like this: Donald Trump is the culmination of conservatism’s last forty years.
In other words, we were asking for it…and now, the chickens have come home to roost:
— Brendan LeFebvre (@brendanl79) November 30, 2015
Trump is not a conservative, although his perverted version of conservatism currently represents a very vocal minority of the GOP base. Historically, America’s Right and Left have both had moments when strains of nativism and populism were more or less prominent. This is one of those times.
Today, for a variety of reasons (none of which indict conservatism as a philosophy) the environment is ripe for a master demagogue to exploit. What are these factors? My forthcoming book Too Dumb to Fail spends a lot of time addressing them. We don’t have time now for a comprehensive explanation, but here are a few of the things that I think have led us to this place:
First (and I got some mild pushback on Twitter for suggesting this), the liberal media and President Obama’s disastrous presidency are part of the story. Liberals aren’t responsible for the Republican base’s decisions, but if the goal is to understand this phenomenon, it’s fair to point out some of what we are witnessing is a backlash. This is a scary time, both domestically and internationally, and people want to find a strongman to fix the chaos that weak men have created.
There’s also the fact that the GOP has been in the wilderness since at least 2008. Republicans were left with an outgoing leader who was unpopular, and who left them no heir apparent. Political parties sometimes go through these times of soul searching and introspection, so this is nothing new. But it also makes them vulnerable for opportunists who want to exploit the vacuum. Ask yourself this question: Why did Donald Trump, who ostensibly has more in common with Democrats, decide to run as a Republican?
Again, both parties have gone through times where they were forced to grapple with a changing world, but what has made this especially challenging is that Republicans are being forced to do this at the exact time when game-changing cultural and technological trends are culminating. Technology, for example, has empowered someone like Trump to communicate through Twitter and cable TV. The loss of moral and statutory authority for institutions like the RNC mean that men in smoke-filled rooms no longer have the power to stop someone like Trump—or force him to play by their rules.
We are also undergoing a continued cultural revolution that began in the 1960s. This might have begun on the Left, but the degradation of traditional family values is now ubiquitous. We once prized virtues like humility, wisdom, experience, and prudence. Now, we value celebrities.
The American public would once have been repelled by a man who mocked a physically disabled person. Today, a good chunk of the public either yawns—or says: “Finally, someone who isn’t afraid of being politically incorrect! Besides, the media deserves someone who will put them in their place!!” (The fact that it is ostensibly conservatives who are supporting Trump only demonstrates just how pervasive these trends are.)
But I want to get back to where we began, which is with the notion that Trump-ism is somehow the inexorable denouement of conservatism’s historical arc. If liberals can get this notion to stick, then they will have discredited the Reagan era, which brought us an unparalleled time of peace and prosperity. The truth is that Trump-ism might represent one strain of conservatism—but so did Jack Kemp!—who couldn’t be more different from Trump’s nativist brand of populism in every regard.
Some of the people pushing this narrative have ulterior motives; others are frankly just sincerely (mis)guided by a liberal worldview. This is one of the reasons why the subtitle of my book—“How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots)”—is significant.
If the only people writing about the GOP’s struggles and wrong turns are liberals, you can expect them to tell the story in a less than generous manner. The truth is that when it comes to telling this story, most liberals—even those honestly trying to diagnose what’s happening on the Right—have a conflict of interest. Do they really want conservatism to correct itself and be a philosophy that can win in the 21st century?
I don’t think conservatism is inherently evil or flawed. Thus, my recipe for fixing the problem involves returning to true conservatism (and eschewing the dumbed-down Trump-ism we see today), not in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
When I first started writing this book, I assumed its biggest critics would be populist conservatives who wouldn’t see it as sincere constructive criticism. Now, I see that some liberals will also have reason to dislike it, too—for very different reasons.