Yesterday, on my podcast, I moderated a thoughtful debate between two conservatives who differ on whether we should support Donald Trump. Kurt Schlichter, a columnist, veteran, and attorney, backed Cruz in the primary, but argues that Trump is a much better alternative to Hillary Clinton. Rob Neppell, a conservative blog pioneer and erstwhile Tea Party leader, is part of the “Never Trump” movement. Toward the end of our conversation, Neppell asked Schlicther whether we can all get along when this election is over. The general consensus was that it’ll be easy for the reluctant Trump supporters and the “Never Trumpers” to reunite. The bigger question is whether Trump’s most loyal fans can coexist with Trump’s most vehement conservative adversaries.
The answer, I think, is that it depends. Let’s assume Trump loses in November. Is it possible to incorporate the legitimate concerns that fueled his rise—and tap into that energy, while simultaneously rejecting the racial aspects? If Republicans are wise, they won’t just go about their business, pretending this internecine revolution never happened. Instead, they will use it as a wake-up call, converting Trump’s agenda of nationalism into a more inclusive form of patriotism.
But first, what is Trump-ism—and how might we satisfy the demand it satisfied without betraying our principles?
The easy solution is to replace the messenger. Trump’s brash style might appeal to a lot of Americans, but it probably turns off more than it attracts. This problem is easily remedied if and when Trump exists stage left. That leaves us with the challenge of co-opting the positive aspects of this populist movement.
Trump-ism lacks a coherency, but its appeal has much to do with “gut” reactions to deep-seated and long-festering culture war issues. As I recently argued, mainstream conservatives and Trump supporters can agree that culture is more important than politics, that we must preserve the values and institutions of western civilization (such as the rule of law—which, ironically, Trump seems not to fully appreciate), and that all conservatives can agree we must reject political correctness run amok and social engineering.
We must strongly reject the insinuation (or, in some cases, the overt argument) by a certain faction of Trump’s supporters that whites (European Americans) are somehow genetically more capable or inclined toward the values of western civilization—and that others are not. But while we reject the pernicious worldview (advanced by the white nationalist wing of the Trump movement), we can probably agree with many of the arguments advanced by the vast majority of more mainstream Trump supporters.
On foreign policy, we can agree, for example, that it is naive to think we can export democracy to an entire nation with zero cultural tradition of liberty. From the signing of the Magna Carta to today, it took us hundreds of years to get to where we are. It is a fatal conceit to suppose we can export our traditions and values abroad. This, I think, is reasonable, and one that is somewhat consistent with Trump’s non-interventionist foreign policy (with the caveat that Trump oscillates between being “militaristic” and dovish, and that his track record of supporting past foreign interventions is spotty).
On immigration, Trump wants to build a wall, the optics of which bother many of us. I’m not sure if this is a good idea. We know that most of the problem has to do with people overstaying visas. I suspect the wall is more symbolism than substance—and that is the kind of symbolism that I hate, which is so attractive to others.
On the other hand, I think that almost all but the most ardent libertarian among us would agree that a nation that cannot control its borders (with or without a wall) is not really a nation. Politicians have been promising to do this for most of my lifetime, so it will mean little for me to call for that here. All I can say is that we really, really, really, really must do it. Now. And if we lack the will or competence required, it’s hard to blame the public for being outraged enough to turn to a demagogue who promises to actually get the job done.
I think it’s also vitally important that we do a better job of assimilating immigrants. I’m of the opinion that immigrants generally make us better and stronger. We might not be able to export democracy abroad, but we can welcome good people who want to contribute to this great experiment and achieve the American Dream. But they have to become Americans. You can have a diverse population, but you must have one common culture. Unfortunately, our atomized society (blame big government, liberal identity politics, the fracturing of mass media, etc.) makes our “melting pot” less effective than it used to be. In addition to securing the border, we must put deliberate thought into how to better incorporate new Americans into the dominate culture.
In terms of economics (and long before the rise of Trump), I have been writing and thinking about the working-class epidemic of demoralization. Trump has proposed protectionist trade policies to try to save manufacturing in our country. It is important to note that, prior to 1980, this was essentially the conservative Republican position. So I’m willing to concede that Trump is really just returning the GOP to a pre-Reagan policy preference, not a radical departure.
This problem doesn’t have an easy fix, inasmuch as I fear the cure is worse than the disease. Free trade helps consumers, while protectionism amounts to a new “tax” on us all. The real conundrum is that the loss of manufacturing jobs is not driven primarily by globalization or immigration, but by automation. American factories are producing more goods by hiring less people. While creative destruction is likely unstoppable and usually salutary at the macro level, it also creates winners and losers.
At least, it always has in the past. Imagine a world where all of our jobs are replaced by computers and robots. Then imagine the associated psychological and sociological problems (never mind the obvious economic consequences). The real fear is that this is where we are headed. While Trump might find it easier to demagogue globalization and immigration, he’s like the little Dutch boy with his finger in a dike. The real populist is probably a Luddite.
Lastly, I think the party of individual and personal responsibility should spend some time considering the fact that many of these problems can be solved at the local community and family level. This has been a campaign of nostalgia, and while some of that is healthy it can also be toxic. Americans can’t go back to the 1950s or 80s, nor should we want to. But we should want to preserve the good traditions of the past, while welcoming the positive changes and opportunities of the present and future.
Trump’s greatest appeal has been to Americans who feel disconnected from their past traditions and isolated from their community. For this reason, you and I have a responsibility to do more to fix this than just vote. Just as a depressed person might recover by forcing himself to become active in his community—to become purpose driven—some of this turnaround must begin at home. Get to know your neighbors. Volunteer at church. March in a Fourth of July parade. In short, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is how we can make America great again.