In the 2016 election cycle, two things have happened simultaneously. Conservatives need to separate the two in order to understand the fix they are in and how to work their way out of it.
First, an unstable, thuggish demagogue arrived on the scene. In the wasteland of American culture, where manners and civic education have deteriorated, he seized the imagination of alienated, economically stressed Americans, turning their anxiety into hatred of foreigners and breeding a certain nihilism. He demands that his adherents ignore what is before their eyes and place their faith in one person with all the answers (none of the facts, however), which he insists are simple and quick.
Second, the GOP discovered (in part, through Sen. Ted Cruz’s collapse despite perfect mechanical execution) that there is no majority supporting the Reagan agenda. Certainly, Cruz was a politician of limited talent and imagination, but if he could not sell the “three-legged stool” to the masses, perhaps there are no masses receptive to that sort of stuff. Even in a GOP primary, there is no majority looking to roll back gay rights or give huge tax breaks to upper-income Americans.
Now, those who oppose Donald Trump don’t necessarily oppose him for the same reason. Moderates, conservatives, secular Republicans and religious conservatives have figured out that he is a dangerous character, one whose temperament precludes entrusting him with the powers of the presidency. It is disappointing, stunning even, that some Republicans cannot or will not recognize the magnitude of his mendacity. Opportunists such as Newt Gingrich are to be expected, but Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have fallen in line as well. We had hoped they were made of sterner stuff.
Other Trump opponents conclude that he’s not conservative enough — pining away for the 1980s version of conservatism that we found out was no longer salient. This latter group is right to oppose Trump’s hodgepodge of inane ideas (tariffs, roundups, authoritarian power), but it’s mistaken if it thinks the solution is to revert to 1980s Reaganism. Cruz and a dozen other candidates tried that; it failed. There are not enough states (and hence, not enough electoral votes) willing to buy that recycled playbook. Even within the GOP, there just are not enough “very conservative” voters to give such candidates even a plurality. Strident anti-government rhetoric gets you good cable ratings and a good turnout at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), but not an electoral win.
Voters on the right can follow Trump from here on out, becoming a right-wing populist party akin to those in Europe. That is unacceptable to most Americans and politically toxic in a country as diverse and tolerant as ours. It’s a dead end, with or without Trump atop it. It is narrow-minded, inward-looking and pessimistic. Its proposals (e.g. protectionism, nativism, isolationism) are unworkable and counterproductive. It is not in keeping with self-determination and optimism; it attempts to turn back the clock (bring back manufacturing jobs!) in ways that are not possible and that would wish away globalism and huge shifts in popular opinion. Isolationism is an ineffective response to Islamist jihadism, as we learned in the Obama presidency, and is incompatible with American values.
What is the alternative?
The challenge for Republicans is twofold: Stop a “pathological liar,” an amoral man, from attaining the White House and — separately — figure out how conservatism must adapt and change for the 21st century. Pouring old wine into new bottles is a nonstarter. At bottom, Republicans must figure out what, if any, incarnation of conservatism makes policy and political sense. Two conservatives have offered up a menu.
A national security strategy for the age of cyber and jihad;
Honest budgeting/entitlement reform so that we stop stealing from future generations;
Empowering states and local governments to improve K-12 education, and letting Washington figure out how to update federal programs to adjust to now needing lifelong learners in an age where folks are obviously not going to work at a single job for a lifetime anymore; and
Retiring career politicians by ending all the incumbency protections, special rules, and revolving door opportunities for folks who should be public “servants,” not masters.
[R]everence for the Constitution; serious grappling with the domestic problems associated with economic opportunity for all, education and affordable health care; and commitment to the internationalist tradition of the post-World War II consensus. It would advocate a federal government that can energetically do the things it should, but would limit the role of unaccountable regulators and bureaucrats and push to states and local governments every function that is not clearly a duty of the federal government. Above all, it would be committed to liberty in every sphere of personal and public life.
We would also include a comprehensive approach to poverty and a focus on upward mobility.
Somewhere in that mix are the contours of a platform that is contemporary and conservative and for which there is arguably a broader demographic and geographic appeal. It should not include (for there is no political appetite for these things, and they are unattainable and/or unwise from a policy standpoint): opposition to gay rights; large tax cuts for the rich; protectionism; expelling women from combat in a volunteer army; rooting gays out of the military; obsessing over bathroom assignments; fixating on local ordinances about wedding services; keeping the status quo on entitlements; cutting out (as opposed to reforming) the safety net; never, ever raising taxes on anyone; and mass deportation.
What follows will be different from 1980s conservatism because we are more than three decades removed from Ronald Reagan. Our problems are different — stagnant wages, resurgent and varied enemies, the withering of communal organizations, crumbling infrastructure. We have recognized that the old solutions — a rising tide lifts all boats (not if you have no skills) — are insufficient. However, Republicans should not sell snake oil. Telling working-class whites that the problem is immigrants is a lie. The economic data overwhelmingly show that immigration spurs growth, creates jobs and aids innovation, and no amount of junk statistics from zero-population Malthusians is going to change this. (There are solutions for the tiny segment of the workforce, usually the last wave of immigrants, that might be adversely affected.) Telling workers that millions of jobs went to China is a lie, too. The problems are real, and the solutions must be real as well. We need the world’s best and brightest workers, a humane society and methods to control borders and prevent visa overstays.
Along with all of this, conservatives have to end their intellectual isolation and self-delusions. They need to stop pretending that climate change is not occurring (the extent and the proposed solutions can be rationally discussed) or imagining that there is a market for pre-New-Deal-size government. Conservatives must end their infatuation with phony news, crank conspiracy theories, demonization of well-meaning leaders and mean rhetoric. It’s time to grow up, turn off Sean Hannity, get off toxic social media and start learning about the world as it is. (Read a book authored by someone without a talk show, spend time with non-Republicans, take an online course in economics.) Confirmation bias has become pathological.
This is all daunting and complicated. Many people have a financial interest in keeping conservatives angry and invested in bad causes. Ignore them. The scorecards are meaningless, the CPAC straw poll is nonsense and the talk radio audiences are entirely unrepresentative of the country or even the party as a whole.
The undertaking begins with stopping Trump. Beyond that, people of good will and common sense can work either within the old Republican Party or in a new (Hamiltonian? Reform? Opportunity?) Party. Unless conservatives get their act together, we will become a one-party, ever left-drifting, country, at least at the national level.