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Opinion Rubio and Cruz map out two paths for post-Trump conservatism

President Donald Trump at the White House on Jan. 8, 2020. (Evan Vucci/AP)

ORLANDO — As America’s conservative movement moves (one hopes) out of Donald Trump’s eclipsing shadow, will it eschew economic reform to wage an unrelenting culture war on America’s elites? Or will it use the levers of policy and a positive articulation of America’s ideals to renew and expand faith in America’s promise?

The Edmund Burke Foundation’s National Conservatism Conference here this week is exploring what a post-Trump conservative movement ought to stand for, and two potential 2024 presidential candidates, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), offered compelling alternatives in dueling keynote addresses Monday.

Cruz went for conservative red meat. He started by presenting statements such as “the Chinese Communists are evil bastards,” “there is a difference between boys and girls” and even “America is great,” and asserted that “five years ago every one of these things would have been viewed as completely unobjectionable, if not completely obvious” but “today can get you fired, canceled or erased from social media.” Cruz argued that the question for conservatives in this moment is a simple one: “How do we fight back and retake this country?”

The military metaphors continued as Cruz launched into the speech’s substance. He presented “three principles” with which to fight “seven battles,” all of which were cultural in nature. Telling the audience that “everything is culture” (principle two) and urging them to “fight, dear God, fight” (principle three), Cruz said that national conservatives need to take on Big Tech, “woke” corporations, Hollywood and the media, among other totems of progressive power. He was light on specifics — what, exactly, does it mean to burn the media to the ground? — and heavy on passion.

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That passion is the key to understanding Cruz’s version of national conservatism. He seems to have decided that a post-Trump conservatism needs to wage relentless cultural warfare in the Trump mold, while Trump’s substantive deviations from the old conservative consensus on issues such as trade, overseas military involvement and the role of government can be lightly cast aside. Indeed, Cruz specifically said that the new conservatism could not countenance isolationism, protectionism and right-wing big government. His new conservatism looks very much like old anti-government conservatism dressed up in Ultimate Fighting Championship garb.

Rubio’s speech was nearly the polar opposite in tone and in substance. Hampered by the fact that a canceled flight prevented him from being personally present, Rubio’s remote presentation was no match for Cruz’s in its display of barely restrained aggression. But its more thoughtful and specific analysis could never have done that anyway. Cruz came to provoke and excite, while Rubio came to explain and to lead.

As he has done before, Rubio called for a new “common good capitalism” and attacked modern business’s penchant for putting profits above people or patriotism, arguing that U.S. business executives consider themselves to be “not citizens of America but citizens of the world.” He called out “traditional Wall Street Journal capitalism,” defined as the view that whatever is good for the market is good for America, as the wrong approach to the challenges of 21st-century America. The right approach for Rubio means using government to push business to work for American interests.

And Rubio made a series of actual proposals to do that. He said that the burden should shift when businesses make decisions unrelated to their core functions, such as boycotting a state for changing its election laws. Businesses that do that should have the burden to prove their action is affirmatively good for their shareholders rather than shareholders having to prove the action was harmful. He also called for requiring companies to disclose which of their directors have potential conflicts of interest, such as holding financial ties to China’s government or companies. Rubio said that companies should disclose how much they spend training U.S. workers and investing in the U.S. economy, as well as disclose how much they are spending on similar activities overseas, so investors know which companies are working for America and its citizens and which are not.

Rubio’s speech was not devoid of cultural references, however. He asserted that the big divide in our time is between “a small, radical, but incredibly powerful minority” that wants to “erase our culture and traditions” and the rest of us — between “lunacy and common sense.” Unlike Cruz, however, Rubio tied this cultural assault to an economic assault on ordinary Americans. Cruz would marry Wall Street Journal economic conservatism to Trumpian culture war. For Rubio, one cannot combat the thrust of the cultural attack on America without also combating the globalist and socialist assault on U.S. enterprise and workers.

Both men received standing ovations. But ultimately national conservatism will have to choose between the two.