Christopher Buskirk is editor and publisher of the website American Greatness and co-author, with Seth Leibsohn, of “American Greatness: How Conservatism, Inc. Missed the 2016 Election & What the D.C. Establishment Needs to Learn.”
As President Trump continues to remake the Republican Party in his image, calls for last rites to be given to American conservatism are not just premature — they’re entirely wrong. Accusing Republican voters of political apostasy for supporting Trump is wrong, too. These perspectives are also evidence that the accusers are missing an intellectual and political reformation that is reshaping U.S. politics.
Blinkered by an outdated, hermeneutic based on the post-Reagan right-left split, the sentinels of the conventional wisdom have been predicting the demise not just of Trump but also of the entire conservative project for more than two years now. In fairness, it’s an easy mistake to make. Who thought an obscure monk from Wittenberg would upend the medieval social and political order? Like Martin Luther, Trump is an unlikely catalyst for this much-needed political reformation. Because the critics focus too much on the man and not enough on the message, their basic complaint about Trump voters has been: “You sold your principles to back a grifter for short-term political gain.”
But who’s really been selling the snake oil?
For years, Republican voters were promised constitutionalist judges, fiscal probity and immigration enforcement. We got John “Obamacare” Roberts, runaway deficits, de facto open borders and multiple tries at Gang of Eight amnesty. If that weren’t enough, Republican believers in American primacy were led into a series of misguided wars by a small but determined foreign policy claque focused on implementing a policy of moral imperialism that runs counter to this country’s history and values.
Against this butcher’s bill of failures and broken promises, look at Trump’s first year in office: Unemployment is low, the stock market is high and wages are rising. Ordinary Americans have more money in their pockets as a result of lower taxes. Illegal immigration has declined, regulations are being rolled back, Obamacare’s individual mandate is dead, and a slate of constitutionalist judges has been approved, with more on the way. Thanks to a too-timid congressional leadership, deficits remain a problem, but we’ve at least gotten major pro-growth policies. And with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s impending departure, we have a chance at a more energetic effective leadership team.
And in some ways even more significant, Trump has pushed back against the stultifying political correctness that has chilled free expression and thereby undermined the foundation of free government in the United States.
Yet, a cottage industry in eulogies for the Republican Party, and “conservatism” more generally, has sprung up. These observers miss the point, just asthey missed the 2016 election. American conservatism isn’t dead or dying. It’s thriving, but you’d have to look outside the Beltway and the legacy institutions to see it. This once-in-a-century reformation is revitalizing a political movement that was in danger of fading into irrelevance.
What is dying, however, is the smug elitism of the old establishment and all of the gentry-class pretensions that alienated voters. Despite some high-profile gadflies who receive more media attention than their influence with voters should justify, conservatives find themselves remarkably unified. The empty ritual of high-church coastal conservatism is yielding to an intellectually deeper and politically robust small “r” republicanism that hopes to build a new political consensus from the ground up. At the heart of this movement are the millions of people of good faith who back Trump and, more important, his agenda, because they believe that it is consistent with the best of the American political tradition and that it will do more good for more people than anything else traditional Republicans or Democrats have to offer.
This conservative renaissance is young but vigorous. It embraces — but is also bigger than — Trump. While the American left is absorbed in a game of competitive victimhood, the American right is engaged in a serious debate about how best to develop and sustain civil society, how to foster good citizens and how to sustain U.S. peace and prosperity in the face of unprecedented challenges from an aggressive, confident China.
Central to this new political project — denigrated or just plain ignored by many anti-Trump partisans — is genuine respect for the individual and the restoration of a high view of citizenship, its rights and duties, informed by the natural “inalienable” rights political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence. This cuts across the traditional partisan divide while allowing Americans to engage in real political debate while affirming what Jefferson said after the contentious election of 1800: “We are all republicans. We are all federalists.” That’s where the energy is on the right, you just have to know where to look.