Former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld — who announced last week that he will challenge President Trump for the 2020 Republican Party nomination — is a man out of time: an old-guard Northeastern Republican of the Thacher Longstreth school; a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence who delivered the Latin oration at Harvard and married a Roosevelt; a gadfly who hasn’t won an election in a quarter-century and most recently ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket. He’s as close to the cutting edge of today’s political culture as an “I like Ike” button worn over a pair of Nantucket reds, a cantankerously heterodox figure having almost nothing in common with the Trump-era GOP.
Trump will annihilate Weld. It would be a feat if the governor were to win a single delegate next year, let alone a state. But that’s not what matters: Weld’s campaign isn’t about winning. It’s about the future of conservatives — and conservatism — in the Republican Party.
Weld says he can win by campaigning “one voter at a time,” confidence that’s either boilerplate campaign bravado or the product of a long-term contact high from campaigning alongside former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson in 2016. Conservative Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen is being gentle when he says Weld is “out of step and idiosyncratic,” and, more to the point, as he heads into the next cycle, Trump has an 89 percent approval rating among Republicans, according to Gallup. The issue, however, is not what Republicans think about Trump, but what conservatives think about Weld, not precisely the same question.
The depth of Weld’s impending electoral obliteration will help determine whether there’s actually still a Goldwater-Reagan-Buckley GOP in exile, somewhere out there in the wilderness; a Nock-ian remnant waiting to walk back in with its wingtips tied at the end of Trump’s presidency, or if the GOP has gone all-in not only on Trump but also on Trumpism, with the populist lampshade permanently affixed to its head. Clearly, the party is unmoored from the philosophy that animated it for so much of its history. But is that condition irreversible?
Stephen Bannon was right when he said that Trumpism is a movement whose members conceive of themselves not as limited-government conservatives but as right-wing revolutionists who believe, as he put it, that we are “at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict.” Trump partisans welcome that bloody conflict: Vive la révolution! Which puts them at odds with conservatism as understood by, among others, Russell Kirk, who observed in “The Politics of Prudence” that the conservative “thinks of political policies as intended to preserve order, justice, and freedom. The ideologue, on the contrary, thinks of politics as a revolutionary instrument for transforming society and even transforming human nature. In his march toward Utopia, the ideologue is merciless.” Sounds sort of familiar, doesn’t it? That is the promise of Trumpism: mercilessness in the pursuit of power. It is Leninism standing on its head.
Trump’s appeal, expressed in the unlimited warrant of “make America great again,” was always to the idea that what’s been lacking in Washington is a sufficiently strong hand. The point of Trumpism is to seize government power and make use of it, not to diminish the role of government power in community life. Conservatives traditionally have seen things differently: “The growth of government must be fought relentlessly,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in National Review’s credenda. “In this great social conflict of the era, we are, without reservations, on the libertarian side.”
Weld is, almost without reservation, on the libertarian side of the Republican Party as it is currently configured. Some of his departures from conservative orthodoxy — notably, his pro-choice stance — are regrettable, which would be of more intense concern if there were a plausible chance of his becoming president. What Weld offers is not a rightist ideology but what George Will calls, in the title of his forthcoming book, “The Conservative Sensibility.” Tax cuts? Yes, but mind the deficits. Tough on crime? Of course, but not at the cost of creating a police state.
Weld’s occasional praise of 2016 Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton suggests that he may not be a terrific judge of character, but it also speaks to his determination not to treat those of the opposite party as enemies, and for that many Republicans will never forgive him. Like Republican former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, Weld irritated right-wing sensitivities by accepting a diplomatic appointment from a Democratic president. His WASPy brand of courteous bipartisanship is especially unwelcome in Trumpist circles, which despise both bipartisanship and courtesy.
Weld’s career in office, dusted off, turns out to be pretty solid, a record belonging to one of those fiscally responsible/socially liberal unicorns everybody is always saying they want: a tax-cutter and governmental down-sizer with robustly liberal views on gay rights, marijuana and abortion. Weld, who has a wry sense of humor, must have chuckled at the fact that in 2016, the Libertarian Party offered voters two experienced governors who constituted, for the first and perhaps not the last time in the history of that cottage party, the most qualified and least absurd of all the available options. As Ronald Reagan, another Republican governor with an imperfect but not-too-shabby record once put it: “The very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. . . . The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority.”
The Trumpist tendency, in contrast, is a relentlessly centralizing one, not only aggrandizing the executive at the expense of the other branches of government but also forming a personality cult around the person of the president himself. Trump’s conception of the presidency is a theatrical, faux heroism: swaggering about, engaged in clumsy trade-war brinkmanship while benevolently doling out subsidies to farmers suffering the inevitable consequences of his misadventures. Weld, by contrast, is an old-fashioned free-trader — preferable as policy, inferior as political opera.
For Trump, the performance is the main thing, but he has delivered for Republican partisans in terms of federal judicial nominations and their beloved, though un-paid-for, 2017 tax cut. He’s a wild man on Twitter and an boor on the world stage, but domestically, Trump has given rank-and-file Republicans much of what they wanted, beginning with not having to say “President Clinton” through clenched teeth again. With a few important exceptions, as a question of policy, as opposed to temperament, style and allegations of hush money paid to a porn star, it’s not obvious how a President Marco Rubio’s administration would have been markedly different.
But Trumpism does not consist of policy positions, all of those — including “Build the Wall!” — being infinitely negotiable. The Twitter rage is not an adjunct, it is the crux. Trumpism, rather, is a form of Kulturkampf. And it is a more serious thing than it might seem at first: With Trumpism, Republicans have abandoned the notion of one-nation politics and committed themselves to a cold civil war with as much ferocity as any would-be Saul Alinsky.
President Abraham Lincoln, who dealt with more grief and consequence in a day than President Trump has in his life, insisted, in his first inaugural address: “We must not be enemies.” For Trump, at one point or another, everyone is the enemy: the press, the Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the “haters and losers,” the ghost of Merv Griffin. Forgoing that sort of thing is, or ought to be, part of the legacy of the “Party of Lincoln,” too.
For a party that once held itself out as Virtue, Inc., these are strange days. In the last few days, Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani has proffered a string of arguments suggesting that the president of the United States shouldn’t even be judged on moral grounds. That so many Republicans are treating special counsel Robert Mueller’s report as a vindication, rather than a sobering account of Trump’s moral failings, indicates that the great majority of them are prepared to stand by their man.
A vote for Weld, then, would be a political tithe paid to the conservative sensibility and its supra-ideological constituents: modesty, restraint, decency, patriotism. It may well be that Republicans in 2020 will want nothing to do with any of that, or free trade, or limited government, or fiscal prudence. And conservatives must be clear about what that would mean: There is an emerging democratic-socialist party in the United States, along with a right-wing nationalist party that is increasingly radical in its affect and rhetoric, if not in policy, and no conservative party that a Bill Buckley, a Sen. Barry Goldwater or a President Reagan might recognize as such.
Correction: Previously, this article contained a reference to the work of Robert Nozick. It has been changed to reference the work of Albert Jay Nock.