Part 1 of a series on the failures of the world’s moderate conservatives. I’ll be covering Britain tomorrow, so look out for that.
It’s a massive understatement to say we aren’t big fans of Donald Trump here on the Epicurus Blog. Everything from his bigotry, to his vulgarity, his dishonesty, as well as what little he has of a coherent ideology- all of it is utterly repulsive. Yet it would be a grave mistake to assume that Trump is an anomaly: that the Trump phenomenon has no structural causes, and therefore all problems associated with him will be gone.
To a small extent, the Trump presidency was made possible by the failures of Democrats. Hillary Clinton was an unusually weak and unpopular nominee; centrist Democrats, who are normally quite astute, ought to have known better. Since Trump entered the Republican primary, Democrats largely refused to take him seriously. And so rather than addressing ordinary Americans’ concerns with globalisation, the rise of China, deindustrialisation and immigration, Democrats chose the easy route- brand Trump a bigot, and hope he will then go away. Clinton’s faux pas on many Trump supporters being “deplorables” added to the popular perception of her as an arrogant elitist. In a nation deeply discontented with the status quo, Democrats ought to have channeled Obama’s zeal for comprehensive reforms, engaging with the issues that mattered to Trump voters. It’s no surprise that districts that went from voting for Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 were considerably poorer than the national average.
But the bulk of the blame for the Trump presidency lies not with the Democrats, but with the Republicans and the wider conservative movement. Part of this is a failed anti-Trump strategy. Non-Trump Republicans should have united behind a candidate. Instead, their support splintered amongst several candidates, on the assumption that the Trump candidacy was a silly PR stunt that would soon disintegrate before the primaries. Like the Democrats, the Republicans failed to engage with the policy areas Trump was talking about. The non-Trump Republican strategy on policy was to spew out the same old Reaganite neoliberal truisms like ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’, hoping that endless repetition of Republican orthodoxies would see off Trump’s appeal.
Singing the praises of economic liberalism and constitutionally limited government was always going to be far less appealing than Trump’s promises. Mostly because of the ideological disconnect between the Republican elite and Republican voters. The former adhere to a very consistent form of conservatism, influenced by Barry Goldwater, William Buckley, and of course, Ronald Reagan. On economic issues, they are staunch free marketeers. On foreign policy, they are neoconservative interventionists. None of these positions are actually held by the Republican base, hence their willingness to support Trump. Most Republicans are far more protectionist and isolationist than the Republican establishment would have you believe. So the reason for Trump’s popularity amongst the conservative grassroots was non-Trump Republicans failed to make the case for their own ideas, which were never popular to begin with.
Having revealed the Republican Party’s internal contradictions, Trump has irrevocably transformed the party. Regardless of Trump’s future electoral success, his successor is likely to hold roughly the same beliefs, just without Trump’s rough edges. The Republican establishment knows this, so they have co-operated with Trump for their own gain. On the one hand, they have failed to provide any serious opposition to any of Trump’s policies, and they have consistently played down Trump’s scandals in an extremely partisan and hypocritical fashion. But on the other hand, they are trying to appeal to swing voters by portraying themselves as ‘moderate.’ The truth is that moderate conservatism has become an oxymoron. There is nothing moderate about using an extreme President for personal gain, or on behalf of wealthy donors. This is cowardice, pure and simple. Non-Trump Republicans know Trump’s beliefs are irreconcilable with their own. But they also know they need the votes of avid Trump fans, refusing to publicly admit that Reaganite conservatism now has far less appeal than Trump’s nationalism. Don’t feel sorry for the so-called ‘moderate’ Republicans. They have brought this mess upon themselves, and by tying themselves so closely to Trump, they will be punished in future elections as the Trump presidency degenerates.