The Atlantic’s David Frum is one of my favourite American columnists. A thoughtful conservative and provocative Trump critic, Frum doesn’t shy away from eviscerating both the Right and the Left. In contrast to ever-increasing partisanship, Frum’s independence of thought and lack of partisanship makes for refreshing reading.
Last November, Frum made the comprehensive case for a post-Trump GOP that embraces liberal values, which he broadly defined as a dedication to individual freedom, free trade and a commitment to preserving the integrity of America’s institutions. He argued that the Republican Party is pursuing policies that can’t compete democratically: Trump lost the popular vote in 2016, the Republicans lost the House in 2018, and demographic changes will render the Republicans unelectable in their present form. As the world’s only superpower, America has a moral responsibility to uphold liberal values on the world stage. Just as interestingly, Frum sees the Democrats’ leftward drift as an opportunity for Republicans to seize the liberal centre ground; most Americans still care about border security and the budget deficit.
Unfortunately for Frum and liberal-leaning conservatives, the Republican Party will not become liberal for the foreseeable future. The party nominated presidential candidates that notionally agreed with American liberalism in 2008 and 2012, with McCain and Romney respectively, and they both lost to a more liberal Obama. Republican elites told their base they had to compromise to win. They compromised, and lost. Then in 2016, grassroots Republicans revolted against the party establishment and nominated Trump, who went on to become president. If liberal conservatism was synonymous with electability, that wouldn’t have happened. For Republicans to change, they are going to have to first lose heavily, with their illiberalism as an obvious electoral liability.
More importantly, conservative commentators like Frum are far more liberal than Republican voters, and have been since at least the George H.W. Bush years. Grassroots Republicans don’t care about free trade, which is why Trump’s protectionism was so appealing. Nor are they interested in upholding liberal values on the world stage. Trump’s America First foreign policy, which is based on American economic and security interests, is much more popular than pre-Trump Republican neoconservatism. Immigration reform, a big priority for congressional Republicans, is bitterly opposed by Republican primary voters. Most Republicans care less about the size of government, and more about who it works for. Nationalism, not liberalism, is the defining trait of American conservatives. If liberal commentators like Frum can’t live with that, they need to leave the Republican Party permanently.
If Frum believes in liberalism, his best hope is to support the Democratic Party, which takes the liberal position on the vast majority of issues. Amongst Democrats, Frum can fight against the illiberal aspects of the party he opposes- the obsession with group identity over collective unity and individual liberty, and the big-state socialism of the party’s Sanders wing. He and other liberal conservatives have a far better chance of defeating identity politics and socialism in the Democratic Party than they do defeating nationalism in the Republican Party. While identity politics and socialism have only been prominent features of Democratic political culture recently, nationalism has long been a core aspect of American conservatism, even before Trump. Neoconservatism may have had liberal roots, but it was justified to the masses using nationalistic rhetoric. The GOP’s fiscal conservatism had nationalist appeal; white voters’ support for welfare declined when dog-whistle messages about free-loading minorities were used. Republicans have won elections primarily by defining the nation against a foreign threat- communists, Islamic extremists, and now immigrants. The GOP aversion to liberalism didn’t start with Trump, and it won’t end when Trump is gone. The sooner Frum realises this and renounces the American conservative movement, the better.