By Daniel Hong
To some astute observers of the culture and political atmosphere in 2018 the distinction between “Trumpism” and “Conservatism” can come off as strikingly odd. As many Conservative pundits and politicians seem very supportive of Trump and his policies seem to trend in that direction as well. Many of those who were in the “Never Trump” camp may understand what I mean, to some extent. However, I must disappoint you if you are coming from that group as my fundamental point is not so much against Trump as it is against the GOP as we know it in 2018.
Without downplaying some real political achievements by the Trump Administration that has satisfied the Conservative base, I believe anyone who takes a moment to think about it will have no problem with my assertion that Trump is no Conservative. Frankly that does not bother me and it should not bother the base as well. Especially, in 2018 where President Trump is deemed by the mainstream media and many critics as incompetent, believe it or not the case can be made that the Democratic Party has been exponentially worse. That assessment does not come from a partisan tribal mentality on my part but as someone who thinks that the President and the GOP has handed them a golden opportunity on a silver platter. Yet, somehow they have managed to keep the midterms within range for the Republicans. Through their constant bickering over the Russian Collusion narrative, appealing to the worst of their base, and their open embrace of socialism to name a few is probably the reason why they are not leading in double digits. It’s not to say that they have not had some real accomplishments as well, the election of Ralph Northam over Ed Gillespie in Virginia, the upset over Roy Moore by Doug Jones in Alabama, and finally Conor Lamb’s recent victory in Pennsylvania highlight the Democrats success. However, it must be noted that these candidates won in spite of their party going hard left, especially Mr. Lamb’s narrow victory. The problem is while the Democrats have been veering left the GOP and President Trump have become yesterday’s Democrats, which brings me to my fundamental point. This may surprise some readers but my point that I’m driving home is not necessarily that the President is not Conservative but that the Republican Party is not and has never been the party of Conservatism.
It is understandable why in the minds of many Americans ever since the Reagan era the Republican Party was seen as Conservative. Many Republicans have followed in his footsteps of and have championed limited government, Free Market, and Moral Virtues. The problem is in 2018 with all three chambers in their possession they have not exemplified these ideals. The “Never Trump” camp is wrong in pointing the accusations mainly at Trump, who I believe should be given credit for being honest about his political positions. The guy never ran or claimed to run as a Conservative candidate. The problem lies with Republicans who claim to be Conservative yet their political records give no evidence of that. Do not misunderstand my accusation there are legitimate members of congress who are valiantly fighting for the Conservative cause but the overwhelming majority have been shown to be glorified hypocrites. To make matters worse the new group of Republicans that are making 2018 bids are competing with one another to be the next Trumpian candidate.
The question that can then be posed is what exactly is Trumpism? The problem is there really is no answer. Populism is definitely a tenet as well as a brash personality but other than that due to the volatile nature of Trump himself as a person it is really hard to know what else is concretely a part of his philosophy. Which is why it makes no sense for Republicans to follow him in that unknown path. The primaries that are currently going on have exposed the flaws of this plan as many of these candidates are trying to embrace something they cannot understand. Now it’s fine to endorse the president but there is no need to become like him. In fact, even in that department these new crop of Republicans fall woefully short, as evidenced in the Pennsylvania special election the argument can be made (at least on the campaign trail) that Conor Lamb a Democrat was more Trumpian than the GOP candidate Rick Saccone. Conor Lamb whether he is genuine or not was also an anomaly from the Democratic Party that is also experiencing a tension from the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren wing. Lamb represented the old centrist philosophy of the Democrats the one that Hillary Clinton was supposed to run on in 2016 as she obviously veered hard left like many of the Democrats (Of all the ridiculous complaints of her loss the recent one claiming that she was too “capitalist” for the Democrats actually has some credence). In an ironic way Trump not only beat Clinton at the ballot box but also in her own game because aside from his brash rhetoric and populist appeal just the policy positions that he ran on is much more moderate and centrist than the average traditional Republican. However, there was one exception to Trumps overall 2016 general election victory, he became more Conservative on the social and cultural issues and unlike the Democrats who find more political success when running on a centrist platform especially on social issues, the Republicans actually find more success running on a more Conservative platform.
To sum it up, the Democrats find more success when running on a centrist platform, and the Republicans on a more Conservative one. This also translates into a more cohesive unit in Washington as a centrist Democrat and a traditional Conservative Republican actually can find points of agreement than the other way around. While I personally do not like the whole Left and Right paradigm in politics for this particular argument it’s helpful. While Right is not necessarily synonymous with Conservative just as Left is not with Liberal, it is generally true that most Conservatives are on the Right and liberals are on the Left and the politics right now is moving to the Left while the country seems to want to move more to the Right. Again in the recent election Trump moved considerably more Conservative on social and cultural issues than he did in the primaries. Also while Rick Saccone lost, the belief right now is that he should have lost by 5 or 6 points but only lost by a narrow margin because he started campaigning on the social issues as the special election drew closer. On the contrary, both Mitt Romney and John McCain lost their run for the presidency and were known to be moderates. During the Ronald Reagan era his success was on an undeniably Conservative agenda, with some moderate Democrats as his allies in a congress dominated by Democrats. George W. Bush despite his less than stellar record on the economy and a controversial foreign policy was an undeniably socially conservative president. Many have attributed this to the Religious Right or the Moral Majority but as an Evangelical myself that explanation would be great if it were true. The problem is that this one coalition cannot win elections, the explanation I have to offer is that cultural conservatism has a particular appeal with Americans in general whether they are religious or not.
The appeal that a socially conservative agenda brings is not so much a political one but a moral/cultural one. For instance I do not believe most Americans are necessarily caught up with the issues of gay marriage that they would want Obergefell v Hodges overturned, but the arguments for a stable family and the values enriched in them do capture their attention. Americans may not be as caught up on overturning Roe v Wade and adding a Human Life Amendment into the Constitution but the arguments for cherishing children and the corrosive effects of the sexual revolution makes an overall pro-life culture appealing. Finally the recent issue of the national anthem may have been a tipping point, as the level of patriotism in every American might be different but the overall disrespect shown by the NFL players and the cowardly acceptance by the Democrats is too much for Americans to bear and in turn makes a conservative’s patriotism more and more appealing to them.
Therefore, a Conservative agenda does not necessarily mean that people who vote for that agenda are all fully on board but they find it a better option than an agenda that goes in the opposite direction. A strong nostalgic appeal may also be a factor in the appeal of Cultural Conservatism as many people believe whether they are Republican or Democrat (or Independent) that they are losing their culture and their way of life in this present period. The Presidents popular slogan “Make America Great Again” may have had that appeal not necessarily to regain the economic or military power of the past but the American way of life that people were accustomed to and so much of Conservatism looks back on those traditions and timeless principles that it can grab the public’s imagination of rebuilding the culture from the ashes. Thus, my plea to Republicans this midterm cycle is that in a year where many are predicting them to lose their majority and where history has shown past patterns where the majority party often faces losses in these situations to stop trying to be like Trump and to study the tenets and principles of Conservatism and embrace it. Ideas have power and the right ideas can turn the tide in a nation and Conservatism is about ideas and principles.