The fate of the American conservative

The Republican Party of the early 21st century is barely recognizable. What is the GOP’s future?

On July 6, 2003, three months into the second Iraq war, I showed up at 1150 Seventeenth Street NW in Washington, D.C. I had just turned 22. It was my first day as an editorial assistant at the Weekly Standard. At the time, 1150 Seventeenth Street was more than an office building. It was an intellectual hub — the frontal cortex of the American right. The magazine where I was about to begin work was the most influential in the city. Copies of the Standard arrived at the White House each week. A photograph hanging on a wall in the magazine’s office showed President George W. Bush reading an issue. The Standard’s editors appeared regularly on the most important source of information for Republicans and conservatives: Fox News Channel. But the Standard also had mainstream credibility. One of its senior editors, David Brooks, was a fixture on PBS and NPR. He was about to join The New York Times.

From 1150 Seventeenth Street emanated the ideas that shaped the Republican White House and Congress and then the world. On the same floor as the Standard was the Project for a New American Century. It was a small think tank co-founded by the magazine’s editor that, since its inception in 1997, had advocated for a defense buildup, containment of China and regime change in Iraq. The top floors of the building housed the right’s premier think tank: the American Enterprise Institute. Taxes had been cut, welfare reformed, social programs redesigned and governments toppled because of the intellection that took place within the walls of 1150 Seventeenth Street.

Lincoln Agnew for the Deseret News

The beginning of the movement

That morning I was walking into not just a building but an intellectual and political movement. A few years earlier, as an undergraduate at Columbia University, I had stumbled upon American conservatism and the theoretical works that undergird its thought. In the months before and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I had read (and only somewhat understood) Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind,” Leo Strauss’ “Natural Right and History,” Richard Weaver’s “Ideas Have Consequences” and Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom.” I picked up copies of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review, Seth Lipsky’s New York Sun, Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary and the Weekly Standard. In 2004, when John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge wrote “The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America,” I felt a thrill of recognition when these two British editors of the Economist identified 1150 Seventeenth Street as the center of a rive droit, a “right bank,” a hub of conservative activity that included the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a small think tank next door; the offices of the Public Interest one block away; and the D.C. branch of the Hoover Institution and its publication, Policy Review, up Connecticut Avenue.

The rive droit is gone now. The building at 1150 Seventeenth Street was demolished in 2016. AEI moved to a renovated mansion near Dupont Circle. Neither PNAC nor the Standard exists any longer. The Bush administration is a distant memory. The twin projects of 1150 Seventeenth Street — the expansion of democracy abroad and a recommitment to traditional moral values at home — ran aground. 

Presidential election

The intellectual community housed within 1150 Seventeenth Street dispersed. Many of the writers, wonks and scholars who worked there found themselves in a strained relationship with the American right. The center of gravity of American conservatism drifted toward Capitol Hill, where the Heritage Foundation, the Kirby Center of Hillsdale College and the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life hosted scholars and speakers friendly to the administration of former President Donald Trump. The right became more populist than it was in 2003. To define oneself as a conservative in the 2020s was to reject the ideas and practices of the “establishment” that 1150 Seventeenth Street had come to represent.

I have spent the last decade thinking about this change. In April 2011, I went to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to follow Trump as he visited the home of the first presidential primary. I watched as he spent a few hours in local diners. He extended the Trump brand, increased his leverage in salary negotiations with his employer, NBC, elevated himself as a celebrity opponent of President Barack Obama and became the unquestioned leader of the conspiratorial birther movement, which claimed falsely that Obama had not been born inside the United States. It was obvious that Trump was not playing for the validation of established media outlets. Even then, his audience comprised voters who had been forgotten or ignored or dismissed as nuts. Readers of the National Enquirer, his adviser Roger Stone once said, were “the Trump constituency.”

It was a constituency that 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney must have thought he needed to win. Shortly before that year’s Nevada GOP caucuses, Romney and his wife appeared in Las Vegas alongside Trump and accepted the billionaire’s endorsement. “He’s a warm, smart, tough cookie and that’s what this country needs,” Trump told CNN at the time. Romney won the caucuses but lost the general election. The right told itself that Romney had failed because he lacked the requisite populist sensibility, fighting spirit and antagonism toward the powers that be. He was more Fortune than National Enquirer

The week before the 2012 election, I had appeared on a panel sponsored by the American University College Republicans. My co-panelist was Matthew Boyle of the national populist website I presented my case that the race was close but that independents could still carry Romney to the White House. Boyle shook his head. Romney was a loser, he told the small audience. Romney was going down, and an anti-establishment figure such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky would take over the GOP and win in 2016. I laughed Boyle off. I would not make the same mistake again.

To define oneself as a conservative in the 2020s is to reject the ideas and practices of the conservative elite “establishment.”

As Obama began his second term, I began to research the history of the American right. How, I wondered, had the conservative movement failed to motivate the white voters without college degrees who had comprised Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” the “Reagan Democrats” and the “Republican Revolution” of 1994? What explained the gulf between my colleagues in Washington, D.C., and conservatives beyond the Beltway? How had matters long thought settled — the importance of markets, the benefits of free trade, the blessings of immigration, the necessity of war — become so hotly contested?

The answers to such questions go far beyond the politics of Obama and Bush. But the Obama years are a good place to start to understand what the conservative movement once was, and what it has become.

In January 2009, one week before taking the oath of office, Obama visited the home of George Will, widely considered one of the most influential thinkers on the right. There, he had dinner with a group of conservative journalists, including Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks. The talk radio right, then led by the late Rush Limbaugh, viewed the incoming president’s overtures to conservatives with suspicion. “This was inside-the-Beltway conservative pundits,” Limbaugh told his audience, “and it was obvious to me Obama’s objective here is to sway what I call establishment punditry.” 

Limbaugh was prescient. Among the consequences of Obama’s presidency was a widening gulf between Limbaugh’s audience and “establishment punditry.” As the first Black president, who had been raised in Indonesia and Hawaii before attending Occidental College and Columbia University, Obama was the target of conspiracy theories and racism. All of the kooky things some inhabitants of the right had said about Bill Clinton would be said about Obama too, in email chain letters and elsewhere. But the fantasies about Obama also carried with them the fear of foreign invasion: The conspiracists said that he had been born in Kenya, that he was a Muslim and that he was a Communist. 

In fact, Obama was nothing more than a conventional academic liberal. He hewed closely to the beliefs and tastes of upscale, metropolitan academics throughout the country. Like earlier Democratic presidents, including John F. Kennedy, Obama used the extreme right as a foil for himself and a cudgel against congressional Republicans. He told audiences that the Republican Party was in the grip of a “fever” of anti-elitism and anti-government sentiment and that the fever would break as he became more successful. But the “fever” did not break. It swelled. 

During the Obama years, images of decline, irreparable transformations, unbridgeable divides and fascistic liberals filled the minds of conservatives. Every faction of the right treated the Obama presidency as an inflection point. America’s fate would be decided one way or the other. It was said that Obama’s victory presaged America’s slide into European social democracy and global irrelevance. Obama’s stated desire to reverse the Reagan revolution flamed conservative fears. Krauthammer argued that Obama undermined the “moral foundation of American dominance.” 

To “inside-the-Beltway” conservative analysts such as Krauthammer, Obama’s foreign and domestic policies worked synergistically to undermine America’s superpower status and bring an end to unipolarity. Obama’s expansion of the welfare state crowded out funds for national defense. Nor was the potential cost limited to the United States. Foreign policy thinker Robert Kagan warned Obama’s policies threatened the “liberal world order” that America had sustained since 1945.

Barack Obama is sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts as the 44th president of the United Statesas on the West Front of the Capitol as his wife Michelle, holding the Lincoln bible, looks on in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images) | Corbis via Getty Images

But Obama’s biggest problems, at least in the beginning, came from within the United States: Less than a month after his inauguration, the grassroots rebels who had marched against Bush’s immigration proposals and lobbied GOP congressmen to oppose the bank bailout were fighting the new president’s tax, spending, environment and health care plans. On February 19, 2009, the CNBC personality Rick Santelli delivered an on-air rant. His target was the expansion of the bailout and Obama’s $1 trillion economic stimulus package. Santelli called for concerned Americans to hold a “tea party” like the patriots of the American founding. 

The tea party

The tea party was noteworthy for its hostility to both the Democratic and the Republican parties. When it turned to electoral politics, the tea party backed anti-establishment candidates, with a mixed record in general elections. That was because the tea party brought out both optimistic, forward-looking, mainstream supply-siders and pessimistic, anti-institutional, conspiracy-minded extremists. The “birther” demand to see Obama’s birth certificate attested to the prevalence of conspiracy theories in American life. The tea party’s media spokesman, Fox host Glenn Beck, had an apocalyptic worldview in which the fate of the republic was one bad election away. References to shadowy groups and global bankers filled his monologues. He scribbled on a chalkboard. 

“Establishment” pundits tended to gloss over the more exaggerated aspects of the tea party. They focused instead on its potential to ground the populist right in the text and structure of the Constitution. Will, for example, called the tea party “the most welcome political development since the Barry Goldwater insurgency in 1964.” Krauthammer urged Republicans to adopt “a reformed, self-regulating conservatism that bases its call for minimalist government — for reining in the willfulness of presidents and legislatures — in the words and meaning of the Constitution.” Brooks wrote in The New York Times, “Personally, I’m not a fan of this movement,” but “I can certainly see its potential to shape the coming decade.”

There was more to the tea party than constitutionalism, however. It was a manifestation of America’s “folk libertarianism:” a widespread oppositional attitude toward authority of all stripes. It was also anti-illegal immigration. 

Liberals mocked the apocryphal tea party protester who held a sign saying, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” They did not understand that the tea party had no problem with universal entitlements in principle. Rather, it opposed redistribution: shifting tax dollars from middle-class entitlements to the nonworking poor. In foreign policy, the tea party was noninterventionist and unilateralist. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was his father’s son in politics. Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz were suspicious of overseas entanglements. 

The challenge for the GOP was finding a way to harness the populist energy of the tea party while integrating it into a party agenda that could appeal to the suburban voters who had fled Bush’s wars and burst housing bubble. 

The right told itself that MItt Romney had failed because he lacked the requisite populist sensibility, fighting spirit and antagonism toward the powers that be. He was more Fortune than National Enquirer.

In 2010, in an anti-Obama wave election, Republicans won back the House of Representatives, and in command of detail, Paul Ryan became the Republican spokesman. When the Romney-Ryan ticket went down to defeat two years later, many Republican and conservative elites interpreted the loss as a reason to moderate the party. Immigration reform was a necessity. The GOP “autopsy” released in the spring of 2013 counseled Republicans to support the legalization of illegal immigrants and to move away from strong stances on abortion and same-sex marriage. “There’s no need for radical change,” wrote Krauthammer. “The other party thinks it owns the demographic future — counter that in one stroke by fixing the Latino problem.” 

The conservative grassroots, talk radio and activist network argued that Romney had failed because he was a creature of the party establishment. After all, during his four years as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, he had been the architect of the law that became the model for Obamacare. In the final weeks of the 2012 election, moreover, Romney had failed to stand up to the bias of debate moderator Candy Crowley of CNN when she erroneously and improperly took Obama’s side during an exchange over the president’s response to the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Romney hadn’t been combative enough. He had focused on the economy, which was sluggish but growing, to the exclusion of social issues. He represented the executive suite rather than the laborers without college degrees who swung elections. 

Steve Sailer, a contributor to paleoconservative journals, put forward an alternative to the RNC autopsy strategy of outreach to minority groups and young people. Sailer called his approach “in-reach.” Because Republicans drew primarily from white voters, especially married white voters with families, Sailer reasoned that the party should seek to boost turnout among its core constituency rather than fritter away political capital on minority groups whose objections to the GOP were in all likelihood insurmountable. 

The dueling autopsies — outreach versus in-reach — fueled the distrust and loathing between the conservative “establishment” and the talk radio right. The rise of social media during the first decades of the 21st century exacerbated this divide. Celebrities, provocateurs, presidential aspirants and established media personalities had the largest Facebook and Twitter accounts, but technology altered the forms of communication to such a degree that no one editor or journal had the ability to establish the definitive conservative position. 

The impact of social media

Social media tore down the walls that separated the credentialed from the fringe. The very terms “credentialed” and “fringe” became fraught in a world where opinions were accessed directly and where there was no third-party validation. Social media undermined the authority of elites to rule from above in every country, in every industry, in every sphere of human activity. Conservative intellectual elites were not immune from this development. The boundaries of “permissible dissent” that Pat Buchanan had complained about were washed away in an unending digital flood. 

The loudest anti-establishment voice was Its founder, Andrew Breitbart, had apprenticed under Matt Drudge. Breitbart believed politics was downstream from culture and that conservatives and liberals were in a political-cultural war. There could be only one victor. Breitbart pioneered the use of new media to advance conservative politics. 

When Breitbart died suddenly in 2012, his company fell into the hands of his friend and collaborator Stephen K. Bannon. Bannon was a 59-year-old Navy veteran who had worked at Goldman Sachs before investing in Biosphere 2, an earth science research facility in the Arizona desert. He also produced conservative documentaries. Bannon believed that the United States was on the cusp of a revolution. He subscribed to a cyclical theory of history in which a cataclysm that begins with every third generation is resolved in a “fourth turning.” The global financial crisis, Bannon thought, was the nemesis of the third generation after World War II. 

Bannon believed that the elites who congregated each year in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss the future of global capitalism and the “rules-based international order” were reenacting David Halberstam’s tale of Vietnam-era folly, “The Best and the Brightest” (1972). He was convinced that American businessmen and politicians turned a blind eye to the rising threat of China out of greed and willful ignorance. He reconfigured Breitbart into an anti-establishment assault vehicle. 

In 2012, in the title of his bestselling book, Charles Murray warned that America was “Coming Apart.” At the top of society, a self-perpetuating elite lived inside a bubble of affluent neighborhoods in postal codes Murray called “Super-ZIPs,” while mass suffering played out below. Most Americans, Murray pointed out, did not enjoy the benefits of intact families, vibrant communities and church membership. Be they known as James Burnham’s “managerial elite,” Robert Reich’s “symbolic analysts” (from his 1991 book “Work of Nations”), the “cognitive elite” that Murray and Richard Herrnstein described in “The Bell Curve,” Christopher Lasch’s “elites” (“Revolt of the Elites,” 1996), David Brooks’s “Bobos” (“Bobos in Paradise,” 2000), or Richard Florida’s “creative class” (“The Rise of the Creative Class,” 2002), the Americans whose status was grounded in undergraduate and postgraduate educations and assortative mating were far removed from the rest of the country.

Social media undermined the authority of elites to rule from above in every country, in every industry, in every sphere of human activity.

Murray was not an optimist. Only a religious revival, he wrote, similar to the growth of Methodism in Victorian England, could restore social capital and repair the social fabric. Murray’s colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, cataloged the decline of work among males in their prime years. These men were dropping out of the workforce and, to a great degree, society as well. The welfare state sustained them. Through expanded Medicaid and disability programs, they came into contact with opiates. The addiction levels were staggering. Opioid and heroin abuse caused a spike in deaths, in some years killing as many Americans as had died in Vietnam. In a paper released in December 2015, Anne Case and Angus Deaton revealed that death rates among non-Hispanic whites experienced a “marked increase” between 1999 and 2013. 

All of this happened under the noses of most conservative and Republican elites. They lived in the wealthy Virginia and Maryland counties surrounding Washington, D.C. They enjoyed life in the Super-ZIPs. They were not only center-right individuals adrift in a sea of blue. They also were separated from growing numbers of their own political party by background, education, income and lifestyle. 

In its attitudes and priorities, the white working class was closer to Kevin Phillips and Pat Buchanan than to Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley Jr. The issues that most deeply affected it — trade, illegal immigration and drug addiction — were not at the top of the conservative intellectuals’ to-do list. A major document of conservative reformers, the 2014 report Room to Grow, mentioned free trade twice, both times positively; it mentioned immigration and drug addiction not at all. The Weekly Standard did not reference the opioid addiction crisis until the late summer 2016. These omissions happened not because conservative intellectuals were negligent but because such issues did not penetrate the bubble until the 2016 presidential campaign began. 

New presidential candidates

The “next-in-line” candidate that year was Jeb Bush. He announced his presidential campaign on June 15, 2015. The next day, Trump rode down the escalator of his eponymous Manhattan tower and declared himself a candidate as well. The dark horse had arrived, bragging about his wealth and television ratings, declaring the American dream dead, and promising to build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants and “Make America Great Again.” The thrice-married Trump had changed his voter registration three times as well: from Republican to Reform Party, from Reform to Democrat, and, in 2009, from Democrat to Republican. He had no affiliation with the Republican Party establishment and no pull with conservative pundits. “It is simply childish to trust this contemptible parody of a father figure,” wrote Michael Gerson in The Washington Post. Will said that he deserved to lose 50 states. Krauthammer called him a “rodeo clown.” 

Limbaugh disagreed. The day Trump announced, he told his audience, “All of this, I’m telling you, is going to resonate with people. And here’s something else to watch: The more the media hates this and makes fun of it and laughs, the more support Trump’s going to get.” And sure enough, within about a month, Trump had surpassed Bush in the national poll averages and become the front-runner. He maintained that status throughout the primary — except for a few days in the beginning of November 2015 when another outsider, Dr. Ben Carson, briefly took the lead. 

Trump was a showboat and celebrity, a self-promoter and controversialist. He was silly and mocking, a caricature of a caricature. Anti-establishment conservatives found him refreshing. Not one iota of Trump was politically correct. He played by no rules of civility. He genuflected to no one. He despised the media with the same intensity as the conservative grassroots. He challenged the conventional wisdom of both party establishments. He declared that illegal immigration and trade with China carried great costs. He directed his foreign policy not toward Eurasia so much as toward America’s southern border. He followed Buchanan in decrying outsourcing, foreign trade agreements, immigration and the Iraq War. 

That Trump chose illegal immigration as his main issue made him all the more polarizing, visceral, contentious and spiteful. Immigration restriction had replaced Social Security as the “third rail” of American politics. Trump decided not only to touch the third rail but to hug it. It made him electric. Republicans, Democrats, journalists, corporations, entertainment and sports figures, and even the pope felt it necessary to define themselves against him. Their flaunting of their moral superiority only made Trump more attractive to voters alienated from the political process. 

After terrorist attacks in Paris, France, and San Bernardino, California, in the fall of 2015, Trump announced his support for a ban on Muslim entry into the United States. The speed with which prominent Republicans and conservatives condemned his proposal revealed that the future of the GOP depended on the identity of the party’s 2016 nominee. Nominating Trump would alter the character of the GOP in a fundamental way: Just as Goldwater had given conservatives a foothold in the GOP after decades of exile, just as George McGovern’s nomination had caused liberal anti-Communist and Catholic working-class voters to leave the Democratic coalition, just as Ronald Reagan’s nomination had confirmed the GOP’s identity as a conservative, pro-life party, a Trump nomination would recalibrate American politics along the axis of national identity. Trump masterfully exploited these divisions within the conservative movement and the GOP as he accelerated the party’s move toward national populism. He drew huge crowds to his tentpole rallies. He set the agenda. He made all the headlines. 

Trump despised the media with the same intensity as the conservative grass- roots. He challenged the conventional wisdom of both party establishments.

As Trump moved closer to the GOP presidential nomination, it became clear that large parts of the conservative movement had different institutional priorities than many Republican voters. The most striking example of this disintermediation between intellectuals and voters was the “Against Trump” issue that National Review published on the eve of the 2016 Iowa caucuses. 

The magazine sought to consign the star of “Celebrity Apprentice” to the dustbin of conservative pretenders. They brought together some of the biggest names on the right. “Trump is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones,” said an unsigned editorial. “If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination, there will once again be no opposition to an ever-expanding government,” wrote Beck. “I think this is a Republican campaign that would have appalled Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan,” wrote the vice president of the Cato Institute. “A shoot-from-the-hip, belligerent showoff is the last thing we need or can afford,” wrote Thomas Sowell. Among the contributors who warned conservatives and Republicans about embracing Trump’s candidacy were the editors of First Things and National Affairs, Brent Bozell III, two former attorneys general, and the presidents of the Club for Growth and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. National Review editor Rich Lowry unveiled the symposium in an interview on Fox News Channel with anchor Megyn Kelly.

None of it mattered. Not only was this advice ultimately disregarded and Trump nominated and elected president, but the editors of National Review found themselves the subjects of vitriolic criticism, ad hominem insults and harassment on social media. They were flayed as the actual traitors to the right. Some donors to the magazine were furious. Readers canceled subscriptions. What might have been a laudable stand for principle inadvertently revealed both the ineffectuality of opinion journalism and the widening gulf between conservative intellectuals and the movement they sought to lead. Trump did not need National Review. He had Twitter. And talk radio. And, increasingly, the Fox News Channel itself. 

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump dance at the Freedom Ball on January 20, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Trump will attend a series of balls to cap his Inauguration day. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch - Pool/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Trump arrived at a time of dissociation — of unbundling, fracture, disaggregation and dispersal. The disconnectedness was not only social and cultural. It was also political — a separation of the citizenry from the government founded in their name. Trump was dismissed as “not a real conservative” because of his past positions on abortion and guns and because of his current positions on entitlements, trade and war. In truth he worked hard to forge alliances with key constituencies within the conservative movement and Republican coalition. Since 2011, he had been unabashedly pro-life. He was the NRA’s dream candidate. He brought on supply-siders Lawrence Kudlow and Steve Moore. He stirred the crowd at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and castigated Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. After Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly in early 2016, Trump worked with the Federalist Society to unveil a list of potential Supreme Court nominees. 

Trump’s strongest supporters within the conservative movement came from the network of institutions, spokesmen and causes that the new right established during the 1970s. Trump deployed new right symbols. His antagonism toward the establishment was obvious. The single-issue groups for gun rights, for the right to life and for the right to work were all behind him. So was the American Conservative Union. Phyllis Schlafly was one of his most committed supporters before her death in 2016. Buchanan cheered him on. Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed him. Richard Viguerie said, “Donald Trump will be helping to advance the conservative movement.” John Wayne’s daughter endorsed Trump. Clint Eastwood expressed tepid support.

Trump did well where George Wallace had done well. He flourished in places with whites without college degrees, in the South, and in ethnic blue-collar enclaves such as Staten Island. In Orange County, California, Trump took 77 percent of the Republican primary vote. Just north of Orange County sit the Claremont Colleges, where Harry Jaffa taught until his death in 2015. At the pro-Trump Claremont Institute and in its publication, the Claremont Review of Books, a Manichean understanding of politics and an apocalyptic vision of the nation’s future took hold. For decades, the American right had defended the spirit of institutions such as the academy, the Congress, the presidency, the market, the church, and even the press from liberals and radicals. Now large sectors of the right were giving up on those institutions as hopelessly corrupt. 

Now the dividing line was between those who thought that the result in 2016 would determine the nation’s continued existence and those who thought that it was just another election. “Those most likely to be receptive of Trump,” wrote Claremont Institute senior fellow John Marini, who had tutored Justice Clarence Thomas in political philosophy years before, “are those who believe America is in the midst of a great crisis in terms of its economy, its chaotic civil society, its political corruption and the inability to defend any kind of tradition — or way of life derived from that tradition — because of the transformation of its culture by the intellectual elites.” For Claremont senior fellow Angelo Codevilla, the nation might continue under Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but the republic itself had long since expired. 

A third Claremont figure, former Bush official Michael Anton, wrote under a pseudonym that “2016 is the Flight 93 election: Charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway.” Conservatism had failed to stop America’s descent, Anton wrote. Conservative intellectuals were more interested in preserving their status and wealth than in saving the nation. The republic was dying because of immigration. “The election of 2016 is a test — in my view, the final test — of whether there is any virtù left in what used to be the core of the American nation.” Limbaugh read the entire piece on the air.

Trump arrived at a time of dissociation — of unbundling, fracture, disaggregation, and dispersal. The disconnectedness was not only social and cultural. It was also political.

Noticeably absent in all of these essays was empirical evidence. Notably absent in all of these essays was sympathy for contemporary America, and reasons it might be worth defending, and charity for “blue” America. Such qualifications did not count for much in a media environment shaped by Facebook, Twitter, talk radio and cable television. The large and diverse conservative movement simply could not handle the compound stresses of war, immigration and populism. The opinions of Trump the person became hard to disentangle from assessments of his program. Fights over his rhetoric, behavior and symbols, such as the border wall (decades after the fall of a different wall), morphed into struggles over his economic and foreign policies, then changed back again. It was easy to score points by associating one’s opponents with either Trump’s most radical supporters or his most vociferous detractors. Alt-right trolls, libertarians, Reformocons, “Never Trumpers,” Claremonsters, traditionalist Catholics, paleos, a few remaining neos and other varieties of conservatives competed for attention online. 

Conspiracies flourished. Civil discourse became a relic. Reputations were bruised, jobs were lost, alliances sundered, friendships ended and conservatism ruptured. Kristol, for example, had endorsed David Horowitz’s collection of essays, “The Politics of Bad Faith” (1998), but when Kristol began lobbying individuals to launch an anti-Trump Republican or independent campaign, Horowitz attacked him on Breitbart as a “renegade Jew.” Kristol shrugged it off. “That’s something new,” he said. And it was new. The antisemitism directed at Trump critics such as Kristol and former Breitbart contributor Ben Shapiro had an intensity and force that was as novel as it was frightening.

Trump’s luck was incredible. First he defeated the Republican establishment in the primary. Then, in the general election, he faced Hillary Clinton, who was just as establishmentarian as Jeb Bush and even more polarizing and disliked. Trump was the most unpopular major party nominee in history, but Hillary Clinton was No. 2. She played into Trump’s hands, demeaning his supporters and catering to the wishes of her Democratic base rather than those of independent swing voters. 

And she paid for it. By 2:30 a.m. on the morning after Election Day, the Republican nominee had won enough states to be declared the winner. The GOP ticket racked up 304 Electoral College votes to Clinton’s 227, even as it lost the popular vote, 48 percent to 46 percent. And on January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump became the 45th president of the United States.

TOPSHOT - Republican nominee Donald Trump gestures as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton looks on during the final presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of the University of Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 19, 2016. / AFP / Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images

If you had asked an American in the late 1970s what problems the country faced, he or she would have mentioned inflation, crime and national dishonor. Conservatives were able to trace these challenges back to liberal economic, social and foreign policies, and they offered plausible ways of solving them. In some ways, the problems America faces today are also the result of too much liberalism — an out-of-control egalitarianism, an unwillingness to maintain public order, a culture that silences politically incorrect views. The question — and it is an open question — is whether there is a viable conservatism to resist these trends.

The conservative movement, in its present disagreeable and hesitant condition, must forge a new consensus, based on the particularly American idea of individual liberty exercised within a constitutional order, that addresses the challenges of our time. Conservatives need to ask the following: How can we address the problems everybody sees, while trying to keep the concerns unique to us from overwhelming our society?

The likely answer probably will incorporate the modifications to conservative policy positions that Trump forced upon the movement — a belief in secure borders and national sovereignty, an emphasis on the condition of working people without college degrees, a tough stance toward China, and a reluctance toward humanitarian intervention abroad. But a conservatism anchored to Trump the man will face insurmountable obstacles in attaining policy coherence, government competence and intellectual credibility.

Untangling the Republican Party and conservative movement from Trump won’t be easy. It will require Republican officials to follow the lead of conservative jurists who acknowledged the reality of Biden’s victory. It will require a delicate recalibration of the relationship between party elites and the grassroots populism that fuels the Trump phenomenon. It will require a depersonalization of the right, with leaders focusing less on individual candidates and more on the principles that have guided the movement for more than half a century: anti-statism, constitutionalism, patriotism and anti-socialism. It will require a willingness to look ahead to the next election rather than dwelling on 2020. And it will require leaders who can set the agenda, define the alternatives and model appropriate standards of behavior. The alternative would be a national populist GOP dominated by a single man whom not only educated elites but also a majority of the American people view with contempt.

It is worth considering whether the elite-driven strategy that for decades provided structure and stability to the conservative movement is possible in the America of the 21st century. It may turn out to be the case, as political analyst Jonah Goldberg has suggested, that the intellectual conservatism of tomorrow will have the same attenuated relationship to politics as H.L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock’s conservatism had in their day. Or the future may look more like the present at the time of writing, as parents organize spontaneously at the grassroots level to reject (and in some cases ban) what they see as politically correct and anti-American school curricula. If social media platforms now serve as the public square, then the future may hold more contentious debates over vaccinations and over independent “audits” to find voter fraud where none exists.

The conservative movement, in its present disagreeable and hesitant condition, must forge a new consensus.

So long as Democrats can point to Trump, independents and college-educated white voters will avoid association with the Republican Party and conservatism. At the same time, following the example of mayoral candidate Eric Adams in New York, Democrats may appropriate issues, such as law and order, once associated with Republicans. Indeed, the rise of liberal critics of “woke” racial-equity politics may portend a new center — potentially a new neoconservatism — based in the classical liberal principles of individual freedom, personal responsibility, equal opportunity, merit-based achievement and color blindness.

Still, the problem with predictions is that they tend to be wrong. However the future unfolds, conservatives must return to the wisdom of their best minds and advocates. “The proper question for conservatives: What do you seek to conserve?” Will wrote in “The Conservative Sensibility” (2019). “The proper answer is concise but deceptively simple: We seek to conserve the American Founding.” Or as Bill Buckley said in 1970, “I see it as the continuing challenge of National Review to argue the advantages to every one of the rediscovery of America, the amiability of its people, the flexibility of its institutions, of the great latitude that is still left to the individual, the delights of spontaneity, and, above all, the need for superordinating the private vision over the public vision.” Buckley’s challenge to National Review is also the challenge to today’s conservatives and Republicans.

This “rediscovery of America” must center on America’s founding documents, for there would be no American conservatism without the American founding. The Constitution and its 27 amendments anchor conservatives eager to preserve and extend the blessings of liberty that are the birthright of every American. The Constitution grounds conservatives in a uniquely American tradition of political thought that balances individual rights and popular sovereignty through the separation of powers and federalism. The Constitution not only protects human freedom but also creates the space for the deeper satisfactions of family, religion, community and voluntary association. “A free society certainly needs permanent means of restricting the powers of government, no matter what the particular objective of the moment may be,” wrote Friedrich Hayek. “And the Constitution which the new American nation was to give itself was definitely meant not merely as a regulation of the derivation of power but as a constitution of liberty, a constitution that would protect the individual against all arbitrary coercion.

One cannot be an American patriot without reverence for the nation’s enabling documents. One cannot be an American conservative without regard for the American tradition of liberty those charters inaugurated. “Conservatives may of course draw from foreign sources — I yield to no one in the admiration due to Edmund Burke, a great friend of America — but they should be read with a view to possibilities in America,” Harvey Mansfield said. “America cannot abandon the great principles of liberalism, above all the principle of self-government and, with it, the constitutional means for achieving and preserving it.”

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Nor can conservatives abandon America. The preservation of the American idea of liberty and the familial, communal, religious and political institutions that incarnate and sustain it — that is what makes American conservatism distinctly American. The right betrays itself when it forgets this truth.

Why? Because the job of a conservative is to remember.  

Matthew Continetti is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His essay is excerpted from his book “The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism,” published 2022 by Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a Hachette Book Group company.

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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