We are only a few weeks away from the 2016 general election. Unless the polls are fundamentally wrong, Donald Trump will lose, and he will lose by a significant margin. Trump and the movement he represents will go down to ignominious defeat.
I am no fan of Hillary Clinton. I find her corruption to be repulsive, her exposing classified information dangerous and characteristic of her narcissism, and her platform to be little other than more government as the solution to every problem.
And yet, when Trump loses next month, we should all have a small moment of celebration. Trump is uniquely dangerous to our nation, and to the world, and we are fortunate that he appears too incompetent and appalling an individual to defeat as poor a candidate as Hillary Clinton.
That moment will be short indeed.
After Trump loses the election, what Trump represents will not fade. While Trump’s outright racism, affection for authoritarianism, and desire to subordinate the United States to Russia are new, the seeds of Trumpism precede him. Trumpism was not created whole cloth by Trump. He saw a large contingent of the GOP that was frustrated with the Republican Party’s failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to slash immigration, after the GOP made promises to its voters that leaders knew they could not keep while President Obama was in office, and a GOP in Congress that was largely unresponsive and uncaring to the economic difficulties of Americans; a contingent of voters still obsessed with the idea that President Obama was not born within the United States and therefore is ineligible to be president; a president that used an executive order to force through changes to an immigration system he did not have the votes in Congress to make; a contingent of voters that distrust the media and increasingly the GOP, and who were increasingly defined by no beliefs besides opposition to immigration, and to Democrats, separate from disagreements over ideology. Instead, politics calcified into little more than fighting the enemy for no other reason than because they are the enemy and must, by definition, be defeated.
Racism on the right did not begin with Trump’s announcement in June 2015 that he would run for president. Despite many Republicans’ protests that the GOP is the party of Lincoln, the party has had a long history of racism within it. In the last decade, many Republicans did not just see Barack Obama as a poor candidate for president, but someone that is not eligible to be president, and that does not have our interests at heart. The birthers based their skepticism on no evidence besides chain emails, his name and skin color. John McCain, to his lasting credit, pushed back against it when confronted with it at a campaign event during the 2008 race, but Republicans generally did not forcefully confront it. Many on the right oppose welfare spending based on blatant anti-black racism, arguing that blacks who live in poor neighborhoods have no excuse for being poor but their own failings, and that those failings may be caused by characteristics of blacks. Those arguments are based on a willful misunderstanding of our history and are a re-packaged version of the idea that blacks are inferior to whites. The right’s opposition to illegal immigration itself, although not inherently racist in nature, certainly is supported by some based on bigotry against Hispanics. “They’re taking our jobs” is little more than xenophobia, even if there are good reasons to oppose lax immigration rules, both legal and illegal. Trump did not create racism in the GOP. He exploited it.
The appeal Trump made to Republican voters in the primaries was that he recognized their plight, and would make America great again. That slogan is integral to his appeal, because it speaks to every complaint this group of voters has. It implies that “real Americans” (and all that phrase implies) were screwed over by globalists in both parties that pushed for free trade deals which, in their mind, gutted the American economy of well-paying industrial jobs for lower-skilled workers, and for lax immigration rules and enforcement of them, which allowed millions of illegal immigrants to enter the U.S. and steal their jobs. It implies that we must re-assert security within the country against foreigners, the immediate descendants of immigrants, and in our cities. It implies that America has been weakened and reduced by a black president, someone that isn’t “really” American, and whose loyalties lie with foreigners. And it speaks to their desire to “take” control of the country from the “elites”—the people in the Republican and Democratic parties, in the media, and who run corporations; the people, they believe, that conspire to send jobs overseas and bring foreigners here to water down the power of “real” Americans (whites).
That slogan, along with his call for building a wall across the U.S.-Mexican border, deporting all illegal immigrants, banning Muslims from entering the United States, slapping stiff tariffs on all trade with China, penalties for companies that move jobs overseas, and asserting “law and order” in our cities, speak directly to this group of voters. The bare nature of it—the illegal immigrants, the Mexicans and the Chinese stole your jobs, and I’m going to stop them—along with his insistence on describing illegal immigrants as “drug dealers” and “rapists”—was directed at them: The United States is now a third-world nation, your life is terrible, and it is not your fault. Our country is terrible because of the Mexicans, because of the Chinese, and because of the conniving elites that plotted to screw you over so they could get wealthy. He stiffened his appeal by pointing out that he knows what the elites do, because he has participated in their corrupt system. He turned his own corruption into an asset with the crowd that was increasingly angry with our institutions.
Making his appeal that way also framed his opponents as part of the problem. They are all officeholders, and did not deliver for this group of voters. In his telling, they not only did not deliver (because they are ineffective politicians), but also plotted amnesty for the hated illegal immigrants. They are simultaneously incapable and nefarious.
The group of voters, and the elements described above, preceded Trump. He saw them, exploited them ruthlessly, and amplified them. For him, they should not just be skeptical of the GOP leadership and distrusting of the media, but they should resist the “rigged” system by voting for change—for Donald Trump. They should not just support a stricter immigration policy and a secure border, but they should abhor immigrants, see them as the cause of our problems, and see free trade and immigration as a conspiracy to impoverish and debase whites. They should not just be skeptical about President Obama’s place of birth and his legitimacy as president (as shameful as that skepticism is), and question his refusal to acknowledge the threat of Islamic terrorism, but they should see the truth before their eyes that Obama is working for our enemies to weaken the United States.
Trumpism will not dissolve after November 8 because the conditions that gave birth to it already existed. As such, we must affirmatively decide what the GOP will be in 2017 and beyond.
The Future of the GOP
After Trump secured the Republican nomination in May 2016, Republican leaders—no matter how critical of Trump they had been prior—began falling in line behind him. The party apparatus swung hard in his favor, denying attempts to reform the GOP, and put down an effort led by Mike Lee at the Republican National Convention to call for a roll call vote on new rules. The GOP threw in with Trump.
Most of the party’s leaders have supported Trump. Reince Priebus, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, John McCain, and Ted Cruz offered their support, and claimed that while they disagree with Trump on many things, they believe Hillary Clinton is a fundamental threat to the country and must be defeated. Often tacitly, but sometimes explicitly, they argued that Trump’s brand of racist, xenophobic, conspiratorial and authoritarian populism is preferable to Hillary Clinton sitting in the Oval Office.
Many in the party did so either out of fear that the contingent of voters described above would not vote for them if they did not back Trump, and so they could try to hold together the Republican coalition. They feared that without giving in to Trump, they, and the party, would be finished. They feared that group of voters—”the base.” Regardless of whether they believe the above to be true, they have, with their actions, threatened to make Trump president.
That is unacceptable.
Trump is fundamentally not conservative. Trump represents an active disdain toward limited government and individual rights, toward the rule of law, and toward an aspirational view of the United States. Trump’s implicit—and often explicit—appeals to white nationalism, and his attacks on non-whites, reject an America defined by a shared love of liberty and belief in the power of the individual and community. In its place, Trumpism substitutes a respect for “white” culture and history, where whites have given light to a world in perpetual darkness. Institutions are not to be trusted because they are rigged against whites. Instead, Trump—the champion of disaffected whites—should be trusted, and he should be trusted with extraordinary powers to make this country great again.
In the last few weeks, Trump has made much of the subtext explicit, and extended it. In a speech on October 13, Trump claimed that there is a “global power structure” that has conspired to rob the working class of wealth and jobs, and to end our sovereignty as a nation. Citing documents leaked by Wikileaks, Trump says that Hillary Clinton is a part of the conspiracy, and has plotted with international banks to plunder the nation and destroy our sovereignty, and is rigging the election with her co-conspirators in the media. What was once (crude) subtext in his slogan and statements is now just the text itself. Trump uses the words of a dictator: there is a conspiracy against the people, to impoverish them and disenfranchise them, and only a strongman like Trump can fight them.
The conservative vision of the United States—generally speaking—is we should dream big, and be free to work tirelessly to achieve those dreams. We should work together, voluntarily and within our communities, to help people in need and improve our communities. It is a view of the world where individual rights are sacred, and where respect for people—all people—is integral. It is a view of the world where our country is defined not by a shared ethnicity, but a thirst for liberty and self-determination. Our vision is not to be ruled by a strongman, or need the leadership of a great leader as president.
Fundamental to this view of the world is the rule of law. Without a set of laws that are comprehensible by all, and that are applied equally to all, there can be no limited government whose primary role is to protect individual rights, and provide space for a flourishing civil society. Without respect for our institutions, the rule of law will ultimately whither away.
Thus, Trumpism damages conservatism on two fronts. First, Trumpism challenges the idea that our nation is defined by ideas, and therefore challenges those ideas themselves. If our shared identity is not tied to a shared love for liberty, then what binds our nation together falls away. Doing so inherently breaks down the United States into its constituent ethnic, religious and cultural communities, and encourages people to fight for their communities to be empowered over others. If there is no shared identity, there is no reason to push for work to benefit everyone as a whole. Trump’s supporters offer a window into what that world looks like when they tell Hispanic Americans to “go home,” and when they threaten to intimidate non-white voters on election day, because for many of his supporters, being “American” is tied directly to ethnicity and culture. Second, Trumpism undermines faith in our institutions, and thus weakens the rule of law. If “the system”—the political parties, the government, the economy—are all “rigged” against us, why should the Constitution be seen as anything more than an old piece of paper? Why should we not support a strongman that will right the system, provide real Americans (whites) with jobs and dignity, and send the “foreigners” back to “their” country?
I admit that causation does not only flow in one direction; Trumpism is a response to a decline of faith in our institutions, caused by many of the reasons described earlier in this piece. However, while Trumpism is a response, it is also an amplifier, and a sharpening of distrust of our institutions into conspiracy theories. Trumpism is also not only a threat to conservatism, but a threat to our form of government, through the same mechanisms described above.
Our party’s leaders have tried to placate Trumpism’s supporters, to save their own jobs and to try to hold together the Republican coalition. But a coalition that includes people who seek to undermine the party’s and country’s values is not a coalition worth having.
Trumpism cannot be worked with, it cannot be directed toward productive ends, and it cannot be negotiated with. It must be called what it is: racist, xenophobic, authoritarian, anti-American. It must be fought, and it must not be accepted into the party. As conservatives, we cannot let Trumpism control the party. Our party leaders’ support for it is unacceptable.
Either the party will be pushed back toward working to solve our country’s problems with conservative ideas, or it will give in to the ethnic authoritarianism of Trump. There is no middle ground, and the party has made its choice.
Either the Republican Party stands for conservatism, and for respecting all Americans, or it stands for ethnic authoritarianism. If our party will not stand for conservatism, it is incumbent upon us to abandon the party, and start over. Today, the party has refused to abandon Trump after he called all illegal immigrants rapists, drug dealers and criminals; after he said John McCain is not a war hero; after he called for religious tests to be administered for immigrants, and a ban on all Muslims entering the country; after he repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin; after he repeatedly said he would compel the military to target wives and children of terrorists; after he sought out the support of white supremacists; after it became clear he has assaulted women; after Trump charged Clinton with being part of a global conspiracy to rob the working class and destroy the United States’ sovereignty; and after he insisted that our democratic system is rigged and illegitimate. The party has stood by him, and supports putting him—a demagogue that believes in nothing besides his own self-aggrandizement and the power of government—in the White House.
It is time for us to recognize the truth: the GOP is not a party worth saving, and not a party that anyone can support with their conscience intact.
I will not vote for leaders that did not repudiate Trump, and that did not repudiate Trumpism. I will not donate to them, I will not volunteer for them, and I will not offer them public support. It is time to support people who stood with dignity, people like Ben Sasse, Mike Lee, and Justin Amash, and to make room for new leaders that won’t bow to a vile authoritarian because of the letter next to his name and for fear of losing their position.
It is also our responsibility to help define what our new party does stand for after the election. Most importantly, the party must represent all Americans—Americans of all ages, cultures, ethnicities. Too often in the modern era, Republicans have given in to the idea that conservatism cannot appeal to non-whites, to the working class, and to the young. In 2012, we turned that idea into a campaign plank: Romney’s “47%” comment reflected the idea that conservative ideas fundamentally cannot appeal to a large part of the country, and thus that we should not even try. When Romney accepted Trump’s endorsement in 2012 (it is worth noting that the Romney campaign did not exactly enthusiastically embrace Trump’s endorsement, however—quite the opposite), and joked about President Obama’s birth certificate, he threw a bone to the group of voters that believe President Obama is not a “real” American. Romney certainly did not believe there is doubt about Obama’s fidelity to America, but giving those voters a knowing wink did not just “excite the base” a little ahead of the election—it legitimized racism in the party and in the country, and said that our party stands with them.
Those were shameful moments for Romney, a good man, but those ideas, and our leaders’ willingness to condone and encourage them, are part of the reason we now have Donald Trump as our nominee for president. That is both because we breathed life into those ideas and voters, and because that thinking is self-fulfilling: if we believe that non-whites, the working class and the young will never support conservatism, then that is reflected in our proposed policy, goals, focus and tone. If you all but tell non-whites that this party is not for you, why would they ever entertain the idea of supporting it? If you refuse to genuinely listen to other people’s experience living in America, what they care about, and what ideas they have, how can you expect them to take your ideas seriously? How can you expect that your proposals reflect the experiences and concerns they have?
The future of conservatism begins with something simple: listening. Listen to blacks, Hispanics, Asians, homosexuals, the middle class, the poor, the young. Listen, and try to understand what their experience in America is, what issues affect them, and what they believe.
Listening to other people and discussing with them will provide the grist for re-thinking what conservatism means in today’s world, and how we can address problems affecting all Americans. There already are many conservative thinkers doing precisely that. People like Reihan Salam, Yuval Levin, and Charles C. W. Cooke, have dealt seriously with the United States as it is in 2016. We need to do so as a movement.
No matter what specific policy you advocate for, starting with a respect and love for all Americans, and by genuinely listening to their experiences, is where our future begins.