During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump told George Stephanopoulos that, however conservative he might be, “[T]his is called the Republican Party; it’s not called the Conservative Party.”
There are some fine ironies in the comment. According to the New York City Board of Elections, Trump was a registered Republican from 1987 to fall of 1999; an Independent (as in Independence Party) from 1999 to 2001; a Democrat from 2001 to September 2009; a Republican again from late 2009 to 2011; without a party in 2011; and a Republican again in 2012. One might call our president a man of varied though perhaps not discriminating tastes.
One might call our president a man of varied though perhaps not discriminating tastes.
Be that as it may, just over a year ago President Trump really did instruct George Stephanopoulos about what the Grand Old Party was not. Say what you will about his performance in office so far (dismal by my standards) and his scant knowledge of political theory, he was right about the party that for good or ill he now represents.
The tentative leadership of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, the failure (so far) to repeal and replace Obamacare, the urge to manufacture a “win” in lieu of a sound policy, and, indeed, Donald Trump’s embarrassing, contradictory Tweeting—all suggest a rudderless party.
So are Republicans simply stupid? Perhaps the conclusion just makes sense.
Two things, however, disturb me. First of all, the Democrats in Washington are stupid too—in fact, more so. After all, who would talk about human rights and then blithely sign off on the public funding of abortions? But behind the stupidity is principle. If someone tells me he’s a Democrat, he doesn’t need to add that he’s a Leftist. It’s guaranteed: Leftism is part of the package; more to the point, it is the package.
To a Democrat, any human endeavor is open to government regulation; he never saw a bureaucrat he didn’t like (except in the Pentagon). Marx’s belief that central planning is the only means of establishing justice has been swallowed whole by the Democrat Party. If they can twist the Constitution into an affirmation of Marx, they will; if they can’t, they’ll declare it, as so many Leftist professors do, an instrument of white privilege.
Now that’s stupid all right: a demonstrably bankrupt philosophy championed by a gaggle of aging statists. But it’s consistent.
And that brings me back to the Republicans. Consistency is something I’d like to see from the GOP and preferably in principled opposition, something that you usually expect from an opposing party. But the Republican leadership treats those who most openly try to derail the statist locomotive our government has become—Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio among them—as obstructionists.
One gets the distinct impression that Mitch McConnell would like them to disappear, via the electoral process, of course. After all, “it’s called the Republican Party; it’s not the Conservative Party.”
The second thing that bothers me about this sad state of affairs is this. In many ways an unprincipled Republican Party is nothing new; that’s another way of identifying the Reagan years as an aberration.
Even so, what one could count on in the absence of Republican principle was an intellectual community of conservatives determined to influence the party with a consistent philosophy that included what is often called a tragic view of life (that is, that man could not attain perfection), strict limits on power, a reverence for the past, and a responsibility to future generations.
In American this conservatism, once it crystallized as a coherent political philosophy, was both Jeffersonian and Burkean—a strange mixture to some minds, but one that makes perfect sense in its combination of God-given rights with “little platoons” of local sovereignty. When William F. Buckley famously said of National Review, “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so or to have much patience with those who so urge it,” he was acknowledging the need for a strong conservative presence in a political world that largely had accepted liberal policy as inevitable. And that was during the Eisenhower years.
What I see now is something I discussed recently in The Christian Review, namely, conservatives all too willing to accept statist prescription as the best means of addressing the country’s ailments. Henry Olsen’s The Working-Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism amounts to a clarion call for conservatives to get over their opposition to centralized government and build the Republican Party’s future around a “new” New Deal.
If Olsen were alone in advocating this sea change, his argument would be of little consequence. But reviewers—John Fund in National Review and Jay Cost in The Weekly Standard—have lauded Olsen’s book, albeit with significant reservations. And though it would be inaccurate to say that all the writers at these journals have fully endorsed “statism lite,” it’s remarkable how few are actually advancing free-market solutions to health care or federalist solutions to welfare, as if such ideas have suddenly become passé.
Moreover, Trump-inspired populists convinced that their savior is the answer to every problem, sneer at those who find fault with Trump’s hazy promises to “make America great again.” Conservatives who traditionally have believed that our greatness resides in our political freedom, energy, innovation, and the rule of law (and assuredly not in a strongman) are typically dismissed as “cucks” or worse.
Impossible to predict as the future may be, conservatives appear headed into the political wilderness. Since we are conservatives and hold dear the virtues of the quiet, private, local existence, the temptation is to make a virtue of necessity and resign ourselves to circumstances. In many ways, such a prospect is tantalizing if only because conservatism is about the preservation of time-honored institutions that express greater truths in the here and now. The here and now—our homes and families—is where we would most comfortably live even as the world goes to hell in a handbasket.
Allowing those facts, I’m reminded a great statesman who thought his career was over, who spent the greater part of a decade in the political wilderness but never succumbed to the urge to retire and spend his twilight years in peace instead of frustration. Of course, I’m speaking of Winston Churchill. He could not have known in the early thirties that his greatest years were ahead of him; all he had was the courage and principle to stand fast. We need some of that same courage today if God will grant it. Pray that He does.