Has Conservatism Lost?


Rush Limbaugh says conservatism lost in the primaries this year.  He’s right.  Donald Trump is not a conservative. He isn’t even a Republican, and to the extent that he is, he’s the ultimate RINO (Republican in Name Only), which leads me to the most depressing aspect of this election cycle: the extent to which so many of us misread our fellow Republicans.

Conservatism, we tell ourselves, is a political philosophy of the well informed, he logical, and the well-read.  Those people on the other side, we say, those progressives over there – you know who I’m talking about – those people are ruled by nothing but raw emotion.  The best of them are empathetic and kind-hearted, but the worst of them are actively malevolent: motivated by greed and ambition at the top, bitterness and envy at the bottom.

Either way, we tell ourselves, that’s not us. We know economics, the Constitution, and meaning of true liberalism: a limited government that protects everyone’s individual liberties without becoming an obstacle a burden.  More than that, we know our philosophy is compassionate. We allow people the means to improve their own lives and the lives of others. The history of our country proves it.  We became the wealthiest and most successful country in the world because, throughout most of our history, our people could take their lives wherever their talents could take them because they were free.  We don’t need a strong man.  We don’t need a big government protecting us or telling us what to do.  More to the point, we don’t need Donald Trump.

How, then, did Trump attract a plurality of Republican support to his authoritarian brand of national populism?  Simply put, the “low-info voters” we sneered about in 2008 and 2012 are not confined to the left.  Neither are ugly emotions like envy and fear.

It is no coincidence that polls show Trump draws most of his support from the poorly educated.  They do not have the same grounding in principle and philosophy as the rest of us.  They are prime targets for a demagogue like Trump who appeals to economic ignorance and bigotry; someone who tells them their poor circumstances are someone else’s fault.  Whether pointing fingers at the elites in Washington, illegals, multinational corporations, foreign governments, or Muslims, it’s a phony populism plied by every dictator from Hitler to Hugo Chavez.  And it’s a vicious, ugly con that never ends well for anyone.

If Trump wins in November, people like us may need a new political home. The Republican Party will die. Trumpism will replace conservatism while he occupies the White House. His presidency will be such an unmitigated disaster for that the GOP may be poison – a politically nonviable vehicle.  If he loses in November, we probably still have a party, but it will be tarnished by its association with Trump.

Either way,the root problem remains.  We have done an awful job educating the electorate and selling our ideas.  We preach tax cuts and economic freedom to the choir and assume everyone else will come along.  We rail against Obama, but we take for granted that everyone understands what it is about his agenda we oppose. We never once thought that some people who opposed Obama and the Democrat agenda – people ostensibly on our team – might not be angry about the same things, share our objectives, or agree about means to achieve them.

We stopped teaching.  We stopped persuading.  We forgot about the blue collar guy with a high school degree who doesn’t eat, drink, and breathe politics every day.  It’s no wonder they fell prey to someone like Trump, a reality show clown who idolizes Vladimir Putin and uses government to enrich himself and bully others. Because of this, a vulgar, intellectually shallow cretin became the face of the Republican Party, and thus, to many Americans, the face of conservatism itself. Even worse, the Republican Party is now linked to the alt-right with all its ugly white identity politics and racism.

We have a lot of work to do, and it doesn’t help that people who are supposedly on our side sold out the most unqualified, temperamentally unfit, and embarrassing presidential candidate in the history of our country.  I mean that.  It’s embarrassing as an American that our country has fallen so far that an ignorant buffoon like Trump could be taken seriously by so many of our fellow citizens.

Some of Trump’s supporters are salvageable. Many progressives are good-hearted (but misinformed) people.  They are salvageable, as well.  We can persuade with the right approach. What might that be? I’m no political strategist, but my guess is that our message has to be positive.  It has to reflect what we are for more than what we are against.  It has to make sense in an immediately obvious way, and it has to clearly explain how limited government benefits the individual, as well as everyone in society as a whole.

If I thought our situation were hopeless, if I thought our country and its grand experiment in democracy was finished after eight years of Obama and the prospect of Hillary or Trump on the horizon, I wouldn’t be writing this.  Our founders faced worse odds than this.  They put their livelihoods at risk.  They put their families at risk.  They put their lives at risk.  Ours is a political struggle; a struggle to educate and persuade.

I am not so naïve as to think the arc of history bends toward justice, as Obama believes, but I do believe that light attracts people from the darkness. Light will win out so long as it shines, and that is our job: to keep the candle burning and welcome anyone willing to stand with us.  It’s time to put aside hard feelings toward fellow Americans who stand on the other side. It’s time to extend a hand and invite them into the light.  The future depends on it.