The Republican Party ruined conservatism long before Trump. By Sean Illing. Salon, May 10, 2016.
The best hope for what’s left of a serious conservative movement in America is the election in November of a Democratic president, held in check by a Republican Congress. Conservatives can survive liberal administrations, especially those whose predictable failures lead to healthy restorations—think Carter, then Reagan. What isn’t survivable is a Republican president who is part Know Nothing, part Smoot-Hawley and part John Birch. The stain of a Trump administration would cripple the conservative cause for a generation.
This is the reality that wavering Republicans need to understand before casting their lot with a presumptive nominee they abhor only slightly less than his likely opponent. If the next presidency is going to be a disaster, why should the GOP want to own it?
In the 1990s, when another Clinton was president, conservatives became fond of the phrase “character counts.” This was a way of scoring points against Bill Clinton for his sexual predations and rhetorical misdirections, as well as a statement that Americans expected honor and dignity in the Oval Office. I’ll never forget the family friend, circa 1998, who wondered how she was supposed to explain the meaning of a euphemism for oral sex to her then 10-year-old daughter.
Conservatives still play the character card against Hillary Clinton, citing her disdain for other people’s rules, her Marie Antoinette airs and her potential law breaking. It’s a fair card to play, if only the presumptive Republican nominee weren’t himself a serial fabulist, an incorrigible self-mythologizer, a brash vulgarian, and, when it comes to his tax returns, a determined obfuscator. Endorsing Mr. Trump means permanently laying to rest any claim conservatives might ever again make on the character issue.
Conservatives are also supposed to believe that it’s folly to put hope before experience; that leopards never change their spots. So what’s with the magical thinking that, nomination in hand, Mr. Trump will suddenly pivot to magnanimity and statesmanship? Where’s the evidence that, as president, Mr. Trump will endorse conservative ideas on tax, trade, regulation, welfare, social, judicial or foreign policy, much less personal comportment?
On Monday, former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who savaged Mr. Trump during the campaign, published an op-ed in these pages on why he plans to cast his vote for the real-estate developer as “the second-worst thing we could do this November.” Too much is at stake, Mr. Jindal said, on everything from curbing the regulatory excesses of the Obama administration to appointing a conservative judge to the Supreme Court, to risk another Democratic administration.
Mr. Jindal holds out the hope that Mr. Trump, who admires the Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo decision on eminent domain (the one in which Susette Kelo’s little pink house was seized by the city of New London for the intended benefit of private developers), might yet appoint strict constructionists to the bench. Mr. Jindal also seems to think that a man whose preferred style of argument is the threatened lawsuit and the Twittertantrum, can be trusted with the vast investigative apparatus of the federal government.
The deeper mistake that Mr. Jindal and other lukewarm Trump supporters make is to assume that policy counts for more than ideas—that is, that the policy disasters he anticipates from a Clinton administration will be indelible, while Trumpism poses no real threat to the conservative ideas he has spent a political career championing. This belief stems from a failure to take Trumpism seriously, or to realize just how fragile modern conservatism is as a vital political movement.
But Trumpism isn’t just a triumph of marketing or the excrescence of a personality cult. It is a regression to the conservatism of blood and soil, of ethnic polarization and bullying nationalism. Modern conservatives sought to bury this rubbish with a politics that strikes a balance between respect for tradition and faith in the dynamic and culture-shifting possibilities of open markets. When that balance collapses—under a Republican president, no less—it may never again be restored, at least in our lifetimes.
For liberals, all this may seem like so much manna from heaven. Mr. Trump’s nomination not only gives his Democratic opponent the best possible shot at winning the election (with big down-ballot gains, too), but of permanently discrediting the conservative movement as a serious ideological challenger. They should be careful what they wish for. Mr. Trump could yet win, or one of his epigones might in four or eight years. This will lead to its own left-wing counter-reactions, putting America on the road to Weimar.
For conservatives, a Democratic victory in November means the loss of another election, with all the policy reversals that entails. That may be dispiriting, but elections will come again. A Trump presidency means losing the Republican Party. Conservatives need to accept that most conservative of wisdoms—sometimes, losing is winning, especially when it offers an education in the importance of political hygiene.