Conservatism Beyond Trump
President Trump is in trouble. If recent polls are any indication, he trails Democratic challenger Joe Biden by anywhere from 6 to 12 points. States like Arizona, Georgia, and even Texas are seemingly in play, and the prospect of a 400+ EV performance from Biden isn’t out of question.
Conservatism, meanwhile, is in a state of civil war. A group of insurgents, backed by the most hardcore of populists, seek to root out the traditional fusionist Republicans, who they deem to be “libertarians”. Meanwhile, the “libertarians” are fighting back themselves. Primaries have been indecisive: most Trump-endorsed candidates have become normal Republicans while the biggest populist victor, Josh Hawley, ran a fairly standard fusionist campaign.
The battle in the intelligentsia has also continued in full force, but on the ground nothing really seems to have changed. The moment is dominated by Trump, which dwarfs all other conflicts. Many Trump-skeptics have joined his cause due to conservative policy wins on taxes, judges, and more, while some populists like Ann Coulter seem frustrated at the lack of progress.
Trump will be gone at some point, whether it’s in 2020 or 2024. The question becomes what emerges from this void. At Elections Daily, I wrote an article about the possibility of a fusionist Republican Party – that is, one that fuses some of Trumpism with the existing conservatism. In my view, this seems to be the most plausible scenario given the lack of true change at the primary level. But if this fails, what other groups seek to gain influence?
The National Conservatives
One of the most vocal groups to attempt to gain influence in recent years are the so-called “national conservatives”. To call this a broad ideological grouping is an understatement: there aren’t really a full set of ideas in this faction yet, and much of their activity boils down to criticizing the economic policy of the Republican party. The long-term goal of this faction is to supplant the fiscally conservative and business-friendly wings of the party and push it in a direction to the left of where it is now. Think of them as a conservative equivalent of the UK’s Blue Labour movement.
In many ways, the national conservatives resemble two prior movements on the American right. The first were the paleoconservatives, a group in the 1980s and 90s who pushed for social conservatism, economic nationalism, isolationism, and immigration restrictions. The most notable paleoconservative was Pat Buchannan, who won around 20% of the vote in the 1992 and 1996 primaries. An attempt to seize power in Ross Perot’s nascent Reform Party proved disastrous, however, as Buchannan won only 0.4% of the vote as the Reform Party’s presidential candidate in 2000. This faction had a decent amount of intellectual support, but they were never part of the conservative electoral coalition and had little to no influence in Congress.
The second group the national conservatives resemble are the “reform conservatives”, a group of academics and columnists who attempted to rework conservative orthodoxy in the wake of the 2012 presidential election. The reform conservatives primarily focused on economic issues and the working class: social issues, trade, and immigration were generally not discussed or agreed upon, although most fell in line with more moderate stances on each. Ross Douthat, a noted reform conservative, defined the movement in a blog post as broadly supporting six issues relating to tax credits, universal healthcare, entitlement reform, fiscal policy, and subsidies. While this movement received a ton of attention in the press, it had essentially zero impact in Congress: no reform conservatives were ever elected.
Both of these movements did ultimately leave impacts on the party in some policy aspects, but their aspirations of a takeover never amounted to anything. I suspect the same will be the case of the national conservatives, who lack any real presence in Congress. Only two Senators, Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio, remotely fit the national conservative agenda, and neither actually ran on it.
The leading national conservative economist, Oren Cass, recently left the center-right Manhattan Institute (run by reform conservative Reihan Salam) to start his own think tank, American Compass. This can be definitively called the first national conservative think tank. It advocates for a slew of heterodox stances from supporting organized labor to passing a German-style wage subsidy. Ultimately, I see this move as a mistake for Cass as it clearly delineates him from the right – a crucial blunder. Rather than working within the existing conservative structure, the work of American Compass will by default rest outside of it. In fact, people like Cass might actually have more of an impact on the left in the long-term.
How could this happen? Similar to how Democrats used the 1990s Heritage plan to defend Obamacare, I think they might try to use national conservative frameworks to create policy they deem a compromise. Repealing right to work laws might be hard, for example, but it might be easier to create works councils (a policy Cass supports) and try and justify it on conservative grounds. Would it work? Probably not. But it’s an easier sell to voters that way.
Another splinter movement is even stranger. The integralists are, broadly speaking, a fringe group of Catholic academics and writers who are staunchly opposed to modern conceptions of liberalism. I previously explored them further in a post here. This movement is rooted in academia: First Things is the most prominent outlet to align with this camp but it has support from a range of Catholic academics and laity around the country. Prominent integralist or integralist-curious people include Adrian Vermeule, Thomas Pink, Sohrab Ahmari, RR Reno, and Patrick Deneen.
The exact vision of what this group sees a post-liberal United States looking like is up for debate. The more moderate end, represented by folks like Ahmari, rarely go into specifics and present it as simply resulting in a government that passes policy to promote the “common good”. The extreme end, represented by Pink and Vermeuele, present a very clear picture, however; the state will become subservient to the Catholic Church, which will hold penal authority over all baptized Christians (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox alike, as well as any other person to have ever been baptized). The church will have the authority to order Protestants to attend mass while the state will promote Catholic social teaching, dispensing of concepts like individual rights, property rights, and liberty. How exactly this group plans to enforce this in a country that is only 20% Catholic remains unknown.
This group cannot truly influence policy at an elected level. Their views can, however, hold an influence in academia; Vermeule has recently become outspoken against originalism, the predominant legal theory among the conservative legal movement. Vermeule never embraced originalism before he became an integralist, of course, but his scathing critiques have seen support among social conservatives frustrated by an increasingly secular society and court.
The Principled Conservatives
In the wake of the 2016 election, Never Trump conservatives were left with a choice. Some opted to choose a “balls and strikes” strategy towards Trump, where he would be praised for doing good and criticized for doing bad. Many ultimately chose to make their peace and accept Trump. A third group, however, took a different path. These conservatives – the so-called “principled conservative” wing – chose to divorce themselves from the Republican Party entirely, viewing Trump as an existential threat to conservatism. These individuals, led by people like Evan McMullin, Heath Mayo, Bill Kristol, Mona Charen, Amanda Carpenter, and Rick Wilson, have determined the defeat of Trump and Trumpism to be the key goal conservatism could have.
Beyond the focus on defeating Trump, they also see an opportunity to reform conservatism. Like the national conservatives, the principled conservatives have chosen to develop their own network to debate the future of conservatism. While their immediate electoral future is dim and many of their more notable voices (like Kristol) seem to be disowned from the party, they held the “Summit on Principled Conservatism” in February. A notable intellectual diversity exists within this group, and the summit itself had some impressive guests from outside the movement – among them Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review and Benji Backer of the American Conservation Coalition, a conservative environmentalist group that has seen cross-faction support from Trump supporters to libertarians.
The opportunity for the principled conservatives best exists in one scenario: a complete and total Trump wipeout. While many are supportive of Trump as long as he wins, a devastating defeat might ultimately open the opportunity for them to return and have influence in the future. The American Conservative, a paleocon outlet, notably had pro-Kerry and pro-Obama factions and actively ran against the GOP, but it found a new opening in the Trump era with the sins of the past forgiven. A future Republican administration, one more aligned with an open, positive conservatism, might be more open to allowing a bit of influence for this group.
Nobody knows what conservatism will look like in 2024. Change exists inside the movement, but the extent or demand among voters is unclear. What is clear, however, is that some things will change beyond Trump. Whether or not these groups have a say in the future remains to be seen, but room exists for all three to spread their influence. Whether the right simply expands upon fusionism or chooses to replace it, what is clear is that conservatism isn’t going to pretend like Trump never happened. Instead, it will have to choose how to best adapt to what Trump has done.