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The Republican Party After Donald Trump

Conservatism is only doomed if its leaders insist on being radicals.

Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

One way or another, the Republican Party is about to rupture—the only question is from which side. If Donald Trump wins the GOP presidential primary, as he’s heavily favored to do, he will drive some unknown, but large, number of regulars from the party. If Republican officials manage to wrest the nomination from him for nearing but failing to reach the threshold required to win outright, he will bolt, and take some unknown, but large, number of supporters with him—either into a third party, or into a protest movement that haunts the actual GOP nominee and creates an air of illegitimacy around him.

The inevitability of a crackup raises obvious questions about if and how it’ll be repaired. Should Trump win the Republican nomination, he will either rebuild the party in his image—more nativist, more isolationist, more protectionist, less beholden to supply-side nostrums—or Republicans will resist his appeal through the election, only to find themselves confronted with the challenge of reconfiguring a conservative party that doesn’t descend into Trumpism all over again. But should Trump be denied the nomination, the #NeverTrump movement will give rise to a #NeverGOP backlash that could have a very long half-life.

Conservatives committed to the existing conception of the GOP, or something that closely resembles it, have a hard time seeing beyond the coming wreckage. Mitt Romney used to carry around a three-legged stool to symbolize the factions of the Republican Party—social conservatives, libertarian economic ideologists, and military imperialists—each one supposedly indispensable. Most conservatives are either satisfied with this arrangement, or can imagine no better way to assemble a national majority. This line of thinking suggests that the Democratic and Republican parties, having already polarized, are like Humpty Dumptys that can only be put back together again using their current constituent parts—if, that is, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can manage to do it. 

“It’s hard to imagine either Republican faction—the Trumpist populist nationalists or the movement conservatives who currently oppose him—swinging into the Democratic coalition the way George Wallace’s voters eventually joined the G.O.P. and Rockefeller Republicans joined the Democrats,” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued last week“Nor would a not-Trump center-right party be obviously attractive to large constituencies on the center-left, unless it abandoned many of the very ideological principles currently inspiring resistance to Trump’s progress. So a Trumpian schism probably wouldn’t lead to a full realignment, a real re-sorting of the parties. Instead it would likely just create a lasting civil war within American conservatism, forging two provisional mini-parties—one more nationalist and populist, concentrated in the Rust Belt and the South, the other more like the Goldwater-to-Reagan G.O.P., concentrated in the high plains and Mountain West—whose constant warfare would deliver the presidency to the Democrats time and time again.”

Douthat may be correct, if the only conservatism Republican elites are interested in advancing is the party’s existing brand of messianic, movement conservatism. But it is possible to imagine a conservative American party organized less around absolutism than, well, conservatism—one that could thus become more appealing to the American right, which currently despises its own party. It’s also possible to imagine that party appealing to a larger number of middle- and upper-middle class voters, many of whom aren’t enamored of liberalism per se, but simply find the current iteration of the Republican Party downright scary.

In an essay for the conservative National Interest, one-time conservative Michael Lind explains how this might work. Lind argues that the conservative agenda has devolved into “radical utopian schemes to revolutionize America and the world. So-called ‘movement conservatism’ or ‘fusionism’ in its present form is, in fact, an alliance of three distinct utopian movements in economics, domestic policy and foreign policy.” Over the course of decades, conservative elites have found themselves wedded to increasingly impossible objectives—the devolution and diminution of the social safety net, military interventionism, and a form of social conservatism that frequently manifests as bigotry and retrograde chauvinism. The idea that these need to be the dogmas of the Republican Party reflects the influence of fallacious sunk-cost thinking as much as the genuine ideological commitment of a small number of utopian elites.

Lind argues that the Republican Party can reconstitute itself without trespassing into liberalism by “jettison[ing] its three utopian projects of libertarian economics, global democratic revolution and the reversal of the sexual revolution. Once this operation takes place, plenty of differences will remain to distinguish the American right from the American left and center, even if conservatives end their war on Social Security and switch from foreign nation-building to nation-building at home.”

This reorientation of the Republican Party would absorb Trump supporters, including ethno-nationalist whites whose opposition to liberal trade and immigration policies is heavily racialized. If that notion is unacceptable to current conservative leaders, they could fashion the post-Trump GOP after anglophone conservative parties in England, Canada and elsewhere, which succeed by not being reflexively anti-cosmopolitan. 

A Republican Party that accepted the testimony of American minorities who see Republican activities (like vote suppression, opposition to LGBT equality, and so on) as driven by bigotry could stop doing them. If it also pursued more modest economic-policy goals, shaped by a recognition that the New Deal consensus won’t be undone (and certainly not all at once), a cosmopolitan-friendly Republican Party could appeal to middle- and upper-middle class minorities, gays, lesbians, and young professionals with a more modest conservatism of lower middle-class taxes, and somewhat less business regulation, rather than the current platform of radical regressivism and fealty to the one percent. This kind of platform would attract large numbers of Democratic voters who aren’t doctrinaire progressives, especially as the Democratic Party continues to move left. The GOP would still be conservative, just no longer radical.

There are decent theoretical reasons to worry that the kind of realignment that followed, say, Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat are no longer feasible. But it is just as possible that the old rules still apply, and that the conservative elite simply doesn’t like their implications.

To learn more about the 2016 elections, subscribe to our podcast Primary Concerns, hosted by Brian Beutler. Try out an episode here: