Of all the things said about Donald Trumps candidacy and the “movement” that bears his name the one thing I haven’t heard said outright is that its success is the logical progression of conservatisms innate failure.In fact I hear some say his and more so Ted Cruz’s campaign is conservatisms great battle against the Establishment.
Conservatism was a very good idea and movement and its 1980’s era genesis was just what the doctored ordered for America’s collective ills. The train went onto a somewhat suspect spur line however at the close of the decade and somewhere in the 1990’s lost its way. I think today we see it in total derailment mode. Lets break it down.
Reagan & the 80’s
The Carter years were the very large topping on the shit sundae of three previous Administrations. The federal government stumbling along under the FDR model and post war delusions had become completely out of control. The state and local divisions nurtured by Washington’s dysfunction only enhanced the collective air of angst suffocating the once great nation. Good old Uncle Sam was beleaguered and bewildered as he woke one day to find himself alone,impotent and disrespected. Enter the Reagan Revolution.
Ronald Regan did many things right and many things wrong. The one thing he did undeniably is bring inspiration to the nation. Whether you agreed with his policies or found them to be the dawn of the Apocalypse he inspired people to be passionate and to be Americans. This was hugely positive for the nation as a whole.
Government did not shrink under Reagan though as revisionist romantics like to believe. It did however set up very solid lines of what government would,should and could do. These boundaries meshed well with Constitutional purists dreams and further lead to the warm and fuzzy feelings of the era.
That the kick start the Reagan Administration provided benefitted both public and private sector America is equally undeniable. One can quibble,ruminate and debate over the consequences but one simply cannot deny that Reagan’s years provided a major reset that benefitted the next two Presidents immensely. Conservatism was entering the honeymoon period.
1990’s & early Y2K
The Bush Presidency yielded to a new type of Democrat in the form of Bill Clinton and a new era dawned for America and conservatism. Newt Gingrich was the source of this new era and provided it with the 1994 midterm election cycle and the Contract with America. The Republicans and to a degree the “conservatives” were set to dictate the US domestic policy agenda. People have differing opinions of what this all really meant/means but I for one believe it set down two foundational blocks.
The first is that conservatism was now at the table and would not be silent. In terms of the times this meant that the Executive would have to deal with the conservatives and let’s be clear Clinton did so very well.
The second is less fortunate for conservatism. The die was cast as it were for a permanent confrontational relationship within the Beltway and beyond. Gamesmanship and compromise are natural and positive offshoots of a two-party bicameral system especially as it relates to being part of the US democratic system.
I would say this second force began the years where conservatism was now traveling down the wrong track.
W to Today
Historians can and will stack piles of data and opinion concerning the Presidency of George W Bush. I defy any of them to deny his Presidency enjoyed one of the more sustained positive Imperial Presidency periods. Conservatism did not create the notion of the Imperial President but under Bush clearly experienced what it was all about. Conservatives for the most part embraced and relished this time and instead of railing against it they instead drank heavily from the cup. Conservatism now had become cloudy at best and a shell of what it once was.
On foreign policy as well as domestic spending conservatives were well off the right track now but also very much in denial. Some politicians but definitely media entities were now full throttling the engine recklessly ignoring history and fostering division. The next stop on the line was of course the 2008 election of Barack Obama.
Conservatism was so jumbled now the GOP somehow nominated John McCain and Sarah Palin to take on the DNC wonder kin Barack Hussein Obama. The media types,best described as conservatives without consequence or conscience,now were running the railroad. The smoke was thick and the outcome predictable. The newly evolved conservatism fallacies were deemed the Truth and in electoral defeat used to set the stage for Us vs Them.
The Obama years have seen the new conservatives buoyed by the Tea Party become not a counterweight of productive ideas but instead an obstinate obstacle to democracy. I will interject here that I believe Obama has also embraced the Imperial Presidency with a dishonest and dangerous zeal. Both sides are guilty of the present dysfunctional division depressing America once more.
And this all brings us to Trump.
Perhaps I could have just gone here and saved the previous 800 plus words. Trump was never meant to happen. Just ask the pundits and Party darlings they’ll tell you. Sadly though he polls consistently high and there is a very real chance he could be the nominee.
How could this be?
I think one primary factor plays out here. All along the way one of the fundamental parts of conservatism has been popularism. If one were to use the principles set forth by WR Mead the one school of thought that best supports American conservatism of the modern era is Jacksonian. The Tea Party is often linked to classic Jacksonian ideals. Smaller government,less foreign intervention and lower taxation etc.
Jacksonian can usually be counted on as being laid back until you get them going. Trump is unfortunately a proven pro at getting these folks riled. The thing is though Jacksonians don’t like getting jerked around or held back once you get them going. If Trump is the nominee he will need to address the beast he unleashed. He will actually have to have a credible plan to get done that which he has put forth. It is in this area the leopard will indeed have to change his spots. I doubt he has the ability.
Popularism never gets you what you really need or ultimately what you really want.