My comments today at Heritage Foundation
The Heritage Foundation very kindly invited me to address newspaper editors in town for a meeting. Many thanks to Jim Weidman for the invitation and to Lee Edwards, our gracious moderator. I was joined by Michael Franc of the Hoover Institution and Matthew Spalding of the Kirby Center. Here are my prepared remarks:
Can Conservatism Survive Trump?
Remarks to Editors
May 6, 2018
To answer the question as to whether conservatism can survive Trump, we have to begin by defining our terms. What is conservatism in 2018?
A comprehensive answer would require a whole semester of study, so for the sake of brevity, I’d like to divide conservative principles into two baskets. In the first basket, I’ll place the conservative preferences, principles, and goals that the Trump presidency is advancing. In the second, I’ll address the conservative principles I think he and his defenders are undermining.
Broadly speaking, conservatives in America trust markets more than the state to provide goods and services. Left and right battle perennially over regulation, with the left raising the specter of dirty air and unsafe drinking water if any paragraph of the 1.5 million pages of the Federal Register is touched, and the right claiming that regulation is strangling productivity. Barack Obama, for example, mocked Mitt Romney’s views by saying “Their solution to everything is ‘Cut two regulations and call me in the morning.’” Donald Trump endorses the conservative view on regulation wholeheartedly and his appointees have worked to reverse some of the Obama-era regulations, particularly in reference to the environment and banking.
Conservatives believe in judicial restraint and on this measure the Trump appointees – most prominently Neal Gorsuch — have been excellent.
Conservatives also have reason to be satisfied with Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel to its capital, Jerusalem, and to increase spending on the military.
Other steps conservatives would broadly applaud include reversing the Department of Education’s damaging guidelines on campus sexual assault – which weakened critical protections for the accused, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, and tax reform. Some conservatives would also include Trump’s firm support of gun rights and opposition to immigration– despite his occasional wavering and inconsistency, and despite the lack of any progress on the famous wall.
So much for basket number one. But even if conservatism were merely a roster of policy preferences, which I’ll argue in a minute is a narrow view, the Trump administration has hardly checked many of the key boxes.
For at least three generations, conservatives have taught the virtues of free trade, and pushed back on protectionist sentiment, whether expressed by Dick Gephardt, Bernie Sanders, or the anti-globalization protesters who have donned black masks and smashed windows in Seattle, Oslo, Prague, and at other meetings of the G-8 or the International Monetary Fund.
Mr. Trump is a protectionist who believes that America is “losing” when it runs a trade deficit with other nations. And while Trump’s tariffs and threats of trade wars have so far yielded only small steps, they represent a huge U-turn from conservative ideas. Trade is commerce. Buying and selling. Conservatives believe – or used to believe — that commerce is a boon to buyer and seller – assuming that no one is holding a gun to anyone’s head. The embrace of protectionism is a profound retreat from free market ideas.
The conservative policy that most defined the right for the past decade was health care. It combined so many themes: worries about accumulating national debt, suspicion of state regulation of private industry, concern about efficiency, and sensitivity to limits on choice and autonomy. Yet, when Republicans gained control of the House, the Senate, and the White House, and set about the task of repealing and replacing Obamacare, they did an enormous swan dive into an empty pool. The implications of this failure are tremendous. Without attempting a complete autopsy on the failure, let me just say that it was a combination of Trump’s inexperience in governance, the dog that caught the car phenomenon (meaning Republicans were using Obamacare as a campaign issue without having really thought through the policy), and the iron ratchet of middle class entitlements: they go only one way – up. By failing to reform health care, Republicans have forfeited what is arguably the critical terrain in the struggle over the size and scope of government.
And then there is the question of government spending and government debt. It has been said that the Democrats were the “mommy” party, offering to help you when you needed it and even sometimes when you didn’t. The Republicans were more like the Daddy party, forcing you to get out of bed and go get a job, pay your debts, and pull up your pants. There was more than a nugget of truth in this image. Republicans, at least rhetorically, fretted about ever expanding government spending and debt.
In 2012, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan chastised President Obama for his $16 trillion debt and for kicking the can down the road. He used to feature a debt clock at his rallies and caution “that’s not a scorecard.” Other Republicans commonly warned of a coming debt crisis.
But with the arrival of President Trump, who explicitly ruled out any reforms to middle class entitlements – the great drivers of our debt – and the Republican Party completely caved on fiscal responsibility. The budget and the tax bill combined will leave us with a federal budget deficit in excess of $1 trillion in 2020 and beyond. CBO budget director Keith Hall said that “Federal debt is projected to be on a steadily rising trajectory throughout the decade.” With Republicans in control of the Congress and the White House, the federal deficit will be roughly double what is was in the final year of the Obama administration.
But conservatism is more than a basket of policy preferences and ideas. It’s a reverence for tradition, for rules, for process, and for law. So many of the worries about the Obama style of governance concerned his cavalier disregard for these very values. He changed the Obamacare law multiple times on his own say so, without submitting the changes to Congress. He stated multiple times that he could not shield certain illegal immigrants from the threat of deportation because the law was the law and could only be changed by Congress. He was not a monarch, he reminded listeners. But then, in an election year, he went ahead and did what he had said he lacked the legal authority to do. That was wrong, and some of us protested at the time.
Donald Trump has not yet done anything along those lines. When other institutions – the courts in particular – have curtailed his orders, he has abided by those orders.
But Trump is a wrecking ball when it comes to norms of presidential conduct in other respects. He has hired his relatives, fired the FBI director with possibly corrupt motives, attacked the press in Stalinist terms as the “enemy of the people,” continued to engage in private business deals with foreign entities, attacked private citizens through Twitter, issued threats, belittled and bullied his own Attorney General for abiding by the rules of the Justice Department, issued pardons to unrepentant creeps like Joe Arpaio who grossly abused power, and compared our own intelligence agencies to the Gestapo.
For a generation or more, conservatives have been unfairly tarred as racist for opposing affirmative action, or being tough on crime. Trump has made the task of proving that conservative does not mean racist infinitely harder by engaging in open racial incitement, such as describing immigrants as rapists and murderers, and excusing some of the Charlottesville neo-Nazis as fine people.
Trump demands and receives not just loyalty but demeaning toadyism. He values others not for their contributions to the conservative movement, to the Republican Party, or to the nation, but only for how they regard him. If they are servile, they get praise. If they are independent, even if they are war heroes like John McCain, they are slammed.
In addition, Trump has sought to discredit every individual and institution that opposes him. We’ve become inured to this over time, but it’s remarkably consistent. If someone praises Trump, he or she is a fine person. If not, they get the “failing New York Times” treatment. There is no hierarchy of values in Trump’s mind beyond himself. It’s a level of self-worship we’ve never seen in American life before. If Vladimir Putin, a despot, an enemy of the United States, and a cold killer, praises Trump (or seems to), Trump relishes it and returns it. Yet if the mayor of an American territory, San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the midst of the worst natural disaster in the island’s history, criticizes Trump, he tweets his contempt not just for her but for the Puerto Rican people.
Trump’s impulse to discredit all critics now extends beyond journalists and fellow celebrities to the institutions of American life. In addition to the Gestapo comments about our intelligence agencies, his latest lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, called the service of a legal warrant the action of “storm troopers.” He seeks to undermine confidence in the courts by describing judges as “so-called judges.” He disparages the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Justice, and the press as “corrupt.” He described the search of Michael Cohen’s office as a “break in.” As former Senator Slade Gorton wrote: “Calling a lawfully obtained and executed warrant a ‘break in’ and ‘attack on our country’ is profoundly wrong and unhealthy for our republic. It is rhetorical acid that can corrode public faith in our irreplaceable institutions and the rule of law that defines our country’s greatness.”
Trump has elevated bottom-dwelling conspiracy mongers like Alex Jones and Mike Cernovich. Meanwhile, most of the Fox News lineup now does a passable imitation of Pravda on its worst days. The conservative online magazine Red State recently fired all of its anti-Trump writers, while Sinclair Media requires its anchors to recite propaganda. Even formerly top drawer conservative publications have muted their criticism of Trump in the name of remaining relevant. Several writers and editors at the Wall Street Journal departed as the paper slid gradually into the Trumpian fold. Leaders of the religious right – a large conservative constituency — have embarrassed themselves by pusillanimous praise for the thrice married, adulterous, genital grabbing, lying libertine.
Can conservatism survive this taint?
I’m not sure.
Trump is transforming American conservatism into a playground for criminals and villains. Republicans have nominated an accused child molester in Alabama. A candidate whose biggest issue was Confederate statues nearly nabbed the Republican nomination for governor in Virginia. The CPAC conference has issued invitations to Milo Yiannapolous and Marion Le Pen. Julian Assange is treated with respect by Sean Hannity. Mike Pence declares that it’s an honor to be with Joe Arpaio. In West Virginia, Don Blankenship, a convicted felon who calls Mitch McConnell “cocaine Mitch” and sneers at his “China family” is surging in the primary for Senate.
One key insight conservatives used to bring to our national debates was the key role of character in our individual lives and in the life of the nation. When liberals push to extend more and more programs to provide assistance to the poor, conservatives have stood up for the importance of self-reliance, hard work, and personal responsibility. When liberals have urged that family values were obsolete, conservatives have responded that there is no better department of health, education, and welfare than an intact family.
For now, Trumpism, a sloppy stew of nativism, fabrications, nostalgia, authoritarianism, and boorishness seems ascendant. But this formula, however popular among the Republican base, leaves many conservatives and moderates dispirited and alienated.
Trump’s staggering lies are a blot on his party and all who repeat or justify them. Some are relatively trivial – no Mika Brzezinski wasn’t bleeding from a face lift – others are profoundly corrosive – millions of illegals did not vote in the 2016 election. The lies are the rot at the heart of Trump and Trumpism. And many in the conservative movement, the Republican party, and the nation will be repelled. They may wind up identifying with the great Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote: “You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”