Via Bruce Bartlett for Politico
Almost two years ago, I wrote an article for Politico endorsing Donald Trump for president. It was a tongue-in-cheek effort—I “supported” Trump only because I thought he would lose to Hillary Clinton, disastrously, and that his defeat would cleanse the Republican Party of the extremism and nuttiness that drove me out of it. I had hoped that post-2016, what remained of the moderate wing of the GOP would reassert itself as it did after the Goldwater debacle in 1964, and exorcise the crazies.
Trump was a guaranteed loser, I thought. In the Virginia presidential primary, I even voted for him, hoping to hasten the party’s demise. In the weeks before the November election, I predicted a Clinton presidency would fix much of what ails our country. On November 8, I voted for Clinton and left the ballot booth reasonably sure she would win.
Needless to say, I was as dumbfounded by the election results as Max Bialystock was by the success of “Springtime for Hitler.” For two months after Trump won, I couldn’t read any news about the election, and considered abandoning political commentary permanently. It wasn’t just that Trump disgusted me; I was disgusted with myself for being so stupid. I no longer trusted my own powers of observation and analysis.
Almost everything that has happened since November 8 has been the inverse of what I’d imagined. Trump didn’t lose; he won. The Republican Party isn’t undergoing some sort of reckoning over what it believes; his branch of the Republican Party has taken control. Most troubling, perhaps, is that rather than reassert themselves, the moderate Republicans have almost all rolled over entirely.
Trump has turned out to be far, far worse than I imagined. He has instituted policies so right wing they make Ronald Reagan, for whom I worked, look like a liberal Democrat. He has appointed staff people far to the right of the Republican mainstream in many positions, and they are instituting policies that are frighteningly extreme. Environmental Protection Administration Administrator Scott Pruitt proudly denies the existence of climate change, and is doing his best to implement every item Big Oil has had on its wish list since the agency was established by Richard Nixon. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is actively hostile to the very concept of public education and is doing her best to abolish it. Every day, Attorney General Jeff Sessions institutes some new policy to take incarceration and law enforcement back to the Dark Ages. Trump’s proposed budget would eviscerate the social safety net for the sole purpose of giving huge tax cuts to the ultrawealthy.
And if those policies weren’t enough, conservatives—who, after all, believe in liberty and a system of checks and balances to restrain the government to its proper role—have plenty of reason to be upset by those actions Trump has taken that transcend our traditional right-left ideological divide. He’s voiced not only skepticism of NATO, but outright hostility to it. He’s pulled America back from its role as an international advocate for human rights. He’s attacked the notion of an independent judiciary. He personally intervened to request the FBI to ease up on its investigation of a former adviser of his, then fired FBI Director James Comey and freely admitted he did so to alleviate the pressure he felt from Comey’s investigation. For those conservatives who were tempted to embrace a “wait-and-see” approach to Trump, what they’ve seen, time and again, is almost unimaginable.
And yet as surprising as this all has been, it’s also the natural outgrowth of 30 years of Republican pandering to the lowest common denominator in American politics. Trump is what happens when a political party abandons ideas, demonizes intellectuals, degrades politics and simply pursues power for the sake of power.
With hindsight, it’s no surprise that the glorification of anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism that has been rampant on the right at least since the election of Barack Obama would give rise to someone like Trump. Anyone who ever read Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here,” which imagined a fascist dictator taking power in 1930s America, recognizes that Trump is the real-life embodiment of Senator Buzz Windrip—a know-nothing populist who becomes president by promising something for everyone, with no clue or concern for how to actually accomplish it. Windrip was “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic,” Lewis wrote. “Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only the wings of a windmill.”
Conservatives are starting to accept that Trump is not the leader they had hoped for and is more of a liability for their agenda than an asset. They are also starting to recognize that their intellectual infrastructure is badly damaged, in need of repair, and that the GOP and intellectual conservatism are not interchangeable. The Heritage Foundation recently fired its president, former Senator Jim DeMint, in part because he had allowed its research capabilities to deteriorate. The journal National Affairs aspires to be the serious, conservative policy-oriented journal that The Public Interest was. And some leaders, like Bill Kristol, have courageously stood up against the GOP’s pervasive Trumpism (“I look forward to the day when American conservatism regains its moral health and political sanity, and the David Horowitz center is back on the fringe, where I’m afraid it belongs,” Kristol recently told the Washington Post).
These are small steps, and promising—you have to start somewhere, after all—but what conservative intellectuals really need for a full-blown revival is a crushing Republican defeat—Goldwater plus Watergate rolled into one. A defeat so massive there can be no doubt about the message it sends that Trumpian populism and anti-intellectualism are no path to conservative policy success. In the meantime, there are hopeful signs that the long-dormant moderate wing of the GOP is coming alive again. In Kansas, Trumpian Governor Sam Brownback was recently rebuked when a Republican-controlled Legislature overrode his veto to raise taxes after the cuts previously enacted by Brownback proved disastrous to the state’s finances. And although their efforts have been modest thus far, moderate Republicans in Congress have helped soften Republican initiatives on health, the budget and gays.
The implementation of long-term, successful policy change cannot be short-circuited, it must be built on a solid foundation of thinking, analysis and research by smart, well-educated people. Listening to the common man rant about things he knows nothing about is a dead-end that leads to Trump and failure because there is no “there” there, just mindless rhetoric and frustration.
Having so badly miscalled the 2016 election, I’m not going out on a limb here and predicting a 1974-style defeat for GOP members of Congress next year, and I am fully aware that Democrats are always capable of seizing defeat from the jaws of victory. But the preconditions are falling into place for a political transformation between 2018 and 2020 that could result in the type of defeat that I think is necessary for my old party and the conservative movement to rebuild themselves from the ground up.
Ideally, I’d like to see an intellectual revival on the right such as we saw after the Goldwater defeat and the Watergate debacle. Freed from the stultifying strictures and kowtowing to know-nothing Trumpian populists—perhaps building on new outlets and institutions that celebrate intellectual rigor and reject shallow sound bites—a few conservative thinkers can plow a path toward sane, responsible conservative governance, just as people like Irving Kristol and Jack Kemp did during the Carter years. (Some conservative thinkers, such as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, speculate that Mitt Romney may emerge as the leader of a sane, modern, technocratic wing of an intellectually revitalized GOP.) If a leader doesn’t emerge, moderate Republicans—many of whom did not and will not support Trump—could be lost to the Democratic Party for good.
If the Republican Party and the conservative movement abandon populism, mindless appeals to the electorate’s lowest common denominator, and the pursuit of power for the sake of power and instead pursue a fully formed policy agenda based on solid analysis and research, then I don’t think it will take very long for a Republican revival. If it takes a Trump debacle to make that happen, it will have been worth it.