The Republican Party ruined conservatism long before Trump: Why they still don't get it

Trump's nomination means the Republican Party is already lost — and that descent started long ago

Published May 10, 2016 2:57PM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (AP/Matt Rourke)
Donald Trump (AP/Matt Rourke)

The Republican Party has experienced a good deal of success in the last three decades or so. They've won elections, they've raised ungodly sums of money, they've subverted democracy via redistricting, and they've expertly dictated the political and cultural narratives. What they haven't done is govern effectively or, more importantly, conservatively.

This is true at both the national and state levels. Modern conservative mythology begins with Reagan, a man who tripled the federal budget deficit (which shot up to $3 trillion during his tenure) and raised taxes 11 times during the course of his presidency. Reagan didn't shrink the size of government or grow the middle class. On the contrary, he made government more bloated, more defense-oriented, more corporatist. George W. Bush's 8 years in office were similarly disastrous: more corporate welfare, more debt, more Utopian military campaigns, more disorder.

Today Republican governors are plunging – or have plunged – their states into one abyss after another, all under the banner of conservatism. There are almost too many examples to cite: Sam Brownback in Kansas; Bobby Jindal in Louisiana; Rick Snyder in Michigan; Phil Bryant in Mississippi; Scott Walker in Wisconsin; Chris Christie in New Jersey; Paul LePage in Maine; Rick Scott in Florida. The list goes on and on and on.

The point is obvious enough: The conservative brand is tainted.

Now that Donald Trump has hijacked the Republican Party, the conservative intelligentsia is apoplectic. Trump isn't a real conservative, they say. He's ideologically incoherent, they say. The assumption is that Trump is an aberration, a chimera born of anti-establishment rage. Or that he's a threat to the “conservative movement” rather than its natural outgrowth.

Consider the latest Wall Street Journal op-ed by conservative columnist Bret Stephens. Stephens writes:

“The best hope for what's left of a serious conservative movement in America is the election in November of a Democratic president, held in check by a Republican Congress. Conservatives can survive liberal administrations, especially those whose predictable failures lead to healthy restorations...What isn't survivable is a Republican president who is part Know Nothing, part Smoot-Hawley and part John Birch. The stain of a Trump administration would cripple the conservative cause for a generation.”

There are two problems with this. First, there's a disconnect between establishment Republicans and conservative voters. If you watch Fox News or listen to right-wing radio, it's clear that the base isn't animated by a coherent worldview. Many self-identify as conservative, but their conservatism is a vague stew of cultural resentment, religious certainty, and half-baked talking points. There is no consistent "conservative cause" to preserve. And if there is a genuine conservative coalition, the Know Nothings and the John Birchers are now central to it. Indeed, the GOP has cultivated these wings since its adoption of the "Southern Strategy" roughly 50 years ago.

Second, to the extent that conservative ideas have been implemented in recent years, they haven't worked. The “conservative cause” is already crippled. Neoliberal economics, which is what conservative elites support, has gutted the country and the working class. The trade deals, the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the privatization schemes – have redistributed wealth upwards at the expense of everyone else.

“Conservatives,” Stephens writes, are “supposed to believe that it's folly to put hope before experience,” but they've put ideological dogma over empirical reality for decades. “Trickle-down” economics didn't work for Reagan (revenue decreased and unemployment spiked to 10.8 percent after his initial 1981 tax cuts, for example) and it didn't work for the Bush administrations. And yet GOP presidential candidates speak as though the contrary were true, as though history doesn't exist.

One can argue that this isn't classical conservatism; that real conservatism involves prudence, a pragmatic respect for existing institutions, and careful responsiveness to change. But that's not what passes as conservatism. Today's "conservatives" are hopelessly wedded to discredited abstractions. When elected, their ideas have failed. Now voters are revolting against the establishment and choosing instead to embrace the ethno-nationalism of Trump.

Stephens writes that “A Trump presidency means losing the Republican Party.” I disagree. Trump's nomination means the Republican Party is already lost. Or perhaps it was never found. The GOP has been ideologically fractured since at least the early '80s, when it morphed into a quasi-religious movement. The Wall Street Journal editorial board cares about tax policy and capital gains, but the Republican base doesn't. The people voting for Trump are losers in the new economy to be sure, but they're animated by cultural angst and identity-based fears as much as anything else. Republicans have exploited their base in similar ways for years; Trump has just taken it to another level.

I'm not sure what a Trump presidency really means. But it's not the death knell for conservatism. The GOP ruined conservatism long before Trump. If people like Stephens want to save conservatism, they need a new party, not a new candidate.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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Bret Stephens Conservatism Donald Trump Editor's Picks Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton Republican Party