In the United States, it has long been common for political terms to deviate considerably from their original European meaning, or even to acquire entirely new meanings. After the New Deal, for example, liberal came to represent those who advocated social democratic policies (e.g., universal health care, income and wealth redistribution, social security, strong labor unions) in America, while the same word has long denoted a more center-right political ideology elsewhere in the world (think Adam Smith-style classical economic liberalism). Likewise, the term libertarian, which today stands for free-market fundamentalism and anti-government extremism in America, was originally coined to describe anti-authoritarian (and anti-capitalist) leftists, from anarchists to democratic socialists to syndicalists.
It is hardly surprising, then, that in a country where political labels tend to take on brand-new meanings, conservative — which is how nearly four in 10 Americans identify themselves today — has come to represent politicians and voters who are anything but conservative. Though long considered America’s conservative party, the GOP hasn’t been conservative in principle or practice for some time. Now that it has officially become the party of Donald Trump, the veneer of conservatism that it has sustained over the years is simply laughable.
Calling today’s Republican Party conservative is about as accurate as calling today’s Democratic Party socialist. Of course, like many other terms, socialism has lost its original meaning as well, and today is synonymous with Keynesian economics in American political discourse. And when the Republican president-elect replaces the current Democratic president in a little over a month, a conservative will not be moving into the White House, but out of the White House.
I argued back in August that Hillary Clinton was the conservative option for 2016, but not — as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd had insisted — the “Perfect G.O.P. Nominee.” (For one thing, the GOP is no longer a conservative party.) Briefly comparing how the Clinton and Trump campaigns operated proves this point. One campaign ensured predictability and stability and ran on the concept of gradual reform, while vowing to protect the social and economic gains that had been made throughout the 20th century. The other campaign ran on the idea of smashing the status quo and the establishment, and regularly displayed indifference and even hostility toward the United States Constitution and the country’s rule of law. The former — the Clinton campaign — was politically moderate and temperamentally conservative (as National Review’s Kevin Williamson has agreed), while the Trump campaign was politically reactionary and temperamentally populist.
Thus Clinton, not Trump, was the conservative candidate in 2016, while Trump was the far-right reactionary. And if the cabinet that president-elect Trump has put together so far is any indication, the policies of the Trump administration will be just as extreme and reactionary as many of us feared. Likewise, if his recent behavior is any guide, he will be just as unpredictable and demagogic in office as he was on the campaign trail.
When Obama vacates the White House in January, he leaves behind a legacy of political moderation — perhaps best illustrated by the fact that his most comprehensive and “radical” policy, the Affordable Care Act, was based on a plan first introduced by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think thank, and was supported by many Republicans, at least until the president adopted it. Obama will also be remembered as a leader who frequently let his hopes for bipartisan cooperation get in the way of progress, especially during his first term. When the history books are written and he is inevitably compared to his successor, Obama will most likely be regarded as a moderate with a conservative disposition, who rejected some of the more populist impulses from within his own party and constantly sought out a middle ground that no longer existed in Washington.
As Republicans take over all three branches of government in 2017, the Democratic Party will essentially become, by default, America’s new conservative party. While Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan conspire to slash taxes for the rich and deregulate Wall Street, Democrats will be fighting simply to protect the basic rights and gains that were attained long before most of us were born — from Medicare and Social Security to voting rights and workers’ rights to a decent education and minimum wage. The GOP agenda is thoroughly reactionary, and if it is successfully implemented, it will eliminate or limit many rights that most Americans currently taken for granted, while destroying social programs that are firmly entrenched in our society and overwhelmingly supported by a large majority of the public.
It is important to bear in mind that defending programs like Social Security and Medicare, or protecting the right to vote, is not a progressive but rather a conservative struggle. Traditional conservatives have historically advocated restraint in governing and caution when it comes to social and/or political progress (due to their pessimistic view of human nature), and have always sought to preserve established institutions, while accepting gradual changes and moderate reforms that inevitably come with time.
The reactionary mind, by contrast, mostly rejects modernity (though not necessarily modern technology, which many reactionaries tend to glorify), and wants to return to some notion of how things were in the glorious days of old, before progressive struggles ushered in the modern era. The Trump campaign’s reactionary impulse was evinced by its popular slogan — “Make America Great Again” — which romanticized the parochial past.
Needless to say, if the Democrats are to successfully combat Trump and his party’s reactionary agenda, they cannot resign themselves to being a conservative party by default. It would be far preferable to fight reactionary Republicans with an equally aggressive progressive agenda that not only aims to protect the gains made during the 20th century but to expand them and encourage other reforms.
Despite the results of this year's election, and the curious status of the two major parties, the overwhelming majority of Americans tend to favor of progressive policies, and are strongly opposed to the most reactionary or radical elements of the Trump-Ryan agenda. According to Gallup, for example, nearly 6 in 10 Americans favor replacing Obamacare with an even more progressive single-payer system — as Bernie Sanders has consistently advocated — while only 22 percent support repealing Obamacare without replacing it with a federally funded system. The same story applies to long-established social programs like Medicare and Social Security. A wide majority of Americans support these programs and want to preserve them, and almost as many believe they should be expanded through tax increases on the wealthy.
One would have to be willfully blind to believe that the Republican Party has any kind of popular mandate for its agenda. It can be argued, in fact, that Democrats failed to win in 2016 because they were too conservative and failed to advance a truly progressive message. Trump’s deficit in the popular vote continues to widen -- at this writing, Clinton leads by 2.7 million votes -- while the Republican Party’s hold on the House of Representatives and the majority of state legislatures is due in large part to the extreme gerrymandering GOP lawmakers implemented after the 2010 elections.
Democrats and liberals can effectively challenge Trump and Republicans by promoting a progressive agenda that appeals to the majority of Americans. But first, they must start calling Republicans by their proper name, and reject their phony claims of conservatism. Calling itself conservative provides the GOP with a kind of respectability that the party of Trump does not deserve. And the sooner the left understands who its enemy is and calls that enemy by its true name, the better it can resist and overcome that enemy.