Conservatives have long labored under the delusion that conservatism was popular. They told themselves that their policy preferences had a variety of natural constituencies who suffered from an almost Marxian lack of self-awareness. They soothed the pains of electoral rejection with the contention that their views simply needed a champion who shared their convictions, and they eschewed introspection when one advocate after another failed to meet this measure. The 2016 cycle has disabused contemplative conservatives of the idea that their program is preferred by even a majority of Republicans. Conservatives are now adrift, and many of its members have succumbed to despair.
Today, conservatism is an ideology alienated not just from its political home in the GOP but also from the opinion leaders who lent it vitality and legitimacy. This is, however, an artificial condition; it occurs not as conservatism was failing but ascendant. Theirs is a movement with broad ranks with ample representation in government, and it is now largely untethered to its former power centers. This is a dangerous place for any intellectual philosophy to find itself, but it can also be an auspicious one.
The right’s conservative voters long ago became accustomed to being placated by political representatives seeking their vote. They were used to having their preferences defended primarily by self-styled purists with access to booming microphones. They had their egos massaged by those for whom conservatism was as much a product to be peddled, as it was a governing belief structure. Enter Donald Trump and that facade crumbled.
“This is called the Republican Party, it’s not called the Conservative Party,” Trump declared just hours after he had secured the hard-fought title of presumptive Republican presidential nominee. He was not simply rejecting those who had rejected him, but an ideology to which he never adhered and did not respect. Many have noted that Trump’s grasp of the tenets of limited government is tenuous at best and that he speaks broken conservative as though it were a second language. What’s more enlightening about this moment is that so many who fashioned a career for themselves by talking to and speaking for conservatives have abandoned the pretense.
An episode illuminating the conservative right’s unenviable condition occurred recently on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program amid Donald Trump’s tour en l’air toward a more rational immigration policy. More in sorrow than anger, an exasperated Trump skeptic called into the program dedicated to forcing the radio host to confess that Trump’s conservative act was only ever just that. Only after a prosecutorial case was laid before him did Limbaugh concede that he always believed Trump’s border hawk persona was a ruse. That’s no minor admission; at no point in the last 400 days did this trusted host seek to share this observation with his audience.
The melding of the so-called conservative commentary class with the Republican presidential nominee’s campaign lacks precedent. Some the right’s most prominent radio and television hosts and media executives serve not merely to provide the nominee with a stage on which to disseminate his message but as advisors crafting that message. The Republican Party’s institutional organs are committed to Trump’s campaign, if not out of agreement with his vague platform than as a result of an acute case of prisoner’s dilemma. A longstanding persecution complex among conservatives may soon be replaced with a sense of abandonment.
While the conservative right is used to being told by their movement’s thought leaders that their politicians have forsaken them, they are unaccustomed to being disowned by those very same thought leaders. And yet, none of this is occurring because the conservative movement and its champions with an (R) after their names failed to win elections. Quite the opposite; the GOP entered 2016 in a position of authority. The GOP won its largest House majority since World War II in 2014. They retook the Senate and secured a majority of governorships. Most promisingly, the GOP had all but wiped out a generation of Democrats at the legislative level after retaking more than 900 seats from the president’s party since he took office in 2009.
Many of these new elected leaders were and remain conservative true believers—children of the Tea Party movement. Today, they find themselves just as unbound to institutions and emancipated from party leadership as are conservatives in the grassroots. Conservatism hasn’t been replaced with an ideology but a personality. That figure seems destined to lose a national plebiscite in spectacular fashion. And when that mania has subsided, these legitimate elected leaders will remain.
There is an opportunity in all this tragedy. Conservatives are now de facto press secretaries for no politician. They need not twist themselves into knots as Limbaugh had in defense of the indefensible. Their movement’s writers and thinkers, those who are still married to the philosophy of small government, are out there waiting to fill the vacuum left in the wake of what looks like a crushing defeat for Trumpism. But recapitulating the movement and retaking the GOP is a choice, and it will demand compromise from those committed to that project. Conservatism is not popular, and conservatives must come to terms with that. Rarely are movements that promise the public nothing more than the fruits of their own labors voguish. But they can be admired, and their adherents can be respected models worthy of emulation.
Conservatives have options: they can retreat into self-pity, insularity, and uncompromising recalcitrance or they can choose extroversion and evangelism. Conservatives must exemplify the change they wish to see in the nation, if only because they will have the opportunity to reconstitute their movement sooner than they may think.