This weekend, Trump generously intervened in the fratricidal civil war erupting within the Democratic House Caucus, providing all warring parties in this conflict with a more urgent and exogenous threat—one against which they could unite. He told the four members of the progressive “squad,” three of whom were born in the United States and all of whom are American citizens of minority descent, to “go back” to the countries “from which they came.” Elected officials were appalled. Democrats raced out of the gate to attack the racist sentiments Trump expressed. And though Republicans were condemned for their silence over the weekend, the GOP’s elected officials are slowly—though notably—denouncing Trump’s tweet.
For some within the conservative firmament, however, this sort of behavior isn’t an unfortunate byproduct of Trump’s presidency but the whole point of the enterprise. Being provocative is an organizing principle. Inciting an impassioned response from one’s opponents is as valuable as any policy victory. If the president’s absurd “social media summit” is any indication, Trump is more than willing to wrap his arms around the belligerents in the meme wars.
If there is such a thing as “Trumpism,” this is it. Those who would seek to impose some sort of comprehensive and cogent policy agenda on the president end up staking out positions that range from traditionalism to neoconservatism to outright progressivism. The president’s phalanx of youngish meme warriors have abstained from this. For them, the battle for the soul of the conservative movement isn’t over policy but disposition and the virtues of total cultural combat. It’s a fight they have reason to believe they are winning. As Jonah Goldberg wrote with palpable regret, the ascension of conspiracy theorists and provocateurs like Jack Posobiec and Mytheos Holt to the Claremont Institute’s Lincoln Fellowship program is an indication that dressing up a victimhood complex as an ideology is a durable business model.
This fight over attitudinal proclivities rages among the next generation of conservative activists, which makes former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s entry into the battle particularly welcome.
On Monday, Walker announced that he would assume the presidency of the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative organization that merged with William F. Buckley Jr.’s Young Americans for Freedom earlier this decade and has positioned itself as a sober advocate for conservative ideas on American college campuses. He’ll take over that position in January 2021—an auspicious month in which either this president or someone else will take the oath of office.
Walker, a soft-spoken, dispassionate autodidact with a convivial demeanor and a record of advancing limited government policy reforms in office, at first seems temperamentally ill-suited to the demands of this churlish political moment. But upon closer inspection, he is well-positioned to helm an organization with the unstated mission of reining in the young right’s Trumpian excesses.
The Young America’s Foundation has not drifted along with the populist tide in the Trump era. Just the opposite, in fact; it has picked its share of fights with the drifters. The Foundation’s primary target has been its chief source of competition for real estate in young conservative minds: Turning Point USA. In a 2018 memo, the Foundation attacked TPUSA and its 25-year-old founder, Charlie Kirk, as entities that could inflict “long-term damage” upon both “conservative students and the conservative movement.” Kirk’s concern isn’t the welfare of the conservative movement but his own brand, the memo warned. It accused him of exaggerating his organization’s reach, of courting “racist and Nazi sympathizers,” and of sponsoring “humiliating” events on American campuses.
Activists like Kirk and TPUSA’s Communications Director Candace Owens fancy themselves the last committed combatants in an existential fight against leftist mobs. But Walker was staring down unruly hordes with a smile and securing lasting conservative policy victories in the process when Kirk was still in high school. Nor would Walker be alone in the effort to guide the conservative movement away from provocateurs and back toward the advancement of ideas. In her address to a TPUSA-sponsored audience of young people, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley bravely admonished the audience for confusing pugnacity for persuasion. “I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good,” Haley said of those who mistake antagonism with authority, “but step back and think about what you’re accomplishing when you do this.” She added: “this kind of speech isn’t leadership; it’s the exact opposite.”
Walker and Haley, two products of the Tea Party with enduring grassroots followings, may serve as beacons for the conservative movement if it is once again exiled to the political wilderness. Their productive records in office will surely contrast with this president’s limited legislative achievements. More than anything, though, they present a contrasting vision of how to effectively govern even in the face of unrelenting hostility and disadvantageous media coverage.
If Donald Trump’s subjugation of the Republican Party was as total as his supporters and critics alike insist, his dominance wouldn’t have to be declared with triumphant zeal on a semi-regular basis. In fact, Trump’s sway over the Republican Party and the conservative movement that animates it is cosmetic at best. That’s why the movement’s leading voices are not united behind a policy agenda but are instead engaged in a schismatic internecine struggle over first principles. It’s why political columnists and commentators lobby the president to support their agendas, not the other way around. And it’s why there is a quiet conflict building within the activist right over the value of persuasion and incrementalism. It’s a conflict that will surely intensify when the Trumpian right discovers that a series of aggressive tweets did not, in fact, vanquish their intellectual adversaries.
There will never be a reversion to the status quo ante, but there will be a post-Trump moment. For the right, that moment will be typified by a fight over what elements of Trumpism are worth preserving and what should be discarded. The battle lines are already forming.