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Reclaim the Party of Lincoln
The surest way to build a platform for a more principled conservatism is to lift the Republican Party from the ashes of Trumpism and chart a better course, even if such a project is a long-term one.
In the lead-up to the 2018 mid-term elections, George F. Will made an intriguing plea to conservatives who remain hostile, or at least skeptical, to President Trump’s leadership of the Republican Party and his level of influence over the conservative movement.
In an opinion article for the Washington Post, Mr. Will encouraged them to vote for Democrats and help wrest control of Congress from the Republicans who had acquiesced to President Trump’s arguably undeserved dominance. His goal was to shock the foundations of President Trump’s “cult of victory,” hoping that a re-calibration upon traditional conservative principles could take place before the 2020 presidential contest.
In a similar gambit, many anti-Trump conservatives and former Republicans gathered virtually at the Summit On Founding Principles and opined for several days about the need to support Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election to defeat Donald Trump and “reset the dialogue” in hopes of charting a non-Trump future.
How did these efforts fair?
Giving the House to Democrats after 2018 only gave Trump a useful foil in his bombastic narratives against the “establishment.” Arguably, the hysteria and siege-mentality on the Right only increased as they developed a sense that “their President” was being wrongfully held up in his agenda by Democrats, Leftist elites, and Never Trumpers who were obsessively opposed to Donald Trump.
The period between the 2018 mid-terms and the January 6th insurrection is arguably the point at which Donald Trump’s iron grip over the minds of Republicans and conservatives was the strongest. Defeat in 2018 taught Republicans and conservatives nothing. And, it taught Democrats the wrong thing.
The moderate Democrats who came into office in 2018 almost immediately faded away from the spotlight. Instead, the progressive darlings of that freshman class were hard-left activists who won exclusively in progressive Democratic strongholds.
Blue dogs like Ben McAdams went relatively unknown, and many, including McAdams, ended up as one-term representatives (and no one seemed to care when they lost). Meanwhile, the national conversation moved at the whim of firebrands like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.
And what about the similar effort to support Joe Biden and other Democrats in the 2020 election?
Donald Trump’s response to his defeat and the conspiracy-filled cesspool into which he led his followers demonstrated, once again, that the “shock therapy” of defeat did little to change the hearts and minds of Republicans and conservatives. Trump immediately claimed fraud on election night and then engaged in a campaign of bombastic demagoguery that culminated with the national shame of January 6th. Further, Republicans to this day are challenging the results of the election held well over a year ago, and Trump seems unable to talk about anything else other than how he was “robbed” in 2020.
While Youngkin’s victory in Virginia and other recent developments demonstrate Trump’s slow but sure fading from the political spotlight, these developments had little to do with the efforts of “principled conservatives.” In fact, most of what’s left of the “Never Trump” cohort of die-hard anti-Trump “conservatives” (such as the Lincoln Project) were working overdrive for McAauliffe and against Youngkin. Never Trump, in many ways, has become Never GOP. Rather than working to change the hearts of minds of wayward brothers and sisters, many of them have adopted the Democratic narrative that most Republicans and conservatives are irredeemable deplorables and have become little more than center-left Democratic boosters.
Meanwhile, a shocking number of people on both the Right and the Left want Trump back in the conversation. The Right because they still believe Trump is the only person who will fight for them. The Left because they believe they need Trump as a useful wedge issue to continue getting the suburbs and other traditionally red demographics to support them.
The counterintuitive trend I’ve observed on the Left has been one where center-left calls for normalcy successfully defeated many of Donald Trump’s Republican allies and edged out a victory against the President himself. Yet, the broader progressive movement has continued to double down on a socialistic vision that arguably set the stage for Donald Trump’s rise in the first place.
This trend was apparent in the Democratic field of 2020 candidates. Almost without exception, every candidate voiced support for the full gambit of progressive dream policies to one extent or another. While Joe Biden eventually received the nomination and put forward a “return to normal” candidacy, he failed to truly excite progressive hardliners (which perhaps explains why he has not governed as a “return to normal” President).
The progressive wing of the Democratic party argued, successfully it seems, that Joe Biden campaigned with an outdated brand of Democratic politics, was insufficiently “woke,” and that his identity as an old, white Democrat failed to adequately represent an identity-driven movement. As President, Joe Biden has responded by governing as “the most progressive President” in history. On issue after issue, President Biden’s agenda has looked more like what we could have expected from the other more woke and progressive candidates he ousted in the primaries thanks to his “moderate” message.
The simple reality is, this notion of shock therapy through stunning defeat has simply not worked. Nor has the Democratic Party moderated itself enough to garner the cross-spectrum support necessary for a stunning rebuke.
In 2016, Republicans and conservatives unmoved by the anti-Trump hysteria simply decided that, when push came to shove, they didn’t want to see another Clinton in the White House. Similarly, in 2020, Republicans and conservatives who remained unmoved by the anti-Trump hysteria simply decided that, for however much they disliked so many things about Trump, they disliked the Democrats’ policies and direction more.
Recent Republican victories and competitiveness in places such as Virginia and New Jersey demonstrating an intense backlash against many points of the progressive vision only punctuate the point: the Republican Party isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Even when weighed down by Donald Trump and his enablers, the GOP remains a potent and viable political institution. It’s clear that hoping for a principled reset solely based on electoral defeat was a pipedream.
The underlying reality of the Trump era was that a candidate captured the Republican Party and led it down a path of extremism and incendiary rhetoric, and the Democratic Party met this development with only token gestures towards the middle.
Democrats have vociferously refused to recognize the part they’ve played in laying the groundwork for the rise of Donald Trump and have continued to use the rhetoric and policy positions that drove conservatives into Trump’s arms. This has kept Republicans in a siege mentality conducive to ensuring continued loyalty to his leadership.
Aided and abetted by Democrats who gain notoriety through mirroring the President’s bombastic Twitter-troll behavior, more and more conservatives have gravitated into Donald Trump’s sphere of influence.
It’s become eminently clear that anyone who would like to see a more principled conservative GOP with presidential candidates able to effectively communicate a center-right vision cannot simply vote for Democrats or third-party longshots and hope the Republican Party learns its lesson in defeat.
Voting for Democrats and hoping Republicans learn their lesson has simply precipitated the dumpster fire. It’s time to come to the practical determination that the only effective fight to be fought is within the Republican Party.
There is no gentle way to state the truth. The mass exodus of Trump-skeptical conservatives, libertarians, moderates, and centrists from the GOP has not played out well. The only consequence of this exodus has been a more rapid and more thorough dominance of the party by President Trump and his allies.
The Democrats, while willing to accept center-right and disillusioned conservative votes and voice sympathy for their political homelessness, nevertheless remain hostile to conservative values. Even in the face of Trump, Democrats have demonstrated that they will not stray very far from their socialistic path. Continuing to throw what little weight principled conservatives have towards supporting such a path would mean abandoning principles and proving no better than their many Trump-enamored counterparts.
The choice should be clear for anyone willing to step back from the politics of resentment and pride. In the next presidential election, the two options for this country will be either a Republican or a Democrat. Supporting Democrats while leaving an avenue open to the White House for nationalist interlopers would probably be the most self-defeating thing Trump-averse conservatives could do.
In the grand scheme of things, a single-term presidency is not as consequential as it often feels in the moment. The Republican Party carries with it the legacies of great leaders like Lincoln, Coolidge, and Reagan. Donald Trump and his ilk could not undo this heritage in so short a time. There is still much to salvage in the GOP. And, reclaiming it would be the surest way to build a platform for a more principled conservatism.
Now is the time to build, not tear down, renew, and not simply continue the anger, hostility, and resentment that continues to dear down political and social institutions. We should work to lift the Republican Party from the ashes of Trumpism and chart a better course, even if it proves to be a far longer project than many would like.