How Donald Trump Broke Conservatism

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

President Trump shows the audience how he hides his bald spot at the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 23, 2018.

Donald Trump has conservatives in a dither. He’s the wagon to which they’ve hitched their star, the vehicle for all of the deregulatory, tax-cutting goodies he’s delivered to them. And he’s killing their movement.

In the decades since Ronald Reagan’s capture of the presidency in 1980, conservatism has adhered to the Gipper’s winning formula of a “three-legged stool,” comprising social, fiscal, and defense conservatives. Each of these designations was misleading in its own way. So-called “defense conservatives,” for instance, were actually war hawks; “fiscal conservatives” were actually more libertarian than conservative. And social conservatives were really people with a radical view of religion’s role in government and the gun’s role in society. Nevertheless, each group embraced its fictional representation, seeing as it offered a veil woven of threads that looked like principles—a pretty cover for a coalition drawn together by little more than greed and cultural resentment.

With his audacious bid for the presidency in 2016, Trump ripped off the veil, revealing a segment of the electorate only too happy to bare its sharp and jagged teeth in ugly display. Conservative leaders had a choice to make: They could shun the coarse and repulsive standard-bearer of the Republican Party on principle, or they could bet on the payoff that the principle-challenged candidate could yield them. We know which way they went.

For any treat Donald Trump delivers to so-called conservatives, though, there’s sometimes a kickback. The Koch brothers turned out the vote for Trump and received an epically deregulatory, plunderful regime, only to countenance the threat of tariffs on imported steel and aluminum—commodities on which they and all manufacturing conglomerates rely. It’s left House Speaker Paul Ryan, that Ayn Rand–loving creation of the Koch political machine, with a very sad face.

Ryan’s whole persona, you see, is that of a performatively principled conservative. He wants to cut your Social Security, but it’s because he cares about the moral hazard it poses to you. He believes in so-called free markets because the market’s invisible hand is really the hand of God, and who are we to argue with the Big Guy?

Donald Trump cares about none of that. He cares about winning the 2018 midterm congressional elections and, beyond that, the 2020 presidential election. He made promises to his voters in the steel states, promises to stick it to every other country that produces steel. Those states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana—are all important to the Trump electoral map. By the time the voters of those states realize that Trump’s tariffs have killed more jobs than they created, it won’t matter. The tariffs, in Trump’s likely estimation, will have served their base-igniting purpose. Paul Ryan is treading lightly, even as he murmurs his disagreement with the president. After all, he needs to get re-elected, and his electorate is also Donald Trump’s.


AT THE CONSERVATIVE POLITICAL ACTION CONFERENCE last month, the big headliners were the president and Vice President Mike Pence, who, like Paul Ryan, is a product of the Koch machine. Both Trump and Pence stressed the urgency of the 2018 midterms, with Pence even predicting that a Democratic takeover of the House would be “a disaster for our movement.”

In truth, however, it’s Donald Trump who has been a disaster for the conservative movement. CPAC, as the conference is known, has bled sponsors and exhibitors since 2016, when the tally of both numbered more than 100, and Paul Ryan proudly appeared on its stage. This year, Paul Ryan was nowhere to be seen, and the combined total of sponsors and exhibitors barely broke 60. The far right of Europe, however, was represented by Marion Maréchal-Le Pen and Nigel Farage. Former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka, known for his membership in a Nazi-aligned group, graced the stage. In a room near the Gaylord National Hotel and Resort in Oxon Hill, Maryland, where the conference took place, the white nationalist Richard Spencer entertained reporters and met with his minions. In fact, reports Huffington Post’s Christopher Mathias, CPAC itself was crawling with white nationalists, the creatures Trump summoned from the sewers of American politics during his presidential campaign.

In the short term, the death of conservatism as a philosophical movement may be of little consequence to the fortunes of the Republican Party. The Koch brothers want their goodies, so they’ll continue to underwrite the infrastructure that delivers Republicans to office—whatever their principles, or lack thereof. Tariffs, schmariffs. Small price for a big payoff.

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