One relief about the rise of Donald Trump is that his alienation from the conservative intellectuals in the Republican Party means he can’t — and probably won’t — gussy up his campaign with any pretense that it’s about restoring limited-government Constitutionalism to American governance. We don’t really know if Trump even has a theory of Constitutional interpretation, but his public statements seem skeptical of the idea that his presidency would be one that could be checked or balanced.
Why is this a relief? Because for all the talk my smart conservative friends have about the Founders, liberty, fiscal rectitude, and a strict-constructionist view of the Constitution, Republicans don’t actually govern that way all that often. George W. Bush was more or less handpicked by the conservative establishment, and defended vociferously by it, but his administration was defined by both mounting deficits (just like Reagan’s!) and its attempts to innovate theories of expanded executive power. (Remember the unitary executive?) Republicans often talk a sort of libertarian talk, but they don’t walk it very often. And there's plenty of evidence that's not really what their voters want from them anyway, except when a Democrat is president. (When a Democrat is elected, they beat their chests, try to make the Democrat conform more fully to their constitutional vision, and promise to do better next time.) This election, at least, they won’t talk it, either.
Here’s the weird news: That means the argument is about to change.
I am fortunate — really! — in that I have a number of smart conservative friends. They are people that I like and care about and with whom I fight on a near daily basis. I’ve tried to listen to their arguments, to see them as they see themselves, and though I know that I’ve probably fallen short on that front, I’ve savored it as a worthy journey in an era in which were increasingly shuffling off to our own ideological silos.
One thing I’ve had a hard time navigating, though, is this: The rift between the smart and principled arguments my friends make and the arguments I hear coming from the GOP, the arguments I think are motivating the party and its base. My friends tend to be of a stripe: Well-read, worshipful of the Founding Fathers, insistent that limited constitutional government is those Founders’ legacy to America — one that recent generations have largely failed to grasp. They’re disdainful of the idea of a “living Constitution” and big believers in Natural Law. They’re folks who occasionally appear on Fox News, but don’t seem to be of it, and they’re always very cranky when liberals suggest that conservative voters might be motivated by racial animus rather than fidelity to those first principles.
In the spirit of grappling with your opponent’s best arguments, rather than their worst, these are the people I should be arguing against.
But I’ve fought the feeling in recent years that arguing against my smart conservative friends was beside the point, because the real energy and ideas in the Republican Party were coming not from my friends, but from outlets like Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart and Fox News and a whole panoply of righty talk radio hosts whose aim seemed less pro-limited-government and more anti-liberal in general and, often, barely disguised in their retrograde attitudes on race. Dip your toes into the comments section of any conservative website, even a relatively thoughtful one — National Review, say — and you’d find yourself terrified.
There's a difference between "conservatism" and "the right" in other words, even though we use those terms interchangeably, and the rise of Donald Trump proves it as never before.
So which was the “real” GOP — my smart friends and their smart arguments, or the rabble-rousing populists? (I’m not the only one who experienced this: Ask any left-of-center writer who tried grappling with the fantasy version of the GOP offered up by conservative writers like Ross Douthat and David Brooks over the years.)
Right now, with Trump as the avatar of the Republican Party, it seems the answer stands firmly with the rabble-rousing populists. My smart conservative friends are trying to figure out where to take sides: With Trump and against Hillary? Against Trump and Hillary? Against Trump, with a grudging acquiescence to Hillary?
In any case, with Trump as the avatar of Republicans, the debate is no longer between big government versus small, living constitution versus originalism, energetic government versus limits. It’s how to use government’s power, and on whose behalf.
Trump’s answer to that question — not quite so baldly stated, but still fairly apparent — white people. Given his willingness to alienate female voters, we can narrow it down further: White men.
Mock Dem multi-culti pretensions all you want, their vision is somewhat broader than that.
Trumpism may be a one-off. But it might also portend a realignment of our politics, and our arguments about them. It seems premature to say that conservatism has, in the span of a few months, been reduced to a fringe of our politics — a fringe of the right — instead of being one of the poles. But the possibility is out there.