The china shop has been totally destroyed and the bull has departed to go play golf. The problem is that we now have to rebuild. With Donald Trump no longer in the White House, the political right has a chance to depart from the Trumpian style of “beating down one’s opponent and dancing over their prone body,” and innovate new ways to communicate conservatism.
It is perfectly clear that Donald Trump and his sensibilities (or lack thereof) have changed the Republican Party. This change threatens to fracture not only the party, but the conservative movement more generally—pitting “old guard” Republicans from the fusionism era against the modern “Trumpian” coalition. Both sides have their values; they are not necessarily the same. However, they must make peace if conservatism is to succeed in 2021 and beyond. There are three truths that must be acknowledged for this to occur.
Firstly, conservatives must acknowledge that not having Donald Trump as president gives them a real policy advantage. It means the presumed head of the conservative movement can actually have things like impulse control and winsomeness. Most conservatives are willing to admit that Donald Trump got a great deal of good done; the question is, “How much did his lack of sensibility and wild punch-throwing style hurt conservatism in the process?” There’s a spectrum between the far right and Jen Rubin when it comes to answering that question, but not having Trump makes the Republican Party more marketable.
Since 2017, Trump’s approval rating has not surpassed 50%, illustrating Trump’s toxifying effect on the rest of the party. Assuming a Biden presidency, the toxifying factor of Donald Trump is not being increased by his presence in the Oval Office. Now that the leading figure of the conservative movement is no longer a cultural figure popularly known for late-night Tweeting and terminating people’s employment on reality TV, we have a chance to bring some sensibility back to this thing.
The second truth is a hint of responsibility amid that chance. We have to understand we’re still fighting from underneath. The effects of Trump are still being felt, both good and bad. Conservatives have a renewed sense of fight. This is good. Conservatives also have about a square inch of cultural ground right now. This is decidedly not good.
Ideas like the Trump Accountability Project don’t crop up because of disagreement over tax rates. They appear because of a larger stigma and the toxifying effect of Donald Trump on everything right-leaning. In the often-misinterpreted words of Andrew Breitbart, “politics is downstream of culture.” In a culture where conservatism is conflated with Trump and castigated accordingly, that will affect conservatives’ policy-making ability sooner rather than later.
The philosophy of conservatism is, quite obviously, not an optimistic one. The way forward for the right is not easy, nor has it ever been. This is the third truth we must acknowledge, and it’s one that’s applied since 1776 and is often buried in the partisan sea; conservative policy has to be made with knowledge of what’s actually being conserved. Freedom is a counterculture; things like individual liberty and limited government are not things that political entities support by nature. While President Trump may not know conservatism beyond its basic vernacular, conservatives have the obligation to do better.
If we are to make a system great again, we have to understand why it was great in the first place. Donald Trump isn’t the key to winning this war of ideas. We are.
Conservatism is only as good as the conservatives behind it. French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville explained the task before us in his 1835 work Democracy in America: “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”
We have an opportunity here to rebuild the movement and we have things that are working for us, despite the wide swath of ideas and people on the other side. We have to acknowledge our advantages, accept our opposition, and reconnect with the values that define us. That’s our battle, and such a fight is hard to win. But, in the spirit of de Tocqueville, the conservative movement may find nothing more glorious and wonderful than the struggle to do so.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.