The second of my two-part series on how enlightened citizens should respond to the farce that is the Trump administration. You can read the first part on the Democrats here, http://hanrott.com/blog/how-the-democrats-should-respond-to-trump/. Also, next Monday the Modern Philosophy series is returning, so look out for that!
Being an anti-Trump Republican is a lonely job. The President enjoys an 80% approval rating amongst Republican voters. In a era of hyper-partisanship, many people believe that because Democrats hate Trump so much, he must be doing something right. The potential collusion with Russia and other scandals are fabrications or exaggerations by the media, purported in order to undermine him. Similarly, the only reason why he hasn’t achieved more is because of Democrat opposition, treachery within the Republican ranks, and the corrupt nature of ‘the swamp’ (a nickname for the Washington establishment.) This means that any Republican who openly opposes Trump will come under fire from their core supporters, especially if they live in a state or district where Trump has a net positive approval rating.
So I have a lot of respect for Republican politicians and outspoken conservative commentators who critique Trump and the general direction of the conservative movement. No one has done a better job of doing this than Senator Jeff Flake. He recently published a book, Conscience of a Conservative (just like Goldwater), in which he not only rejects Trump, but also the nationalism, populism and disregard for traditional conservatism that led to Trump winning the nomination. I completely agree that in America, just as in every country, there is a need for a healthy debate between respected individuals who are thoughtful and principled. Whatever your feelings are regarding the Republican Party, it is just as necessary to the wellbeing and functioning of American democracy as the Democrats. So of course Flake is right that the GOP should ditch its cult of personality fixation with Trump in favour of universally applicable conservative principles.
However, Flake presents too simplistic a picture. He seems to imply that before Trump came along, conservatives were largely intelligent and moral. Then Trump ruined the movement, so by getting rid of him we can return to an idealised state of affairs prior to 2016. The reality is more complex. It’s certainly true that conservatism has degraded since Trump sought the Republican nomination. But it was hardly perfect before then. While Flake acknowledges the failures of specific Republicans like Newt Gingrich or Mitch McConnell for being excessively partisan, he doesn’t account for the Republican establishment’s toleration and utilisation of illiberal nationalism for electoral gain. Conspiracy theories like Obama not being an American, evolution being a product of militant atheism to destroy Christianity, or climate change denial, were routinely accepted ideas amongst the conservative base even before Trump came along. Given how sceptical of climate change Mitt Romney was, was it really surprising that Trump’s assertion that climate change was invented by the Chinese to make American manufacturing non-competitive, proved popular? Nor is conservative demagoguery the exclusive preserve of Trump- the Economist points ought that Republicans have long made vitriolic and implicitly racist remarks against ‘welfare queens’ to promote fiscal conservatism amongst the working class. https://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21725785-jeff-flake-arizona-says-donald-trump-destroying-conservative-movement
Given the long-term degradation of conservatism, I am far less hopeful for the future than Flake. The senator only criticises Trump and other Republican elites. But the real blame lies with ordinary Republican voters. They chose Trump above a plethora of real conservatives like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. They then voted for him in the general election, instead of choosing a genuinely conservative third party candidate. Republican elites didn’t invent conspiracy theories or bigotry; those things already existed amongst the electorate, and were simply politicised to the Republicans’ advantage. Since Trump’s inauguration, it has become obvious that the man is unfit for office. The various scandals shows he has clearly acted improperly, if not illegally. He gets into needless fights far too easily. He is short-tempered and easily goaded. He doesn’t have a consistent and coherent vision for the American economy, nor for America’s place in the world. He has appalling approval ratings, not only in America but worldwide. Yet it is Republican voters who choose to stick by him. If Trump’s popularity amongst Republicans dropped from 80% to say 40% or less, he would be finished.
The fact is, the vast majority of Republicans do not care about the sort of principles Flake believes in. They don’t know anything about Edmund Burke, Adam Smith or Thomas Paine. Most of them haven’t read anything by Milton Friedman or F.A Hayek. Abstract principles like constitutionally limited government, free markets and individual liberty mean little to them. Instead, what concerns them is not the size of government, but who it works for. That’s why they are perfectly happy with Trump’s protectionist economics or statements he’s made in the past about protecting Social Security and Medicare. Government can be as big as it likes, as long as it works for ‘ordinary Americans,’ as opposed to immigrants, foreigners, and liberals who live in big cities. What drives Trump voters is identity politics, not ideology.
The reason why Trump was surprisingly successful was that he understood this, the traditional Republican elites didn’t. Republicans in Washington have long been out of touch with their base on a whole host of issues, because they wrongly believed the base shared their conception of and dedication to conservatism. Now that their folly has been exposed, they dare not criticise the base for fear of losing office. So instead, they collude with Trump in order to achieve their long-term objectives like tax cuts and healthcare deregulation, while pretending to be on the side of working class Trump supporters. This strategy may work for the next few years. They already have another conservative Supreme Court justice and the repeal of various Obama-era regulations. They may get tax cuts and healthcare deregulation yet. But come the forthcoming elections, they will not be able to distance themselves from an increasingly unpopular president. Their moral cowardice will be their downfall. The best thing that can happen to American conservatism is the collapse and total defeat of the Republican Party, which will hopefully be reformed into a party backed by intelligent and authentically conservative voters, as opposed to the pretence of conservatism and nationalistic dog-whistling that characterises today’s GOP.