Trump: A blessing in disguise for conservatives

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It is easy to imagine that the publishers of National Review, the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal – bastions of conservativism, all – must have been in a dark mood early in the morning of November 9.  Two things had happened that seemed to diminish the influence of conservatism in American political discourse:  a man whom conservatives saw as unelectable was in fact elected, and that very same man had won office without regard to the most basic tenets of the philosophy for which conservatives stand.

As things are turning out, however, Trump’s election might well be a blessing in disguise for conservatives.  This is not to say that Trump will soon adopt the conservative agenda. He still obsesses over trade with China.  His defenders still point to his “pragmatism” (which could easily be translated as “isolationism”) in matters of foreign policy.  He remains enamored of raising the minimum wage and instituting paid family leave.

Yet, conservatives should be alert to the opportunities presented by Trump’s election.  First, they must recognize that, whereas Clinton would have been deaf to conservative arguments, Trump, having no recognizable ideology to begin with, offers a tabula rasa on which to write the ideas of Bill Buckley and Ronald Reagan. Of course, there will be any number of voices, including those of his socially liberal children, pushing him in one direction or another, but the people with whom he will have to work, including most Republicans in Congress, will push him to the Right. 

Conservatives who operate from the ivory towers of their host publications and think tanks lost influence over the Republican primaries because they failed to translate their ideology into a message that would resonate with the people. And that message is the slogan that got 2/3 of white, non-college-educated whites to vote for Trump: “Make America great again.”  Conservatives need to understand what it is about this slogan that appealed to Trump voters:  a sense that Ivy League pinheads had sacrificed the welfare of working class Americans to globalism and to identity politics, that America had lost its resoluteness in standing up to external threats and that American institutions were being eroded in the name of political correctness.

One way that conservatives can appeal to the Trump constituency is to point out that free trade, as a conservative value, does not translate into open borders or the renunciation of American sovereignty. The United States does not have to join the TPP or even stick with NAFTA in order to enjoy the benefits of cheap imports, which is, after all, where the national interest in trade lies.  Conservatives can tell working class Americans that they don’t have to put up with policies that force their daughters to shower with biological males.  Nor do they have to pay taxes to support a system of higher education that wastes money on “diversity” offices and “microaggression” training.  Nor do they have to put up with up with a mentality that dares not recognize radical Islamic terrorism for the threat that it is.

The good news is that conservatives may never have had as great an opportunity as they have now to adopt a muscular public policy.  Today, the Republicans control both houses of Congress, and, with 25 Republican seats up for grabs, they can expect to widen their majority in the Senate in 2018. And Republican dominance runs deep.  Next year, Republicans will hold at least 33 governorships (depending on the final count in North Carolina) and control 68 state legislative chambers.  This doesn’t mean that conservatives hold sway in equal proportions, but it does mean that conservatives have an audience at all levels of government that will be receptive to their ideas.

Conservatives have a golden opportunity to advance their ideas, thanks also to the self-delusion running through the Democratic party.  It was one thing for Republicans to stop Obama’s program in its tracks when they took over both houses of Congress.  But when Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders bluster about standing up to Trump on their pet issues, they are bringing a knife to a gun fight.  The same goes for Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey, who thinks that she can hold Trump accountable to whatever she divines the state constitution to mean.

When Warren and Sanders champion radical Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, a Muslim convert known for his pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel views, to lead the Democratic National Committee, it is clear that they have political tin ears.  Clearly, they failed to get the message voters sent on November 9.  Should they succeed in imposing Ellison, they just may seal their fate as the minority party for decades to come.

How to proceed? First, conservatives should support Trump when he makes good decisions, such as appointing Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser, and oppose him when he makes bad decisions, as he would if he tries to impose steep tariffs on Chinese, Japanese and Mexican goods.  Second, conservatives should work to get Trump to push tax reform and deregulation to the front of his agenda. And third, conservatives should hold Trump’s feet to the fire on his promise of appointing originalists to the judiciary.

Probably the most positive aspect of Trump’s election, from a conservative point of view, is that it signals a rejection of identify politics and of the political correctness for which Obama and Clinton are the personification.  Out of the ashes of the dismantled Obama legacy, there is the opportunity for a powerful conservative movement to rise again. Conservatives need to focus now on seizing that opportunity.

David G. Tuerck

David G. Tuerck

David G. Tuerck is executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute and professor of economics at Suffolk University. Read his past columns here.