Saturday, August 1, 2020

What Does It Mean to Be Conservative in Today’s Republican Party?

I’m going to quote three “conservatives” in this column. I want you to know this up front so that you don’t mistake them for “liberals.” Jennifer Rubin is a conservative political columnist for the Washington Post. Michael Gerson is an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post who was George W. Bush’s chief speech writer. Stuart Stevens is a Republican political consultant who worked on the election campaigns of four Republican presidential candidates, including Mitt Romney. The question they address, in one form or another, is what it means to be a conservative in today’s Republican Party. Another way to frame this question is, what on earth happened to the Republican Party? I’ll start with Rubin, since she introduces the question most directly.

“Under Trump, the term ‘conservative’ has become almost meaningless, in large part because the party that identifies with conservatism has become a cult of personality extolling whatever position Trump latches upon, no matter how incoherent or repulsive. Good ‘conservatives’ are supposed to believe that family separation is an acceptable border policy, that the Justice Department should serve the president’s political interests and that developing a nationwide testing and tracing program is the responsibility of states, not the federal government (although the feds’ exercise of the police power is necessary).

“‘Conservatism’ now is a chaotic blend of right-wing nationalism, conspiracy theories, plutocratic economics, cronyism, protectionism, realpolitik foreign policy and repudiation of objective reality. When Trump departs, it is far from clear whether it will remain so, revert to pure anti-government libertarianism (which has a small constituency aside from donors and hard-line activists) or morph into something else entirely.”1

In other words, conservatism has become something conservatives from a decade or two ago would not recognize at all, even though they were already on the path that eventually led them to follow a self-absorbed demagogue. Michael Gerson expands on this theme, explaining why, in order to save the conservative movement, Republicans need to lose this next election BIG.

“This is the main reason that Republicans—in the Oval Office, in the Senate, in the House—must lose, and lose decisively. Trump has made national Republicans fully complicit in his revolt against American principles. Party loyalty now consists of defending the indefensible. By the nature of our constitutional order, a firm decision against bigotry is an entry-level commitment of American politics. Trump’s pervasive influence among Republicans has necessitated their repudiation.

“The president is ignorant of America’s history, indifferent to its ideals and blind to the nobility of the political enterprise. For most elected Republicans, the stain of complicity is probably indelible. But a presidential election can be a window—a short window—for recovery and renewal. Assuming our nation still has ambitions higher than the Suburban Lifestyle Dream.”2 This last term refers to an openly racist appeal Trump made this past week to his white supremacist followers who want to keep their neighborhoods segregated.

Stuart Stevens does not just take issue with where the Republican Party has gone; he also takes partial credit for it and explains that the GOP did not begin its long slide from principle with their embrace of Trump. Trump was merely the destination for which they were already heading. Stevens was just too late to see it, so he is trying to make amends now, partly by writing a book that outlines the long slide.

“Reading Mr. Bush’s 2000 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention now is like stumbling across a document from a lost civilization, with its calls for humility, service and compassion. That message couldn’t attract 20 percent in a Republican presidential primary today. If there really was a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, we lost.

“There is a collective blame to be shared by those of us who have created the modern Republican Party that has so egregiously betrayed the principles it claimed to represent. My j’accuse [bitter denunciation] is against us all, not a few individuals who were the most egregious.

“How did this happen? How do you abandon deeply held beliefs about character, personal responsibility, foreign policy and the national debt in a matter of months? You don’t. The obvious answer is those beliefs weren’t deeply held. What others and I thought were bedrock values turned out to be mere marketing slogans easily replaced.”3

I have been harping on this theme for a long time now. It’s nice to see some conservatives finally agreeing. What they are saying is that the Republican Party bailed on conservative principles long ago, and so now being “conservative” is almost meaningless. When a major political party gives up any serious attempt at policy and opts for sloganeering instead of governing, you get what we have in the GOP today: incompetence, conspiracy theories and quack science instead of expertise, wholesale corruption, and a total disconnect with society’s real needs and concerns (for instance, global warming, racism, economic inequality, affordable health care for all Americans, and, oh, I hear there’s a pandemic going round).

Personally, I don’t think the Republican Party can be saved. Falling in line with Trump was the final nail in the coffin. We do, however, need a conservative party that is right of center (not right off the cliff in wingnut territory), serious about science, more concerned with society’s needs than with holding onto power, and determined to do the hard work of creating workable policy and achieving hard-won compromise on complex issues rather than playing the sort of scorched-earth partisanship that Newt Gingrich ushered in and Mitch McConnell perfected. We need such a party, but I don’t think the current crop of Republicans in Power are capable of this. If I were Republican, I’d start with John Kasich and Mitt Romney and a few others who haven’t drunk the “conservative” Kool-Aid and start from the ground up. Maybe then the “conservatives” might be able to figure out again what it means to be conservative.


1. Jennifer Rubin, “Are You a Conservative? It’s a Trick Question,” Washington Post, July 27, 2020.

2. Michael Gerson, “Trump Has Made Republicans Complicit in His Revolt against American Principles,” Washington Post, July 30, 2020.

3. Stuart Stevens, “We Lost the Battle for the Republican Party’s Souls Long Ago,” New York Times, July 30, 2020.