Pick Up The Pieces

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Trump elephantEarly this week, we had prepared a column for today titled “Presidential Debates: What's the Point?,” which discusses the role of presidential debates in American national politics. We argued that the televised spectacles called “debates” served more as alternating campaign commercials than as occasions for reasoned disagreement and clarification. But intervening developments in the presidential race have rendered that piece immaterial. Perhaps we will post an updated version of “Presidential Debates: What's the Point?” some time in the future. Today, our aim is to address, very briefly, what is now an unmistakable existential crisis within American conservatism.

To be sure, we are not conservatives; however, we hold that conservatism is both a formidable tradition of political thought and a vital force within American politics. Although we rarely embrace the positive proposals advanced by American conservatives, we find that conservatism harbors forceful critical resources. Liberal or progressive political programs ignore conservative critique at their peril. Our political views need strong intellectual opposition, and, at its best, conservatism is among the most robust frameworks for political thinking.

It has been clear to us, and to many others, that today's Republican Party is no longer uniformly conservative in any standard sense. Exactly what the current GOP is committed to remains strikingly obscure, and it is doubtful that, apart from a few prevalent but vague slogans, there is any positive principle that unifies the Party today.

Perhaps the most that can be said is that a negative stance unites today's Republicans. They seem to share an overriding concern to repel the current President's policies. Mitch McConnell, upon becoming the Senate Majority leader in 2010, said that the single most important thing is for him is to help make President Obama a one-term president. In the past eight years, the traditionally Republican agenda items faded into the background of the Party's consciousness, and a strictly oppositional orientation eventually became the only thread holding the Party together. It is in only in light of the dominance of this negative standpoint that Donald Trump could ever have passed for a Republican.

The emphasis on opposition was accompanied by the realization within the Party that there was need for a new positive conservative agenda. The need for a shift in Republican thinking is not surprising. National politics is complex business, and one should expect political parties to periodically confront episodes of transformation, where new ideas are developed which displace the old. Arguably the Republican Party had reached a crossroads of this kind during G. W. Bush's presidency; however, this did not rise to the level of an intellectual emergency. By the close of Bush's second term, conservatism seemed desperately in need of a tune-up, but its future was nonetheless secure. However, the felt urgency to oppose President Obama at all costs distracted the Party from the task of revamping its vision, and ideological disarray took hold. Being an especially brash critic of President Obama, then, was enough to enable Trump to outperform his rivals for the Party's nomination. The more traditional conservative voices simply were drowned out.

So here is where things stand today. The recently publicized recording of Donald Trump arrogantly reveling in his uncontrollable inclination to commit sexual assault, and his ability to do so with impunity, marks an existential crisis for the Republican Party. Here is a man who we now know openly flouts all of the moral principles at the heart of conservatism. His constant bragging about his material wealth, how he intimidates his rivals, and what he does to take advantage of the systems of civil government should be abhorrent to conservatives who value modesty, fair play, and equality before the law. But revelations about how he has behaved toward women have shown him to be simply abominable. And on top of that, he apparently has no idea of how to apologize. His actions and words constitute an explicit repudiation of what conservatives have long held as their most cherished and fundamental ideals. What Trump has revealed about himself is that he, in addition to opposing the Democrats, stands in opposition to conservatism. Although he is the candidate for president that the Republicans are running in the election, Trump is most certainly not a Republican candidate.

Accordingly, the panicked distancing maneuvers we have seen in the past 48 hours from national Republican leaders — including Paul Ryan, Reince Priebus, and even Trump's running mate Mike Pence — are all inadequate; in fact, they are utterly beside the point. Those who, like John McCain, have officially withdrawn their endorsement have done better, but they still fall short; it is not enough to withdraw one's support from Trump. To repeat: Donald Trump has shown himself to be an enemy of American conservatism. Worse still, he is an enemy within the GOP; he resides inside the Party that serves as conservatism's voice and political steward in the United States. Actions that disassociate from Trump and words that denounce him are insufficient. These are all strategies that one exercises when dealing with any garden-variety political opponent; however, Trump is an internal menace. His comments, attitudes, and actions, given that he is the Republican nominee for the highest political office, represent the stance of the national Republican Party. Republican leaders must explicitly oppose him rather than merely admonish him or withdraw support, lest they be plausibly considered hypocritical opportunists who employ the language of conservatism when in fact they seek only to gather power for themselves. Republicans who are actually committed to conservatism must actively promote Trump's decisive defeat. They should announce that they categorically oppose Trump, and would like Republican voters to support someone other than Trump in the Presidential election. They should also plead with Republican voters to support GOP candidates in the House and Senate. But, importantly, their pleading must be accompanied by a solemn promise to the country that they will spend the next four years repairing the Republican Party by making it conservative again.