What a short, strange trip it's been for Donald Trump's conservative supporters. Ever since the Goldwaterite takeover of the GOP, the party has tried to convert voters to conservatism. This orientation has sometimes led it to follow a “better to be right and lose” axiom — hence Goldwater's disastrous defeat in 1964. Now we seem to have tipped in the other direction, thinking it's “better to be wrong and win.”
George W. Bush's “compassionate conservatism” was seen as a nod in this direction and a great many conservatives — myself included — were critical of his efforts to triangulate against traditional limited government conservatism.
After Barack Obama's election, the party lurched toward purity. The tea parties were not only a revolt against Obama's leftism but also — belatedly — the perceived apostasies of Bush, as well as John McCain.
In 2010, then-Sen. Jim DeMint declared he'd rather have 30 reliable conservatives in the Senate than 60 unreliable ones. Ted Cruz launched his presidential campaign on the premise that deviation from pure conservatism cost us the 2012 election. The only way to win was to refuse to compromise and instead give the voters a clear choice. Many of the right's most vocal ideological enforcers cheered him on.
Until Trump started winning. Suddenly, the emphasis wasn't winning through purer conservatism but winning at any cost.
Consider Larry Kudlow and Stephen Moore. In August, the two libertarian-minded economists attacked Trump, focusing on what they called Trump's “Fortress America platform.” His trade policies threaten the global economic order, they warned. “We can't help wondering whether the recent panic in world financial markets is in part a result of the Trump assault on free trade,” they mused. As for Trump's immigration policies, they could “hardly be further from the Reagan vision of America as a ‘shining city on a hill.'”
Months later, as Trump rose in the polls, Kudlow and Moore joined the ranks of Trump's biggest boosters — and not because Trump changed his views. On the contrary, Kudlow has moved markedly in Trump's direction. He now argues that the borders must be sealed and all visas canceled. He also thinks we have to crack down on China.
What explains such Pauline conversions on the road to a Trump presidency? One argument they and many other converts make is purely consequentialist. “For me, Trump potentially represents a big expansion of the Republican Party, a way to bring in those blue-collar Reagan Democrats,” Moore told the Washington Post. “That's necessary if the party is going to win again.”
Lost in the discussion is any effort to win a mandate for conservative policies, other than an impossible crackdown on immigration (and even on this Trump has acknowledged he will be more “flexible” than initially advertised). Instead of converting voters to conservatism, Trump is succeeding at converting conservatives to statism on everything from healthcare and entitlements to trade.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this sorry state of affairs is that many conservatives have been arguing for years that we must update Republican policies to help the very people Trump is now winning over through ideologically haphazard demagoguery. Indeed, a diverse group of intellectuals associated with the Conservative Reform Network and the journal National Affairs developed a host of policies that apply Reaganite principles to today's problems.
As Ramesh Ponnuru (my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute and National Review) has argued, cutting top marginal tax rates were a priority when President Reagan took office in 1980 because they were at 70%. Now they're at 39.6%, so maybe other forms of tax relief should take priority? For instance, Ponnuru's championed child tax credits to help struggling families raise the next generation of taxpayers.
Reformocons, as they're sometimes called, were trying to find a way to grow the party without abandoning Reaganite principles. For their efforts, they were dismissed as apostates. Kudlow and Moore heaped scorn on reformocon ideas. Rush Limbaugh, for his part, dismissed reform conservatism as “capitulation” to liberalism. But now we are witnessing the mother of all capitulations, rationalized by Trump's incessant promises to “win,” conservatism be damned.