Op-Ed: Conservatives ponder the future of the GOP under Trump


The Republican Party is sitting pretty. After the inauguration, it will control all three branches of government for only the second time in the last 84 years, along with a majority of governorships and state legislatures.

But even as the Republican Party has grabbed the commanding heights of power, it has lost any idea of why it’s there. There are three factions in the GOP competing for control.

First, “movement” conservatives, led by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who believe in an agenda of cutting taxes and entitlement programs, promoting free trade, a “balanced” approach to immigration reform, outreach to minority communities, a strong defense and an internationalist foreign policy. This is the view of most conservative intellectuals and national security professionals. Many were #NeverTrumpers; others swallowed his candidacy like castor oil.


I want Trump to succeed as a conservative president for the good of the country. But I remain skeptical about whether this is possible.

— Max Boot

Second, Trumpkins who want to transform the GOP into a European-style nationalist party that opposes cuts in entitlement programs, believes in deportation of undocumented immigrants, white identity politics, protectionism and isolationism backed by hyper-macho threats to bomb the living daylights out of anyone who messes with us. This is the faction that probably has the most enthusiastic popular support at the moment.

And third, the cynical politicians and political professionals who don’t much care about the actual agenda of the party — they are happy to back anyone, no matter how repugnant or unqualified, as long as that person delivers electoral victories. Republican Party Chairman Reince Preibus is the de facto head of this clique, which may be the largest of the three groups.

By definition, the third group will back whichever faction emerges triumphant in the battle between the first two. One would have to give the advantage right now to the Trumpkins. The only complication is that it’s not clear that Donald Trump is actually a Trumpkin himself.

Trump has a breathtaking record of mendacity and flip-flops — he was pro-choice before he was antiabortion, for the Iraq war before he was against it, for an increase in the federal minimum wage before he objected to it — which makes it hard to predict how he will actually govern. Many movement conservatives, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence, operate under the assumption that Trump is essentially content-free and can be brought around to support the conventional conservative agenda.

I hope Pence is right. I want Trump to succeed as a conservative president for the good of the country. But I remain skeptical about whether this is possible for someone as unmoored and erratic as he is.


In the meantime, I can no longer support a party that doesn’t know what it stands for — and that in fact may stand for positions that I find repugnant. After a lifetime of being a Republican, I have re-registered as an independent.

Max Boot is a contributing writer to Opinion and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


Over the summer, the liberal filmmaker Michael Moore warned the political establishment that Donald Trump could win Rust Belt voters because he was “the human hand grenade that they can legally throw into the system that stole their lives from them.” He was right. For the third election in a row, working-class whites in the Rust Belt — the nation’s true swing voters — sided against Wall Street’s preferred candidate.

The GOP needs to absorb that message.

If the exit polling is correct and Trump did better with racial minorities than Mitt Romney, the message becomes even more clear. Republicans need to embrace Trump’s populism at the same time that they strip out the racist baggage, conveying that the new nationalism is not just for older whites, but for all American citizens.

Republicans should focus relentlessly on growing the economy in a way that increases middle-class incomes.

— Michael Brendan Dougherty

Republicans should focus relentlessly on growing the economy in a way that increases middle-class incomes. Infrastructure funding is an obvious place to start.


Republicans should also listen to Edward Conrad, a former Bain Capital partner, who advocates more balanced trade arrangements with our major partners. Right now, China, Japan and Germany tend to use their trade surpluses to buy government securities, rather than American goods. We should likewise recognize that Germany and China use competitive currency policy as a kind of employment program for their own workers at the expense of American ones — and we should check them.

The very fact of the Trump presidency is frightening to many Americans, who worry that he’s malicious and incompetent. But this stunning break from the what everyone assumed was the pre-planned march of history is also slightly invigorating. It’s an opportunity for the Republicans to champion the 99%, even as Democrats try to sort out their coalition of bloodless wonks, Wall Street and the campus left.

If, however, the rumors are true that Trump wants JP Morgan Chief Jamie Dimon to take over as Treasury secretary, forget all of the above. We’ll just have business as usual.

Michael Brendan Dougherty writes about politics for the Week.


Donald Trump’s victory may lead Republicans to embrace the mogul’s policies and rhetoric. But that’s a terrible idea, for two reasons.


First, Trump did not win the election; Hillary Clinton lost it. The latest data suggest that 2016 was a low turnout year, with about 3 million fewer Democrats and half a million fewer Republicans casting a ballot than in 2012. Clinton underperformed in nearly every demographic group except for women.

Second, in the long run, Trump is toxic to the Republican brand. Fully 70% of Latinos — the fastest growing voter bloc — believe that he has made the Republican Party “more hostile” to them. Nearly half of Americans believe that Trump won’t treat Muslims fairly in the country, and 54% of Americans believe that Trump is prejudiced.

In some respects, we’re witnessing a national-level repeat of the California Republican Party’s self-destruction in the early 1990s.

— Emily Ekins

In some respects, we’re witnessing a national-level repeat of the California Republican Party’s self-destruction in the early 1990s, when GOP Gov. Pete Wilson pushed Proposition 187 to prohibit unauthorized immigrants from accessing state services.

Wilson and others argued that California could not afford the added tax burden. But many felt that Prop. 187 supporters were motivated by anti-Latino sentiments. As one Latino Republican put it, “He was saying we don’t work hard.” Wilson made Prop. 187 the centerpiece in a tough reelection campaign that he ultimately won. The state party, however, never recovered its reputation.

Before Prop. 187, almost half of California Latinos voted for Republicans; in the years since, Latinos have voted 2-to-1 Democratic.

In contrast, the Texas Republican Party in the 1990s took a more inclusive, pro-immigration approach, eschewing “show me your papers” type policies. George W. Bush, for instance, called Prop. 187 a “catastrophic position” and actively sought the support of Texas Latinos in his campaign for governor by emphasizing economic opportunity and education.

These efforts worked: Texas Latinos went from voting Republican at a rate of about 30% to nearly 50%.

And contrary to some Republicans’ fears, Latino outreach did not lead to creeping liberalism or come at the expense of the Texas’ economy. Texas remains one of the most economically free states and a leader in job creation.


The national GOP shouldn’t lull itself into thinking it’s in good shape; the 2016 election did a great deal of damage. Going forward, it’s obvious that Texas-style outreach is the better strategy.

Emily Ekins is a research fellow and director of polling at the libertarian Cato Institute.


I got this election wrong. The fact that I wasn’t alone matters — not as absolution for my analytical failures, but as an indicator of how disconnected so many of us in the chattering classes are from the forces that propelled Donald Trump to become the 45th president of the United States. From any angle or perspective, Trump’s victory was arguably the most improbable electoral event of our lifetimes. Give him and his team their due.

Various tribes on the right spent the last few weeks gearing up for the Mother of All Blame Games. Despite their public confidence and stiff upper-lips, many Trump supporters were just as surprised as the rest of us by his victory. Team Trump was going to make Trump opponents — like myself — “own it!” in the oft’ repeated words of Fox News’ Sean Hannity. The Never Trumpers, meanwhile, were eager to point fingers at those who blew an utterly winnable election in exchange for a mess of populist pottage.

And then Trump won. Not only that, he followed through with a gracious victory speech, including a conciliatory overture to his critics. So even as both sides were sharpening their rhetorical machetes and wrapping an extra loop of barbed wire around their baseball bats, Trump’s victory amounted to — not so much a truce, but a timeout. It feels a bit like that scene in “Anchorman” in which the rival news teams pause to establish the ground rules of the coming brawl (“Rule No. 1: No touching of the hair or face!”).


The NeverTrump movement, to the extent it was a “movement” at all, effectively ended on election night. We lost.

— Jonah Goldberg

The bloodbath may still be coming, but everything now depends on how Trump governs, specifically whom he appoints and what priorities he sets for his first 100 days. The NeverTrump movement, to the extent it was a “movement” at all, effectively ended on election night. We lost. Now the issue is whether we were wrong about Trump or not. That’s a question only he can settle.

I suspect there will be much camaraderie and unity among Republicans in Washington in the beginning. Many — though not all — of Trump’s stated priorities are shared widely on the right. None of Trump’s opponents on the right are against repealing and replacing Obamacare or appointing a fine conservative to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court. I suspect Trump’s closest advisors, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, will counsel the president-elect to quash any effort to deny Rep. Paul D. Ryan the House speaker’s seat. Such a power struggle would cripple Trump’s agenda.

But eventually, a civil war or something close to it is probably on the horizon. It will start not within the Republican Party (unless Trump rejects the advice to avoid an anti-Ryan vendetta), but among conservative intellectuals.

That’s one of the many ironies about election night. The Republican Party, which in many ways is at the historic height of its power, really isn’t having a crisis — but the conservative movement is. The differences between a white-nationalist, protectionist populism and the traditional conservative reverence for classical liberalism and limited government are too great to paper over indefinitely.

If Trump is smart, though, he’ll wait as long as he can before exposing that fact.

Jonah Goldberg is an Opinion columnist.



Republicans woke up Nov. 8 expecting that a Donald Trump defeat would leave the party with a challenge: how to weave Trump’s issues into the GOP agenda, and his voters into its coalition.

Republicans woke up Nov. 9 to the realization that the same problem had suddenly become far more difficult and urgent. It won’t be hashed out in think tank panels and journal articles, but by a Republican president, speaker of the House of Representatives and Senate majority leader. The pressures to get it right, quickly, are enormous.

The federal government spent $888 billion on Social Security in 2015, and $546 billion on Medicare... Something’s got to give.

— William Voegeli

Still, the party of Trump and limited government has a good deal to sort out. Leading Republican politicians, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Paul D. Ryan, have made clear their desire to reform the big entitlement programs; the federal government spent $888 billion on Social Security in 2015, and $546 billion on Medicare. Combined, those two programs accounted for 39% of all federal outlays. No serious effort to rein in federal spending can leave entitlements untouched.


President-elect Trump, however, is not on board. “I will do everything within my power not to touch Social Security,” he said in a March 2016 GOP debate. He called it his “absolute intention” to leave Social Security the way it is, which includes not raising the retirement age.

The nation’s voters aren’t on board either. In a Pew Research Center survey taken earlier this year, 71% of respondents opposed reducing Social Security benefits for the sake of its long-term solvency, as opposed to 26% willing to consider it. Republican voters were scarcely less adamant on the point (68% opposed) than Democrats (72%).

The problem, however, is a real one. Prosperous nations around the world are straining to keep their social insurance systems solvent. People are having fewer children, entering the workforce later, leaving it earlier and living longer lives. In addition to these demographic similarities, there’s a political one: Voters everywhere are insistent about maintaining and increasing benefits, but resist the tax increases that such benefits necessitate.

Something’s got to give.

High on the list of targets for elimination or consolidation will be welfare programs not connected to payroll taxes, and therefore widely perceived as unearned benefits. Twenty years after a Republican Congress abolished the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, other parts of the welfare state — ones that lack the political protection afforded by Social Security and Medicare’s resemblance to private insurance — could face severe political pressures at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

William Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books and author, most recently, of “The Pity Party.”


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