Updated: Dec 6, 2020
“Where will the Republican party go,” Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker wrote on the eve of the election, “if Trump loses?” The GOP had gambled on a twice-divorced, casino-owning, prostitute-paying, ostentatious populist. They were all in. Losing any election all but guarantees the pundit dance: where do we go from here? But this wasn’t just any election.
In the 2016 Republican primaries, the GOP wanted to make something abundantly clear. In the words of then-candidate Carly Fiorina, “Trump does not represent me or my party, but I’ll still vote for him.” There was the MAGA-verse, and there was the “establishment,” career conservatives willing to bite the bullet for the mogul. But when the bullet was bitten hard enough, and the mogul stood on the Mall, the two factions seemed to bleed together. Three years into his term, only a single clot—Mitt Romney—opposed the thick Red blood of the unified party during the Impeachment trials. The new hue of Trump’s GOP was splattered over the Hill. Right?
Wrong. A common portrait: the GOP as a frail bird, hostage to Trump’s insatiable appetite. It is far too easy to believe—like New York Times columnist David Brooks does—that “if Trump gets crushed in the election, millions of Republicans will decide they never liked that loser and jerk anyway.” The numbers tell a different story. More Senate Republicans have contracted COVID-19 than have congratulated President-elect Biden, and 70% of Republican voters do not “accept the results of the election.” A better portrait: the GOP as a frail bird, fed by Trump’s insatiable appetite. There is no such thing as Trumpism. There is no such thing as Trump’s GOP, as though he seismically mutated the Party of Lincoln and, in his daughter’s words “changed Washington” in the progress.
No, under Trump, America witnessed the paragon of conservatism, a worship of a just-in-time society, a platform dedicated to immediate gain and justified by illusory long-term precedent.
Presuming Trump was an anomaly to the political fabric of the modern conservative party denies decades of historical developments and ignores a long-awaited fanaticism for Tweet-politics, an impulsive gratify-me-now approach which began the year Trump was born, not sworn.
“Brother, the tide is sweepin’ our way,” Clarence Brown, the chair of the Republican Congressional Committee, told onlookers at an election-night party. It’s 1946. Trump is four months old, and the Republicans have just flipped both chambers for the first time in 20 years. Twenty more years would pass before Brown’s tide would breach the horizon (Democrats regained both chambers just two years later), but the message from Republicans was clear: with Delano dead, a new economic modality would come. Trump was born the same year as modern fiscal conservatism.
Twenty years of Keynesian economics under FDR had been too much for conservatives. President Hoover—as in Hooverville—was a Republican critic of the New Deal. In his 1934 The Challenge to Liberty, he described the New Deal as “the most stupendous invasion of the whole spirit of liberty.” I’m unaware of any Challenge to Liberty 2.0, but it may well have been extremely profitable had his publisher insisted. Because Roosevelt’s Second New Deal, often lumped with the first, unofficially began the following year. Here is where Rand Paul’s nightmare, The Welfare State, adorned with social security and government overreach, began to ferment. Slowly, Hoover’s lone nasal rejection became a cacophony of conservative discontent and Newton’s Third Law of Politics ensued: for every policy there must be an equal and opposite policy. The New Deal was an extravagant anything-goes-voucher-palace with the megaphone blaring “when it comes to taxes…rich people should pay more than poor people, and in emergencies they should pay a lot more.” And most importantly, the New Deal was fiscal liberalism. For the next two decades, fiscal liberals, be they Eisenhower or LBJ, would continue to uphold or “out-New Deal” the New Deal. Fiscal conservatism then, in order to be differentiable, had to offer a rejection of the long-term regulatory state of the New Deal. It had to be impulsive, sudden, in your face.
How did a party beginning to tease the philosophy of immediate economic gain pivot to what Francis Wilson calls “a philosophy of…certain lasting values” in The Case for Conservatism. The answer is simple. In the words of Elaine May, both parties understood that in “postwar America” there was “intense need to be liberated from past” and “secure in the future.” A Republican Party constantly adjusting both economically and socially would be viewed as too unstable. The Republican Party of yesterday would bear no resemblance to that of tomorrow, falling victim to the Ship of Theseus. Wobbling economic conservatives needed a great stabilizer, a retrospective someone or something which could provide legitimacy and consistency across economic impulses. They found it in Christ.
It must be stressed that the moral flavor of the GOP is a fairly recent ornamentation. It is a strategy, not a foundation. The foundation of the Republican Party is fiscal conservatism. But the “rising tide of conservatism,” only came in as God became a strategic advisor. The surfers of this wave, neoconservatives, understood the impunity and attractiveness, particularly among evangelicals, of their newfound friend. The 1938 Conservative Manifesto failed to mention religion. The 1960 Conscience of a Conservative, authored by eventual Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, claimed that conservatism was obsolete without the “laws and truths of God.” In twenty years, Republicans had monopolized Christianity and Her followers. Counterculture, Panthers, burning draft cards and porno magazines, an army was assembling against purity. Here was a denomination frightened by emerging social liberalization in the West, and here was a party needing frightened social consumers for stability. The pious and the party needed one another.
It was a match made in Heaven, and Reagan should have been the shepherd. But “the Reagan Era did little to advance the social agenda of the Christian Right,” according to historian Eric Foner.
So instead, the Conservative Golden Boy (literally) trophy goes to gas-protestors-to-attend-church Trump. The evident character flaws of Trump as an individual don’t matter so long as President Trump upholds the façade of social conservatism, which, though scathed, he has.
President Trump has ushered in a third of the Court’s justices, each of which believes in the “sanctity of life,” and enacted a slew of socially retroactive measures. And constantly blasting off his thoughts for the masses, reversing positions instantaneously, Donald Trump has reached economic conservatism’s impulse Nirvana. Slashing corporate taxes, promoting the most stringent isolationist policies in over a century, lacking foresight, and using the very temporary and unreliable stock market as an index, for them too he has done his job. President Trump was just in time for a just-in-time conservative party. But now that he has lost, Lemann’s question remains. Where will the Republican party go? The long-awaited answer: nowhere. They are right at home.