Everybody seems to be running around in fear, confusion, or both, about what’s going on with the American political right.
I call it that – the “American political right” – because it isn’t coherent or unified enough to call it “conservatives” or “the Republican Party,” and still correctly signify the majority of the people in it. This, in fact, is one of the biggest sources of confusion.
If you enthusiastically support Trump, you’re not a conservative, by any definition. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It means you don’t prioritize the actual principles of American political conservatism. You’re not making your choice based on those principles.
On the other hand, if you believe you are a guardian of political conservatism, and yet you’re more determined to bolster an obviously failing status quo than to accept that it needs serious adjustment – well, in that case, you aren’t a real conservative either. You’re more of a reactionary, caught with your interests in a particular time and place.
This seems to be where much of the “conservative establishment” is. A lot of people would agree with Ace of Spades that that’s where the iconic publication National Review is, given that it has just come out with its “Against Trump” manifesto. I think it’s more complicated than that, for what it’s worth. I haven’t come to bury NR — but neither have I come, in this instance, to praise it.
John Nolte takes NR to task today for the anachronism of its delivery device: the old-timey political manifesto.
But my criticism is for the strategy of adopting an “Against Trump” posture, as if that is the most relevant stance given what’s going on here.
The old-consensus right needs to stop blaming Trump and his supporters for a very real phenomenon emerging among the voters, one that preceded his rise and is much bigger than he is.
What’s happening is that the old consensus is falling apart. This is the consensus of 20th century America by which Republicans agreed to have as much big government as we could “afford.” To put it another way, the limited-government, constitutionalist right compromised with the big-government, collectivist, anti-libertarian left, and agreed to fund big government, in exchange for retaining the formal structure of a constitutional republic.
The hollowness of that formality is being rammed home now, most days of every week. It has been since Barack Obama took office. The original old-consensus agreement to fund and accept big, intrusive government is what eventually set Obama up to make sweeping changes to people’s lives using just his pen and his phone. And that agreement has been in place, with the cooperation of Republicans (including more and more conservatives with each passing decade), since the 1930s.
But we’ve reached the point where the payoff figure is too high, and the formalities too false and compromised. This isn’t hypothetical for the people. It’s real, and they are the ones paying the price. They’re the ones losing jobs, property, businesses, community safety, personal freedoms. Right now, today.
The old consensus is collapsing, as it always had to, of its own unsustainability. The price of buying off collectivist fanatics, by letting them play “government” with the people’s resources and calling it due process of “law,” is too high.
We have moved too far now from the original idea of America to have a serviceable, common understanding of what “conservatism” is. Only some self-defined conservatives today think there’s value in conserving the political tenures of senior Republican politicians. There are plenty of conservatives, moreover, who already recognize that they don’t want to “conserve” the current status quo of American politics.
Most importantly of all, there are quite a few people who do want to conserve constitutionalism, federalism, and the republican idea of limited government – and who realize that the current status quo of American politics, including what Republicans and many conservatives do in it, is the problem.
This is way bigger than Donald Trump. The old consensus was already crumbling before he became a “thing.” Not understanding that is a key source of confusion.
It’s good news, folks, that the old consensus is dead. If we hope to avoid being dragooned into the lawless collectivism that government always trends toward over time, that old consensus is exactly what had to be broken.
But it puts us in a tough transition. It’s no wonder, at a time like this, that we can’t define “conservative”; that the right is fractured; and that the Republican Party is struggling to find its way. Reality has overtaken the 80-year narrative of compromise. Compromise isn’t going to work anymore. We either take back political territory from the collectivist left, or we perish.
The left has no such definitional crisis going on. The strong showing of Bernie Sanders is evidence that the left has been refined down to what it has intended to be for the last 100 years: an occupying force of coercive collectivism. The left knows what it is.
It’s headed for the ash heap of history, in this “progressivist” incarnation, but that doesn’t matter to it, because the left is all about the past anyway. Nothing exists for the left but the grievances of today and yesterday.
So it’s a false analysis to draw parallels between Trump and the right, and Sanders and the left, and proclaim that 2016 is all about being anti-establishment – as if a bunch of people with very different political ideas have all run off on some insane, one-dimensional fad.
What 2016 is about is the old consensus falling apart. The task for those who want to preserve – restore – government that is limited, constitutional, and federal is to help others understand that, and offer them an alternative vision. “Vote for Jeb Bush” and “We hate Ted Cruz” are not bases for an alternative vision. They’re just noise. What should we do instead of keep hurtling toward the cliff under the old consensus?
Trump isn’t offering an alternative. He’s an old consensus guy, comfortable with big government. Like his biggest critic Jeb! (ironically enough), he just thinks it should be managed better.
Most of the candidates fall somewhere on the old consensus spectrum. (Including Sanders.) The ones who don’t – Cruz, Carson, Paul – have their pluses and minuses. I don’t know that America is ready to articulate a new consensus just yet. I do know that there’s no keeping the old consensus on life support. It’s gone, suffocated by its own bloat, and the day of those who tended it is over.