Rebuilding Conservatism in a Post Trump World

Enough ink has been spilled over the disastrous day Donald Trump had, seeing his campaign manager convicted of 8 felonies and his personal lawyer plea to helping the candidate commit campaign finance felonies to cover up affairs with adult entertainers, that I won’t bother piling on here. Instead, I’d rather think a bit about what might happen moving forward. No, not impeachment, a Pence presidency *shudder,* or even a blue wave at the midterms. I want to think about the future of conservative ideology in America.

What I wrote before the 2016 election came to pass. Donald Trump’s ascendance has effectively killed the modern Republican party. Whatever ideological coherence the party of free markets and Christian values once had has been frittered away in an orgy of nationalist anti-immigrant, pro-tariff populism. The party of Trump has no grand ideas. Instead, it has cheesy slogans (MAGA!) and impossible policies (Build the Wall!). Their only accomplishment while controlling all three branches of the federal government remains an unpopular tax give away to the rich. No health care reform. No immigration reform. No wall.

In so far as there is a discernable ethos to the conservative movement in the age of Trump it seems to center on these two questions:

  1. Will this trigger the libs?
  2. Does this make Donald Trump look smart or powerful?

If you can answer yes to either of those questions, your idea may well qualify for a place on the 2020 GOP platform.

That isn’t to say the machinery of the old party is completely dead. As if by rote muscle memory, the GOP has been instinctively slashing away at regulations. There is nothing subtle or nuanced about it either. This deregulation, from the environment to education, has no central purpose or premise other than “regulations = bad; no regulations = good.” But by and large, the party has no coherent idea of what it wants to do, other than to complain about immigrants and “snowflakes.”

Trump’s corruption and the phoniness it exposed in the conservative mediasphere (there will be no pivoting from Trump for people like Hannity and Carlson– this is the hill they die on) has likely lost them several national election cycles in the near future. The results could be much darker. They may have killed conservatism as a national movement for a generation.

If you turn off the shrill voices of talk radio and television and turn away from the clickbait and “Destroys the libs” headlines of popular conservative “media” sites you can still find the faint heartbeat of intellectual conservatism out there in print and digital media. There you will find voices, like those of David French and Reihan Salam, making interesting, nuanced arguments that challenge the vapidness of the Trump era and the dead-end ideas of the modern conservative movement that helped make space for this disaster.

Recently, French called on conservatives to begin more seriously struggling with racism in American society. As French points out, what little writing exists on the right about racism in the US is primarily focused on the non-scholarly “exposure” of hypocrisy and over-reach by (largely) non-academic liberals. This is the sort of lib triggering nonsense that left the party in the hands of trolls. As French points out, the topic of race is basically forbidden on much of the right:

In fact, at least in my experience, showing particular concern for issues of race is often seen as evidence by itself that you’re thinking like a progressive or that you’re somehow not sufficiently conservative.

I’ve been pondering this in part because American Evangelical churches are in a bit of a religious battle over “social justice” and intersectionality. Time and again I see concerned young people ask probing questions about stubborn racial gaps in a host of areas of American life, their elders ask them not to follow the siren song of the so-called social gospel, and then drop the ball on providing any meaningful alternative answer. They can debunk, but they can’t (or don’t) construct. Even worse, I see church members get particularly prickly when race is mentioned by the pulpit. Honestly, it’s amazing how much Sharpton or Louis Farrakhan come up, as if they represent the sum total of progressive thinking on race.

So the question hangs out there. If I care about bridging racial divides, what should I do? The identity-politics Left has an answer, one that provides millions of people with religious-level meaning and purpose. The conservative response is far harder to find.

French doesn’t come to any conclusions here– nor was he trying to. This was a call to arms. If being a conservative– if being a Christian!– is going to have any meaning moving forward, it must deal with issues like racism in a serious fashion. What French is asking is, what should a conservatism that deals with racism look like? And how can we get there?

Roger Clegg immediately responded with half a century of anti-intellectual nonsense proclaiming racism not that big deal and mostly the fault of blacks who just won’t stay married, making this an individual moral failing (of the poor and black), not a wider social issue. Plus, talking about racism just makes racism stronger!! Ignore it and it will go away!

His colleague, Reihan Salam, offered a more reasoned take.  Salam approaches the subject from an academic perspective. Rather than throwing out all the research on the subject because it does not conform to the preconceived talking point that racism is dead and/or the fault of the people suffering under it, he illustrates how historical forces feed into the very evidence people like Clegg point at to dismiss the historical legacy of discrimination.

It is important to be precise. Speaking for myself, I see the status of multigenerational African Americans as a separate and distinct issue from the challenges facing other groups, such as recent immigrants from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and their descendants, and conflating these groups strikes me as a serious mistake. As an American of color, to use a rather awkward term, I can’t say that racism has played a significant role in limiting my life prospects. For one, as a second-generation American of South Asian descent, I have almost certainly benefited from positive stereotypes about the groups to which people assume I belong, often incorrectly. The same can’t be said of people who are subject to negative stereotypes. Conservatives would do well to recognize that negative stereotypes play a serious role in limiting the life chances of millions of our fellow citizens, that segregated social networks (which are to some degree a reflection of negative stereotypes) contribute to persistent racial disparities, and that promoting social and economic uplift among the members of disadvantaged groups would redound to the benefit of all Americans. Thankfully, my sense is that there is a large and growing number of conservatives who share David’s take on these issues.

Salam recognizes his own advantages, such as the unearned and inaccurate positive stereotypes people placed on him, can lift you up and how negative stereotypes, as unearned and inaccurate as his positive ones, could crush people. He understands that social networks are key to our economic success and that access to this is uneven and often segregated by race. He knows that our marriage rates, health, education, and employment are all part of an interconnected web that is deeply impacted by institutional structures– including racism. Salam feels no need to deny these statistics. There are no good statistics to undermine them, the research is sound, and the contemporary political, economic, and moral impacts are clear all around us.

What French and Salam left somewhat unsaid here is this: the time has come for conservatives to stop denying research in the social sciences as hopelessly liberal and to start engaging these disciplines in a serious manner. The only way forward for a non-Trumpian conservative movement requires that the conservative intelligentsia rejoin the mainstream of academia. This half-century self-imposed exile has to end. Lynne Cheney wasn’t Moses. The journey she took conservative culture warriors on, abandoning academia for polemicism and principles for populism, did not lead them to a promised land. It simply left them intellectually impoverished and homeless, unable to fend off destruction from the inside-out.

If there is a viable path forward for conservatism in America, it will come from people like Reihan Salam and David French at the National Review and not the lunatic rantings of Donald Trump’s sycophants. Steps like this– admitting that racism in the past has an effect on peoples lives today– are important for bringing conservative thought back into the mainstream of academic research. The sooner it does the sooner we can start having productive conversations (and compromises) on the issues facing America today– from rising healthcare costs to the effects of industrial pollution to the disparity of economic outcomes for various races. Our democracy can only function if the majority of Americans can agree on basic facts. And one side has been operating in bad faith for a long time. It is time they rejoin us in reality. If they do, conservatism will find a footing moving forward. If they don’t, I’m afraid the party of Lincoln is officially and irreversibly the party of Trump.


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