Donald Trump’s durable lead in Republican primary polls, and improving approval ratings, continue to befuddle people who ought to have better insight into the state of the conservative mind. Writing for National Review, Jonah Goldberg and Charles C.W. Cooke have each diagnosed Trumpism as a failing of the conservative voters who comprise Trump’s base.
Cooke believes that Trump “has succeeded in convincing conservatives to discard their principles,” begging the question of whether Trump’s supporters ever really shared the principles that animate conservative organizations and National Review writers. Goldberg insisted that “no movement that embraces Trump can call itself conservative,” which helped give rise to #NRORevolt, an online backlash, thick with white nationalists and other conservatives who are fed up with elites who try to write non-conformists—from moderates to protectionists to isolationists to outright racists—out of the movement.
The anti-tax group Club for Growth is a big part of that purification apparatus. It is currently organizing and raising money for an effort to excise Trump before his view that hedge fund managers should pay their fair share in taxes metastasizes through the Republican primary field.
Republican consultant Steve Schmidt, who presumably sympathizes with National Review and Club for Growth, described their frustrations as the result of a fatal disjunction between mass conservatism and the ideology that’s supposed to underlie it. “We’re at this moment in time,” Schmidt told NPR recently, “when there’s a severability between conservatism and issues. Conservatism is now expressed as an emotional sentiment. That sentiment is contempt and anger.”
This explains Trump’s rise and persistence, but fails to account for how “contempt and anger” became such valuable currency in Republican politics today. That omission is predictable, because such an accounting would implicate nearly everyone who now claims to be astonished and dismayed by the Trump phenomenon.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when resentment became a controlling force in Republican politics, but Club for Growth, National Review, and Schmidt all contributed to it.
Like Grover Norquist, who makes political enemies of any Republicans who don’t sign his pledge foreclosing tax increases, Club for Growth’s method—financing primary campaign challenges to unorthodox Republicans—has helped drive compromisers from the party. By the same mechanism, the Club, along with other issue-oriented advocacy groups, have contributed to the untethering of the party’s policy agenda from political reality.
To remain in good standing, Republicans must support reducing taxes on the wealthiest Americans dramatically, repealing the Affordable Care Act, subjecting unauthorized immigrants to a police state, and tearing up a global powers agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They must question or deny the existence of climate change, promise to vanquish all of the threats the Obama administration poses to the country, and in most instances reflexively refuse to join policymaking coalitions with Democrats.
None of this is politically sustainable, but for the past several years, Republicans have used it as a basis for legislative strategy—whipping up thin congressional majorities for indefensible legislation, as if priming members for a future moment when they can impose the party’s agenda on the country all at once. After the 2014 midterm landslide, National Review warned Republicans not to fall into a “governing trap,” when their efforts could be better spent “putting up legislation that Senate Democrats filibuster.” This strategy has for the most part precluded compromise, but in so doing has showcased just how little Republicans have done to curb liberal ambitions.
Against such a backdrop, affect and outrage have become key signifiers. Nobody can boast of having made steady progress toward creating a more conservative country, because nobody’s making any progress at all. Yet when affect becomes the main means by which candidates distinguish themselves in the Republican Party, the one who most effectively peddles white identity politics will gobble up the lion’s share of the GOP electorate. In 2008, Schmidt (perhaps unintentionally) exploited this party weakness when, as an adviser to John McCain's presidential campaign, he fast tracked Sarah Palin's vice-presidential nomination. In 2015, it means Donald Trump is the frontrunner to top the Republican ticket.
If the Club for Growth is alarmed by his rise, they should probably ask themselves why they’ve run the kind of candidates who could make reasonable promises—to cut deals with Democrats that include tax cuts; to get rid of Obama’s clean power plan, while simultaneously swapping out the payroll tax for a carbon tax, because climate change is real; to support immigration reforms that pair enforcement with the possibility of legalization—completely out of the party. The time might actually be ripe for a Republican candidate who promoted this kind of staid conservatism, but even if such a candidate existed, he’d never gain footing in the party today. To be acceptable to the establishment, you must seek the blessing of supply-siders and climate change deniers and diplomacy rejecters and on down the line. Trump is viable in part because genuinely serious candidates are not, and elite conservative institutions bear a lot of responsibility for that.