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Divorce Conservatism From the Republican Party

In the Trump era, many commentators on the right have subsumed intellectual principles to partisan politics.

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With the passage of a sweeping tax bill on Wednesday, Donald Trump gets the first major legislative achievement of his presidency and deepens the debt the Republican Party owes to him. Despite a rocky first year, Trump has also delivered on a promise to fill the courts with conservative nominees, and Republicans are repaying him by more vociferously defending him against special consul Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Trumpism and Republicanism once seemed an uneasy fit, but now they are increasingly fused.

This tightening of bonds is causing a rift among a small band of Never Trump conservative intellectuals, who are torn between their revulsion with the president and their desire see the Republican agenda enacted. Some Never Trumpers are becoming alienated not just from the president, but the Republican Party, which they see as complicit in Trumpism. This includes pundits like The Atlantic’s David Frum, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, and The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol. Opposing them are conservatives like Jonah Goldberg and Charles C.W. Cooke, both of National Review, who often swallow their contempt for Trump, the man, and find some saving grace with Trump’s presidency.

This debate, occurring among a small cohort of conservative writers who agree on most issues, runs the risk of being about the narcissism of small differences. But it raises crucial larger questions: Is Trumpism a passing phase on the political right, and thus easily dismissible? Should intellectual conservatives give their fealty to a party that supports a figure like Trump? Ultimately, this is not a question about Trump at all, but rather about whether the alliance between conservatism and the Republican Party makes sense.

The broader philosophical dispute is currently subsumed in individual writers attacking each other. According to Cooke, Rubin has become a knee-jerk opponent of Trump. “Since Donald Trump burst onto the political scene, Rubin has become precisely what she dislikes in others: a monomaniac and a bore, whose visceral dislike of her opponents has prompted her to drop the keys to her conscience into a well,” Cooke argues. “If Trump likes something, Rubin doesn’t. If he does something, she opposes it. If his agenda flits into alignment with hers—as anyone’s is wont to do from time to time—she either ignores it, or finds a way to downplay it.

Defending Rubin, David Frum made the case that the Post columnist is willing to see Trump as part of a systematic problem, whereas Cooke criticizes Trump on individual actions but sees no pattern in them. “Rubin’s crime is that rather than waking up every morning fresh for each day’s calling of balls and strikes, she carries into her work the memory of the day before,” Frum contends. “She sees patterns where Cooke sees only incidents. She speaks out even when Cooke deems it prudent to hold his tongue.”

Within the heat of polemical exchange, there’s unfairness on both sides. Frum and Rubin do have a more systematic critique of Trumpism, but it’s also the case that National Review continues to publish strong critiques of the president in addition to apologias. The real core difference is that Cooke thinks Trump is a blip in history whereas Frum believes the president is fundamentally corrupting conservatism and the Republican Party. According to Cooke, “Conservatism in this country long predated Trump; for now, it is tied up with Trump; soon, it will have survived Trump.”

For Frum, Trump is a transformative figure whose legacy in changing conservatism will outlive his presidency:

The Trump presidency is a huge political fact. Donald Trump may not be the leader of American conservatism, but he is its most spectacular and vulnerable asset. The project of defending him against his coming political travails—or at least of assailing those who doubt and oppose him—is already changing what it means to be a conservative. The word conservative will of course continue in use. But its meaning is being rewritten each day by the actions of those who lay claim to the word. It is their commitment to Trump that etches Trumpism into them. And while Trump may indeed pass, that self-etching will not soon be effaced.

Frum has the better argument here, since the deforming influence of Trump is pervasive, especially as more and more conservatives try to defend the president from the Mueller investigation. But Frum’s insight can be pushed further: For intellectual conservatism to survive, does it have to cut itself from the Republican Party?

We’re so used to thinking of conservative and Republican as synonymous that we forget that this is fairly recent alliance. For the century after the Civil War, both the Republican and Democratic parties were ideologically heterogenous. There were plenty of progressive Republicans (like Wisconsin Governor Robert La Follette) and conservative Democrats (like Texas Senator Martin Dies). The most prominent American conservative writers, most famously H.L. Mencken, were as inclined to attack Republicans as Democrats.

National Review itself started in 1955 as a magazine critical of President Dwight Eisenhower’s moderate Republicans. While the magazine was aligned with conservative Republicans like Barry Goldwater, it often had cause to pick fights with establishment figures like Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon. Many conservatives felt the Republican Party was an flawed vehicle for their ideology. As late as 1976, National Review publisher William Rusher toyed with the idea of creating a third party. It was only with the victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980 that National Review really became a house organ for the Republicans.

Donald Trump’s presidency might mean, as Frum suggests, the death of conservatism. But more likely, we’ll see a fracturing of the right. Some will remains Republican Party loyalists above all else. This is a tendency already evident on Fox News. But the more anti-Trump conservatives will shake lose of the Republican Party and create a conservatism less vested in electoral politics.

This is a welcome development. The strongest contribution intellectual conservatives have made has come from figures who weren’t partisan but rather thorough-going critics of modernity. Traditionalist thinkers like George Kennan, John Lukacs, Hugh Kenner, and Robert Nesbit had little truck with partisan politics but instead devoted their energies to cultural criticism, charting the ways in which modernity was corrupting America. In the age where a vulgar buffoon like Trump is president, their cultural critique is more resonant than ever. If conservatism is going to survive, it’ll sever its connections to the GOP and follow the path of these thinkers.