‘This is a wonderful moment to be a conservative’ wrote the right-wing commentator David Brooks in the New York Times just a few weeks ago. He was not joking nor is he alone in this view. The New York result may have made a Trump nomination more likely however there are a growing number of Republicans who now believe – admittedly in naïve hope rather than secure judgement – that the debacle of Donald Trump could in fact prove to be a moment of ‘creative destruction’ for the party.
Like a forest fire, Trumpism has been an unstoppable force which has swept through the party’s grassroots while its principle guardians watched on, at first hopeless, and now helpless, to do any thing to stop it. The party may be feeling a little scorched, but there are those who say that whatever the outcome in November, the phenomenon of Trump – a counterfeit conservative who stands little chance against Hillary Clinton – will, at any rate, ignite a process of regeneration and force a bruised GOP to ask new questions and think new ideas. ‘Nobody knows what it will be, but it’s exciting to be present at the re-creation’ wrote Brooks.
I witnessed this optimism first hand speaking at a Conservative conference hosted by Harvard University last weekend. Entitled, ‘Challenging the Caricature: Emerging Ideas for a New Conservative Generation’, the conference was organised by right-wing student organisations from across America’s Ivy League universities and brought together leading Republicans and conservative commentators. If the Republicans have any hope of revival post-Trump, it must surely lie in energising its youth wing and in turn, appealing to the Millennial generation who overwhelmingly identify themselves as Democrats.
Organising a conference on Conservatism at Harvard however is no easy feat given the culture of liberal political correctness that now dominates US campus life. ‘I had to think twice about using my personal email address when promoting the event and know I won’t be putting it on my CV’ admits Lisa Peng, a Maths major at Harvard and chief organiser. Lisa knows a little about the importance of freedom of speech; her father is currently serving a prison sentence in China for speaking out against the government. But surely she doesn’t feel there is a comparative level of censorship in the US? ‘Conservatives remain very much in the closet in America’s Liberal Arts Colleges’ she tells me. These students have not only co-opted the language once owned by the homosexual community but even the policy of ‘Don’t ask: Don’t tell’; so reluctant are they to reveal their political affiliation. Campuses across America are currently locked in an exhausting and restrictive conflict about syllabuses, safe spaces and monitored expression and while some see positive parallels with the Free Speech movement of the 1960s others point to the McCarthy-era as its real precedent.
‘What actually makes someone become a liberal?’ asked one student in half-mocking but genuine bemusement. The political polarisation on Harvard’s campus though mirrors that across America. The Pew Center recently reported that Americans are now more ideologically divided than they have been for two decades. The constitutional gridlock between Capitol Hill and the White House is symptomatic of the political gridlock across the nation. Obama’s searing rhetoric back in 2008 that ‘there are no red states, there are no blue states, there is only the United States of America’ now rings a little hollow. In education, broadcasting, politics and social circles, America has never been so fragmented.
No where is this fragmentation more acute than within the political parties themselves, especially the Republicans. Ronald Reagan famously referred to the ‘three-legged stool’ of the Republican movement that which was made up of social, fiscal and defence conservatives. Reagan’s strength was, of course, his ability to keep these three strands together and appeal to those beyond it. Today, not only has the Republican Party failed to find a unifying and inclusive leader to unite this broad church, but most destructively of all, each leg of this stool seems determined to dispense all their energy in bashing each other. Trump has simply filled the void, transforming all this aggression into a mandate. As the skittles have fallen, moderate Republicans have been forced to shuffle from their first, second, often third choice for candidate but whereas many feel only embarrassment about Donald Trump, they feel genuine anger towards Ted Cruz; the man whose epic 21-hour filibuster speech in the Senate to defund Obamacare led to the infamous government shutdown in 2013. For those who prize bi-partisanship and compromise in politics, they can not stomach Cruz, who, more than any other Republican, is responsible for the public’s disillusionment with Washington.
Moderate Republicans are ultimately pragmatists who recognise that party unity is only the first stage. Just as important, particularly to the younger generation, is challenging the well-entrenched caricature of Republicans as ‘uncaring’ and the party’s unfavourable associations with money, power and privilege. Those young Republicans, who have only known bust rather than boom, are much more sympathetic to the issue of inequality and crony capitalism than older Republicans even if they are unconvinced by the left’s response to it. They recognise too that the party needs to be talking about racial inclusivity, opportunities for the young and poverty – particularly on the latter, where the party should be able to offer a more sophisticated reaction to government aid programmes than ‘cut, cut, cut’. There are those too who believe that the party of Lincoln has a moral responsibility and historical duty to address the great modern slavery issue of our time: sex trafficking (one that the Democrats, even Hillary Clinton, have been remarkably silent on). Taking up such causes may challenge preconceptions, but we have been here before. In the aftermath of the Watergate Scandal in the 1970s, the Republican National Committee launched its ‘Republicans are people too’ campaign to humanize the party. It had little success; the fact was that the party remained in the doldrums until Reagan rode into town.
There are those who say that if the Republican Party is to survive, it needs to adapt to a changing America, which is becoming less religious and more socially liberal. Some may see a comparison with British Conservatism and look to David Cameron’s modernisation of the Conservative party as a blueprint, but in truth, the parallels are limited. Gay marriage for example, passed with relatively little opposition in the UK. For Republicans, social issues such as sexual equality, abortion and religious liberty are (like Euroscepticism is for some UK Conservatives) fundamental points of identity; they are not to be given away cheaply, if at all. One thing is certain, the choice of whether to adopt a more socially liberal position is bound to be one of the fault lines of US Conservatism over the next decade.
It is important to remember too that the Republicans found themselves in the unfavourable position (which the British Conservatives did not) of being in the White House when the Financial Crash happened. The Conservatives, with help from a leaving note from Labour’s Liam Byrne, successfully managed to frame the Crash as a result of Labour’s reckless spending, conveniently feeding into a well-set narrative of the left’s repeated mismanagement of the economy and acting as the justification for conservative fiscal measures. In the States however, the opposite was true. The Crash took place at the end of Bush’s term who seemed to twiddle his thumbs in his last months of office while it was left to Obama who stabilised the economy and therefore gained the political capital from swerving America out of financial armeggedon. Republicans may complain about trillion-dollar debt levels, but they have yet to come up with an effective and alternative narrative on the causes and consequences of the Crash.
Listening to Republican staff from Capitol Hill, you would think that the race for the White House is already over; their attention has already shifted to the forthcoming Congressional elections. As money is re-diverted from the Republican presidential campaign, moderates hope that this will mean that candidates are less reliant on Tea party money and are less compromised or politically exposed to threats of de-selection. Eyes too are on former Vice President candidate and current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, a man interested in ideas, who has set up six task forces to establish new thinking and policies within the GOP. Tackling poverty is a certainly cause close to his heart, although the fact that two millionaires have been appointed onto his poverty committee may only serve to reinforce the image of the Republican Party as the party of the rich.
In the short term however, Republicans have to address the Trump dilemma. Those who cannot bring themselves to vote for Trump as president have mooted the possibility of a third independent candidate. One Republican, who has openly refused to vote for Trump, is rising star Congressman Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who has been Senator for less than two years but is already being talked about as a future presidential candidate. In a Facebook announcement, Sasse stated that if Trump ends up as GOP nominee, conservatives will need to find a third option. This may or may not happen, but one thing is certain: how Republican politicians manoeuvre Trump’s nomination will make or break careers.
As with every Presidential election, voters are being told that the 2016 race is the most important election of their lifetime. When Republicans say this however they do so with some legitimacy. A Clinton presidency, even if for one term, is certain to cement Obama’s reforms – principally in healthcare – making them near impossible to reverse. But even more worrying is the make up of the Supreme Court. The death of Court Judge Antonin Scalia back in February sent panic through Republican ranks. With a number of judges near or past eighty, there is a distinct possibility that President Hillary Clinton will be able to remould the Court in her own image which in turn will have serious ramifications for all that Republicans hold dear: abortion, gay marriage, the right to bear arms and religious liberty.
American politics has always worked on a mixture of heroes and villains touting a mix of hope and fear. The ‘happy warrior’ Reagan excelled at painting himself as the antidote to the appeaser Jimmy Carter just as Bill Clinton posed as the ‘new kid on the block’ against the old guard George Bush while Obama’s strength was that he represented the politics of hope and aspiration after the Bush years of despair and exasperation. Trump, of course, is Barack Obama’s opposite in every conceivable way. Regardless of whether he wins or loses the nomination, it is perhaps comforting to know that moderate Republicans are beginning to learn some lessons. It may be that, in the long run, the Republican party may owe Donald Trump a vote of thanks.