Is Trumpism supplanting Reaganism?

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 28-

This week:

  • Can anyone or anything stop Donald Trump?
  • The American Right’s island of misfit toys
  • Will Trumpism topple Reaganism

President 2016

He leads in all the polls — there’s no point linking them all because it isn’t very close in any of them.

And neither his opponents’ attacks nor his own obnoxious behavior have proven capable of stopping him.

So the question this week: Can Donald Trump be stopped? Can the GOP stop him? Can the Democrats stop him? And for the long haul, can conservatives prevent Trumpism from eclipsing and dismantling the Reagan coalition?

This is going to be a very important question going forward. Democrats are experiencing turmoil in their own primary at the moment — as we have been predicting here, Bernie Sanders is catching fire and Hillary Clinton is drowning in her own sins. The Republicans’ nominee could well be the next president. Will they nominate a movement conservative, or will they nominate Trump?

Rise of Reaganism:  To put this all in context, a history lesson is in order. As movement Reagan1000x500conservatives tell their own story, the Reagan Coalition arose from the ashes of Barry Goldwater’s spectacular 1964 failure. Reagan’s feat was to combine the more libertarian and Southern (but still smaller and losing) Goldwater support base with ethnic social-conservatives and anti-communist blue-collar workers in the North.

This coalition proved quite politically durable and successful. Beginning in 1980, it won the presidency in five of the next seven elections. Still going strong in its second full decade, it fully restored GOP competitiveness in both houses of Congress.

Reaganism did not seem to end after that. The coalition appeared to last at least through the Tea Party phenomenon of 2009-2010.  Or did it? Whether it still exists today is suddenly a topic of considerable discussion. In fact, as discussed below, Donald Trump’s current success almost calls into question whether it ever really existed at all.

The Reagan coalition’s philosophy was the product of what is known as “fusionism” — a marriage between conservatism and libertarianism that had been fleshed out by, among others, William F. Buckley himself.

The most unifying issues for this coalition were anti-Communism, gun rights, abortion, taxes, and a basic commitment to limited government. But from its inception and throughout its existence, there were always a number of peripheral issues — some more and some less pressing — where agreement within the coalition was substantial but not as universal. These included free trade, right-to-work, and support for the State of Israel. Some of the issues changed with time — the need for and use of American military might after the Cold War, for example. Same-sex marriage became another such issue at the turn of the century, with most conservatives strongly opposed to it.

But among the issues where there was no overwhelming consensus between the time of Reagan and that of the Tea Parties, immigration always loomed — and at times it loomed larger than any of the others.

There is no question that Reagan ran for president twice and won on the platform of immigration amnesty. This was not something he felt any need to hide. He declared his support for an amnesty (using that exact word) in the same 1984 presidential debate in which he famously joked about former Vice President Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience.”

Reagan’s support for Amnesty did nothing to stop his winning the wholehearted support of the Reagan coalition in two consecutive elections. (The myth that he regretted the eventual 1986 amnesty dies hard, although the fact that it wasn’t well executed is widely accepted.)

But tensions over immigration increased as the nature of the issue changed. Mexico hit acute economic troubles in the mid-1990s, and illegal immigration into the U.S. surged for the next 15 years. Some blamed the amnesty for creating expectations that there would be another. This caused the attitudes of many conservatives to change, and that of others to harden. Even so, this was never an overriding issue in Republican politics. The most anti-immigration candidate the Republican Party has ever nominated for president since then was Mitt Romney.

Conservatism’s latest electoral success — the Tea Party movement of 2009, included very little focus on the immigration issue. The Tea Party period occurred just as the surge of immigration from Latin America came to a screeching halt with the recession of 2007-2009. In most of the marquee battles of the 2010 election cycle — for example, Senate primaries in Kentucky, Nevada, Delaware, Colorado — the issue barely came up. In many cases, Tea Party candidates (Florida’s Marco Rubio and Colorado’s Ken Buck, for example) openly supported guest-worker programs and other forms of “amnesty” that are anathema to hard-core restrictionists. They suffered no negative electoral consequences in their primaries.

This all supports the thesis that the Tea Party movement was in fact a bonafide continuation of the same kind of movement conservatism that had existed since Reagan’s rise, and not so much a precursor to Trumpism. Many Tea Partiers might have supported immigration restrictionism, but they were happy and enthusiastic lining up behind candidates who were not hard-liners on the issue. Obamacare and other economic and social issues overrode those concerns.

Triumph of Trumpism? Fast-forward to today.

House061915-TrumpThe coalition developing around Donald Trump seems to be strikingly different from the one that got so much attention in 2010. Has the conservative base radically changed in the last two years? Or has Trump discovered a completely different support base?

The question cannot be avoided, because insofar as it contains any ideas and not just a personality cult, Trumpism rejects nearly all of the tenets of traditional movement conservatism. It subordinates orthodox conservative thought on foreign policy, abortion, taxes, economics, and every other issue to a singular commitment to immigration restrictionism — or at least tough talk on the issue. Trumpism is also virulently anti-trade, and many if not most of its adherents are anti-Israel as well.

Still, the Trumpists and the Tea Partiers appear to have at least some overlap. Perhaps it is based solely on anger — a “burn it down” theory of Trumpism posits that conservatives don’t care that Trump is ideologically unreliable because they just want to see Republican leaders get fried. But this theory assumes a level of irrationality that cannot really be taken seriously. Its adherents argue that one the one hand the conservative base is primarily upset about Obamacare, and on the other hand that it is willing to back someone who thinks it didn’t go far enough.

When you press a Trumpist, you discover that Trumpism’s true attraction is its commitment to immigration restrictionism. And every organized or semi-organized group backing Trump seems to have this view in common. Thus, we can reduce the number of viable theories on Trump’s support base to two — the “Misfit Toys” theory and the “False Movement” theory.

The ‘Misfit Toys’ theory: The first theory posits that Trumpism has minimal overlap with fusionist “movement conservatism.”

The mass of Trump’s support is mostly separate and distinct from the pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax, limited-government and mostly pro-Israel movement that has been around so long and which fueled the Tea Parties. You will find in the ranks of Trumpism very few of the those who were so enraged with GOP leadership over perceived acquiescence over Obamacare and supported the government shutdown — these are far more likely to be backing conservatives like Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul or Bobby Jindal.

Trumpism, this theory goes, has attracted an entirely different support base — one could uncharitably call it the conservative movement’s Island of Misfit Toys. One could more respecfully say that Trump has given new  hope to groups that have been politically uninvolved and excluded from the two-party debate. In addition to the celebrity-followers that any candidate like Trump will inevitably attract, and the Obama-birthers he courted actively a few years ago, he has become a rallying point for several right-wing movements that were at some point shunned from movement conservatism — trade skeptics, single-issue anti-immigrationists, white nationalists, isolationists, and others who have lacked a home in mainstream Republicanism since at least the Reagan era.

In short, this theory views Trumpism as a motley combination of the least libertarian elements within the old Ron Paul base and deliberate, habitual non-voters who see both parties as a waste of time. In all likelihood, a lot of today’s Trumpists backed Ross Perot in 1992.

Trumpism is especially a rebellion against “reform conservatism” and other think-tank projects that Trumpists view as signs of conservative decadence. These innovations, after all, threaten to make mainstream conservatism even more unlike the worldview of Trumpism. An so Trumpism is an outsiders’ attempt to defeat Reaganism.

Weighing in favor of this theory: Why would movement conservatives, so opposed to Obamacare and so interested in entitlement reform, suddenly turn on a dime and back a candidate who openly supports government single-payer health care and rejects entitlement reform? Why would they complain so bitterly about GOP leaders’ 2013 compromise with Obama that resulted in a tax hike, then support Trump, who wants to raise taxes again?

Moreover, why would conservatives, normally so skeptical about candidates with big promises and dodgy records (Mitt Romney, for example), give Trump a free pass on such questions?

Weighing against this theory: Are we really supposed to believe it a coincidence that two separate and mostly opposed groups are so similarly displeased with the Republican leadership, lobbing many of the exact same criticisms as they seek to convince others? Even in backing Trump — who is worse on nearly all conservative issues than those same GOP leaders — some Trumpists will complain bitterly about the very faults in those leaders that Trump shares.

The ‘False Movement’ Theory: Under this alternative theory — much scarier one for the average conservative but also less plausible — both moderate and conservative Republican thinkers, writers and politicians alike at all levels have simply misread the conservative base’s signals all along. The possibility cannot be discounted out of hand. What if the base never really wanted conservatism as it has been understood since the Reagan era? What if the “silent majority” within the GOP has really been more like the John Birch Society this entire time — merely tolerating what we know as Reaganism as a lesser of two available evils?

As this theory goes, most of the Democratic-inspired and media-parroted stereotypes of the Tea Party voter are actually true. They weren’t who we thought they were — those people carrying signs that quoted Bastiat and denouncing big, overweening government. An enormous segment of the conservative base — perhaps even a majority or close to one — cares so strongly about keeping out immigrants (or at least talking tough about them) that all basic conservative issues can be sacrificed to that end.

Under this theory, the classic battles of the conservative movement in the past few decades to capture the GOP from its Rockefeller wing — exemplified in recent times by such ideological rivalries as that between Arlen Specter and Pat Toomey, or the Tea Party primaries of 2010 — were mere illusions. These battles, framed in their day as wars over the soul of the Republican Party, never even came close to touching the heart of the intra-party conflict.

Weighing against this theory: It implies that the base somewhat mysteriously (and with strange enthusiasm, both as voters and small donors) participated in those fights. Could it really be that they were all pining deep down for a very different sort of political war? It is hard to buy that because there are so few examples of candidates using immigration restrictionism as an effective winning issue in a GOP primary.

The truth probably lies somewhere between these two theories, and probably closer to the former than to the latter. Trump has mostly attracted most of his support from habitual non-voters outside the conservative movement, but there is a reasonably large overlap — let’s call it as much as one-third of his support or 10 percent of Republicans polled on any given night — who feel little need for intellectual consistency. Their admiration for Trump is mostly fueled by a shared antipathy toward the news media, the laxity wiith which illegal immigration is treated, and Trump’s other targets of any particular day, whoever they might be.

But of course, to say that movement conservatives are one-third of Trump’s support is just a guess. To whatever extent his support comes from the movement itself, Trump has corralled some likely voters. To whatever extent his support comes from outsiders, his fate is less predictable, because outsiders are also less likely to register or vote, and even less likely to caucus.

Assuming Trump lasts until Iowa, a loss there — perhaps his first opportunity to show weakness, since nothing else seems to stop him — would probably send whatever movement conservatives he has scrambling to find a more viable anti-establishment candidate.

On the other hand, if Trumpism can capture the GOP — or as some polls suggest, the presidency — it will be goodbye Reaganism, at least for now. It would mean conservatism will have a whole different face in the 2016 election cycle.