Small government conservatives were going to shake up Washington. Instead, the city spat them out. Will Trump face the same fate?
The country is reeling from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Just years prior the proud citizens of a peerless empire, Americans have become a dispirited lot. The decline of the United States appears more and more like a foregone conclusion. And after patchy Republican rule, the Democratic Party seems invincible — poised to control the presidency for a generation. Within the corridors of power, the country’s fraught race relations dominate the conversation. Debts balloon as John Maynard Keynes is excavated and propped up like El Cid. Conservatism isn’t just uncool— it’s terminal. But this isn’t Trump’s America — it’s Barack Obama’s first term in office.
“History’s hard to know,” as Hunter Thompson once wrote, but the echoes today of ten years ago are unmistakable.
As the United States potentially ushers in a new left-wing presidency, America’s “Right” — if such a thing can be said to exist — will undergo its latest round of psychoanalysis. And even if Trump holds off the sans culottes outside his gates, he will hold onto power a diminished figure, b-lining for lame duck status. His administration will have appointed scores of conservative judges, only to see little to no enduring judicial victories (“Do you get the impression the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?” Trump asked earlier this month). Put in power on a promise of stabilizing immigration, he will have delivered perhaps a tenth of the border wall. And he will have cut taxes only to preside over the perhaps largest collapse in GDP growth in American history.
It’s clear, for now, US Republicans stand for one thing: against the Democrats.
The Democratic Party, on the contrary, in recent months — as Ross Douthat points out in the New York Times — has been reborn. It is now bursting with almost religious fervor, a cult of “public health,” “expertise,” “anti-racism” and armistice with corporate America. The clique — which can plausibly claim to channel a numerical majority — has been infused with a surge of purpose, a revolution more effective than anything dreamed up by Bernie Sanders. Or, as Douthat puts it: “Much of the action around it, the anti-racist reckoning unfolding in colleges, media organizations, corporations and public statuary, may seem more unifying than the Sanders revolution precisely because it isn’t as threatening to power.”
America’s left wing has seized the commanding heights. It’s been a long time coming.
As Janan Ganesh points out in the Financial Times: “Doctrinal liberals stormed the three branches of government handily enough, but not Hollywood, the publishing industry, academia and other trades that form our habits of mind without our knowing it.” And in language I can sympathize with, he adds: “Conservatism has bleak truths to impart: about the fragility of order, the perverse consequences of well-meaning change, the loss of the individual in the push for group rights. Zealots for change who give no quarter to conservatism’s insights are prone to over-reach. In fact, it is not obvious on which side a strict liberal, in the old sense, now belongs.”
For an example of a compact that neither changed history nor thwarted, one need look no further than “The Young Guns,” by Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy.
Originally a 2007 Weekly Standard cover, it’s a trio now as defunct as that magazine, But in 2010, they used this as the title for a brief tract — an encore to Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” (which too ended up being largely unenforced) — a blueprint of what they would do with real power (they never got it). By self-acclamation, Cantor was “the leader,” Ryan was “the thinker” and McCarthy was “the strategist.” McCarthy was quietly derided as the weak link, but his moniker ended up most apt, as he held formal power the longest (he remains, at time of writing, the House Minority Leader).
But the group did little else but survive (Ryan is now at Fox News, Cantor in investment banking).
Republicans stormed the House 2010, only to pass tedious Obamacare repeals with no chance of obtaining the President’s signature. In other words, the 190-page treatise explained small government conservatism in large font. When given the opportunity seven years later under President Donald Trump, senior Republicans confessed they hadn’t expected Trump to win and that they didn’t, per se, have an alternative to the Affordable Care Act.
Earlier, these Congressional Republicans had managed to install one of their own — Paul Ryan — on the 2012 ticket.
But Ryan helped Romney lose a winnable election, failing even to deliver his home state of Wisconsin (which Trump would carry four years later). When Republicans took the Senate in 2014 — completing their sweep of Congress — their leadership attempted to champion Trade Protection Authority, and favored Jeb Bush (who took the plurality of Republican Congressional endorsements in the early 2016 race) as their standard-bearer. Or. as Rep. Adam Kinzinger said in late summer 2015 after Trump was already dominating the race: “I think Jeb’s the guy.” No, he’s wasn’t
It’s worth noting that in order to win back power in 2016, the Republican Party needed an ex-Democrat, Mr. Trump. The kinds of voters who went Obama-Biden in 2008 and 2012 — and then flipped to Trump in 2016 — are exactly the demographic that could give a fresh chance to the bottom of that old ticket in 2020. For all the ink that has been spilled on Trump as an avatar of white reaction, he is losing even that contingent — and fast — if polling is to be at all believed. Republicans have also started this year by reviving another mistake of a forgotten era — dismissing the polls, as they did in 2012.
If Trump is jettisoned from office this autumn, as seems likely, it will be an event rich with irony. As some of his conservative critics point out, he campaigned in 2016 with elements from the old Democratic Party (some might say a “conservatism”), emphasizing the need to curb special interests, military overstretch, and runaway capitalism. Should he lose, the fact that he actually governed like a Republican of old (focusing on tax cuts, deregulation, and the pursuit of a bizarre obsession with Iran, to the neglect of worker protections and immigration) will have played no small part.
Many will vie for the title. But if they’re actually interested in power, Trump’s attempted successors would do well to consider — and avoid — the example of the “young guns.”
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