Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.
The fissures in the Democratic Party are on display for all to see, since it is the party in power, but the divisions in the Republican Party and the conservative movement are deeper, wider and far more threatening.
Matthew Continetti, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, describes the developments that have brought the conservative movement to a boil in his new book, “The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.”
In Continetti’s telling, there was deepening frustration and anger on the right after Republicans took control of the House in 2011 but still could not block the seemingly inexorable move to the left. In 2011, the Department of Education declared that Title IX required universities to investigate charges of sexual harassment with few due-process protections for the accused — to the dismay of many conservatives (and plenty of liberals). In 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services mandated that Obamacare cover the costs of contraception and abortifacients. In 2016, the Department of Education advised schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice.
“These administration dictates made many conservatives question the efficacy of controlling Congress,” Continetti writes. “The legislative body seemed unable to prevent the Obama agenda in any fashion.”
Conservatives have controlled the Supreme Court since 2006, when Justice Samuel Alito replaced Sandra Day O’Connor, but in 2015 the court established the constitutional right to same-sex marriage. “Justice Anthony Kennedy cast the deciding vote in Obergefell v. Hodges,” Continetti reports, noting that Kennedy’s “decision nullified bans on gay marriage in 31 states. Social conservatives were apoplectic.”
As the same time, white working-class culture was unraveling, as Charles Murray observed in his 2012 book, “Coming Apart.”
“At the top of society,” Continetti writes, “a self-perpetuating elite lived inside a bubble of affluent neighborhoods and postal codes Murray called ‘Super-Zips,’ while mass suffering played out below. Most Americans, Murray pointed out, did not enjoy the benefits of intact families, vibrant communities and church membership.” Addiction levels, Continetti continued, were staggering. “Opioid and heroin abuse caused a spike in deaths, in some years killing as many Americans as died in Vietnam.”
Most important, from a political perspective: “All this happened under the noses of most conservative and Republican elites. They lived in the wealthy Virginia and Maryland suburbs surrounding Washington, D.C. They enjoyed life in the Super-Zips,” Continetti writes. The elite of the right “were separated from growing numbers of their own party by background, education, income and lifestyle.”
The stage was set for a political explosion, and it came in the form of Donald Trump. The conservative elite in Washington sneered: “It is simply childish to trust this contemptible parody of a father figure,” wrote Michael Gerson in The Washington Post. George Will said that he deserved to lose 50 states. Charles Krauthammer called him a “rodeo clown.”
None of that mattered.
“Anti-establishment conservatives found him refreshing,” Continetti adds. “Not one iota of Trump was politically correct. He played by no rules of civility. He genuflected to no one. He despised the media with the same intensity as the conservative grass roots.”
Millions of voters may have found Trump “refreshing,” but there continue to be dissenters on the right who see the consequences as disastrous.
David French, a senior editor at The Dispatch, warned in an interview with Sean Illing of Vox:
Here’s what’s the terrifying thing on the right that can be a career- and reputation-ending allegation: “You’re weak. You’re a coward.” So the transformation, this flipping upside down of morality, turning bullying into strength, turning restraint into vice, all of that, what has then happened is it enables the Trumpists and the Trumpist world. They’re wielding this sword that is very sharp culturally in red spaces, this accusation of weakness and cowardice, as a weapon to keep people in line, because they’ve defined support for this movement as evidence of your strength.
Yuval Levin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (and a contributing Opinion writer for The Times), described a transformation on the right that began before Trump but has accelerated under his direction. Speaking at a March 2021 Harvard Kennedy School forum, Levin said: “I think conservatives are naturally defenders of a society’s institutions — not blindly, they’re also reformers — but they believe in the purposes of those institutions.”
The Republican Party, he continued,
has gradually become hostile to Americans’ institutions. It sees them as possessed by the other party. It sees them as corrupt. It looks at them through a populist lens as the source of the problem, rather than the source of solutions.
In the fall of 2016, with Trump as the Republican presidential nominee, Levin wrote in Politico magazine:
This election cycle has revealed serious fault lines and weaknesses on the right, and the Republican Party will be working to make sense of it all for years. But for conservatives — I mean those who champion some version of the difficult balance of traditionalism in the moral arena, market mechanisms for addressing our economic challenges, and American strength in a dangerous world — all bound by a limited-government constitutionalism — this sorry year’s lessons have one overarching implication: We can no longer treat the G.O.P. simply as our own.
Levin faults the conservative movement for clinging to “an agenda almost frozen in amber, locking in place a 1980s-style policy program even as the nation changed around us.”
“Trump blew it all up,” Levin wrote. “It’s not that he had a rival policy prescription; his campaign largely amounts to a frantic venting of frustrations punctuated by demagogic chest-thumping. But his approach clearly appealed to a significant portion of Republican voters.”
In fact, Trump did have one crystal-clear policy objective: to drastically reduce immigration, legal and illegal. The Washington Post editorial board wrote in September 2020:
Without the assent of Congress, President Trump has remade almost every major facet of America’s immigration system over the past three-plus years, slashing levels of legal and illegal arrivals; refugees and asylum seekers; Muslim and Christian migrants. He has sought to strip citizenship from naturalized Americans and subject “dreamers” raised in this country to deportation. He tried to deter illegal border crossings by sundering families, thereby traumatizing migrant teens, tweens and toddlers.
While many on the left deeply opposed these policies, Trump’s base was overwhelmingly behind him. As The Post pointed out:
Mr. Trump has largely succeeded in delivering on the anti-immigration message that drove his 2016 victory and continues to animate much of his base. Only a small fraction of his border wall has been built, and Mexico has paid for none of it, but the thrust of his nativist vision has taken root in hundreds of rule changes and policy shifts that have slammed shut America’s doors.
Placing Trump in a line of conservative demagogues who proved ultimately transient, Continetti writes:
Every so often the right has embraced a demagogic leader who pulls it toward the political fringe. From Tom Watson to Henry Ford, Father Coughlin to Charles Lindbergh, Joseph McCarthy to George Wallace, Ross Perot to Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul to Donald Trump, these tribunes of discontent have succumbed to conspiracy theories, racism and anti-Semitism. They have flirted with violence. They have played footsie with autocracy.
One aspect of the rise of Trump that has not received adequate attention is the substantial intellectual infrastructure that has buoyed the Trumpist right, its willingness to rupture moral codes and to discard traditional norms — an infrastructure that includes the Claremont Institute, Hillsdale College, First Things magazine and the American Mind website.
Take the analysis of John Marini, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, in his 2016 essay “Donald Trump and the American Crisis”:
Social institutions dependent upon the old morality have become intellectually indefensible. In terms of contemporary social and political thought, it is the good understood as the old that is no longer defensible, and its political defense has therefore become untenable. This alone makes the defense of reasonable conservatism — and constitutionalism itself — something akin to the defense of a dream that masquerades itself as reality in the minds of its votaries.
Or take the view of Sohrab Ahmari, a columnist for First Things, that courtesy and common decency serve to protect a dysfunctional established order:
Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy.
In other words, Ahmari writes, “To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.”
Or take the view of Glenn Ellmers, a visiting research scholar at Hillsdale College, in his 2021 essay “‘Conservatism’ Is No Longer Enough”:
Our norms are now hopelessly corrupt and need to be destroyed. It has been like this for a while — and the MAGA voters knew it, while most of the policy wonks and magazine scribblers did not … and still don’t. In almost every case, the political practices, institutions, and even rhetoric governing the United States have become hostile to both liberty and virtue.
I asked a number of center-right conservative thinkers the following questions: To what degree was the Trump takeover of the Republican Party a legitimate democratic insurgency by a white working/middle-class electorate that had been providing crucial margins of victory to the Republican Party, but whose opposition to liberal immigration and trade policies (and whose support for universal benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare) had been rejected by the Republican establishment? And will the tension between an increasingly “woke” corporate America and a Republican Party taking “anti-woke” stands become a significant conflict?
Most of those I contacted voiced considerable optimism that everyone on the first tier of prospective Republican candidates to replace Trump as the 2024 nominee, should such a development come to pass, could restore the Republican Party’s viability in presidential elections, especially in the suburbs.
“For me,” wrote Rich Lowry, editor in chief of National Review, “the obvious path ahead is national candidates — say, a Ron DeSantis, Tom Cotton or Glenn Youngkin — who learn the positive lessons from Trump, reject the negative, and, free of all his baggage, forge a new political and substantive synthesis that is appealing to the Trump base and the suburbs.”
In his email, Lowry acknowledged that in Trump’s wake, the balance of power within the Republican Party and the conservative movement has shifted:
The current tensions and arguments on the right aren’t anything new — there’s been a multi-front struggle within conservatism as long as modern conservatism has existed. What’s new is that the populist tendency has usually been subordinate to the classic liberal element, and now, with the advent of Trump, populism has the upper hand.
Conservatives across the board, Lowry continued, are
still robustly pro-life and pro-gun, and support the police and oppose softheaded progressive approaches to public order. Conservatives have long supported cultural coherence, and opposed political correctness and its associated ideologies in academic and K-12 education.
That said, however,
the right has rejected the lazy business-oriented consensus on immigration and China that held sway for too long. We won’t see a so-called comprehensive immigration reform again for a long time — and good riddance.
In addition, Lowry noted, “any impetus to pursue entitlement reform has completely disappeared.”
One striking theme in other conservative responses to my inquiry was the unanimous belief in the effectiveness and political gain to be made by the current Republican assault on “woke” corporations supporting transgender rights and on corporations requiring employees to undergo diversity training using principles of “critical race theory” — an assault led by Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, emailed in reply to my inquiry: “Nothing could be better for the G.O.P. than for its politicians to engage in battles with mega-corporations and for Republican officials to lose their reputations for being the handmaidens of big business.”
Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, wrote by email:
The Democratic Party, the universities, and much of corporate America have moved so far left on key cultural issues — from gender to race — that they’ve unintentionally made the “culture war the new big tent” for Republicans like Gov. Ron DeSantis. By opposing far-left positions championed by Democrats and C-suite executives that are unpopular not only with conservatives but also moderates, DeSantis and other Republicans are turning the cultural issues of the day to their political advantage. What’s more: Corporate America’s leftward turn on cultural issues only reinforces the anti-elitist tenor and trajectory of today’s Republican Party, as exemplified by what we’re seeing in Florida.
Continetti also replied by email:
Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican primary thanks to a committed base of supporters and a multicandidate field that split the opposition vote. Yet Trump earned neither a majority of votes overall nor majorities in the key primary states of New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. He benefited from divisions and flaws among his many rivals as well as his canny political instincts that allowed him to seize on the issue of immigration and connect it to worries over international terrorism.
Even Trump’s Electoral College victory, Continetti continued,
masked the fragility of his general-election coalition. He lost the popular vote. Republican Senate candidates in swing states ran ahead of him. Trump became president because he had the good fortune of running against the second-most-unpopular general election candidate in the history of the Gallup poll (Trump is number one).
While Trump’s policy agenda includes
opposition to illegal immigration, resistance to international trade, a general dislike of permanent alliances and overseas intervention, he also combined these modifications with the Reaganite agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, increased defense spending, conservative judicial appointments and support for Israel.
Noting that Trump has “a contempt for the ‘niceties of liberal democracy’ and an admiration for nationalist strongmen who use state power to diminish the cultural power of the progressive left,” Continetti added that “Trump’s inability to accept defeat was behind his ‘Stop the Steal’ movement that, in a horrific illustration of what happens when one abandons the ‘niceties of liberal democracy,’ culminated in the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.”
I asked John Yoo, a law professor at Berkeley and author of the notorious 2003 “torture memos” while he was a deputy assistant attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, whether the Republican Party had become the party of Patrick J. Buchanan, the fire-breathing populist conservative who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1992.
“I sure hope not,” Yoo replied. “If it indeed became anti-immigrant, anti-trade and America First in foreign policy, it would indeed mirror Pat Buchanan’s insurgency. But I think the party is still fighting over these policies. The response of party leaders to Ukraine shows that the older Republican internationalist wing of the party is still alive and strong.”
A number of the conservatives I contacted were reluctant to go on the record for fear of retribution within a severely conflicted and possibly retaliatory conservative movement.
As one put it, “I apologize for the background request, but Trump has absolutely ruined the discourse among conservative intellectuals, elites, think tankers, pundits, etc. We were all basically on the same side, then Trump won the nomination, and it seemed like everybody turned on everybody, depending on the shades or nuances of your views.”
Which, in turn, raises a question: Would a Youngkin or DeSantis or Cotton presidency in 2025 or 2029 be a conservative corrective to Trump, or would any of these three possibilities simply give a patina of legitimacy to Trump’s flagrantly aberrant moral compass?
David French summarizes the Republican dynamic in a recent Atlantic essay, “Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee”:
As the Republican Party evolves from a party focused on individual liberty and limits on government power to a party that more fully embraces government control of the economy and morality, it is reversing many of its previous stances on free speech in public universities, in public education, and in private corporations. Driven by a combination of partisan animosity and public fear, it is embracing the tactics that it once opposed.
The primal forces unleashed by Trump have not lost momentum. Whoever ends up as the Republican Party nominee in 2024 — whether it is Trump himself or one of the other contenders — will be under pressure to continue the abandonment of principle. Among the others, there might be less lying and less overt narcissism, but any one of them could yet govern in the mold of Trump. Whether Trumpism is more powerful with Trump or without him is still an open question, but the MAGA movement shows no real sign of abating.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here's our email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.
Opinion | With or Without Trump, the MAGA Movement Is the Future of the Republican Party – The New York Times