Every once in a while, I come across an article or column which doesn’t convey anything particularly new or earth-shattering, but that sets out conventional wisdom in a way that makes a light-bulb come on. I had that “aha” experience when I read an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “Trumpism Has No Heirs.
The author, Jane Coaston, pointed out that–at least for the next two years–the Republican Party is ideally positioned.
As the opposition party, it will not be expected to offer solutions to the country’s myriad problems, much less introduce substantive legislation. It will not be expected to do anything except what it does best — oppose the Democratic administration and the Democratic Party.
Coaston’s observation isn’t new, of course–anyone who can spell “Mitch McConnell” or has followed national politics even superficially over the past few years will agree that “even when holding power, movement conservatism is fundamentally an opposition movement.”
However, Coaston suggests that this “spirit of opposition” is the GOP’s Achilles’ heel –a weakness that will doom Republican efforts to “move on” from Donald Trump. Over the past few years, “conservatism” has become an empty label; as she notes, although many people call themselves conservatives, they mostly agree about what conservatism isn’t. There is no consensus on what conservatism in the 21st Century is. And she says that Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency exploited conservatism’s glaring lack of a central motivating vision.
The conservatism that was seemingly agreed upon by the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute and National Review was not the conservatism that Mr. Trump sold to the American people.
Mitt Romney campaigned in 2012 on being “severely conservative” and lost. Mr. Trump campaigned on a self-serving redefinition of what it even means to be conservative and won. After all, as Mr. Trump told ABC News in early 2016, “this is called the Republican Party, it’s not called the Conservative Party.”
But what Mr. Trump was for, and what his voters supported, was not the populist nationalism generally associated with “Trumpism.” Populist nationalism has a long history in this country. Paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan, the former Nixon assistant and political commentator, have espoused a blend of America First isolationist foreign policy rhetoric and distrust of perceived culture and political “elites” for decades.
Pundits who see Trumpism as a form of populist nationalism miss the fact that such nationalism doesn’t depend on any one individual. Trumpism does, which is why no one will pick up the “mantle.” There is no mantle, no program or philosophy of governance. Trumpism is simply the “middle finger to perceived enemies and the bulwark against real or imagined progressive assault.”
The central motivating impulse of today’s GOP is grievance and an overwhelming desire to “own the libs.” What Coaston has identified–and what I previously failed to focus on–is the essential weakness of using opposition as an organizing principle over time.
In the short term, of course, being against something or someone generates energy and turnout. (A significant portion of the 81 million Americans who voted for Joe Biden would have voted for Daffy Duck if Daffy was running against Trump.) But for the longer term, it’s not enough.
At some point, being against everything–having no programs, no coherent political philosophy, no vision–will fail to energize enough voters to keep a party in power. That recognition is behind the formidable assault the GOP is currently mounting against voting rights.
The question is: when does disillusionment kick in? Until 2022, being against everything the Democrats want to accomplish is likely to be seen by the Republican base as a valiant effort to stop the modernity and social change that so deeply threatens them. Only if they are successful in retaking the House or Senate (or both) will citizens recognize that they have nothing positive to offer.
And by then, it might be too late.