Conservatives opposed to Donald Trump have begun to question whether the GOP is still their party. Indeed, one of Republicans' most articulate thinkers has not only asked that question, but answered it.
George Will, columnist for The Washington Post and a conservative Republican for more than 50 years, told PJ Media on Friday that he had changed his registration to independent in his home state of Maryland. "This is not my party," Will declared. Having a Republican president doesn't necessarily produce conservative outcomes, even when it comes to the sine qua non of arguments for unity around Trump — the Supreme Court. "Republicans have given us Earl Warren, Brennan, John Paul Stevens, Burger, who was kind of mediocre, Blackmun," Will said. "Having a Republican president is not an answer in itself."
That may be true, but neither is having a Democratic president an answer for conservatives — especially when one opening already exists on the court, and two more are likely over the next four years. But that argument is secondary to Will's main point about the Republican Party and conservatives' place within it.
As much as the two-party system has ingrained itself into our political culture, it seems difficult to remember that the two major parties are voluntary organizations. The two-party system itself arose from custom rather than from legal requirement. They set their own rules, hold their own elections, and membership requires nothing more than a declaration while registering to vote — and in some states, not even that much. Because of that, both Republicans and Democrats represent a collection of factions, some of which exist in opposition to others within the same putatively big tent, but their power in the aggregate allows for a tension between nominally conservative and progressive policies, as well as open forums on regional and cultural differences.
It's that alignment of coalitions that matters most in this discussion. Conservatives have become accustomed to claiming a preeminent position within the GOP, doctrinally as well as electorally, since Ronald Reagan's ascent in 1976 and his triumph in 1980. The media has perpetuated that perception, not without reason at times, by casting most issues into simplified partisan contexts between the left and the right. Even as late as 2012, with Mitt Romney trying to recast himself as "severely conservative," the operating assumption within and outside the Republican Party was that it existed as a vehicle for conservatism.
But that only held true as long as conservatives could maintain their philosophical and political strength among voters. As the 2016 primaries demonstrated, conservatism has lost that preeminence among Republican voters. Populism and a rejection of globalization have replaced it, moving a different coalition on the right to preeminence, with Trump as its focal point. Trump himself noted the eclipse of conservatism in April at the Republican convention in California. "I'm a conservative, but at this point, who cares?" he said. "We've got to straighten out the country."
Movement conservatives have lost the argument, at least for the moment, and lost it where conservatism has the most appeal — within the Republican Party. One can debate how, when, and why this happened, but the results of the election don't leave much room for debate on what happened. That perhaps puts Will's declared reason for leaving the GOP in a sour-grapes context. "I joined it because I'm a conservative," he told Fox News Sunday. "I leave it for the same reason, that I'm a conservative."
I've long admired Will as both a writer and a conservative, and he owes his allegiance to no organization or candidate that hasn't earned it. Still, this sounds more like pique than principle. Presumably, the reason Will chose to join the GOP was to give his conservatism an opportunity to succeed in governing. What possible purpose would a pullout of movement conservatives from the GOP serve at this point? This cycle shows that conservatism has been marginalized within the Republican tent, which means it has no chance as a standalone movement to move the needle of governance. Such a schism would disconnect conservatism from one of only two large bases of aggregated electoral power that offer any chance of implementing policy at any level but local. It's the equivalent of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.
Furthermore, the Republican and Democratic parties consist of more than just presidential nominees. If anything, conservatives worried about losing the argument in the presidential primaries should redouble their efforts to influence Senate, House, and gubernatorial elections. The GOP has a good chance of holding onto their majorities in both; the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows an even split in the congressional ballot test at 46/46. Two years ago at this time, the same test favored Democrats 45/43 — in an election in which they lost 13 House seats and nine Senate seats. A schism puts Republican majorities at risk, and with it any opportunity for conservatives to influence the path of governance for at least the next two years.
Staying within the Republican coalition and fighting for conservative principles and policy does not require one to endorse the nominee. It doesn't even require one to vote for the nominee. It does, however, require conservatives to recognize that their presumption of preeminence has blinded them to the currents within the Republican electorate, and to energize themselves as evangelists for conservatism where the movement has its first and best opportunities to succeed. Abandoning the GOP will only marginalize the conservative movement and concede the mechanisms of governance to those that conservatives oppose — in either the GOP or the Democratic Party.