Donald Trump is not a philosophical man. But in an overlooked primary debate moment last winter, he reflected on what it means to be a conservative.
"I view the word conservative as a derivative… of the word conserve," he said. "We want to conserve our country. We want to save our country."
But does modern American conservatism actually and effectively conserve anything? Many of the people who elected Trump, over the objections of those who insist he is no conservative, believe the answer is no.
Not their jobs. Not where they live. Not their national sovereignty. Not their way of life.
A recent cover story in National Review, the flagship publication of the conservative movement, described these Trump voters' motivations. "They want a return to the America of their youth," writes political reporter Tim Alberta. "But Trump cannot deliver that; nobody can. The country will soon look very different."
Few people really imagine their past can be preserved as if it was buried in a time capsule in the backyard. What they do ask is that their government not inflict changes on them thoughtlessly, as they believe the American government is now doing through trade, immigration, and foreign policies. In many cases, we're talking about people who vote for Republican candidates, even fight in Republican-supported wars.
But these people don't believe their political leaders fight for them. They hope Trump will. Indeed, they are confident he fights back. They've seen it. And they will stand with him as huge crowds of angry protesters chant outside Trump-owned properties.
This is a more populist and nationalist conservatism than the variety we've seen since Ronald Reagan, but it is not new. Its voice can be heard calling into radio talk shows across the country. Its frustrations boil over in the comments sections of the conservative websites whose writers were #NeverTrump throughout the campaign.
Trump also channels a bit of pre-Reagan Republicanism. He borrows the phrase "silent majority" from Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. It's combative but not particularly ideological.
How much this reshapes the right depends in part on how successful Trump's administration is. He'll have some imitators simply based on his Electoral College haul.
But for now, Trump's main rival for conservative influence is House Speaker Paul Ryan, a sometime critic who defeated a Trump-like primary challenger by more than 80 points. Ryan has nevertheless climbed back aboard the Trump Train now that the businessman is president-elect.
Ryan is a truth-teller on entitlements insolvency, but believes immigration and trade should be more market-driven than Trump. His agenda is akin to the one pursued by Republican leaders from Reagan to Jack Kemp. In addition to being criticized for being too libertarian on economics, some Tea Party conservatives say the former Budget Committee chairman won't cut spending fast enough.
The ideal outcome in the medium term may be harmonizing Ryanism and Trumpism. It would keep the former from becoming too abstract and green-eyeshade, the latter from taking nationalism to morally indefensible extremes. Markets are indeed cool, but they are not everything in life. And economic nationalism sometimes values the right things but frequently leads to trade wars and growth-stifling crony capitalism.
But economics aside, Trump has demonstrated a way for Republicans to compete for the presidency. What he hasn't done is resolve the party's long-term demographic problems, for which GOP leaders have no obvious answer. It would still be advisable to grow the party's appeal to non-white voters. Ryan is at least a much more sensitive figure on that front than Trump.
So far, Trump and Ryan haven't shown much of a penchant for cooperating with each other. Historically, presidents do more to define political parties than senior members of Congress. The fact that Trump won without much establishment support and while being criticized by Ryan could put him in even less of an advice-taking mood than usual, although the speaker seems pretty willing to work together now.
The past split nevertheless speaks to a real problem for the right. Conservatives have been unable to acquire the power they need to realize some of their top ideological goals, causing restlessness among the base. Worse, those goals don't always meet the material interests of people who vote Republican. They are turning Trump as an alternative.
Despite their election losses, the Democrats don't have any problem like it. Does any faction of the GOP have a solution?