In the most important passage of his inaugural address, President Trump all but declared himself liberated from the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan:
We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first. [President Trump]
You might not be conversant with the history of the slogan "America first" and all its anti-Semitic, isolationist baggage. Maybe it sounds perfectly innocent to you. Maybe it has the ring of commonsense: Like, why wouldn't a president put "America first"? But the professional conservative class in Washington and New York knows it represents their repudiation.
However, it gives Trump too much credit to say he triumphed over the party of Reagan. Trump merely scavenged around its carcass. It's time we recognize that the party of Reagan was already dead — and that it died along with the threat of Soviet communism.
In Mitt Romney's famous stage prop, Reaganite conservatism was a "three-legged stool" consisting of proponents of free markets and free trade, social conservatives, and national-defense hawks. But Romney was speaking of a domestic electoral coalition. Reaganism was more than that; it was a worldview, in the truest sense of the word. Its broadest ideals were also shared by anti-communist Democrats like historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson. Universal human rights, limited government, open trade, free elections, multiparty democracy — it was considered in our national interest to defend these values as strongly (and prudently) as possible.
Looking back, it might seem like a minor miracle that the maintenance of an American-led liberal-democratic order once commanded mass political appeal. But it was no miracle. In fact, the essential, not-so-secret ingredient of that appeal was the mere existence of the Soviet Union.
Dominic Tierney writes in the journal National Interest of the solidarity-inducing power of a foreign enemy:
The role of foreign peril in cultivating a sense of national identity may be especially important in the United States. American self-identity is not based on an ancient shared heritage, but rather on a set of political ideals: the creed of individual rights and democracy. This is a fragile basis for unity in a continent-sized country populated by huddled masses from all over the world. The existence of the other may be essential to shore up American identity and reinforce a sense of political exceptionalism. [National Interest]
Indeed, the existential challenge of Soviet communism imbued every aspect of Reaganite conservatism, not just foreign policy.
Against the backdrop of revolutionary socialism, capitalism is as American as apple pie. Without it, even a Reaganite like Vice President Mike Pence begins to gaze at the bottom line rather than his navel ("The free market has been sorting it out and America's been losing," the vice president recently said).
Against the backdrop of an expansionary Soviet empire, middle America will doggedly support a bloody, decade-long civil war in Indochina. Without it, it is instinctively suspect of foreign intervention and intolerant of protracted conflict.
Against the backdrop of Soviet involvement in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, immigrants are would-be entrepreneurs fleeing dictatorships and banana republics. Without it, they are merely … immigrants.
Against the backdrop of official atheism, Russians are a godless menace. Without it, they are white Christians.
It makes perfect sense, then, that the last adherents of Reaganism tried to sell the war on terror as akin to the struggle against communism: They needed fresh glue to hold together the old coalition.
Pat Buchanan, the intellectual architect of Trump's triumph, saw the "breakup of the conservative-Republican coalition" long before anyone in the party had accepted this fate. In his 1998 book The Great Betrayal, Buchanan wrote (foreshadowing Trump) that "while the Soviet Union had paid the ultimate price of imperial overstretch, America had also paid an immense price. We had sacrificed our national interests in the cause of allied solidarity, while Western Europe and Japan had made no comparable contributions and had prospered mightily at our expense."
It's tempting to conclude that Trump-Buchananism represents a recrudescence of the "Old Right" or "paleconservatism." But the trad-conservatism of Sen. Robert Taft and Clarence Manion was inveterately hostile to trade-unionism and the New Deal. President Trump, at least superficially, is union-friendly and has promised to protect the New Deal bulwarks Social Security and Medicare. (It remains to be seen, of course, how he actually governs.) And judging from his assurance that he will "bomb the sh-t out of ISIS” and his purported curiosity about using nuclear weapons, the indications are that Trump is a unilateralist hawk rather than an isolationist or neoconservative.
Americans of both the center-left and center-right must seek a new paradigm in which to promote pluralism and small-"l" liberal economics. Because President Trump has revealed that absent the specter of a collectivist-expansionist foreign enemy, they are cold porridge.
Reaganism is dead. Blood-and-soil nationalism lives. In this, alas, America has proven all-too-unexceptional.