The Republican Party is in bad shape. Less than 18 months after sweeping to power under President Trump, the GOP's party is mostly over. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan is headed for the exits, joining dozens of his Republican colleagues.
Legislatively, yes, Republicans got their tax cut. But otherwise, even before he announced his resignation, Ryan's agenda had largely been shelved. The right has made gains in the judiciary, but Planned Parenthood is still funded, and Mexico isn't building us a wall. ObamaCare still exists.
But never fear, Trump supporters! You may still get a trade war for your troubles, if you're into that sort of thing.
It feels like the right is out of steam. The bloom is off the populist rose, and now winter is coming. The left is energized and favored by the public, while mainstream conservative outlets go on struggling to identify a perfectly calibrated, critical-but-not-mutinous stance that might somehow enable them to stay functional despite their incompetent and abhorrent party leader.
That effort would be somewhat easier if the party still had a recognizable platform. The old conservative agenda was torpedoed by the populists, but no coherent alternative has replaced it. And so the party drifts, and right-leaning outlets fall back on blistering polemics just for lack of anything better to print. Special election candidates flounder around looking for a message and end up just settling for a MAGA hat.
Conservatism desperately needs a reboot, but that's hard to arrange with Trump at the helm. He speaks loudly and carries a wiffle bat. His flamboyant personality endlessly draws the spotlight, but he is a deeply unserious person with no real interest in either policy or political theory. So long as this is Trump's party, his whimsical fancies, petty grudges, and bizarre fixations will inevitably dominate the Republican narrative.
That's why we should give some thought to post-Trump politics. The reality may be years away, but it's still worth trying to have a conservative conversation outside the dance cage of our entertainer-in-chief. In any event, Trump is a 71-year-old man. This won't be his party forever. When he finally steps into a well-earned retirement, what kind of future might the political right still have?
Let's look at three possible directions.
1. A revitalization of Reagan-style conservatism. This would combine moral traditionalism and security-minded hawkishness with the promotion of free enterprise. Conservatives call this their "three-legged stool," and it served the GOP well for many years. Populists like to claim that the conventional brand is tarnished beyond recovery, but we shouldn't be too sure; congressional candidates with this profile outperformed Trump in the general election. In many ways, Trump's victory really was a freak event.
There are advantages to a well-trodden path. Conservatives have spent years exploring this triad of commitments, so voters understand the underlying connections of the platform. We can talk about the virtuous cycles that develop when strong families cultivate the productive citizens who drive a thriving economy. We appreciate how order and security lay the foundation for creativity, entrepreneurship, and community. We know that there are tensions between freedom and tradition, but we also know that those tensions can be fruitful. This is still the GOP's language, even if Trump doesn't speak it.
Even so, proponents of "conservatism classic" need to think seriously about the reasons why Trump succeeded. The three-legged stool is wobbling. Was the foil of communism necessary for keeping the three elements in balance? Did right-wing cultural successes rest too heavily on an ephemeral economic boom? Or perhaps, in our eagerness to celebrate virtuous cycles, did we neglect to consider less cheerful possibilities, ultimately leaving millions of our compatriots feeling neglected and marginalized?
If you answered those questions in the affirmative, you may be attracted to a second possibility for the GOP.
2. A new kind of labor party. Initially this kind of change may sound strange, as we're accustomed to viewing labor as a core Democratic concern. But unions, once the primary engine of Democratic labor support, have declined dramatically. The left is dominant in universities, big cities, and most elite professions, but Republicans have a commanding advantage with middle-class families and working men. For these groups, leftist activism is off-putting, but free enterprise is likewise losing some of its appeal. Job security is now a dominant concern, and protectionist policies are appealing to people who worry about losing their jobs.
A Republican labor party might prove disastrous for the economy. On the other hand, it could provide a fairly elevated political framework for the moral traditionalism that remains (now as ever) the right's least-negotiable component. Christian labor parties were a staple of the newly-industrial West, and our now-eroding network of unions and labor rights owes much to their activity. Maybe it's time for post-industrial traditionalists to devote themselves to similar questions, exploring the dignity of labor and posing strategies for protecting workers. Committed free-traders might then gravitate to the left, converting the Democrats into a Michael Bloomberg-style party of entrepreneurs and savvy professionals, whose philanthropic energies would be focused on the concerns of the truly destitute.
3. A youthful renewal. What if the post-Trump GOP simply finds itself in ruins, and is forced to rebuild from the ashes? In that case, it seems especially likely that the party becomes a vehicle for younger voters craning their necks in an anxious effort to glimpse the ominous future. Older politicians and voters seem to have resigned themselves to the intractability of many problems: growing debt, falling birth rates, unsustainable entitlements, rising drug use, urban violence, and so on. Younger voters will have to actually address these problems, and their efforts will surely transform American politics.
If we're contemplating a right-leaning alternative to Bernie Sanders' socialism, we may actually find ourselves gravitating back towards some sort of free-market conservatism. This wouldn't be Ayn Rand's party, though; more likely, it would focus on dismantling more completely the measures that tie worker security to a specific employer. That model is increasingly antiquated, and younger workers know it.
For them, a rapidly-fluctuating labor market has always been the reality. They're familiar with part-time jobs, gig work, and the non-stop demand to keep retraining for tomorrow's employment opportunities. They do very much want security, but employer mandates may not be the way. Instead, they may opt for freer labor markets, securing workers' welfare through government-based initiatives such as wage subsidies, beefed-up unemployment benefits, or even a Universal Basic Income. At some point, it will become politically feasible to reform Social Security and Medicare. That will be done. Pro-natal benefits may also enter into the picture, as the costs of child-rearing continue to climb.
At its best, conservatism should also include a lively cultural component. Traditionalists generally take point on this, as the people with the firmest grasp of history, philosophy, and religion. Right now it's hard to envision a healthy religious right, as we watch grasping and grey-headed evangelical leaders cozying up to Trump. No doubt traditionalists will pay a price for unsavory associations, but they are perennials. New shoots will eventually spring up, as another generation is drawn to tradition's enduring promises: greater meaning, increased connectedness, and more fulfilling explanations of human sin and weakness. It's thoroughly unsafe to assume that religious conservatism will die with Pat Robertson.
These three plans might be mixed and matched in various ways, and it's hard to predict which possibilities will actually be feasible. The Democrats will obviously have something to say on the subject, too.
Still, it's worth pondering the possibilities now. Let's not adopt Trump's ruinous habit of living inside each news cycle. Nobody actually "wins" the news. Real victories require us to figure out what we wish to accomplish.
If we could do that, even a Trumpian landscape might look a bit less wintry, as we turn our thoughts towards a much-anticipated spring.