Now What?

The reason this blog is titled “The Classical Liberal” is because the bloggers here consider themselves to be, well, classical liberals. As mentioned right at the outset, while we represent different sides of the political spectrum, we approach politics from a liberal perspective. In my case, liberalism manifests itself as conservatism, at least in American parlance. At the risk of drastically oversimplifying, my liberal-conservatism is characterized in a belief that government interference in day-to-day affairs has adverse consequences more often than not. It believes in the superiority of free markets, favors free trade, and thinks proposals for drastic change are often fatally flawed. The conservative aspect of my liberalism is manifested by a social conservatism, although the liberal aspect of my conservatism means I don’t think that the government usually has an active role in promoting social conservatism other than to defend against progressive attempts to subvert conservative values and to limit the exercise of first amendment rights.

Generally speaking, conservatives of this variety had been the dominant wing of the Republican party for about half a century. What began with electoral defeat with Goldwater reached its zenith with the election of Ronald Reagan.

Ronald Reagan left office after two mammoth election victories and with soaring approval ratings, and for nearly three decades Republicans have been seeking to emulate that success – and have largely failed. Since Reagan’s departure from the White House, liberal-conservatism has had sporadic success. Arguably the high tide came with the Gingrich revolution and the Contract with America guiding Republicans to capture the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years. The elections of 2004, 2010, and 2014 were also highlights, though each contained within them the sign of liberal-conservatism’s waning power. George W. Bush had famously campaigned as a “compassionate conservative” – a not so subtle sign that free market conservatism was a damaged brand. Even the 2010 Republican tsunami, guided in large part by the Tea Party movement, was really more a populist reaction against the Obama administration’s overreach. Both of the Obama-era midterms were guided by this populist sentiment, and should have signaled to all of us who consider ourselves to be politically astute of what was to come.

I am not going to re-live the 2016 election here. There were multiple candidates who seemed to represent the Reagan conservative line: Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and, to some degree Marco Rubio. Cruz emerged as the last man standing in this group, but couldn’t outlast Donald Trump, thanks in no small part to the intransigence of the GOP’s moderate wing and its insistence on backing the dead-end candidacy of John Kasich. And so Trump became the nominee and, ultimately, the president.

Again, I am not going to rehash four years of political wrangling. Donald Trump will be a private citizen again in two months, but not before changing the Republican party, and in ways that may not necessarily be all detrimental to its long-term health. But if the Republican party stands relatively unscathed after four years of Trump, the same cannot be said for conservatism, at least conservativism of the classically liberal type.

As alluded to in my previous posts, Donald Trump garnered a larger share of the minority vote than any Republican in sixty years. Writers like Michael Brenden Dougherty are licking their chops about the new coalitions emerging within the GOP. As MBD concludes in the linked column:

If Trump is leaving the GOP electoral scene, he is leaving it in much better health than George W. Bush did in 2008. Republicans are much nearer to taking the House. They face a much weaker president, and they may have a Senate majority. But more important, the ability of Trump’s GOP to execute something of a repeat of Nixon’s expansionary strategy has gone some way to depolarizing America’s racial politics. The GOP of Bush, McCain, and Romney fell to its absolute nadir among non-white voters. And there is little more poisonous to the politics of a multi-racial democracy than political factions that fall almost entirely along racial lines. Now the next step is to build on these gains by pushing westward with them in states such as Arizona, New Mexico, and even California.

So how can the Republicans continue to gain ground among non-white voters. Dougherty sees an opportunity to advance what could be termed a “nationalist” agenda. It is of a piece, though not totally entwined with the anti-liberal agenda of the likes of Sohrab Ahmari. MBD is closer to JD Flynn, Tucker Carlon, Oren Cass, and others on the right who want to move past the Reaganite, free market oriented philosophy that has dominated conservatism since the end of World War II.

While I think that this school of thought is problematic and even slightly intellectually deficient (reliant as it often is on strawman caricatures of free market capitalism), I am not sure I agree with Jonah Goldberg that there might not be something there electorally. Jonah chalks up Trump’s support less to ideology than personality, writing:

Finally, there’s the faulty premise that Trump’s appeal was solely, or even primarily, policy-driven. If it was, then you’d think Cotton & Co. would be criticizing Trump for carrying so much water for Paul Ryan and Leonard Leo’s pre-Trump agenda. But that’s the last thing they’ll do, because the real lesson of the Trumpification of the GOP isn’t that it’s become more “pro-worker”—whatever that is supposed to mean—but that it became simply “pro-Trump.”

The core Trump base, both new voters and old, liked Trump because he was entertaining, because he was a “fighter,” because he owned the libs, because he was Trump.

I want to (and do) agree with much of this analysis, particularly in his assessment that the “pro-worker” element of the right is lacking in practical policy prescriptions. While a lot of the rally around the Trump effect is personality-based, and a cult of personality has absolutely developed around the soon to be former president, there is a reason this cult developed in the first place, and it’s not all personality driven. Trump’s core nationalist message – stricter border security, free trade skepticism, foreign policy isolationism – reverberated with much of the electorate.

To the degree that “Trumpism” is a coherent philosophy at all, it has left its strongest mark on foreign policy. To read conservative message boards these days is to feel oneself transported to reading left-wing message boards circa 2004, what with constant references to “endless wars” and portrayals of people like John Bolton as essentially enemies of the people. Maybe some of that rhetoric is a reflection of Trumpish sycophancy, but it also has deep roots and given voice by Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan.

Jonah also writes:

Think about it this way: Imagine if, a month ago, Trump was scheduled to have a massive rally. But at the last minute, Air Force One had to be grounded for repairs and Mike Pence, Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, or Tom Cotton had to sub for him. You think the crowd would be psyched? You think it would stick around for very long? It’s possible. But that’s because Trump was on the ticket a month ago.

While true, those of us who remained wedded to traditional conservativism have to contend that the GOP contains the likes of Pence, Hawley, Rubio, Cotton, and, moreover, a whole bunch of voters sympathetic to those men. More importantly, whatever the precise reason for the uptick in black and Hispanic support for Trump and the GOP, it’s a thing that happened and a trend that we absolutely should want to see continue.

Moreover, the general mood in the country tends to be populist. Now populism, like so many other political terms, has many definitions, and it has been used a bit like neocon – used as a boogeyman catch-all term applied loosely to political opponents. Broadly speaking, populists on either side of the political aisle do not have patience for the more constrained strictures of liberalism. Both political parties are being pressured by populists within, and liberals in both parties are fretting about the long-term consequences of this populist moment.

For those of us on the right-side of this division, there may be a way to distinguish a more benevolent form of populism which could be folded into a broad coalition. While all populists hunger for government intervention to improve their economic conditions, left-wing populists tend to want to tear the whole edifice down. As Margaret Thatcher said of socialism, it seeks to equalize by tearing down the wealthy to bring them down to the level of the poor. An aspirational populism instead seeks to build up. It is – or can be – more forward looking and less destructive. It is not impossible to incorporate that sort of populism in the liberal tradition, as evidenced by the brief success of the Tea Party.

In the end, I don’t think it’s time yet for classical liberals to throw in the towel, or mutter in despair about loving big brother after all. On the other hand, the ice we skate is getting pretty thin.

Edit: Almost as soon as I hit publish, I came across this article about hw Trump did much better in certain heavily Hispanic border counties in Texas. I’m just going to highlight a few paragraphs:

Roberto Barrera said his choice was easy. Born and raised in Zapata, he has worked in the oil and gas business practically his whole life. So he said he couldn’t cast a vote for Biden, who said during the second presidential debate that he would “transition” from the fossil fuel industry.

“The way I see it, they’d cut my job,” Barrera said. “What else can I say?”

. . . .

But the 80-year-old retiree also voted for Trump. After working for the Rio Grande City Police Department and for the state, Stewart said she fears Democratic officeholders will defund law enforcement agencies and come for her guns.

“Who’s going to protect us?” said Stewart, who planted a Trump-Pence sign in her front yard.

. . .

Ernesto Alanis III, a land surveyor in Rio Grande City who voted for Trump, said the region’s close ties to the military and law enforcement helped push more people toward Republicans this year.

“My Border Patrol agent friends say the wall works, and helps them do their job,” Alanis said from his office, where his black Desert Storm veteran cap sits next to a red MAGA cap. “If anyone would know if a wall worked, it would be them, right?”

. . . . Cuellar and Gonzalez both said the 2020 result was a Trump-specific phenomenon.

“Hispanics, especially Mexican Americans, they like this machismo, bravado, lucha libre-style politics — it’s like all-star wrestling, Trump style,” Gonzalez said. “It fits perfectly with the South Texas, Tejano person.”

Make of this what you will. The last sentence I quoted suggests this was a Trump-related phenomenon, but the rest suggests otherwise. Here’s the closing:

“I’m one of those that was a lifelong Democrat and brought up Democratic because of our roots here,” he said. “Like basically everyone here in the Valley, the Democratic Party was ingrained in our childhood.”

Peña said he voted twice for President Barack Obama, “but I’m one of those that switched over.” He said he voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 because he realized his principles lined up more with the GOP than the Democrats.

“I used to consider myself left of center,” Peña said. “I don’t anymore.”

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