What should conservatives do when we wrest our movement away from national populism and Donald Trump?
Many conservatives have been arguing in outlets such as The Weekly Standard and National Review and The Resurgent that there must be consequences for Trump’s supporters. Often, the #NeverTrump crowd goes so far as to say that Trump supporters ought to be systematically removed and blacklisted from the conservative movement.
Some have compared Donald Trump and his campaign to the John Birch Society — a group from the 1950s and 1960s that pushed the conservative movement towards conspiracy theories and extremism.
William F. Buckley, Jr., Russell Kirk, and Barry Goldwater worked to rid the Republican Party of these extremist elements. Fear-mongering and conspiracy are not conservative, they argued, and should not be identified with the movement. Because of their efforts, the political Right dissociated itself from these rabid extremists, and they made conservatism respectable.
Some of Trump’s most ardent supporters — the group that calls itself the alt-right — are eerily similar to the John Birch Society. On Twitter, they flirt with conspiracy theories, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other kinds of radicalism.
These people are not conservatives. They do not believe in the American political tradition of individual liberty and self-government. The alt-right merely wants to smash political correctness and vaguely defined threats to their sovereignty — be it “the Muslims” or “the establishment” or any variety of Other they so fear and hate.
Of course, these elements of Trump’s support ought to be opposed. They are not concerned with the ideas or principles of conservatism, they merely use the mantle of conservatism to advance a quasi-fascism.
That said, Trump’s support comes from a more diverse group of supporters than just the alt-right.
Some serious conservatives, like Tom Cotton and Mike Huckabee, have signaled possible support for Trump over the last few weeks, should he win the nomination. For these public figures, this is little more than hedging their bets in the event of a Trump presidency. Although many of us may disagree with Cotton and others like him, this is largely an issue of prudence, not principle. They have not fully endorsed him, and should not be treated like they have.
Other conservative leaders, like Jeff Sessions or Rush Limbaugh, have either outright endorsed Trump or expressed sympathy with his campaign’s message. They believe that a President Trump would stand up to the “Washington establishment” and challenge its culture of political correctness and corruption.
They are wrong about Trump’s values, and they are wrong to trust him to follow through on any of his campaign promises. However, that does not mean they have abandoned the philosophy of conservatism for national populism.
Some ordinary voters and their representatives support Trump out of frustration with the “establishment.” And they have a right to be frustrated — Washington has largely betrayed the fundamental ideas this nation was founded on, and now conservatives cannot seem to push back against a growing statist culture in D.C.
Pushing these voters and their leaders out of the conservative coalition would only exacerbate their frustrations, pushing them towards the alt-right and national populism. Attacking the character and judgment of these Trump supporters, calling them names and mocking them on social media, only adds to their frustration. Their fears about the mainstream conservative movement would be confirmed, and they would only become more ardently oppositional.
In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln wrote, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”
Those lines in his speech referenced the reconstruction of the Union in the aftermath of the Civil War. The GOP is waging its own civil war now, and remembering Lincoln’s words would do them well.
The Party and the movement ought to firmly reject the alt-right, because their principles entirely contradict the philosophy of conservatism. But, rejecting other Trump supporters goes too far, and will only lead to more splintering and a division of talent this nation cannot afford.
If a spirit of revenge and malice dominates the post-Trump conservative movement, we will be unable to effectively battle the greatest threat to liberty since secession and slavery: the tyranny of modern liberalism.