A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine who works in Republican politics called me. He will likely be involved in the GOP convention in Cleveland later this year. He talked about who he thought would end up being the Republican nominee. To him, it would come down to Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, when the dust settled.
He finally asked who I thought the nominee would be.
“Trump,” I said, acknowledging the consistency of polling over many months.
He was aghast. He said, “Trump’s not really a conservative.”
“What’s that got to do with it?” I asked.
Despite the polls, despite the obvious mood of the Republican electorate, he, like most friends I have in the professional Republican political world, could not fathom a GOP presidential ticket led by Donald J. Trump.
They should start fathoming.
Panic among those who claim ownership of conservatism is palpable. The National Review, that journal of conservative philosophy founded by the great William F. Buckley, is likewise in a state of denial over the shift by Republican voters this cycle. It recently published an alarmist special edition designed for the sole purpose of trashing Trump.
The publication was filled with diatribes against Trump and written by some of the most renowned conservatives in America, from Bill Kristol to Glenn Beck to Brent Bozell to Mona Charen to Michael Medved and others – 22 in all – begging conservatives to snap out of it, to understand that Donald Trump is not really a conservative.
They, like others, seem to think that if Republican voters can only be shown, can just be convinced beyond a doubt, that Trump is not really a conservative, well, the fight will be over and Trump will lose. They apparently have not checked the calendar in a few years. It’s 2016, not 1984 or 1988.
Back in the 1980s, thanks mostly to Ronald Reagan, “conservative” came to stand for everything that was good about America – patriotism, free enterprise, the right side of moral issues like abortion and other “family value” issues – and the word “liberal” became demonized and poisoned to the point that the left essentially had to abandon it and come up with a new word to describe themselves, landing on “progressive.”
On one of the Sunday morning news shows over the weekend, National Review editor Rich Lowry referred to what he called “principled conservatives” who would ultimately not back Trump. “Principled conservatives” is another way of saying “true conservatives,” or “real conservatives,” as opposed to the apostate conservatives supporting Trump, in the eyes of the true conservatives.
Watching the “principled conservatives” wring their hands over the Trump phenomenon is like watching an old black-and-white episode of “I Love Lucy” – it’s funny and entertaining, but filled with outdated realities compared to today’s world, such as not being able to use the word “pregnant” when Lucy was in exactly that condition.
When you watch conservatives on TV today defend their banner using the arguments of the ‘80s, you sometimes wonder whether you’re watching a 1988 episode of “This Week With David Brinkley,” as opposed to a 2016 episode with George Stephanopoulos hosting.
Conservatism has existed in modern times in two forms, economic conservatism and social conservatism, and adherents to one do not necessarily embrace the other. Economic conservatives have no trouble believing that billionaire businessman Trump is one of them.
(The other big issue for most conservatives – gun rights – is so ingrained within the GOP that it is in no danger of change, now or in the foreseeable future. Good.)
Like it or not, social issues like abortion, gay marriage and other family value issues are not only settled by the courts, they are acknowledged by most Americans and even passively accepted by their opponents. Abortion was once a litmus test, a primary reason for conservatives to vote one way or the other. Today, GOP candidates pay lip service to the pro-life cause, but it is never a focal point of debates.
That’s because it is no longer a focal point for most Republican voters, unfortunate as that may be. Forbes recently reported on polling of voters in early Republican primary states demonstrating that abortion ranked last or next to last in a list of issues important to voters, including in conservative Iowa.
This year, Republican voters care about the economy, terrorism and immigration. Many conservative voters have also reached the point of being extremely annoyed with political correctness, which in its most radical form infringes on free thought and free speech. Trump’s open contempt for all things politically correct is a big draw to millions of voters.
When all that is considered, it is little wonder that Trump leads in the average of all national polls by nearly a 2 to 1 margin over Ted Cruz, his closest rival in the GOP pack. While his competitors bicker over whether Trump is really a conservative, and spend millions of ad dollars trying to convince voters of something they already know and dismiss as their main reason for voting, Trump marches on.
Maybe Republican voters have realized that even under GOP leadership, very little was actually done on social issues, or ground was actually lost. Maybe the views of the grassroots on these subjects have evolved, even as conservative leaders have stayed firm, at least outwardly.
In reality, conservatism’s biggest victory is always just to slow liberalism, never to defeat it outright. Liberalism is the natural progression of the world; conservatism is the “hey, not so fast there” drag on the inevitable outcome. Conservatism delays, never vanquishes, and if you doubt it, compare any outcome you want socially and economically today compared to 20 or 30 years ago, and tell me whether liberalism or conservatism has triumphed in the long run.
The Republican Party remains the conservative party compared to the Democratic Party, which is currently flirting with a socialist as its nominee. But conservatism in 2016 is a far cry from its 1980s predecessor, a reality already evident among most GOP voters, even if party leaders and “principled conservative” pundits lag behind.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.