WASHINGTON – In his resignation speech following Great Britain’s vote to divorce from the European Union, Prime Minister David Cameron claimed several achievements by his government: reforming welfare and education; increasing development assistance to “the poorest people in the world”; and “enabling those who love each other to get married, whatever their sexuality.” He also mentioned “building a bigger and stronger society” – a reference to his “Big Society” ideological framework, which sought to empower local people and communities as an alternative both to centralized bureaucracies and to libertarian indifference.
What is remarkable about Cameron’s definition of success is how utterly disconnected it is from the deep, visceral populist trends that have come to dominate his party and now his country. Cameron had attempted to define a post-Thatcherite conservative vision “integrating the free market with a theory of social solidarity.” But this was swept away, not so much by an alternative argument – the economic case against the Brexit is overwhelming – but by powerful, ethno-nationalist instincts. In retrospect, Cameron’s project of ideological renovation was hopeless, even poignant – trying to organize an outdoor tea during a hurricane.
This is the most frightening aspect for American conservatives of the British vote. Since 1955, with the founding of National Review, conservatives have attempted to make ideological arguments – involving respect for free markets and civil society – that they hoped would win influence in America’s center-right party. But now that entire project seems threatened. The type of populism that Donald Trump has unleashed is not a set of arguments, but a set of tendencies and prejudices. In large portions of the Republican Party, ideology has been replaced by identity.
We are familiar with identity politics on the left, which can reduce public life to the organized appeasement of resentments. An identity politics of the right asserts that the real America – or the real England – is being diluted and corrupted by outsiders. It elevates a form of nationalism, not based on abstract ideals, but on blood and soil.
This is one reason ideological conservatives find it so frustrating to argue with Trump supporters. They are not looking for innovative policy, or reliable information, or even logical consistency. So it does not matter to them when Trump is exposed as shallow, deceptive or incoherent. They trust his instincts in defending American national identity as they have known it.
Trans-Atlantic elites have consistently underestimated the intensity of public reaction against migration, multiculturalism and globalization. When given the chance to vote, a significant and highly committed portion of the electorate wants to repudiate leaders, experts and authority figures – everyone who has been complicit in the last few decades of disorienting economic and social change.
In American politics, populism cuts across the parties. But in only one party has the establishment been (apparently) beaten. The range of reactions has been revealing. Some, particularly in the Republican foreign policy establishment, are finding more ideological overlap with Hillary Clinton and her team than they have with Republican populists. By the measure of who would more responsibly and competently defend the country and engage the world, the contest is not close. On the international stage, Trump’s silliness and impulsiveness take on a more sinister aspect. Determined outreach by the Clinton campaign to Republican internationalists may have a considerable yield.
Other principled conservatives, such as my colleague George Will, have chosen to part ways with a party that, in the choice of its presidential nominee, is no longer recognizably conservative.
Still other conservative leaders, traveling with a lighter load of principle, have chosen to make their accommodation in a remarkably cynical fashion. Commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity spent decades on ideological purity patrol, calling out deviations from the pure Reaganite faith. Now their business model is to provide alibis for the least conservative Republican presidential nominee (presumptive, still presumptive) in history, who attacks free trade, opposes entitlement reform and seems to relish the prospect of expanded executive power.
The alternative to all these options is resistance – on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the rules committee. Resistance at the convention, to deny Trump the nomination. If that fails, resistance in supporting a conservative third-party candidate who will carry the torch of sane Republicanism – if such a rare beast is finally sighted.
Resistance to recover nationalism from the nativists. Resistance to oppose the devaluing of political argument, to fight the end of reason. Resistance to honor the importance of character in our common life. In the Republican Party today, resistance is the evidence of principle.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.