Donald Trump is God’s way of punishing the Republican Party for Mitt Romney, John McCain and – worst of all – George W. Bush.
Trump is a reminder of Edmund Burke’s admonition that a “state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” So it is with a political party and a political movement.
If Trump wins the Iowa caucus on Monday – and barring a supernatural event or an unbelievable 11th-hour surge by Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump will win going away – Republicans cannot say they didn’t have it coming. We get the candidates we deserve.
Does it matter that Trump isn’t remotely conservative, or that he’s only been a Republican for all of 15 minutes? Nope. Not to Iowans, anyway. Or to New Hampshirites. Or to South Carolinians. The erstwhile reality show star wasn’t wrong when he joked at a Sioux Center rally last weekend, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters. … It’s like, incredible.”
I guess it would depend upon whom he shot.
Should top-tier presidential candidates joke about shooting people? Probably not. But it’s different for Trump. Certainly Trump’s rivals tried to make a big deal of it, but their sanctimony fell flat. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who doesn’t have a prayer in Iowa but who is campaigning hard in New Hampshire, was reportedly “flabbergasted.” He cautioned against voting out of anger against the much-despised Establishment.
“I want to burn Washington down (too) because it’s so damn ineffective,” Christie said. “But who’s going to rebuild it?”
This is the problem for conservatives. It has been the problem since the early 1990s, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich orchestrated the political resurgence that led to a Republican majority in Congress for the first time in 40 years. Conservatives at the time spoke hopefully of a Republican “revolution,” coming on the heels of Ronald Reagan’s “revolution” a decade earlier. Many of us talked about “burning down” Washington then, too.
The history of the conservative movement since the 1980s is really one of serial disappointments and broken promises. Few remember now, but many conservatives viewed Reagan with skepticism that at times slipped into overt hostility. The Left may have thought Reagan would lead the country to war, but some on the Right thought he was far too conciliatory with the Soviets.
Conservatives, who had high hopes for Gingrich, realized within a couple of years that their dreams of a smaller federal government were for naught. The “Contract With America” was well and good, but the moment Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, a consummate devotee of “process,” became the GOP’s standard-bearer against Bill Clinton in 1996, the revolution was over.
George W. Bush was no right-wing hero, either. Not at first. His campaign for “compassionate conservatism” irritated those of us who believed conservatism required no modifiers. Besides, he was the son of a one-term president, a milquetoast patrician Republican who coined the term “voodoo economics” to describe Reagan’s economic platform. Who needed that kind of equivocation?
Conservatives got behind Bush in 2000 despite their misgivings about his parentage and his questionable dedication to the cause. If it hadn’t been for 9/11, there was an excellent chance Bush the younger would have ended up as a one-termer like his father.
As it was, Bush’s bungled management of the war in Iraq, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, led to a profound and lasting split in the Republican Party. That split is why Trump is trumping everyone else.
That Bush’s failures abroad and at home led to the ascent of Barack Obama cannot be disputed. Bush’s willingness to “(abandon) free market principles to save the free market” doomed John McCain and assured Obama’s election in 2008. It didn’t help that Bush and McCain were essentially of the same mind on immigration reform, advocating a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants that the GOP’s conservative base soundly rejected.
Conservatives hoped four years of Obama’s “hope and change” would send Americans rushing back to the Republican fold. Instead, they got Mitt Romney, who lacked the willingness to repudiate Bush’s failed legacy. Here was yet another establishment pick, a flip-flopping, fair-weather “conservative” whose heart didn’t seem to be in the fight.
Every election, the Republicans put up candidates who swear they are the rightful heirs of Ronald Reagan and promise to rein in the excesses of the administrative state. Every election since Obama took office, Republicans have solemnly vowed to undo Obamacare, stop the outrageous accumulation of debt and secure the southern U.S. border.
And every single time, they fail.
Not only do they fail, they break their promises and deny all blame. Republican leaders pass showy repeal legislation guaranteed to be vetoed, continue to raise the debt ceiling, and talk about how that “path to citizenship” is inevitable after all.
No wonder Trump is winning.
Conservative voters no longer trust conservative candidates to keep their promises. They no longer trust the judgment of conservative writers and intellectuals. National Review’s contributors and editors are certainly correct that Trump is a demagogue and a danger to the Republican Party, to say nothing of the nation. But didn’t those guys also publish an entire issue devoted to “The Case for Romney”? What do they know?
So forget the intellectuals. Who cares about Edmund Burke, anyway? He’s so 18th century and one of the intellectual founders of modern conservatism. Get with the times! Trump isn’t about thought. He’s about action. Read all about it in “The Art of the Deal.”
Politics is the art of picking battles wisely. Conservatives have a long record of choosing quixotic fights and ill-conceived cavalry charges that end in embarrassment and defeat.
Maybe Trump will be different. Maybe the old rules don’t apply to him.
The much-despised, ever-changing Republican establishment has hoped for months that Trump’s popularity was a bad dream and that reason would somehow prevail. They’ve moved past denial and anger into the bargaining stage.
Last week, such establishment eminences as Bob Dole and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch made noises about how Trump would be preferable to a rogue like Cruz, the junior senator from Texas who has gone out of his way to aggravate his colleagues.
Cruz presents himself as a principled conservative. Trump is utterly devoid of principle. But Trump is winning. And we never learn.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.