Ben Boychuk

Trump’s triumph should signal an end to ‘checklist conservatism’

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Conservatives who supported Donald Trump for president are going to be disappointed eventually. Perhaps even pretty soon. And that’s a good thing.

While liberals obsess over Trump’s alleged affronts to their cherished identity politics, conservatives are going to discover that many of the pieties they’ve held for a generation are suddenly obsolete.

Liberals have invested a lot in creating a cartoon caricature of a racist, sexist, anti-Semitic monster taking over the executive branch. We’ve seen it in the protests and vigils following the election. We’ve seen it in the anguished commentaries about why Hillary Clinton lost. The general consensus seems to be that a solid plurality of Americans is hopelessly racist and sexist. Keep thinking that way – it’s a guaranteed path to irrelevancy.

Conservatives in the meantime have their own problem with irrelevancy.

For the better part of a generation, all one had to do to be considered a “true conservative” was swear allegiance to what might be called the right-wing trinity: a strong military, free markets and “family values.”

Everyone wants a strong defense. Many Americans still prefer capitalism to state-managed socialism. And people like families.

But let’s face it, “family values” is a phrase so amorphous as to be virtually meaningless. As my American Greatness colleague Chris Buskirk has pointed out, “family values” morphed into “compassionate conservatism” which in turn was used to justify every crazy scheme “from open borders to Obamacare.”

Over time, conservatives rendered a “strong military” and “free markets” virtually meaningless as well.

National defense conservatives pursued endless wars “for democracy” without a clear understanding of what our victory and our peace would look like. Fifteen years after 9/11, neoconservatives still have no clear answers, except to suggest that war with Russia over godforsaken Syria might be in the nation’s interest.

“Free markets” became a mantra among Republican elected officials who never met a corporate tax cutout they didn’t like. (Cutting the corporate income tax rate, as Trump as proposed, is a different question.) Republicans embraced “free trade,” which is a sound economic theory that our modern trade agreements have undone in practice.

The upshot of embracing phony “free markets” and “free trade” is evident in the parts of the country that rejected Mitt Romney’s candidacy in 2012 but embraced Trump this year.

Trump won in part because he is not a conventional checklist conservative. When Trump looked like a joke, many liberal commentators recognized him as a lukewarm Republican at best. Jamelle Bouie at Slate last week may have been denouncing Trump and his voters for embracing “racist demagoguery,” but a year ago Bouie considered Trump a “moderate Republican.”

And although Trump has at various times called himself a conservative, he told an interviewer in May, shortly after he locked up the nomination, “don’t forget, this is called the Republican Party. It’s not called the Conservative Party.”

So it should come as no surprise that Trump has abandoned the old checklist and made one of his own.

Trumpism, so-called, rests on three pillars: immigration, economic nationalism and an America First (or, if the term makes you uncomfortable, U.S.-interests-based) foreign policy. As a practical political matter, all three pillars are different in kind from recent conservative Republican orthodoxy.

Trump was the first prominent Republican to campaign successfully (sorry Ron Paul fans) against George W. Bush’s policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“But,” you say, “he said he was for the war before he was against it!” Until Trump came along, Republicans tied themselves into knots trying to justify the calamity in Iraq. Trump has made it possible for Republicans to come to terms with the war – and distance themselves from the crippling mistakes of the Bush era. That’s a very good thing, not just for the GOP but also for the country.

Trump has proposed upward of $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, equal to 20 years of federal spending on surface transportation. (For what it’s worth, some transportation policy experts say the real need is closer to $3 trillion.) Some of that – maybe a lot of it – would be financed privately.

Nevertheless, the proposal signals a departure from the conservative checklist. Fiscal conservatives, for example, look askance at government spending on infrastructure. How on earth can we take more debt for these “pork-barrel” projects?

We can in part because infrastructure has a direct link to economic growth and, more important, jobs. Roughly one-in-six able-bodied American men are sitting idle right now. Many of them want to work. An ambitious infrastructure plan could create upward of 3 million jobs.

Trump has rejected the Chamber of Commerce line on immigration, asserting that a nation without meaningful borders is not a nation at all. But what has Trump really said that’s so terrible? Trump imagines a “big, beautiful wall” with a “big, beautiful door” along the southern U.S. border, perhaps 1,000 miles long. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, during their time as U.S. senators, voted for the construction of a 700-mile fence.

Trump’s real sin, apparently, is to reject the toxic multicultural ethos that has infected both political parties to a greater or lesser degree. It’s not that he’s opposed to immigration. It’s that he favors assimilation. Many conservatives have forgotten that part, preferring to think that newcomers – documented and undocumented alike – will become Americans by osmosis. It doesn’t work that way. Never has.

Trump famously has shown little interest in the particulars of public policy. That’s what makes him dangerous in the eyes of people who have the slightest acquaintance with the details. But that’s also what makes him potentially so transformative. He’s made it possible to question the old pieties and unsettle settled orthodoxies.

Truth is, Trump also favors shoring up the welfare state. He’s a great fan of mandatory paid maternal leave, for example. The old #NeverTrump brigade – or whatever remains of it – will point at every such deviation and shout, “See! We told you! He’s not a conservative!”

And many of my right-leaning intellectual friends who weighed in on Trump’s behalf during and after the election will shrug and calmly reply, “See. We told you. He’s not a conservative.” He is co-opting Democratic issues for Republican ends.

Democrats will say, “See! We ... wait, what?”

The ground is shifting. Trump has torn up the old checklist and thrown it away. Conservatives who keep working from the old checklist will soon find themselves even more irrelevant than they are already. And liberals won’t even know what hit them.

Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness (www.amgreatness.com). Contact him at ben@amgreatness.com.

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