As the outcome of the GOP nominee race remains uncertain with growing speculation of a brokered convention, American conservatism is at a crossroads. In much the same way that Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was a repudiation of the Blairite-Brownite years, a Trump victory will be a reality check for American conservatism.
Ever since Barry Goldwater won the nomination in 1964, the conservative movement’s grip over the Republican party has been truly impressive. With the support of campaign organizations, magazines, newspapers, think tanks, and academics, the conservative movement has defined what it means to be right wing in America. If Trump wins the nomination, then it will be the first time that the conservative movement has lost the nomination to a candidate from outside the Republican mainstream.
Trump has certainly forged a robust nationalist message to rally his blue collar, populist, grassroots revolt. But can he actually change American conservatism? The New York mogul is unlikely to leave behind a “Trumpite” movement which can be influential in the coming years. The conservative movement, despite its disconnect from voters, still enjoys a tremendous institutional advantage with its network of donors, campaign organizers, and thinkers.
The true legacy of a Trump nomination would be largely destructive. For decades the conservative movement has relied on a combination of economic libertarianism, social conservatism, and an interventionist foreign policy. This formula certainly led to great successes during the Cold War, but no longer reflects the challenges facing America in 2016. Trump’s heresies on tariffs, illegal immigration, healthcare, and foreign policy have led to the scorn of many conservatives, such as the “Against Trump” editorial by the conservative movement’s foremost magazine, the National Review, and the #NeverTrump Twitter campaign. But Trump has proven to be very popular among GOP voters.
Furthermore, Trump’s message, as powerful as it may be, is still heavily dependent on Trump’s media personality rather than credible policy solutions or a systematic political theory. After years of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party touting the virtue of “the outsider” as opposed to “Washington insiders”, Trump has simply beaten conservatives at their own game. Populist rage will triumph in the short term, but it is no foundation for a new constructive vision of American conservatism.
Indeed, despite its institutional strength, conservatism has been declining electorally. Since 1992 the GOP has not won the popular vote in a presidential election with the exception of 2004. Republicans have enjoyed a lot of success in state and congressional elections since the “Republican Revolution” in 1994, but that support has been very concentrated in certain areas. Republicans are not winning over the female, urban, or ethnic minority voters they need for a national majority. Reagan’s 1980 and 1984 victories were delivered far less diverse than today’s America.
For too long the conservative movement has been operating like it is still the 1980s when the political challenges and the electoral demographics have fundamentally changed. This has left both centrist voters and core voters dissatisfied. Trump’s success in both the moderate Northeast and the evangelical South is very much a result of this failure. A defeat in November could shake the movement out of its current state and lead to the kind of renewal which can produce a modern and successful brand of conservatism, or it could lead to four more years of decline and failure.