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Identity Politics Conservatism

Conservative elites trying to come up with the next stage of Trumpism are out of touch with what Republican voters actually want.
August 8, 2020
Identity Politics Conservatism
(Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)


I keep telling people that Trump is forever and no one believes me.

I get that. I don’t want to believe me, either.

But there are two ways to view 2016.

The first is that Donald Trump broke apart the fusionist Republican coalition by discovering that GOP voters have different policy priorities than GOP elites.

The second is that Donald Trump broke apart the fusionist Republican coalition by discovering that some large core of GOP voters are motivated primarily by identity-grievance politics and, unlike GOP elites, have no policy priorities.

Most of the post-Trump analysis you will see over the next couple years will assume the first view, which, just for shorthand, we’ll call the Conservative Reformation Theory. My friend David Brooks lays this out very nicely in a long piece that goes through all of the different strains of conservatism, from paleocons to reformicons to front-porchicons and more. And he notes the Republican politicians and professional conservatives who are diligently scurrying around, trying to build out policy frameworks for these varying ideological poses.

I suspect that everyone in Washington even tangentially connected to Team Elephant will subscribe to the Conservative Reformation theory because (1) it’s comforting; (2) it means that their work is relevant; (3) to subscribe to the other view leads to a chain a logic that is not especially congenial.

I’m open to changing my mind—these are just theories, after all, and more evidence will accrue—but I am deeply skeptical of the Conservative Reformation Theory.

The other view—let’s call it Identity Politics Conservatism until we come up with something better—is largely agnostic on questions of policy. Do these people want tariffs, or free trade? Do they hate socialism, or do they want the government picking winners and losers according to the national interest? Are they pro-life, or are the deaths of 160,000 people just something that “is what it is”?

The Identity Politics Conservatism theory would say that these people don’t care a whit about the policies—they care about who is doing the policymaking. Like old-guard Leninists, their primary concern is: Who? Whom?

In case you’re too young for Lenin, when you go from his original Russian—кто кого опередит?—his bon mot translates as “Who will overtake whom?” And in practice, this was more precisely carried out as “Who will obliterate whom?”

The logic of Identity Politics Conservatism suggests that all of this think tanking and speechifying is—at best—tertiary to what these voters care about. They do not want a new strategy for bringing tech giants to heel.

They want Lafayette Park.

If I could distill the difference between the Conservative Reformation and the Identity Politics Conservatism viewpoints to a single sentence, it would be this:

One theory holds that voters responded to Trump despite the tweets; the other posits that voters responded to Trump because of the tweets.

But as I said, to believe the second view is to be forced to confront a number of thoughts that aren’t very nice.

The State of COVID

Fingers crossed, but it looks like we might be trending in the right direction again. The new case numbers have started heading south and the daily number of new deaths has ticked backwards.

What does “good” look like in our context right now?

It means that there will almost certainly be 200,000 dead Americans by November.

This is a useful moment to remind you that one of the false narratives that has been pushed during the pandemic by some people is that “all the models were wrong” on COVID.

Here is Deborah Birx on March 30:

The White House coronavirus response coordinator said Monday that she is “very worried about every city in the United States” and projects 100,000 to 200,000 American deaths as a best case scenario.In an interview on “TODAY,” Dr. Deborah Birx painted a grim message about the expected fatalities, echoing that they could hit more than 2 million without any measures, as coronavirus cases continue to climb throughout the country.

“I think everyone understands now that you can go from five to 50 to 500 to 5,000 cases very quickly,” Birx said.

“I think in some of the metro areas we were late in getting people to follow the 15-day guidelines,” she added.

Birx said the projections by Dr. Anthony Fauci that U.S. deaths could range from 1.6 million to 2.2 million is a worst case scenario if the country did “nothing” to contain the outbreak, but said even “if we do things almost perfectly,” she still predicts up to 200,000 U.S. deaths.

So, you know, the models have actually worked reasonably well. We had one model for what would happen with no mitigation efforts (1.6 million to 2.2 million dead) and one model for what would happen with mitigation protocols (up to 200,000 dead). America instituted mitigation efforts—not uniformly, and not perfectly—and we are . . . on track for 200,000 dead.

Were the models perfect? No. But they were in the ballpark. If you had looked at the modeling being done in March, you would have had a much more accurate picture of reality than if you had just been cherry picking random cranks on the internet.

Here, I would like to remind everyone that Hoover’s Richard A. Epstein insisted—at the exact same moment as Birx was speaking above—that America’s death total would be between 500 and 5,000.

Please remember that the next time someone says, “Blah blah blah you can’t trust models wump-wump.”

But here’s the thing: The virus doesn’t stop on Election Day. It’s going to keep moving and killing and changing just about everything about the way we live.

highly recommend listening to Bill Kristol’s interview with epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch.

He diagnoses how we got to where we are—the choices and mistakes made—and the pathways forward.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.