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The Ghost of Conservatism Future

Should principled conservatives start a new party? Reform the GOP? Join with the Democrats?
December 23, 2020
The Ghost of Conservatism Future
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 08: US President Donald Trump walks out after speaking at the Operation Warp Speed Vaccine Summit on December 08, 2020 in Washington, DC. The president signed an executive order stating the US would provide vaccines to Americans before aiding other nations. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

In 2016, anti-Trump conservatives decided, at considerable cost, that their mission transcended party and ideology: defeating a candidate gravely unsuited for the presidency. In 2020, they opposed his re-election with the stakes even higher—saving constitutional democracy, the rule of law, and responsible governance from incipient autocracy, the abuse of presidential power, the erasure of political norms, and a concerted effort to undermine the electoral process.

By acting in the prudential conservative tradition which harks back to Edmund Burke, they helped terminate a radically destructive presidency. But what now?

Do the Never Trumpers strive to reconstitute the GOP as a responsible political party? Do they join a moderate Democratic party led by Joe Biden? Or do they try to help Biden succeed for the larger good of the country while ultimately hoping, someday and somehow, to provide a new home for principled conservatives?

A word about my perspective. Among my gifted and gutsy colleagues at The Bulwark, generally conservatives whose foundational loyalties lay with the Republican party, I’m a center-left Democrat who saw Trump as the continuation—not the cause—of a moral and intellectual decline wherein the GOP conflated “conservatism” with a Manichean white identity politics that demolishes fact, degrades political discourse, and promotes scorched-earth partisanship. So I’d be delighted to claim them as political coreligionists at this perilous national crossroads.

But my colleagues and their siblings on the center-right are not of one mind. What unites us is the desire to help our country rebuild a collective comity.

I lack standing to suggest a specific path for my conservative friends. But, to me, one indispensable predicate comes first: stopping the GOP as constituted from gutting our democracy.

The dangers before us transcend Trump. Witness Evan McMullin’s stark assessment of why elected Republicans, in overwhelming numbers, acquiesced in or actively supported Trump’s unprecedented effort to undo a presidential election: “That they. . . clung to his mad king strategy, like sailors lashed to the mast of a sinking ship, proves that the majority of the party has, at least for the foreseeable future, forsaken democracy.”

This mutation reflects a fatal miscalculation made by the party establishment well before Trump: that they could harness the GOP’s restive white base—increasingly dominated by evangelicals and the less well educated—while serving the financial interests of their donor class. Catherine Rampell describes the fruits of this delusion:

Over the years, Republican politicians seemed many times to be on the cusp of a reckoning—a realization that a lunatic fringe had seized control of the party’s more pragmatic center and that conspiracy-theorizing, race-baiting, science-denigrating demagogues had transformed the GOP base into ungovernable paranoiacs. The situation seemed untenable; the fever had to break. . . . Yet the party’s radicalization continued, and the reckoning never came.

Nor will it anytime soon. Increasingly, the base—and therefore the party—is captive to an apocalyptic worldview rooted in fear of dispossession by the racial, cultural, and demographic “other” which, in turn, feeds authoritarian cravings. As the president of the Southern Baptist Theological seminary, Albert Mohler, explained to Nicholas Lemann: “There’s an anxiety. A world is being demolished before your eyes. It’s an instinct that things aren’t going as they should. The world is coming apart. Somebody has to say no.”

For these angry, anxious, mostly white Republicans, Trump appeared as a human Powerball ticket. As Mike Murphy, a longtime GOP consultant who is a strategic adviser to Republican Voters Against Trump, told Lemann: “Trump was a perfect grievance candidate, at a time when Republican voters wanted to blow up the system… He was very George Wallace. And then there was the strongman thing: Juan Perón in an orange fright wig.”

Trump sealed the establishment’s devil’s pact: He stoked the resentments of the GOP’s primary electorate while giving the party’s donor class the tax cuts they crave and judges who, shrouded in cultural conservatism, protect their economic interests. The contradictions inherent in this pact require the perpetuation of a socially corrosive alternate reality that narcotizes the base—and thereby increasingly entraps or defines the party’s officeholders.

In examining why so many voters exhibit “such cognitive decline when it came to politics” George Packer cites the dire history of twentieth-century Europe:

Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, describes the susceptibility to propaganda of the atomized modern masses, “obsessed by a desire to escape from reality because in their essential homelessness they can no longer bear its accidental, incomprehensible aspects.” They seek refuge in “a man-made pattern of relative consistency” that bears little relation to reality.

That psychic need for absolutism aptly describes the animating spirit of Trump’s GOP. Concludes Packer: “Though the U.S. is still a democratic republic, not a totalitarian regime, and Trump was an all-American demagogue, not a fascist dictator, his followers abandoned common sense and found their guide to the world in him. Defeat won’t change that.”

This sensibility is rooted in the GOP’s reliance on fictional tropes years before Trump’s rise—at first in the service of political ideology: that tax cuts for the wealthy pay for themselves; that climate change is a liberal fantasy; that gun-control laws don’t limit gun violence. In time, this fed a nihilistic quasi-libertarianism nurtured by right-wing media—seen in everything from the mindless political arson of the Tea Party to the deadly aversion against wearing masks to stifle COVID-19—which erodes our capacity to resolve common challenges through prudent governance.

This animus differs from opposition to authoritarianism per se—it is directed at the supposed elites who have unleashed government on those who already feel marginalized. Hence the findings of social scientists who link the instinct for autocracy among the Republican base to racial and cultural resentments which, as they see it, require the subordination of their societal enemies.

Beneath the hatred of “political correctness” lurks the desire to control its perceived proponents. Add the desire for simple explanations of complex problems to the belief that you are opposed by evil forces, and conspiracy theories follow.

In all too many cases Trump did not originate the false narratives which poison the current Republican party. He simply exploited the pre-existing paranoia of its base.

That’s why, before seeking the presidency, he could so easily spread the conspiratorial nonsense of birtherism—a classic expression of racial anxieties and resentments—throughout the party. The Republican electorate elevated Trump because such lies had already become the lingua franca of a gated community of the mind that will outlive him.

The common assertion that the GOP became the cult of Trump misses this central point—the party houses an alienated worldview which he simply fortified and exploited. Long before Trump, the base was captured by Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh—and so, inevitably, was the party.

While Trump fed this phenomenon, it does not require him. Observes Packer: “No number from Trump’s years in power will be more lastingly destructive than his 25,000 false or misleading statements. Super-spread by social media and cable news, they contaminated the minds of tens of millions of people. Trump’s lies will linger for years, poisoning the atmosphere like radioactive dust.”

Little wonder that the GOP of 2020 had no platform—the glue which binds the base is no longer principles or ideas, but its angry addiction to false narratives. Within this hermetic world the psychotic assertion of QAnon that Democrats molest and devour children to satiate Satan is taken, by many, as reality.

This collective insanity has profound implications for public policy and social coherence. The widespread disbelief among the base in the deadliness of COVID-19 accelerated the disease’s spread; enabled Trump’s lethal neglect; and now feeds the aversion to vaccination, thereby likely adding to the toll of needless death.

Similarly, the refusal to accept the reality of Russian attacks on our election in 2016 surely encouraged the massive Russian cyberattack that has come to light over the last few days. Not so many years ago, the Republican party was reflexively hawkish on Russia; today, the party is nearly silent, taking its cue from Trump, who, when it comes to Vladimir Putin, follows the old adage “If you don’t have something nice to say about someone, then don’t say anything at all.”

The appalling apotheosis of the GOP’s embrace of delusion is the willingness—even eagerness—of the great majority of Republican voters to accept Trump’s most destructive falsehood: that Joe Biden stole the election through massive voter fraud for which no cognizable evidence exists. In the echo chamber of the Republican party, the most grotesque lies are self-validating: voting machines were rigged in Venezuela; Stacey Abrams harvested bogus ballots; the dead voted en masse; mail-in balloting created millions of phony votes; for Trump to lose was statistically impossible.

As The Bulwark’s Tim Miller and Amanda Carpenter have detailed, these otherworldly claims were metastasized by media sociopaths profiteering in the GOP’s hysteria market. The primetime hosts of Fox News, until now the most prominent purveyors of rank disinformation, now compete with prevaricators on Newsmax and OAN who make Sean Hannity look like Walter Cronkite. Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy exults over the opportunities for profit arising from Trump’s chaotic reign: “The news cycle is red-hot, and Newsmax is getting one million people per minute.”

Peddling misinformation that further inflames a ready audience of Republicans is, it seems clear, the ideal business model for those who savor shriveling souls and shrinking minds. In the post-truth netherworld, their profit swells, and their influence grows apace. As social psychologist Peter Ditto told Thomas B. Edsall, “in that environment almost any lie can be believed, almost any transgression excused, as long as it helps your side.”

Such unmediated antagonism breeds not only authoritarianism but violence. One particularly toxic element is racism, expressed most recently in Trump’s blatant attempt to disenfranchise black voters in states which Biden won—followed by the vandalization of black churches in Washington, D.C. during a pro-Trump rally earlier this month.

But this ugly spirit transcends race. Witness the right-wing militia that plotted to kidnap and execute Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer after Trump denounced her lockdown orders—let alone the dangerous flashpoints stemming from Trump’s loss: armed protesters who surrounded the home of the Michigan’s Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson; and the threats against secretaries of state and otherwise anonymous election workers in Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania.

No longer are the fears of public officials confined to electoral defeat. As the Republican leader of the Pennsylvania Senate told the New York Times, had she not signed a letter urging the state’s congressional delegation to toss out its electoral votes for Biden, “I’d get my house bombed tonight.”

This menace highlights a broader truth—the Republican party has become inimical to democracy itself. Write political scientists Steven Livingston and W. Lance Bennett:

The descent of the GOP into illiberalism did not begin with Trump’s ride down an escalator five years ago. It started with the party’s Faustian bargain with racism, along with its embrace of billionaire backers who fund elections, think tanks, and media networks producing propaganda for extremists. All of this serves as a distraction from decades-long strategies to legalize voter suppression.

Long before Trump took over the party, the GOP committed itself to preserving the dominance of its white electorate by targeting people of color—passing photo ID laws which have the documented effect of reducing minority turnout; purging voting rolls; and closing polling places in minority areas. As Geoffrey Kabaservice observes, once the GOP “stopped believing it was the majority party . . . then anything would be permitted, including antidemocratic means.”

Their bogus pretext, turbocharged by Trump in 2020, was that such measures prevented massive voter fraud. Notes David Litt in the Guardian: “Trump simply absorbed his party establishment’s prevailing view—that it is acceptable to win elections through whatever means possible . . . and took that approach to its logical conclusion.”

The party’s longstanding claims of voter fraud may have begun as a cynical contrivance. But by now the loathing for democracy among the base is not just tactical, but visceral. Combine the instinct for authoritarianism with conspiratorial thinking, the belief that your political opponents threaten all you hold dear, and an alternative reality marinating in hatred and fear, and democracy itself becomes the enemy.

This helps explain the acquiescence of party officials to Trump’s depredations: They fear the base; the base fears elections; and both fear the larger electorate. Jamelle Bouie describes the GOP’s bottom line:

We have learned that the Republican Party . . . views defeat on its face as illegitimate, a product of fraud concocted by opponents who don’t deserve to hold power. That it is fully the party of minority rule, committed to the idea that a vote doesn’t count if it isn’t for its candidates, and that if democracy won’t serve its partisan and ideological interests, then so much for democracy.

Already, Republican state and federal legislators are working to rig future elections, proposing harsher ID requirements and strict limits on voting by mail. In furtherance of these aims, Senator Ron Johnson held a hearing last week to publicize false claims of voter fraud. The next election may be closer, GOP election officials less willing to risk political opprobrium and personal danger. Warns Dan Pfeiffer, “In elections going forward, not trying to steal the election will be seen as RINO behavior.”

Already, the GOP is abetted by structural advantages that circumscribe genuine democracy. In 2021 Republicans will initiate more partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts to regain control of the House, having retained majorities in crucial state legislatures which are themselves gerrymandered. And their efforts to control presidential elections are, of course, fortified by the Electoral College.

Trump’s attempts to manipulate its arcane machinery should extinguish the notion that this 233-year-old compromise with slave states embodies timeless conservative wisdom. Instead, it has become a Republican tool for undermining representative democracy. Procedures put in place as last resorts for rare outcomes—such as a state legislature appointing its own slate of electors if that state’s normal election “fails,” or situations in which there is no clear Electoral College winner and therefore the House of Representatives picks the president by vote of each congressional delegation—have been misappropriated by Republicans desperate to find some mechanism, no matter how anti-democratic, to subvert the election.

Moreover, demographic sorting means that the Electoral College is increasingly likely to contradict the popular vote, as happened in two of the last six presidential elections. Finally, its results turn on a handful of closely contested states, thereby incentivizing voter suppression and electoral chicanery.

As Jesse Wegman notes, the fact that every other election in the United States is determined by popular vote confirms its conservative virtues—by treating voters as equals, it provides legitimacy and, therefore, stability. No matter: in the guise of conservatism the GOP will fight to preserve it as an instrument of electoral subversion, a bulwark against majority rule—and a perpetual gun to the head of democracy.

All this has less to do with Trump than the Republican base and its minoritarian-authoritarian political home. Observes Kabaservice, the GOP “has become a perpetual grievance machine unwilling (and unable) to address those grievances through governance or the legislative process. . . . Any Republicans who hope to succeed [Trump] as president will have to parrot his claims that he won in a landslide, that American democracy is corrupt and that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.”

A roll call of aspirants—from the scary Tom Cotton to the slicker Josh Hawley to the careful Nikki Haley—discloses no one with the following or the gifts, let alone the integrity and courage, to undertake the protean ordeal of rehabilitating the Republican party. Equally probable, the base’s avatar in 2024, if not Trump himself, could well be his ignorant and demagogic oldest son. With the help of voter suppression and the Electoral College, he just might win.

So what must principled conservatives do?

In my view their first imperative is to help reinvigorate our democracy, and our capacity for effective governance, by making common cause with other Americans of good will in opposition to the GOP. The immediate challenge facing conservatives is less about ideology than restoration: reinfusing society with the stability, optimism, and renewed belief in our traditions and institutions indispensable to a sound polity.

One essential element is protecting the franchise: ensuring voting rights; combating voter suppression; expanding vote by mail; and encouraging broader participation. Another possibility is curbing gerrymandering through redistricting by nonpartisan commissions.

Some problems with the Electoral College could be resolved by amending the Electoral Count Act of 1887. In 2020 this ill-drafted law created the prospect of partisan state legislatures overriding the results of “failed” elections based on false charges of voter fraud; the specter of partisan congressional challenges to a state’s designated electors still looms over the proceedings scheduled for January 6.

But the deeper problem is that the Electoral College engenders electoral disputes, encourages voter suppression and manipulation, frequently abridges the popular vote, and confines meaningful participation in presidential elections to the citizens of a handful of states. Thus a number of states—accounting for more than a third of the total Electoral College votes—have entered a compact agreeing to cast their electoral votes for the winner of the popular vote nationwide.

This extraconstitutional contrivance, intended to circumvent the need for a constitutional amendment, provokes justifiable unease. But one must ask whether completing it is nonetheless preferable—indeed, more conservative—than maintaining a dysfunctional and destabilizing anachronism which was, itself, a contrivance—thereby promoting minority rule, electoral subversion, and, inevitably, the grave constitutional crisis augured by the maneuvers of Trump and his party.

The other necessity is to support the Biden administration in addressing our urgent needs. This, too, is inherently conservative: Compared to renewing confidence in government at this crossroads between renewal and decline, ideological disputes are secondary.

Clearly, conservatives need not become Democrats. But for now Democrats have defined themselves as a center-left party which presents the vehicle for preserving a functioning democracy. Again, Evan McMullin:

If the coalition that defeated Mr. Trump and elected President-elect Joe Biden, of which we [Never Trump conservatives] are a part, fails now to lead the nation past the coronavirus pandemic, widespread job losses and economic instability, social division and injustice, inaccessible health care, fiscal shortfalls and disinformation, we will invite a resurgence of Trumpism and even more formidable illiberalism in the future.

Unmoored from partisanship and the related constraints of ideology, principled conservatives can strengthen the political center, promote compromise over polarization, and consider anew the problems which atomize America: income inequality, discriminatory law enforcement, substandard education, unaffordable college, and residential segregation. The majority of Americans—and Democrats—want solutions, not slogans.

The healthiest society is that in which its citizens believe—and which, by helping the least of them achieve their full potential, enriches the whole. That shared enterprise requires the energy and commitment of true conservatives.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.