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Year Zero

No, conservative victories did not begin with Trump.
March 5, 2019
Year Zero
Donald Trump at CPAC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Welcome to Year Zero, where conservative history begins anew.

Until now, conservatives were merely feckless losers, low-testosterone failures in search of leadership, energy, and the sort of #winning that has now only just begun. So it was not surprising that the mockery of the “ghost of John McCain” would get a standing ovation at last weeks’ CPAC, or that the legacy of the last two GOP presidents would be erased.

“The Bush family, the entire legacy, has been erased from conservative history at this conference,” MSNBC’s Garrett Haake noted.

To be sure, the Bushes were a disappointment to many conservatives on a wide range of issues and failed on others. But, as Republicans are learning anew in the Trump era, all sorts of compromises are sometimes necessary. Ideological purity and consistency are really not a thing these days, are they?

But, we were told over and over and over, at least Trump #wins, unlike the Bushes.  National Review’s David French pushed back on the narrative and noted that this is the pattern of Trumpism:

But this is not really mystifying, nor is it simply a “part” of the Trumpist project. Scrubbing history is at the heart of the current efforts to remake conservativism in the image of Trump. There can be only one; and what is happening now has never happened before, because he alone can save us. To #win requires that everyone else loses, or be discredited. This requires the excision of quite a lot of political memory, but CPAC was up for it.

As French notes, though, conservative victories did not begin in 2019. George W. Bush enacted massive tax cuts,  axed regulations, and appointed Samuel Alito, John Roberts; and his record on pro life issues holds up pretty well.

You don’t have to be a Bush apologist to remember (as French did) that Bush actually signed legislation to ban partial birth abortion, a measure that was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Bush also signed the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, legislation declares that every infant born alive, including one who survives an abortion procedure, was a person under federal law. He reinstated the Mexico City Policy, which barred the use of taxpayer funds for foreign NGOs that pay for abortions or advocate abortion. In 2001, Bush allowed funding of research using existing stem cell lines , but drew the line at the destruction of additional live human embryos. He endorsed a ban on all human cloning.

These are non-trivial victories but apparently inconvenient memories for the new revisionists.

In fairness, this process of revision predates Trump. As I recounted in How the Right Lost Its Mind, the perpetual outrage machines on the right thrived on the drumbeat of insisting that the Republican mainstream had betrayed the conservative movement. The sense of weakness and failure was amplified during the Obama years by activists who found that turning up the dial on outrage was an effective formula for getting clicks, raising money, and boosting ratings.

National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke saw the danger in all of this, arguing that the notion that the GOP has simply caved to Obama was “flat-out wrong. Disastrously wrong. Apocalyptically wrong.” Despite the failures to repeal Obamacare, Cooke noted that if the GOP had not resisted Obama “the United States would look dramatically different than it does today.” Instead of a public-private hybrid, Obamacare might have been single payer and “at the very least, the law would have included a “public option.”

Without the GOP manning the barricades, we’d have seen a carbon tax or cap-and-trade — or both. Without the GOP manning the barricades, we’d have got union card check, and possibly an amendment to Taft-Hartley that removed from the states their power to pass “right to work” exemptions. Without the GOP standing in the way, we’d now have an “assault weapons” ban, magazine limits, background checks on all private sales, and a de facto national gun registry. And without the GOP standing in the way in the House, we’d have got the very amnesty that the Trump people so fear…

The same was true at the state level.  

Had the GOP not taken over the vast majority of the country’s local offices since 2010, we’d have seen significantly less progress on right to work, the protection of life, school choice, and the right to keep and bear arms; we’d have seen a whole host of new sanctuary cities; we’d have had considerably fewer attorneys general rising up against Obama’s executive overreach; and, perhaps most importantly, we’d have seen Obamacare entrenched almost everywhere as state after state chose to expand Medicaid.

And yet, none of this mattered as the loudest voices in the new right made demands that the GOP could not fulfill because they were politically and fiscally impossible to enact. Many of those demands (especially on spending and deficits) have since been abandoned, but who remembers them anyway?

Because it’s Year Zero and facts and history can be anything we want them to be. Right?

Correction, March 5: The article originally identified Garrett Haake as a CNN correspondent. Haake works for MSBNC. 

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.