The Great Conservative Crackup

Some presidential elections matter more than others. Four decades ago, Ronald Wilson Reagan was elected as America’s 40th president. This signified an end to half a century of the dominance of Rooseveltian liberalism: a hegemony to which many on the other side of the political aisle had offered, at best, anemic resistance. Sixteen years after Reagan’s election, a Democratic president declared that “the era of big government is over,” thus underscoring how much the post-Goldwater conservative movement had changed America’s ideological landscape.

Today, that world seems very far away. The broad movement which managed to attract support from individuals ranging from religious traditionalists to atheist libertarians is not what it was. In some cases, different groups which once gathered under its banner seem more preoccupied with attacking each other than resisting a left that wants to turn America into an identity-politics dystopia run by self-loathing faculty lounges, woke CEOs, fiscally illiterate big-city mayors, and assorted celebrities.

It usually takes only two nanoseconds before the words “Donald Trump” are uttered during discussions of why the right finds itself in these circumstances. In truth, however, Trump’s election as America’s 45th president and the subsequent policy shifts are as much a symptom as a cause of these divisions. How this happened is the subject of Gerald F. Seib’s We Should Have Seen It Coming: From Reagan to Trump—A Front Row Seat to a Political Revolution. A long-time Wall Street Journal writer, Seib traces changes on the right over the past 40 years primarily through the lens of conservative and Republican politics.

Seib’s is a story in which the right’s intellectual leaders play more visible roles at the beginning and at the end. They don’t feature prominently in between. Perhaps that reflects Seib’s focus as a Washington D.C. journalist, a city in which policy, personalities, and 24/7 politics inevitably take priority over deeper engagement with ideas. But it may also suggest a certain complacency that gradually emerged on the right between 1980 and 2016. In this respect, Seib argues that many conservatives failed to track two developments that helped facilitate the great conservative crackup.

The first was the fading currency of some core Reaganite ideas (free markets, limited government, etc.) among its mass constituencies, many of whom plainly regard parts of the right’s political and intellectual establishments as out of touch, if not part of the problem. The second was the emergence into full public view of sharp differences of opinion on the right about particular subjects: differences that had always existed but which had stayed relatively subterranean. According to Seib, the consequences of these developments are what many on the right failed to see coming.

From Three-Legged Stool to Pat Buchanan

The American right has always been a fractious tribe, often more united by what it opposes than what it supports. Reagan’s great political achievement was to weld together religious conservatives, free marketers, and national security hawks into a fairly cohesive coalition against several opponents: the New Deal and the Great Society; those proposing détente with the Soviet Union; and 1960s permissiveness.

The logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” however, only takes you so far. Beneath the surface, divergent views persisted. Many libertarians and conservatives maintained very different positions on social issues. With the U.S.S.R’s collapse, moreover, some traditionalists became more vocal in their opposition to advocates of American military interventionism abroad.

Some of the most intense divisions revolved around the purpose of sex and marriage. Further complicating matters was that many had been drawn to Reagan’s coalition precisely because, as Seib states, they were appalled at the Democratic Party’s relentless embrace of social liberalism. For many such voters, “economic views were secondary” and they weren’t necessarily as enthusiastic about free markets as other parts of the right.

For Seib, the intra-right debates eventually gravitated toward two questions, both of which concerned America’s relationship with the rest of the world but simultaneously touched on social and economic issues. One was immigration; the other was the effects of economic globalization. Significant gaps started opening up between the stool’s three legs about these subjects, as well as between many of the right’s generals and some of the battalions they thought they led.

The 2008 bailouts reinforced the impression that many conservative leaders were too quick to abandon their free market principles to help out friends on Wall Street.

The figure who brought these matters to the fore was Pat Buchanan. In 1992, his protectionism and skepticism about immigration clashed with important positions then broadly embraced by the right. Buchanan’s challenge to George H.W. Bush followed by Ross Perot’s anti-NAFTA campaign helped unseat an incumbent president but also constituted, Seib comments, “an early critique [that] Donald Trump would use” against the Reaganite consensus to spectacular effect.

What’s apparent from this section of Seib’s book is that many on the right dismissed the Buchanan-Perot moment as little more than a blip. Hence, the concerns that it surfaced were not considered to require much attention. In fact, Seib submits that the conservative movement reached “its peak with the Contract with America, the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, and the significant conservative advances at the state level.” Though identified with Newt Gingrich, the contract was also unmistakably Reaganite in its content. Curiously, Bill Clinton showed far more attentiveness to growing angst about immigration than his political opponents. While the 1996 Democratic platform embraced free trade, Seib notes that it “sounded positively Trumpian on immigration.”

Does this mean that the right should have abandoned the Reagan coalition’s generally favorable view of immigration in the ‘90s? Not necessarily. It was, however, an opportunity for the right’s leading voices to acknowledge that immigration imposes some costs on destination-countries; that a generous immigration policy must go hand-in-hand with adherence to rule of law; that wide-scale immigration and big welfare programs are incompatible; that successful immigration demands assimilation, not identity-politics; and that immigration policy is a responsibility of sovereign nation-states—not supranational institutions with pretentions to global sovereignty.

Would such tweaks have satisfied Buchanan? Probably not. Nevertheless, it would have illustrated that conservatives could fine-tune their rhetoric and policies without abandoning a broader position they considered important for America’s future. For the most part, however, they didn’t.

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

The right’s transformation in the period between Reagan and Trump isn’t, from Seib’s standpoint, simply about the growth of these tensions and failure to address them successfully. A second factor concerns specific decisions made by conservative Republican administrations. These simultaneously infuriated significant portions of the right’s support base and severely damaged the credibility of conservative policymakers, thereby opening the door for non-conventional figures to take charge.

One such choice concerns the second Iraq war. In 2001, few disputed the logic of striking Al-Qaida terrorists or dismantling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The quagmire that ensued in Iraq from 2003 onwards, however, not only discredited neoconservative approaches to national security. Rightly or wrongly, it also undermined claims to competency on the part of the right’s national security experts. How, it was argued, could they have possibly supported attempts at nation-building in a country with a culture that no one would describe as predisposed to liberal democracy and markets?

Another event with dramatic implications for the conservative movement was the 2008 Financial Crisis. I and others have argued that its deeper causes are to be found in serious monetary policy errors in the early-2000s and federal housing-policies devised in the late-1990s. But whatever the causes—and bankers behaving badly was certainly one of them—the mass bailouts of the financial sector and massive interventions by the Federal government into the economy clashed with the free market rhetoric and commitments which the right had made central to its agenda since Reagan’s time.

People still argue about the efficacy of these interventions today. Seib’s point is that they reinforced the impression that many conservative leaders were too quick to abandon their free market principles to help out friends on Wall Street. And if an ostensibly fiscally conservative administration wasn’t willing to abide by free market ideas in moments of crisis, why should anyone else?

Lastly, there is the subject that looms large over America today. The push to deepen America’s economic engagement with China may have begun with the Clinton administration but it was a Republican administration which assented to China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in December 2001. The consensus was that greater immersion into global markets would increasingly liberalize China and its regime.

Many right-leaning politicians and intellectuals are busy developing alternatives that, in different ways, would relegate parts of 1980s conservatism to obscurity.

That calculation lies in tatters today. Yes, America and Americans have derived considerable economic benefit from the steady liberalization of trade relations with China in the form of cheaper consumer goods and a better realization of America’s comparative advantages. But trade has not civilized the Chinese regime. On the contrary, it has become even more brutal and authoritarian. Moreover, while China may not be seeking global hegemony, it is busy positioning itself as a serious rival to America, especially in Asia and the Pacific region. Both sides of American politics were reluctant to acknowledge these realities, perhaps because they undercut the notion that economics is history’s driving force. They also left conservative politicians very vulnerable to attacks from those who had long questioned how most conservative foreign policy thinkers and economists had framed Sino-American relations since the late-1990s.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Taken together, Seib sees these developments and failures as having two effects. One was to turn much of the rank-and-file of the coalition forged by Reagan against its officers. The second was to open the door to someone like Donald Trump who wasn’t bound to movement orthodoxies.

There are two ironies to this. One is that, as Seib states, “for all their differences, Reagan and Trump had a similar understanding of their political base.” Not only were both men former Democrats; each grasped that their prospects for success lay in appealing to people who “didn’t consider themselves part of the political system.” They also turned out to be very good, albeit in different ways, at communicating directly with middle and working-class voters. Reagan’s sunny optimism and Trump’s combination of in-your-face confidence and crudity may have sounded, respectively, boy-scoutish and crass to the establishments of their time. Yet, like it or not, they resonated with millions of Americans in ways that politicians like Nelson Rockefeller and George H. W. Bush—not to mention most conservative, classical liberal, and libertarian policymakers and intellectuals—could not.

A second irony is that some Trump Administration policies cohere closely with Reagan’s brand of conservatism. We see this in efforts to further deregulate the domestic economy, defense-spending increases, tax cuts, promotion of pro-life positions, bolstering of religious liberty protections, and conservative judicial appointments.

That said, the shift away from the style and ideas which characterized the right from Reagan’s time onwards is profound. Commitment to free trade is withering. Talk of entitlement reform is gone. America’s alliances with continental Western European powers are viewed with skepticism. There’s little prospect of any return to Reagan-like immigration policies. Some conservatives are positing that the American Founding itself is inherently flawed. Others are flirting with integralism. Many libertarians seem very happy talking to themselves.

All this means that the right’s future is up for grabs. Seib concludes by noting that many right-leaning politicians and intellectuals are busy developing alternatives that, in different ways, would relegate parts of 1980s conservatism to obscurity. These range from a nationalism dissimilar to Reagan’s version of American exceptionalism, to a full-throated embrace of industrial policy which rejects the pro-market commitments that once unified many conservatives and libertarians.

Is there any hope of getting the band back together? Seib doesn’t weigh into this issue, though it is implied at points that trying to replicate the past is an exercise in futility. The word “fusionism” appears nowhere in this book. Nor do names like Russell Kirk, F.A. Hayek, or Milton Friedman. William F. Buckley is mentioned but once.

If, however, the core principles brought to the fore by Reagan and the amalgam of thinkers, ideas, activists and groups who helped him dispense with Rooseveltian liberalism and 1970s Malaise-America remain true and right, those who believe in these principles have no choice but to fight for them—not least by demonstrating how these ideas are good in the long term for America and all Americans rather than Davos Man or the advancement of global world order fantasies. What conservatives cannot do is indulge in flights of nostalgia, imagine that defending these principles is largely a matter of reliving the ‘80s, or believe that there is a magic bullet, rhetorical trick, or new label out there which will somehow dissolve the very real differences which divide the Reagan coalition’s successors.

I suspect that Ronald Reagan—that most idealist and yet also realist of politicians—would agree.