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A conservative intellectual explains why the GOP has fallen to Donald Trump

Donald Trump Holds Campaign Event In Philadelphia Area (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Samuel Goldman is one of America’s most thoughtful conservatives. A professor of political theory at George Washington University and the executive director of its Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom, he spends his days pondering the ideas that define American politics.

Recently, Goldman has come to an uncomfortable conclusion: The conservative movement has failed. Its traditional package of ideas — free market economics, social conservatism, and an interventionist foreign policy — has long dominated the Republican Party but has clearly failed to win over enough actual voters to secure the White House.

“The great message of Trump is that there really are not that many movement conservatives,” Goldman told me during a sit-down near his office. “Since conservative politicians and policies have stopped delivering peace and prosperity, I think it’s more or less inevitable that voters have become dissatisfied.”

Moreover, he argued, the GOP and conservative movement has embraced a vision of America — Sarah Palin’s “Real America,” more or less — that can’t appeal to anybody but white Christians. A (somewhat controversial) census projection suggests that the US will be a majority minority country in the next 30 years — an unfriendly environment, to say the least, for the GOP.

“If you project yourself as a white Christian provincial party, you're not going to get very many votes among people who are none of those things,” Goldman says. “That's what's happened over the last 10 or 15 years.”

The obvious question then becomes — what next? If movement conservatism is doomed, then is the kind of white identity politics that Trump has pioneered the Republican future? Goldman and I talked at length about how the dividing line between liberals and conservatives today appears to be less about economics and more about identity.

What follows is a transcript of that chat, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp: In a recent essay of yours in the American Conservative, you argued that “the conservative movement has become isolated, myopic, and lazy” — and that there wasn’t a great blueprint for how it could fix itself.

Do you really think that movement conservatism is doomed?

Samuel Goldman: The short answer is yes.

I don't think what we think of as the conservative movement is going to disappear. But I think its claim to be a broad-based movement that dominates the Republican Party is probably no longer sustainable.

I think the great message of Trump is that there really are not that many movement conservatives.

There is an infrastructure of journalists, intellectuals who are vested in a conventional combination of limited government, a relatively hawkish foreign policy, and a sort of religiously inflected public morality. There are a few hundred such people, and they all know each other. But it turned out that there aren't that many voters who actually care about these things — or at least cared about them in quite that combination.

ZB: But right now the conservative movement is equated with the Republican Party.

SG: One of the developments that follows this election may be distance between the Republican Party and the conservative movement. I don't think that's a terrible thing, actually. I think conservatives became too comfortable assuming that the Republican Party automatically represented them, and Republicans became too comfortable assuming that their voters were conservative.

The most fundamental reason it became a problem was that it didn't work very well. After the end of the Cold War, which was claimed, I think reasonably, as a conservative success, it appeared not just to conservatives but to virtually everybody that a program of deregulation and free trade really did benefit almost everyone.

For the last 10 or 15 years, that hasn't seemed to have been the case. George W. Bush, as we all know, brought the country into two inconclusive and at least one unnecessary war. The economic package that was associated with conservatism stopped delivering the goods.

Since conservative politicians and policies have stopped delivering peace and prosperity, I think it’s more or less inevitable that voters have become dissatisfied. It took a while, as these things always do, but that dissatisfaction has found a focus in Trump, who says to people who may think of themselves as conservatives, “I don't think we are being served, and our wars have been disasters.”

It's amazing to me, really, that he's been able to get away with saying those things.

ZB: This analysis seems very colorblind. But in the Obama era, you've had an increasingly diverse country and an increasingly diverse electorate. The result is way more votes for Democrats. It doesn't seem like there has been a lot of disillusioned conservatives so much as a lot of nonwhite voters entering the electorate. How does that square with the story you're telling?

SG: I think there have been a lot of attempts to attribute Trump's support to either economic anxiety or racial animosity. I don't think they're so easily separated.

When times are good, it's relatively easy for people to get along. When times are bad, it's much harder to get along.

I think it's true that a lot of white voters, particularly older white voters and those with less education, do feel less well-off in an increasingly diverse country. Not only an increasingly diverse country but one that is governed by a party and a president who affirms that diversity as a value.

I also think that voters’ sentiments are activated and encouraged by the feeling that things are going very badly domestically, in particular but not exclusively economically, and also internationally.

ZB: The Republican Party has had difficulty with nonwhite voters for some time, right? So has the conservative movement, going back to William F. Buckley famously defending segregation, Barry Goldwater opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Reagan’s comments about a strapping young buck on welfare, and so on. It seems like there's long been alienation between the conservative movement and nonwhite voters.

SG: Well, there's been an alienation between the conservative movement and black voters, which is the result of a very specific history. Conservatives have not always been alienated from voters who are not white but also not black. I think it would be a mistake to inflate the specific tensions between the conservative movement and blacks with tensions between the conservative movement and nonblacks.

The real question is why have conservatives been unable to attract, not majorities perhaps, but significant numbers of Hispanics, Asians, and Muslims? That's a much more recent development than civil rights.

The answer has to do with the adoption of a fairly exclusive vision of American nationalism — which sees America not only as a predominantly white country but also as a white Christian country and also as a white Christian provincial country. This is a conception of America that finds its home outside the cities, exurbs and rural areas, in what Sarah Palin called the real America.

If you project yourself as a white Christian provincial party, you're not going to get very many votes among people who are none of those things. That's what's happened over the last 10 or 15 years.

ZB: What led to the adoption of that vision of America?

SG: I think partly it was the product of a kind of demographic delusion. A lot of conservatives — not so much political professionals who spend their time studying the numbers, but rank-and-file Republicans and voters — really seemed to believe that they are a silent majority. In some ways, this election could be described as the story of a minority that thinks it's a majority.

Some of this was encouraged by the missing white voters analysis that developed after 2012. Those accounts of Romney's problems were often misread; it's not the case that there are waiting out there vast numbers of unattached white voters who would vote Republican. Most of the people just don't vote and probably won't.

Even those who do vote and can be counted to vote can only be attracted by the kinds of appeals that are likely to drive away other white voters, including those who have been the backbone of the Republican Party in the past.

Appealing to “missing white voters” is just like trying to walk up a down escalator. It's not only that overall the proportion of white voters is declining, but also that the kinds of appeals that seem likely to draw in nonvoting whites voters drive away educated suburban whites.

That seems to be happening in places like Pennsylvania. Chuck Schumer [says] we're not worrying about ex-steelworkers in Pittsburgh, because for every one of those Trump gains, we will get suburban women in the Philadelphia suburbs. As far as I understand the polling so far, that seems to be right.

ZB: That means you've got this triple whammy hitting Republicans in 2016. First, difficulty with black voters for historical reasons and other nonwhite voters for more recent reasons. Then you have internal tensions among white voters in the coalition. And finally, you have people who are disillusioned by the failure of conservative policies during the George W. Bush administration. That sounds to me like a recipe for collapse in the Republican Party.

SG: The future is not bright, but it's not as dire as some people seem to think.

I think the reality of polarization is that landslides of the 1984 or the 1964 elections are no longer possible, in addition to the fact that most people really do not vote for just one party most of the time these days.

I think 2016 will be relatively close, but it's very difficult to see how the Republican Party puts together a winning presidential coalition in the future, especially if the Democratic candidate is a stronger and more human one than Hillary Clinton seems to be.

ZB: If the tight marriage between movement conservatism and the Republican Party isn't a winning electoral formula anymore, the party needs to embrace something new. But what is conservatism if it is not in the narrow American movement sense?

SG: I don't have an answer hidden up my sleeve, although I'm thinking about it. I think we can begin to discern three elements of what a replacement for conservatism might look like.

The first is that it would have to include some formulation of nationalism. I don't think it has to be a racially, ethnically exclusive version of nationalism, but conservatives owe the world and Americans a defense of the nation state.

One of my many concerns about Trump is that he makes it difficult, because he is so dramatic and so crass, to defend the occasional insights he presents. One of them was his formulation of “a country is a country,” which sounds silly and tautological but actually I think has more significant meaning.

What Trump is suggesting — or at least what his words suggest, because I wouldn't venture to speculate about what he actually meant — is that the fundamental features of a country include defensible borders and a priority for its citizens, for members of that political community over people who are not members. The next version of conservatism or whatever it's going to be called has to find a way of making that case.

Another element of conservatism to come will be a more sophisticated version of the critique of “political correctness.”

This is another issue on which Trump has been loud and crass but seems to be in touch with a truth or at least experience that many people have. What Trump and others seem to mean by political correctness is an extremely dramatic and rapidly changing set of discursive and social laws that, virtually overnight, people are expected to understand, to which they are expected to adhere. And which, in special settings like universities, is subject to bureaucratic enforcement.

This is not the greatest problem that America or the world faces, but it is a problem because it's a profoundly alienating experience for a lot of people.

Last, and in some ways most important, I think, because this is not just a policy question but one that is under the authority of the president: I think that conservatism needs to move toward a more what I would call realistic form of foreign policy.

Not isolationist, as it's called pejoratively, and not necessarily non-interventionist. But one that is willing to reflect seriously on the extent of American commitments and is willing to accept that there are some places and some problems that are beyond our power to resolve.

It's not true, as Trump has claimed, that he was against the Iraq War from the beginning. But whenever he started criticizing the Iraq War, he has continued to do so — that's a very important part of his appeal.

Trump has been willing to say, and I think conservatives of the future must be willing to say, that we are not going to engage in the kind of democracy promotion and nation building that we have done in the past and with which conservatism, for good reason, remains associated in the minds and hearts of Americans.

ZB: I notice you didn't say anything about economics.

SG: Well, economics is a tough one, because the truth is nobody really has any idea. I think this is true both of the right and of the left. Trump says we need to renegotiate trade deals and drive a hard bargain. That seems fine to me, and I suspect that a lot of people of all sorts of ideological and partisan organizations would agree.

What are we actually going to renegotiate? That's where it gets much harder. Free trade agreements are not the reason the steel jobs went away. Free trade agreements are not the reason people in middle age and older are finding it very difficult to remain in the workforce or that young workers are finding it very difficult to get back into the workforce. Even if trade deals were the reason, it doesn't follow that renegotiating them would bring those jobs back, right?

There have been structural changes in the international economy, in the technologies of production, and also in our preferences. All of which contribute to not necessarily economic decline on the macro level but to the difficulty that relatively poorly educated workers are having. The factory jobs are not coming back.

What to do about that? I sincerely do not know, and I don't think anyone else knows either. Trump's promises are purely false on this score, but I don't hear anything from progressive economists that seems much more likely to help. It seems to me that one of the great questions for us all, going forward, is what to do in a world in which regular, meaningful, relatively well-compensated work is increasingly a luxury good. I don't have the answer to that question.

ZB: But economics have, historically, been central to the conservative movement.

SG: Well, I think that was true for much of the 20th century. Today, I'm not so sure — because we're beginning to see tensions between a progressive vision of personal autonomy and some of the forms of associational freedom that conservatives value. This is what seems to be at stake in some of the disputes about anti-segregation, marriage, and religious exemptions for various laws.

ZB: That's what I was, maybe obliquely, trying to get to. It seems to me the issues that are dividing the parties right now are far less about the appropriate role of the state in regulating the marketplace and much more about identity. Trump is re-raising basic issues about race and “who belongs” in America that many had thought were settled after the civil rights movement.

SG: Someone has said that one way to define American conservatives is people who think the promises of the Declaration of Independence are literally true. The question is how many people are there like that?

I think the error of political analysis, which is different from any question of philosophy, was to assume that there was a large constituency of voters who shared these essentially Declaration principles and were voting on that basis. What Trump is showing us, it seems to me, is that there weren't very many. These kinds of, you say identitarian or nationalist concerns [predominate]. Certainly there's an element of racial anxiety.

Trump makes no pretense, and this is what's so extraordinary about him. I don't think I've every heard him utter the words “Declaration of Independence” or “Constitution” or to use the kind of rights rhetoric that was really essential to the appeal of Ted Cruz, who I think is as true a true conservative as you’re ever likely to meet.

ZB: When was the last time American politics was this fuzzy, in terms of its disagreements and the basic terms being settled?

SG: That's a really great question. I'm thinking back over my American history. It may be that we have to go back to the very early New Deal, or the end of the Hoover administration, which was a time when a form of conservatism, although they didn't use that word, was almost entirely discredited and it was not clear what would replace it.

Roosevelt presented one version of that, but there were others, including a populist version represented by the likes of Huey Long, and there are similarities between Trump and someone like Huey Long in the way they blur and transcend what people who think a lot about politics tend to regard as clear philosophical distinctions.

Most people just don't think very much about political philosophy. They vote one way out of habit or out of vague affinity. I think, by the way, that applies to Democrats too. I don't think there are so very many philosophical progressives out there. That seems to bother ordinary people less than it bothers journalists and professors and party activists and others like that.

ZB: Yeah. It's like they pick the components they like and are happy to vote for.

SG: They pick the component they like and often ignore the rest or even are unaware or don't seem to perceive the tension between different elements of the package. I spent a lot of time thinking about the ideological alignment of American politics, but in practical electoral terms that may not end up mattering very much.

One of the difficulties is what you might call the Trump bloc. I'm using this to refer to a silent majority that isn't a majority and is not particularly silent: whites, generally older, generally less educated, although of course with exemptions for all of those generalizations.

[This group] is a very, very awkward size. It seems to be somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the electorate, which is big enough that it feels like a majority but small enough that it isn't actually a majority.

That's a very uncomfortable place to be, politically, because smaller groups I think come to appreciate, not immediately but eventually, that they have to compromise and form coalitions. Larger groups can just win.

But this group doesn't seem small enough to compromise or big enough to win. That makes people very angry. I think some of that anger is reflected not just in Trump's campaign but in the sort of rhetoric you see around the rallies. And everyone has seen footage of people who are just hopping mad in a way that I suspect is alien not just to the journalists who cover them but also to movement conservatives who have claimed to speak for them in the past.

ZB: While 30 percent of the electorate isn’t enough to win a national election, it's definitely enough to win internal Republican Party battles — especially at the congressional district level.

SG: Right. That's a great point.

One of the indicators of the future will be whether there are candidates down ballot who win on a platform of Trumpism without Trump. They haven't had much success yet — there's the guy who ran against Paul Ryan, for example — but I think it's a little bit too early.

That would suggest that there is more going on here than Trump's unique personality and unusual celebrity — that there is a set of ideas and arguments and rhetorical appeals that can be picked up and used by others.

Note: The opinions expressed here do not represent the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom or George Washington University.