Donald Trump and the Twilight of Movement Conservatism

(Photo: AP/Olivier Douliery)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta on February 21.

On Tuesday night in Nevada, Donald J. Trump, a known liar, gave perhaps the most honest political speech uttered in the modern age of presidential elections. And with that victory speech, delivered as news came in of the billionaire businessman’s trouncing of his rivals in the state’s Republican Party presidential caucuses, movement conservatism as the guiding force of the GOP came tumbling down.

By way of thanking a would-be mega-donor, the Republican frontrunner explained how difficult it was to turn down the offer of casino-owner Phil Ruffin to fund the Trump campaign to the tune of $10 million.

“[I]t’s hard for me to turn down money, because that’s not what I’ve done my whole life,” Trump said. “I grab and grab and grab. You know, I get greedy; I want money, money.”

The crowd roared its approval.

What passes for conservatism in United States politics has never been much more than an acrid nougat of resentments and greed, dipped in a creamy candy coating of rationalized “principles” and moralisms. In the eyes of self-described conservatives, it was that philosophical frosting that conferred a certain legitimacy on positions that served to enrich the wealthy, confer even greater power on those who already possess it, and squeeze out any newcomers who might claim a bonbon for their own. The Trump power bar dispenses with all that chivalrous truffle, cutting straight to the chewy core of the right: a salty mix of rage, racism, misogyny and, most of all, greed.

What, after all, lurks under the wrappers labeled “states’ rights,” “limited government,” and so-called “pro-life”? One or more elements of that saliferous blend, leaving the partaker ever-thirstier for more.

If any one candidate is testament to the success of movement conservatism since its coalescence in 1964, it’s Trump—the very candidate many conservative leaders would stop, if they only knew how.


IN ITS FEBRUARY 15 ISSUE, The National Review, which has long served as the house organ for movement conservatism, devoted its cover feature to a symposium of right-wing eminences denouncing the Trump presidential candidacy in bite-sized rebukes of the Donald.

“The case for constitutional limited government is the case against Donald Trump,” wrote Ben Domenech, editor of The Federalist, in The National Review’s symposium.

But the same could have been said of Mitt Romney, what with his Romneycare, big-government solution to Massachusetts’s health-care problem, and National Review editors felt no urgency to convene a cabal to oppose him in its pages.

Trump, however, is a different case: self-financed and uncontrollable, and more than Romney or McCain or George W. Bush, a consequence of the conservative movement that took over the GOP with the election of Ronald Reagan. As David M. Faris observed earlier this month at Juan Cole’s Informed Comment:

Trump is, first, the consequence of the right’s 40-year war against government—by relentlessly demonizing it, they have convinced a considerable number of Americans that just about anyone can competently run it, or preferably destroy it.

Indeed, it is right-wing rhetoric that made baldly stated contempt for women and members of non-white racial and ethnic groups acceptable. Donald Trump’s lies about black people, Muslims, and Mexicans, not to mention his flat-out misogyny, flow directly from the utterances of such movement figures as Patrick J. Buchanan, who threw the Republican establishment for a loop when he won the 1996 New Hampshire primary.

Buchanan was fired in 2008 from his gig as MSNBC’s resident right-wing commentator after he published a column asserting that African Americans should be grateful to white people for the opportunities given them through slavery. (The column was titled “A Brief for Whitey.”) In 1992, Buchanan complained that Washington, D.C., was no longer the town he grew up in during the good old days of segregation. (Unlike in those halcyon days, he said, his wife encountered “guys …  sitting on the corner playing bongo drums” during a walk down Connecticut Avenue.) And just as Trump has expressed appreciation for the dictators Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, Buchanan wrote a column in 1977 praising Adolf Hitler as “an individual of great courage.”

While Pitchfork Pat, as he came to be known, occasionally dressed his rhetoric in the vestments of religion or states’-rights ideology, he set the stage for the right-wing radio hosts who had no brief for movement intellectuals, as Buchanan did for a time with William F. Buckley and friends. (Buckley ultimately broke with Buchanan, saying he could not defend Buchanan against charges of anti-Semitism.)

In the National Review symposium, John Podhoretz tries to root Trump’s lack of couth in the misogynist comedy routines of Andrew Dice Clay and the ugly radio shtick of Howard Stern. A more honest assessment would look Rush Limbaugh right in his big mouth.

For a headier dose of misogyny, one need look no further than movement figure Phyllis Schlafly, who, after helping to launch the Goldwater campaign in 1964, found herself relegated to the right’s ladies’ auxiliary, of which she took the helm to defeat the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. The reason men earn more than women, I once heard Schlafly tell a college audience, is that “men are willing to take all kinds of dangerous jobs that women are unwilling to take because women like nice inside jobs with carpeted offices.” If you think about it, that’s not really all that far a cry from inferring that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly asked tough questions during a debate because she had her period. Both comments cast women as preternaturally flawed and weak.

And what of Goldwater himself? He opposed the Voting Rights Act—on constitutional grounds, of course. It was all very patriotic. It was all about liberty.

Absent its philosophical trappings, the rage and greed that fuels so-called conservatism is exposed.

If Trump’s success proves anything, it’s that those inclined to embrace the Republican right no longer require the trappings. Movement conservatism unleashed the beast of rage and resentment, which Trump plans to ride to the pinnacle of authoritarianism.


MONA CHAREN, WRITING IN the National Review symposium, complains that “Trump is no conservative—he’s simply playing one in the primaries.”

Trump’s supporters likely know that. When he throws out such bon mots as “I love the evangelicals,” or says of his son, as he did during his Las Vegas victory speech, “This is serious rifle. This is serious NRA …” it’s hard to believe they don’t know he’s just hitting the buttons, checking the boxes. They don’t care that he’s on record as supporting universal health care (after all, it’s good for businesses; takes the insurance burden off them), or used to be pro-choice, or is a thrice-married philanderer, or once palled around with Hillary Clinton. They like him because he gives legitimacy to their notion of what a great man is: white, and contemptuous of all who are neither white nor male.

They also like that he’s rich, in a really vulgar way. Trump’s public embrace of his own greed justifies their own. He’s the Gordon Gekko of politics, and his is the gospel they most wish to hear.

If there’s anything Trump followers likely actually do believe, it’s that he’ll stick it to all those countries full of brown and yellow people who think they have a place in the global economy. I’ll bet his followers buy the notion he’ll make America as rich as he is by, as he said on Tuesday night, by bigfooting it around the world. “We get greedy, right? Now, we’re gonna get greedy for the United States,” Trump told a hotel ballroom full of caucus-goers. “We’re gonna grab and grab and grab. We’re gonna bring in so much money and so much everything, we’re gonna make America great again, folks.”

In the early 1960s, the New Right was born of a backlash to the civil-rights movement and the emergence of communism as a challenge to American might. By the 1980s, when New Right leaders built a coalition with movement conservatives and right-wing evangelicals and Catholics, the backlash encompassed a reaction to the changing roles of women and the liberation of LGBT people. As the face of immigration changed from European to Asian and Latin American, opposition to these non-white newcomers became a feature, not a bug, of right-wing ideology.

Today, American military might is challenged by the inchoate rivalries of the post-colonial Muslim world; its economic might is challenged by the nations of Asia. A black man is finishing his second term as U.S. president, and a woman has a pretty good shot at taking his place. The old order of white man on top, America above all others, is being upended. Unmoored from any philosophy other than self-regard, the very white, very rich, very male Donald Trump is the ultimate backlash candidate.


GIVEN HIS VERY GOOD showing in Nevada—where he beat Marco Rubio, his closest rival, by 22 points—Trump has the momentum going into the Super Tuesday primary contests next week. He could very well win the Republican presidential nomination.

Should Trump become the standard-bearer of the Grand Old Party, it’s hard to imagine how movement conservatism maintains its hold on the levers of power. He’s shattering the various constituencies of the Reagan coalition that formed the party’s base, even winning among evangelicals in Nevada. Yet he’s offered few policy prescriptions other than building a wall on the border with Mexico (and somehow making Mexico pay for it), banning Muslims from entering the U.S., killing the family members of terrorists, and making America great again by “grabbing.” Sure, he might let carefully selected right-wing figures write the party platform (Ralph Reed is a Trump fan), knowing it’s a document he can ignore if he makes it into the Oval.

Win or lose, Trump will be remembered for many things—not least of them, setting the organized right back on its heels. So far, he’s succeeded in dividing. The question that remains is his ability to conquer.

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