Categories Politics

Beyond Trumpism: Recovery & the Road Ahead

Two years ago, I began work on a book, The Right’s Road to Serfdom. The urgency that I felt surrounding this project stemmed from a longstanding thesis regarding political developments in our country, specifically on the American Right. I started the book describing the growing discomfort among some proud Republicans about the direction of the conservative movement. These poignant concerns – what I called a “quiet desperation” on the American Right – began during the second Bush Administration.

I also noted a contradiction: Despite talking a lot about political freedom, much of the American Right and especially the elites – the think tanks, the opinion makers, and many political leaders – were acting otherwise, tending against the principles on which our country was founded and towards authoritarianism. In my introduction, I wrote:

If nothing else, Trump simply clarifies the growing contradiction that the “Party of Liberty” espouses the virtues of freedom and yet acts otherwise. The key issues that have caused anxiety on the part of prominent politicians and thought leaders on the Right for more than a decade are not exclusive to Trump. If anything, they were amplified across the field of leading Republican primary candidates for the presidency, where we found: 

  • At best, a lack of concern for civil liberties and the rule of law
  • Unserious federal budget plans that point to significant deficit spending
  • A lack of concern about melding religion and politics
  • An intense focus on the personality of a leader: in particular the mystique of someone who “will never back down or change course or admit error” per Chafee’s apt description of Bush II; moreover, the question of who is in charge very much supersedes interest in the task of governance or even the most rudimentary details of proposed policy
  • Hostility to science and the expertise of scientists, along with an increasingly troubled relationship with the empirical world

The interesting question is why does the Republican Party — formerly known as the “Party of Liberty” — now have such difficulty with some of the basic principles required for governance in a free society? Many leaders on the Right believe they stand for a free society. But much like the American Left in the early twentieth century, the American Right has unwittingly produced “the very opposite of what it was striving for.” How did this happen?

My book goes on to argue that the rise of Trumpism was not an anomaly, but the result of longstanding developments. Moreover, there was and is a logic to this unraveling, which I went on to explain.

When I wrote my introduction, the notion that Trumpism was part of a trajectory was controversial. The initial reaction to Trump from “serious” observers like George F. Will held that Trump was a kind of freak accident that happened to the Republican Party — something “swooping in from God knows where,” as he claimed as late as February of 2017.[1]

Those who held this view on the Right clung desperately to the misguided notion that some sort of grand battle for the soul of the Republican Party was suddenly at hand. And while there are certainly courageous, forceful critics of Trump who hail from the American Right today, there has been far less division on the Right and far more comfort with Trump among conservatives than most of these critics assumed. Events have confirmed what I wrote in my introduction two years ago: “the difficult reality is not the stark break from the conservative movement that [Trump] represents, but the continuity.”

Charlie Sykes, a former conservative talk radio host, Trump critic, and author of the new book How the Right Lost Its Mind, recently described his evolution on this point: “First a confession: When I set out to write this book, I was prepared to argue that Trump’s victory was a black-swan event, a hostile takeover of the conservative movement. But that position no longer seems tenable; the roots for the populist/nationalist putsch run too deep.”[2] Echoing Sykes confession, the normally staid David Brooks of the New York Times recently offered this sober assessment of the American Right as Republicans rallied behind Roy Moore’s Senate candidacy:

It’s amazing that there haven’t been more Republicans like Mitt Romney who have said: “Enough is enough! I can go no further!” The reason, I guess, is that the rot that has brought us to the brink of Senator Roy Moore began long ago… The rot afflicting the G.O.P. is comprehensive — moral, intellectual, political and reputational. More and more former Republicans wake up every day and realize: “I’m homeless. I’m politically homeless.”[3]

On the one hand, I’m proud of my book.  I have been encouraged by the warm, thoughtful responses from thought leaders such as author Bill McKibben, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and Congressman Jared Polis. I’ve also greatly valued supportive emails from individuals who I have never met and comments from reviewers online like this one:

A good book does two things — (1) it changes the way you see the world, bringing clarity to confusion, and (2) it makes you wish everyone else would read it too. This is one of those books. There is a growing sub-genre of “What Went Wrong With Conservatism?” books out there, written by Jon Chait; EJ Dionne; Norm Ornstein, etc. All of them describe the symptoms of the current conservative crisis, but none get to the underlying causes quite as directly and succinctly as this book.[4]

I’ve been heartened by comments like these. On the other hand, the ultimate purpose for writing the book was to have it contribute, on some level, to a constructive improvement in our politics. But we are far from any such turnaround. Notwithstanding the electoral repudiations of Trumpism in Alabama and Virginia, we remain in danger of sliding wholesale into a new, American version autocracy.

So, I have three reasons for writing you directly now. First, a heart-felt thanks to those who have read my book, reviewed it, shared it with others, and provided me with feedback. This aspect of the project has been truly gratifying. Second, shameless self-promotion: This past year I spent far too little time getting the word out on the book – my error. But in many respects, I think the book is more relevant now than when I released it in the early fall of 2016, especially the last two chapters that point to a turnaround. You can buy it at major online retailers here – an excellent holiday gift! Third, the explanation that I offer in the book as to how we got here also points to a path forward, and work that is left undone. I want to re-engage in this work through articles and blog posts in the coming year (more on that to come).

We can best trace our way back by approaching the basic tasks of government with principles in mind and without hysterical dogma. Though my book was focused on the rise of conservative extremism and the misguided ideology that enables it, I also tried to discuss contemporary issues in the context of four cornerstones of American liberal democracy:

  • Restraint and the rule of law (as opposed to the cult of personality)
  • Political pluralism (as opposed racism and religious intolerance)
  • An earnest effort to discover the truth (as opposed to deliberate efforts to obscure)
  • A defensive, restrained and civilian led military (as opposed to imperialism)

Without a persistent and earnest effort to adhere to these principles we drift. In direct ways, the Right’s abandonment of these principles led to President Trump. Moreover, one can also understand Trump himself, who by instinct or deliberate strategy, tends against these principles directly (the parenthesis above almost define him). The often-repeated narrative in the press is that Trump is unpredictable. But Trump consistently acts with a kind of intense allergy to principles of American liberal democracy. In this way, he is predictable. Fortunately, more people now plainly recognize this direct threat.

The New Alignment

Politically, we are approaching a new alignment. The energy of the Democratic base is fusing with many traditional Republican opinion makers and elites in a way that we have not seen before and would have been hard to imagine a few years earlier. Consider the comments of Max Boot, a long-time Republican foreign affairs advisor who is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, speaking on television just last week:

I’m afraid there is a deep, deep sickness in the Republican Party that caused them to put forth candidates like Roy Moore and Donald Trump and many others and causes them to have this assault on the rule of law which they are engaging in now by raising one ridiculous charge after another against Robert Mueller. There is something deeply wrong with this party and you know I was a Republican for my entire adult life until last November, but now I have to say I devoutly hope that every single Republican running for election next November loses because we cannot count on this Republican Party to hold the Donald Trumps of the world accountable. They have shown just no willingness to uphold the Constitution and their oaths of office. The only way we will get accountability in Washington is by electing Democrats and I don’t care if I may disagree with them on a few other issues. The Democrats are sound on the number one issue that we face which is the threat to America and the world from our own president.[5]

Comments like these are critically important. Arresting the spread of Trump’s creeping authoritarianism will require common opposition from what would have been considered strange political bedfellows until only recently.

Traditional Democrats have a role to play in making this new alignment work. Democrats sometimes tend to lead with technocratic solutions and/or clever sarcasm that does not resonate beyond their base. I’m a fan of the podcast “Pod Save America”, but in terms of branding that will defeat Trumpism, we need more Stand Up Republic and less Crooked Media. I do firmly believe that Americans are more divided in terms of the style of their politics than the substance and core principles. The potential of this burgeoning “new alignment” will burst into reality if political priorities are constructively framed with values and principles first. Justin Fairfax, the newly elected Lieutenant Governor in Virginia, sets a great example often citing principles and stressing moral clarity in the context of relevant issues and policies. George W. Bush’s former speech writer David Frum got it right when he said “You want to scare Trump? Be orderly, polite, and visibly patriotic.”[6] When opposition to Trump is mainstream, inclusive to all Americans, and properly framed as defending American ideals, he and his enablers in Congress are rendered impotent.  If we can recover through a better appreciation of principles that unite us, there may yet be a silver lining to this low point in our political culture.

Chris Arndt
December 19, 2017

[3]  rotting.html