From 1940 to 1943, Friedrich Hayek wrote a book entitled The Road to Serfdom. The book was dedicated to “The Socialists of All Parties” and it set out in polite and yet painfully clear terms how the socialist vision of a wholly planned and “rational” economy laid the path to National Socialism and Communism. “Few are ready to recognize that the rise of fascism and naziism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period but a necessary outcome of those tendencies,”[1] he wrote. The book provided a warning, too, that acting fervently on a simple intellectual error—the belief that a small group of people could direct an entire economy (the “inevitability of planning”)—would lead not only to economic demise, but to the loss of political freedom and individual rights. Hayek asked “Is there a greater tragedy imaginable than that, in our endeavor consciously to shape our future in accordance with high ideals, we should in fact unwittingly produce the very opposite of what we have been striving ?”[2]

The irony of recent political developments in the United States is richer still. The Road to Serfdom often recounts the observations of socialists in Russia and around the world who were chagrined by the outcome of the sequence of events that they had a role in starting, and yet who did not fully discern the logical connection between those outcomes and their own beliefs. Typically, those individuals who were more moderately left of center became isolated: not comfortable with the movement with which they were once identified as it became increasingly radical, but equally out of favor with the “capitalists” whom they had long considered their opponents. Today, we find a similar isolation and soul-searching on the American Right.

This earnest soul-searching began during the second Bush administration. It was not in the foreground of cable news. It was not spoken of directly by right-of-center politicians. Nor was it prominently called out by conservative think tanks. Nonetheless, a kind of quiet desperation emerged from some thought leaders, intellectuals and politicians who had considered themselves to be proud Republicans. These individuals were often stalwart supporters of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but the actions of George W. Bush and the Republicans in Congress who supported him gave them pause about the direction of the Republican Party, and their association with the conservative movement.

Specifically, during the George W. Bush administration, conservatives seemed to be talking a lot about political freedom, but acting in direct contradiction to commonly understood principles of a free society. The problem was not confined to a single issue.

  • Bruce Fein, former Deputy Attorney General under Ronald Reagan, was disturbed and astonished by the swift demise of the rule of law during the Bush II years. “Republicans in Congress have bowed to the president’s scorn for the rule of law and craving for secret government.”[3] Even with appropriate consideration of the security threat posed by Al Qaeda following the September 11 attacks, Fein viewed the expansion of executive power during the Bush II presidency as gratuitous and completely unprecedented. Indeed, George W. Bush had “staked out powers that are a universe beyond any other administration.”[4]
  • On federal spending, former Republican House Majority leader Dick Armey (1995–2003) was similarly stunned with how poorly his party had fared with basic pocketbook issues while it controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress. “Nowhere was this turn more evident than in the complete collapse of fiscal discipline in the budgeting process,”[5] he wrote in 2006. In a similar way, Bruce Bartlett, who was one of the original supply-siders as a staffer for Jack Kemp, Policy Adviser for Ronald Reagan, and Treasury official for G. H. W. Bush, suggested that the phrase “supply-side economics” had become so abused and perverted that it would be better “to kill the phrase and give it a decent burial.”[6]
  • On foreign policy, the neoconservative intellectual Francis Fukuyama poignantly recalled a moment when the stark “disjuncture between what I believed and what other neoconservatives seemed to believe” became apparent. By 2006, he would write that the foreign policy school of thought with which he had long identified had “evolved into something that I can no longer support.”[7]
  • On religious issues, the conservative intellectual Andrew Sullivan was dismayed by the growing influence of religious fundamentalism on the American Right, and the threat this influence posed to political freedom. The temperament of religious fundamentalism had seeped into the party’s core. In 2006, he wrote, “Only a deep understanding of the fundamentalist psyche and the theo-conservative project can explain what has happened to the Republicanism in so short a time.”[8] Sullivan was also shocked when the Republican Party chose Sarah Palin as its Vice Presidential candidate. He eventually called into question the entire direction of the American Right. “But there has to come a point at which a movement or party so abandons core principles or degenerates into such a rhetorical septic system that you have to take a stand. It seems to me that now is a critical time for more people whose principles lie broadly on the center-right to do so—against the conservative degeneracy in front of us.”[9]

Some American conservatives, such as David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, held out the hope that the direction the American Right had taken under Bush was an aberration, one that would be corrected following the electoral rout in 2008. Others on the Right were less sanguine about the idea of a course correction, given how the Republican base seemed to react to the multitude of failures during the Bush administration. As Senator Lincoln Chafee noted in his 2008 autobiography Against the Tide, the personality of George W. Bush seemed to be more important to Bush’s supporters than his record of governance.

Oddly, his pugnacious and intractable attitude remains a big part of his mystique with the Republican core that is still energized as I write this in 2007. Despite his many hollow words and the myriad failures—from Hurricane Katrina to Iraq to peace in the Middle East—the core still loves that President Bush will never back down or change course or admit error. Theirs is the rigid form of thinking that will define the smaller, more aggressive, more extreme Republican Party of the future.[10]

Senator Chafee was correct about the direction of the Republican Party in one important sense: It certainly became more aggressive, more extreme, more focused on the culture, religion, and the personality of leadership than on policy and the task of governance. But the Party did not necessarily become smaller or less effective politically.[11] By 2010, Frum had to accept that the 2008 electoral rout did not lead to the course correction for the Republican Party that he had envisioned. To the contrary, 2010 was a breakout year for the Tea Party and its hardline conservative backers such as Americans for Prosperity. These groups only amplified the anti-compromise, “take no prisoners” attitude of the American Right. The 2010 Republican primary season led to victories for Republican politicians who were more extreme still.  “In today’s Republican mood,” Frum lamented, “politicians who explain practical limits are rejected as weaklings and sell-outs. When [primary candidate] Trey Grayson explains that a Republican majority will not be able to balance the budget in a single year—or that some of the anti-drug programs funded by federal dollars are saving lives—he loses support. When Rand Paul announces that he will never vote for an unbalanced budget, today’s angry Republicans hear a man of principle not a petulant grandstander.”[12] And, many of the candidates whom Frum had considered to be too extreme to compete in the general election, such as Rand Paul, went on to win.

More disturbing, Frum noted that although conservatives were engaged with elections, they seemed mostly unconcerned with governance.

I think conservatives do pay attention to elections. What is neglected is governance. How much do we discuss what went wrong with the US economy in the Bush years? If tax cuts are essential to pulling the economy out of recession, why didn’t Bush-enacted tax cuts prevent the US economy from tumbling into recession in the first place? Why did incomes stagnate between 2000 and 2007? Why did health cost inflation suddenly accelerate after 2001? What went wrong in the energy markets? How can we do better next time? Interest in these questions varies from slight to negligible. Even our leading think tanks prefer culture war to policy analysis. David Brooks once optimistically hailed a “conservatism of governance.” We seem instead to have developed a “conservatism of permanent opposition.” If that prospect dismays [conservative commentator] Stacy McCain, as opposition-minded a writer as I know, it should dismay us all.[13]

Fast forward to 2016: Republican soul-searching has moved from the background to the front and center of political debate, from retired/outgoing politicians to politicians in office or actively campaigning, from the blogosphere to Fox News and prominent conservative publications like National Review.

Most of this alarm is directed at Donald Trump and the enthusiasm generated by his very successful primary candidacy for the presidential nomination of the Republican Party. But the extent to which many conservatives are surprised and shocked by the success of Trump’s primary campaign reflects in part their own denial about the trends long in place in the conservative movement—and the role they may have inadvertently played in Trump’s ascent.

To be clear, Trump is unique in important respects. He is
cartoonishly vulgar in a way that many other Republican politicians
are not.  He is self-aggrandizing and self-obsessed, even by politician standards. As a presidential candidate, his lack of experience in government may be unprecedented. Notwithstanding the fact that those characteristics (and others) are cause for legitimate concern, the difficult reality is not the stark break from the conservative movement that he represents, but the continuity.

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?

[1] Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom: A Classic Warning against the Dangers to Freedom Inherent in Social Planning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 3.

[2] Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 5.

[3] Bruce Fein, “Restrain This White House,” Washington Monthly, October 2006, http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2006/0610.fein.html.

[4] Jane Mayer, “The Hidden Power: The Legal Mind behind the White House’s War on Terror,” The New Yorker, July 3, 2006.

[5] Dick Armey, “End of the Revolution,” New York Times, Nov. 9, 2006.

[6] Bruce Bartlett, “How Supply-Side Economics Trickled Down,” New York Times, April 6, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/06/opinion/06bartlett.html?_r=0.

[7] Francis Fukuyama, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), xxxi.

[8] Andrew Sullivan, The Conservative Soul: Fundamentalism, Freedom, and the Future of the Right (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 6.

[9] Andrew Sullivan, “The Daily Dish: Leaving the Right,” The Atlantic, December 1, 2009, http://www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2009/12/leaving-the-right/193506/.

[10] Lincoln Chafee, Against the Tide: How a Compliant Congress Empowered a Reckless President (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2008), 65.

[11] Despite a family tradition in Republican politics—his father John Chafee served as governor and senator from Rhode Island as a Republican and as Secretary of the Navy under Richard Nixon—Chafee decided he no longer identified with the political party that had been his family tradition, and became a member of the Democratic Party in 2013.

[12] David Frum, “Following Rand Paul to Disaster,” FrumForum (blog), May 13, 2010, http://www.frumforum.com/following-rand-paul-to-disaster/.

[13] David Frum, “Bored with Governing,” FrumForum (blog), August 19, 2010, http://www.frumforum.com/bored-with-governing/.