We Should Have Seen It Coming

By Gerald F. Seib

Over the past few years I’ve reviewed many books on the Trump phenomenon. Gerald Seib’s falls somewhere in the middle of the pack, but it does address, squarely, two of the questions that I find most interesting about the whole sorry episode: (1) to what extent was Trump the logical extension if not endpoint of a political movement that began with Reagan?, and (2) what does the label “conservative” mean today? The questions are related, in that Trump may be seen as carrying forward a broader conservative project and/or breaking with it.

Seib’s title makes clear the continuity: the populism of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, the outrage of the Tea Party movement, and the distrust, to put it mildly, of the media were all clear signposts for where the Republican Party was heading (Seib’s escape from a Reagan rally after a colleague warns that they are about to be lynched by the crowd made me think of the stories Katy Tur had to tell in her account of the 2016 Trump campaign Unbelievable). At the same time, Seib also makes it clear that going down this path was as revolutionary in its way as Reagan’s transformation of the political landscape. The Trumpistas were no longer Reagan Republicans but something else entirely.

Are they still conservative though? One gets the sense that Seib, along with his go-to guide in such matters George Will, would like to preserve a core meaning for the word. All too often, however, Seib has to add qualifiers to make it clear what it was Trump was moving away from, if not outright rejecting. Traditional conservatism, for example, or classic or principled conservatism were kaput. And then there are the familiar sub-species of conservatism, now so removed from one another as to be barely on speaking terms: fiscal or economic conservatism, cultural conservatism, and neoconservatism. George W. Bush would try to brand his administration as practicing compassionate conservatism, and Seib takes the story up to a 2019 conference and the efforts to write a manifesto for a new form of “national conservatism” (which is apparently just as terrible as it sounds, being the response to a “real political world . . . of competing tribes and nations”).

After wading through just a brief history of these years one could be forgiven for thinking that the word “conservative” had become detached from all meaning. I wouldn’t disagree. I think there is, however, at least one bedrock principle that has followed through from Reagan to Trump intact. This is the distrust of government, which blossomed over time into a full-blown and largely unreasoning hatred.

The reason I think this has held constant over the decades is that it serves a practical end. The dismantling of government undertaken by the Republican “wrecking crew” has a purpose, which is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy (targeting taxes on capital gains, estates, and dividends) are what Republican donors are paying for, and that’s what they’ve gotten. We might call this Koch conservatism (Seib seems to prefer to call it libertarianism, and I don’t recall his using the term “neoliberalism” once, though it’s a label even George Will approves of). Everything else has been window dressing. Fiscal responsibility, democracy, the rule of law and adherence to the Constitution, family values . . . all of this was a joke to be taken as seriously as infrastructure week and having Mexico pay for a wall. Seib wants to add to the conservative checklist items like free markets, being pro-immigration, and some kind of commitment to altruistic foreign involvement, but these had no more purchase under Trump than they really did for anyone post-Reagan. In fact, I’m not sure what he means by a conservative foreign policy. Promotion of democracy? Human rights? It’s hard to say. In any event, Trump wasn’t even going to pay lip service to such nonsense.

Of course government has continued to grow. In a complex, modern bureaucratic state that is inevitable. Someone has to deal with crises that come along, like the 2008 mortgage meltdown and the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are also inevitable exceptions to the program of slash and burn, most notably a defence industry that needs to be serviced in times of both war and peace. But conservative ideology has stayed true to the basic game plan of privatization, getting rid of government regulation, and lowering taxes on the rich. All of which has had the intended effect of widening inequality.

What Trump did, then, wasn’t so much a break with tradition as a break with decorum. He gave the game away. A wholly unprincipled individual himself, he mocked the whole idea of governing by principle. What that left was a cash grab and a drive to, in Sarah Kendzior’s phrase, “strip America for its parts.” To say that people should have seen this coming isn’t quite correct. They should have seen that this is what was always going on.

Review first published online April 19, 2021.