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Searching for conservatism in the Trump era

By Paul Shields

The Republican Party has both a wonderful and daunting opportunity ahead of them. With majority control of Congress, the Senate, and the Oval office, the party can pass policy that is truly just and beneficial for the American people. But before hastily passing legislation, conservatives leaders need to ask themselves an important set of questions: What does it mean to be a conservative? What do conservatives actually want? What should they want?

Conservatives in America, since World War Two, have always been fractured into many interests group, and they continue to be so today. According to conservative historian John Nash, these groups, traditionally, can be divided into three broad categories: Anti-Communists, Christian-Traditionalists, and Libertarians. In short, Anti-Communists emerged in the 20th Century as a reactionary movement against the global spread of socialism and communism, as they believed society could not be rationally organized under any kind of state-led system. Christian Traditionalists fought for religious values they felt were eroding in an increasing overly materialized world, and Libertarians argued for increased choice in an age of an ever-growing state system. Thus conservatism in America never was a coherent political ideology.  Rather, it was, and still is today, a conglomerate of interest groups banded together for unity and identity.

Today, American Conservatism is more fractured. This is largely due to the fact that the President Trump is breaking away from various conservative traditions. First, his critique of internationalist interventionism maps well onto American liberal isolationist policy. Second, his attack against international trade organizations and his intention to end the TPP, is hardly the free market and global trade regime conservatives helped construct. Furthermore, Trump promises personnel state-driven solutions to most of America’s social ills. This approach to government – really a form of left wing statism – is echoed in his continual promises to create jobs and fix the inner cities.  The new President hardly recognizes any intention that the government should play a limiting role in solving issues of public life.

As a result, Trump’s uncanny form of political leadership is struggling to obtain the heart and mind of their Republican party. For many longtime conservatives, Trump’s erratic behavior on the campaign trail and in the Oval office has upended the traditions of conservative leadership. As a result, many party leaders in the Senate – like John McCain and Marco Rubio – have continued to publicly criticize the new President. Both former Bush presidents also remained silent during the President’s campaign, withholding their support for their own party candidate.

Republicans’ estranged party leadership and fractured ideology is also affecting policy.  Recently, the Republican Party failed to fully repeal Obamacare despite having significant political power to do so. There is currently a second attempt, which will likely pass Congress, but ultimately fail to pass in the Senate. This ineffectiveness to pass policy with a majority only reveals the fractured nature of the party.

Despite the party’s current move away from its foundational ideals, there is a chance for re-centering the party. This can be accomplished by rebinding the party to the best values conservatism has to offer. This requires a dedication towards a set number of ideals and principles which include: constitutional rights, a limited government, emphasizing personal responsibility, free markets, equality of opportunity, el plubris unim, and embracing the existence of truth.

The founding President of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, once said, “…if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”. Republicans are now in a place of power, and it is time they are guided by noble principles and ideals, rather than petty reactionary us vs. them politics. Again, this can be done by focusing their efforts on internal reform, which ought to be centered on the foundational values and principles of conservatism. As a result, the party would be reunited in a way that would be best for the American people.

Paul Shields is a native of the Seattle region and a recent graduate of Stanford University. He is currently living in Russia on a Fulbright Fellowship

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