“What are you going to do for me?” That’s the question the average American asks of our presidential candidates every election cycle. At least, that's all we hear these days, from both the right and the left. And look where it has gotten us in this GOP primary season. Our front-running candidates are falling over themselves to tell us with much bravado how they will be the most forceful, effective, and stubborn candidate.
The rhetoric leaves a conservative wondering if there is a political faction left for them in the United States. A traditional conservative looks not to what a President can do for him, but what he and his local community can do for themselves and each other. In a President we should be looking for someone who will effectively use his position to administer the executive branch according to the Constitution. That role isn’t on our radar anymore; Americans are too busy wondering how a President might benefit them personally or how forceful and effective he or she might be.
Trump or Cruz supporters might object, saying that they strongly oppose the socialistic tendencies of the Democratic Party, that they are not looking for personal gain. But their perk-seeking just takes a different form. They want a president who will protect their jobs and their individual culture by reducing the number of immigrants to United States - an attitude that would've prevented us from becoming the nation that we are today if it had prevailed in earlier days.
But much more disturbing than the perk-seeking is the lust for strong executive power, particularly in the Trump camp. The Trump-voter’s desire for a strong, authoritarian leader couldn't be more in contrast to the conservatives of our country’s founding era, who were greatly concerned to limit the power of the President, afraid that such a figure might amass exactly the kind of power they had fought a Revolution to throw off. Moreover, it is ironic to see Republicans who bemoaned President Obama’s expansion of executive power turn with glee to support Donald Trump - a man who boastfully claims he will achieve his goals purely by the force of his own will and personality. It seems like Trump-Republicans are perfectly accepting of a strong executive, who shreds the Constitution as he sees fit, as long as he's on their side.
A recent long-form report by Amanda Taub delves deep into just what this authoritarian bent looks like:
“People who score high in authoritarianism, when they feel threatened, look for strong leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary to protect them from outsiders and prevent the changes they fear…. Authoritarians are thought to express much deeper fears than the rest of the electorate, to seek the imposition of order where they perceive dangerous change, and to desire a strong leader who will defeat those fears with force. They would thus seek a candidate who promised these things. And the extreme nature of authoritarians' fears, and of their desire to challenge threats with force, would lead them toward a candidate whose temperament was totally unlike anything we usually see in American politics — and whose policies went far beyond the acceptable norms.
“A candidate like Donald Trump.”
In contrast to Trump, Ted Cruz speaks a more traditional conservative lingo, but his stubbornness in the Senate and willingness to completely shut down the government in single-minded pursuit of his goals is disturbing. Is the best Republican option really a man universally reviled by elected Republicans? Do we want a President who is primarily known for taking absolutist stands and making enemies out of friends? No one wants weak political leaders, but real strength comes in knowing how and when to compromise and work with others to advance long term goals.
David Brooks sums up the current state of the GOP:
“Since Goldwater/Reagan, the G.O.P. has been governed by a free-market, anti-government philosophy. But over the ensuing decades new problems have emerged. First, the economy has gotten crueler. Technology is displacing workers and globalization is dampening wages. Second, the social structure has atomized and frayed, especially among the less educated. Third, demography is shifting…. Orthodox Republicans, seeing no positive role for government, have had no affirmative agenda to help people deal with these new problems….
“Along comes Donald Trump offering to replace it and change the nature of the G.O.P. He tramples all over the anti-government ideology of modern Republicanism. He would replace the free-market orthodoxy with authoritarian nationalism.
“He offers to use government on behalf of the American working class, but in negative and defensive ways: to build walls, to close trade, to ban outside groups, to smash enemies. According to him, America’s problems aren’t caused by deep structural shifts. They’re caused by morons and parasites. The Great Leader will take them down.”
Conservatives deserve more, and it is not surprising to hear people speak of the possibility of a break in the party if someone with an authoritarian bent is chosen.
The Trump supporters like to rail against the “Establishment” for not getting things done or protecting their interests with a strong arm. But this is hardly conservative. Conservatives should hope that the federal Government would be slow to action, often checked by a variety of political interests at play. The idea of a party gaining power in order to ramrod an agenda as quickly as possible goes against the makeup of our political structure. Our government was set up with checks and balances to delay and frustrate such strong, reckless political action. Trump-Republicans want a man of action paired with a reactionary, power-hungry legislative body that panders to the whims of the masses. There is nothing conservative about that.
Christian conservatives should feel particularly marginalized by a front runner who appears to care little about some of their greatest moral concerns and who has unapologetically demonstrated a lack of sound moral character. By commending Planned Parenthood, donating repeatedly to hyper-liberal candidates, and establishing a strip club, among many other things, Trump has shown that he's not interested in the moral principles of conservative Christians.
And before you decide that it is the duty of any Republican to support the eventual candidate, no matter who he is, consider that a loss in 2016 may be a long-term boon for the party. Perhaps it is better to try again with the better candidate in 2020, than to wreck the party by throwing conservative principles to the wind.
In the long term, it is hard to see this election as anything other than a death knell for the dominance of conservatives within the Republican Party. Clearly a large portion of Republicans are no longer conservative in any appreciable historical sense of the term. These are people motivated by frustration and a will to power that is not in keeping with the conservative temperament or disposition.
This is a sad result in an election cycle that looked promising. Even the “moderate” candidates in this primary are significantly more conservative than Republican candidates and Presidents of previous years. Republican voters of years past would have be more than happy with the likes of a Rubio or Kasich. Clearly the party base has been transformed.
There is a long-game hope that things might be rectified in the convention, but even if that were to pan out for conservatives, it too may lead to a party break, fueled by frustration and entitlement. It’s too early to know what the future holds for the Republican Party, but it is not looking good for conservatism in America. And that is the tragic result of what was looking to be a great conservative opportunity in 2016.