There’s been an interesting debate raging among conservative intellectuals on social media to determine the best way to navigate a post-Trump world and assess the threat that the nationalist and populist base of the GOP poses to the country. The factions are roughly divided by the writers and thinkers at three publications, National Review Online, The Dispatch, and The Bulwark.
The National Review folks represented by writers Charles C. W. Cooke, Dan McLaughlin, and Michael Brendon Dougherty are really tribalists, though they would be loath to admit it. While they may not like Trump, they will downplay his excesses and make excuses for the populists and nationalists within the GOP ranks. They express outrage at overt expressions of racism or fascism, but defend the use of Critical Race Theory as a wedge issue. Many of the tribalists are driven by religious convictions, particularly as they apply to abortion. All are more concerned about the Democratic Party than they are about the GOP.
As Erick Erickson, who aligns mainly with the tribalists, says, they believe that the populism invading the Republican Party is mostly a fad and that it will eventually fade, leaving the establishment in control. Their fear is an ascendant left that will make abortion available on demand, provide single-payer health care and universal child care, over-regulate guns and industries, and generally force a worldview that’s an anathema to people who live in a world where socialism is a bigger threat than racism. For them democracy is just a means to an end.
They are largely Republicans first and conservatives second. If the Trumpists actually do disrupt democracy in upcoming elections, they will be making the case that it’s somehow alright, probably emphasizing the threat from antifa or arguing that Republicans were just playing by the rules, even if the rules were altered to undermine democracy. They see themselves as ideologically consistent but are really ideological cynical, believing whatever is convenient to hold power. They could also be described as the Mitch McConnellists.
The more interesting debate, though, is between the never-Trumpers at The Dispatch and The Bulwark. Until recently, the two outfits seemed largely on the same page, unified against Donald Trump and believing that the populism of the GOP is a threat to the well-being of the nation. Then, Jonah Goldberg wrote a column at The Dispatch laying out his disagreements with his friends at The Bulwark.
Goldberg argues that the never-Trumpers need to form a new conservative party to combat Trumpism. He understands that it may cause some Republicans to lose, but he believes it could also pull the party away from populism and back toward conservatism. He largely sees it a coalition building model where the new party would support Republicans who rejected Trumpism, or at least adhered to traditional conservative positions at the expense of populism.
Goldberg chastised his erstwhile allies at The Bulwark for jumping into bed with Democrats, particularly Joe Biden. He’s clearly a movement conservative from the Reagan era who does not believe the Republican Party is a lost cause yet and sees the progressive agenda of the Democrats as something he cannot support. He may agree with Erickson’s contention that Trumpism is more of a fad than a movement and that pressure from inside the conservative world will yield better results than leaving the GOP behind.
Over at The Bulwark, Bill Kristol and Charlie Sykes see Trump and Trumpism as an existential threat to the American experiment. They haven’t abandoned many of their center-right views, especially on foreign policy, but they believe Trump and his populists’ authoritarian impulses could end democracy as we know it. They also believe that, with enough support, they may be able to pull the Democratic Party to the right or at least strengthen the centrist wing of the party.
While Goldberg and his supporters would work to build a coalition with the populists in hopes of moderating them, Kristol and Sykes look to build a coalition of the center that could defeat them. They don’t believe the GOP is salvageable under the current leadership and direction. They are supporting Joe Biden in general, while criticizing him where they disagree, as in his handling of Afghanistan. They have been supporters of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema while most traditional Democrats oppose them.
Republican operatives and tribalists believe that the conservative Never-Trumpers at The Dispatch and The Bulwark are such a small segment of the party and the country that they lack the ability to influence politics much at all. I think they are wrong. A majority of the Republican Party does not want Trump to be the nominee in 2024. And while 66% of the GOP believes the election was stolen, about a third of the party believes Biden won. That third probably has problems with the disinformation being spread by conservative commentators and politicians and is uneasy with policies and tactics that would undermine our democracy. They may be looking for a place to go if either the Bulwark or Dispatch folks can make them comfortable.
Personally, I believe we need a big tent centrist party because illiberalism on the right is the greatest single threat to our country. Right now, Democrats offer the only possibility for a party with broad appeal. I think Erickson is wrong in his analysis about the GOP. The populists and nationalists in the party know exactly what they are doing and are putting in place the infrastructure to maintain power. They are a threat to our democracy. While I respect Goldberg’s commitment to conservative ideals that I certainly don’t share, he’s naïve to think that he can build a third party infrastructure that could threaten the GOP on national scale. As Erickson pointed out, structural obstacles to getting on the ballot in many states makes a viable third party difficult.
The Bulwark folks also have their work cut out for them. They may find they attract more support from centrists Democrats than they do from disgruntled Republicans. Still, rebuilding a centrist wing of the Democratic Party that is socially liberal and fiscally conservative with a muscular foreign policy might have more support than people on Twitter believe. Ultimately, what they are seeking to build is a coalition party based more on broad ideology than the smorgasbord of issue advocacy organizations that dominate Democratic politics today. That’s no easy lift, but it’s certainly interesting.