If Donald Trump’s presidential campaign didn’t expose the disorder in American conservatism, the early days of his presidency have confirmed that the American conservative movement has been turned on its head. It began with the “Never Trumpers” — coming from different parts of the conservative coalition — who rejected the then-candidate’s call for restrictions on free trade and a diminished American role in foreign affairs. Some of those voices have gone quiet with Trump’s ascension to the presidency, but others have grown louder as campaign promises have been turned into executive orders.
To be clear, this fracturing of the conservative movement is mirrored by what is happening within American progressivism, which is being fed by populist forces of their own and equal energy. But that it is happening on the right under a newly elected Republican president is what makes this moment so unprecedented, though the signs of the tectonic plates shifting under the conservative movement have been evident for some time.
This will strike some as strange since to them one conservative is the same as another, but since the end of World War II, the American conservative movement has been a coalition of several different worldviews — from the neoconservatives who focused on stopping the communist menace to social conservatives who fought to save a certain moral order to libertarians who sought to “strangle” the growing government leviathan.
In a provocative essay for the New Criterion titled “American Conservatism and the Problem of Populism,” conservative historian George Nash sees this moment in American politics as being profoundly different from anything he’s witnessed in the last half century. Noting early in his piece that “Perhaps the most important fact to assimilate about modern American conservatism is that it is not, and has never been, monolithic. It is a coalition — a coalition built on ideas — with many points of origin and diverse tendencies that are not always easy to reconcile.”
Toward the end of his essay, Nash concludes, “In short, Trumpist populism is defiantly challenging the fundamental tenets and perspectives of every component of the post-1945 conservative coalition.” From this dire conclusion, Nash asks, “But conservatives, more than ever, need minds as well as voices, arguments as well as sound bites, and civility as well as indignation. In this season of discontent, it might be useful for conservatives of all persuasions to step back from the fray for a moment and ask themselves a simple question: What do conservatives want? What should they want? Perhaps by getting back, very deliberately to basics, conservative intellectuals can begin to restore some clarity and direction to the debate.”
While “Trumpist populism” may have been the last straw breaking the back of the coalition, it had been under serious strain for years — in part due to the collapse of communism. This success, followed by a Democratic president proclaiming, “The era of big government is over,” led many to feel the arc of history was bending toward conservatism. But with 9/11 and the broader “War on Terror” — at home and abroad — along with a rather mushy “compassionate conservatism” and an increasingly secularized culture, the members of the alliance began to go their own ways.
The question remains, what will the next conservative coalition look like? While many of the foundational principles of the movement can still offer guidance to today’s conservatives, they will have to be re-imagined for a set of circumstances far different than the late 1940s or even the early 1980s.
That is why I’m excited to announce the launch of “The American Project: On the Future of Conservatism” here at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy — a two-year effort to gather together thinkers and leaders from across the conservative spectrum (and some outside of it) to deliberate over and write about how the next conservative movement will be shaped — not in an era of communism, but in an age of populism. The American conservative movement has always been an agreement around a set of principles — continually refined and rearticulated in the context of social and political changes. What better time to reconsider the next conservative coalition, and what better place than Malibu?
Pete Peterson is dean and a senior fellow at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy and a Contributor at the American Project based at the School.