It’s hard to believe that the United States, having resisted socialism during its entire 20th-century heyday (the only major democracy to do so), should suddenly succumb to its charms. Indeed, the prospect of socialist Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic nomination remains far-fetched.
Yet there is no denying how far Sanders has pulled his party to the left – and how hard Hillary Clinton has been racing to catch up.
Republicans, meanwhile, are dealing with a full-scale riot. The temptation they face is trading in conservatism for Trumpism.
The 2016 presidential race has turned into an epic contest between the ethno-nationalist populism of Donald Trump and traditional conservatism, though in two varieties: the scorched-earth fundamentalist version of Ted Cruz, and a reformist version represented by Marco Rubio – and articulated most fully by non-candidate Paul Ryan and a cluster of highly productive thinkers and policy wonks dubbed “reformicons.”
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Trump insists that he’s a conservative, but conservatism seems more of a rental than an ideological home. Trump protests that Ronald Reagan migrated from left to right. True, but Reagan’s transformation occurred in his 40s – not, as with Trump, in his 60s.
In radically different ways, Trump and Sanders are addressing the deep anxiety stemming from the secular stagnation in wages and living standards that has squeezed the middle and working classes for a generation. Sanders locates the villainy in a billionaire class. Trump blames foreigners.
Hence Trump’s most famous policy recommendations: anti-immigrant, including the forced deportation of 11 million people; anti-trade, with a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods and a 35 percent tariff on U.S. manufacturing moved to Mexico; and anti-Muslim, most notoriously a complete ban on entry into the U.S. Temporarily only, except that the ban applies “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” – a standard so indeterminate as to be meaningless.
Trump has limited concern for American conservatism’s central tenant – limited government. Most telling is his support for “eminent domain,” the forcible appropriation by government of private property.
Trump has also taken a shine to Vladimir Putin. When informed that Putin kills opponents and journalists, Trump’s initial reaction was, “Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, also.” After some prompting, Trump did come out against the killing of journalists.
Cruz is often lumped with Trump in the “anti-establishment” camp. That suited Cruz tactically for a while, but it’s fairly meaningless, since “establishment” can mean anything these days. Cruz is a genuine conservative – radical, so much so that he considers mainstream congressional conservatives apostates. And finds Trump not conservative at all, as he is now belatedly insisting.
My personal preference is for the reform conservatism that locates the source of our problems in our superannuated, increasingly sclerotic 20th-century welfare-state structures. Their desperate need for reform has been overshadowed by the new populism, but Speaker Ryan is determined to introduce a serious reform agenda in this year’s Congress.
Paired with a president like Rubio, such an agenda would give conservatism its best opportunity since Reagan to become the country’s governing philosophy.
Unless the GOP takes the populist leap. In which case, a conservative restoration will be a long time coming.