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Five Trump-Era Ideas That Should End with His Presidency

Make room on the ash heap.
October 26, 2020
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Since his election, it has become an article of conventional wisdom that Donald Trump’s presidency was not an aberration or a brief historical detour but heralded the beginning of a political realignment. Some on the right decry the “dead consensus” of yesteryear and call for a new conservatism, one less scrupulous about its traditional adherence to American constitutionalism, taking no prisoners in new culture wars, and upending the decade-long consensus in U.S. foreign policy in favor of a nationalist outlook. On the left, meanwhile, woke-ism and its young radical voices have mounted a challenge to liberal orthodoxies.

Yet if one sees Trump’s presidency with all its idiosyncrasies as a contingent result of fewer than 80,000 votes in just three states, and not as an authentic expression of the will of the people—remember, he received nearly 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton—then the idea that nothing will ever be the same again finds itself on less firm ground. More importantly, political and ideological shifts are not result of vast, impersonal historical forces. Rather, such shifts are products of human agency, intellectual leadership, and political entrepreneurship. The question of how lasting a footprint Trump and Trumpism will leave is up to the people who make up the Republican party and the conservative movement.

If Trump is soundly defeated on November 3, the GOP will have an opportunity similar to that provided to the U.K.’s Labour Party after its crushing defeat in the general election last year. Jeremy Corbyn’s radicalism did not disappear under Keir Starmer’s leadership—but it has been firmly relegated to the party’s fringes. Similarly, if Trump is repudiated by the voting public, those who care about the long-term viability of conservatism should seize the months that follow to reject some of the ideas and tendencies that have characterized Trumpism. They should be buried alongside Trump’s presidency, alongside his unhinged political style, alongside his penchant for conspiracies and racism. Here are five of them.

1.) “Fusionism is dead.”

While the center-right and the center-left need to adapt, political life in the United States does not need “successor ideologies” to liberalism and conservatism. If conservatives want to be constructive actors in America’s political life, they have to rediscover their appreciation of the importance of fiscal probity, free markets, thriving families, and American leadership in the world—adjusted, of course, to the realities of the 21st century.

The caveat is important, because critics are correct in pointing out that the party’s—and the movement’s—monomania with marginal tax rates and size of government are increasingly out of sync with a reality in which a dynamic market economy has to be complemented and even sustained by robust social safety nets and government-provided infrastructure. Likewise, in the light of seemingly fruitless interventions in the Middle East and new realities such as China’s growing assertiveness, America’s centrist foreign policy consensus needs a rethink and a recalibration. Climate change is not a hoax and needs thoughtful policy responses from conservatives, compatible with the world’s and America’s long-term economic prosperity.

Still, the fusionism of free-marketeers, social conservatives, and foreign policy hawks has by and large served the center-right well. Instead of trying to destroy it and replace it with some half-baked nationalist ideology, it is time to update it and clean it of unhinged and nativist undertones brought to the foreground under Trump’s presidency.

2.) Policies don’t matter; “owning the libs” does.

Not so long ago, the GOP could credibly claim to be the party of policy ideas, good or bad. Its platform in 2020, however, is limited to its “enthusiastic support of President Trump.” Republicans’ recent legislative accomplishments are scarce, perhaps with the exception of a run-of-the-mill tax reform. Instead, the party’s and the conservative movement’s energy lies in fighting cultural wars, emoting, and tweeting memes, providing evidence for the writer Bruno Maçães’s thesis that political life in America has become unmoored from reality, moving to the realm of fiction and entertainment.

As an aside, woke-ism, with its emphasis on symbols, words, and imperceptible slights as opposed to policy reform, provides a similar temptation to America’s left. Yet policies still matter, and the current flight of America’s political class from reality, accelerated by the country’s tweeter- and entertainer-in-chief, has real-world consequences—as the country has learned the hard way during the current pandemic. Yet, the looming defeat of Republicans at the hand of the most anodyne, conventional, and uninspiring candidate in decades should be a wake-up call. Perhaps the politics of tribalism and “owning the libs” is a dead end after all.

3.) It’s Flight 93.

No, America is not on the verge of descending into a totalitarian dystopia if the other side wins—no matter who is on the other side today or in 2024. After all, the very fact that the United States government has survived four years of Trump largely intact is a testament not simply to its resiliency but also to its highly complex, unwieldy nature—which does not make it susceptible to the sudden, autocratic centralization of power observed in countries such as Hungary or the Philippines. It is true that the United States is heavily polarized and that its present environment is unlikely to provide respite from the all-encompassing cultural conflicts. Still, contrary to the hopes of those who want to see “the public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good,” seeking to use national politics as the venue to settle such conflicts is a disastrous idea, risking tearing America apart. But what if the current woke-ism on the political left gets out of control, you ask? Especially in those circumstances it is the job of adults on the center-right to bring down the temperature by reaching out to concerned left-of-center liberals—instead of thoughtlessly upping the ante.

4.) Foreign policy realism is the way of the future.

One can argue that Trump’s admittedly crude version of foreign policy realism provided a helpful corrective both to neoconservative overreach and to the blind faith in historical progress. In that sense, there is a legitimate place for a dose of foreign policy realism in both parties, balanced by a clear moral compass and long-term vision of America’s place in the world.

Some Trump admirers see his gut instincts and his disruptive behavior as a foundation for a distinctly realist approach that could guide U.S. foreign policy in the coming years and perhaps become the defining feature of the GOP’s foreign policy outlook. Jeremy Stern, Ambassador Richard Grenell’s ex-chief of staff, argues in realist terms that future administrations ought “to break free of ‘the West,’” namely our traditional European and other allies, and presumably forge partnerships with undemocratic and nationalist regimes—as long as doing so gives the United States leverage over its adversaries.

But while working with unsavory regimes and being aware of our and of other nations’ interests is necessary, unchecked foreign policy realism can be as reckless as its intellectual alternatives, if not more. For one, America’s principles and its moral standing in the world are not burdens but our most valuable foreign policy assets. And for all the deals that can (and occasionally should) be struck with the world’s autocrats, the United States will never have better and more reliable friends than the democracies of the North Atlantic space, with which we are bound by much more than a fleeting alignment of interests.

5.) America must turn inward—for the sake of its working class.

As a general rule, openness to trade and immigration has not come at the cost of America’s workers. Technological change accounts for a much greater proportion of “destroyed” jobs than international trade and immigration. Efforts to impose tariffs during the Trump era have been overwhelmingly counterproductive for job creation and economic dynamism. Likewise, halting working-age immigration is bound to reduce growth prospects, especially given the demographic headwinds the U.S. economy is going to face in the coming decades. To be sure, openness to trade and immigration leads to dislocation—hence the need for robust domestic policies fostering social and geographic mobility, and providing a degree of economic security to those who need it. But if the post-Trump GOP becomes the party of pulling up drawbridges, ham-fisted immigration policies, tariffs on imports from our closest allies, or attacks on the World Trade Organization, it will deserve to lose much more than the November election.

Dalibor Rohac

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @DaliborRohac.