When Donald Trump knocked first Jeb Bush and then Marco Rubio out of the Republican primary campaign, he defeated not only the candidates themselves but their common theory of what the GOP should be — the idea that the party could essentially re-create George W. Bush’s political program with slightly different domestic policy ideas and re-create Bush’s political majority as well.
Now, after knocking Ted Cruz out of the race, Trump has beaten a second theory of where the GOP needs to go from here: a theory you might call True Conservatism.
True Conservatism likes to portray itself as part of an unbroken tradition running back through Ronald Reagan to Barry Goldwater and the Founding Fathers. It has roots in that past, but it’s also a much more recent phenomenon, conceived in the same spirit as Bushism 2.0 but with the opposite intent.
If Bushism 2.0 looked at George W. Bush’s peaks — his post-Sept. 11 popularity, his 2004 majority — and saw a model worth recovering, True Conservatism looked at his administration’s collapse and argued that it proved he had been far too liberal and that all his “compassionate conservative” heresies had led the Republican Party into a ditch.
Thus True Conservatism’s determination to avoid anything that smells of big government and anything that smacked of compromise. Where Bush had been softhearted, True Conservatism would be sternly Ayn Randian; where Bush had been free-spending, True Conservatism would be austere; where Bush had taken working-class Americans off the tax rolls, True Conservatism would put them back on — for their own good. And above all, where Bush had sometimes reached for the center, True Conservatism would stand on principle, fight hard and win.
This philosophy found champions on talk radio, it shaped the tea party’s zeal, it influenced Paul Ryan’s budgets, it infused Mitt Romney’s “You built that” rhetoric. But it was only in the government shutdown of 2013 that it found its real standard-bearer: Ted Cruz.
And Cruz ended up running with it further than most people thought possible. His 2016 campaign strategy was simple: Wherever the party’s most ideological voters were, there he would be. If Barack Obama was for it, he would be against it.
Where conservatives were angry, he would channel their anger. Where they wanted a fighter; he would be a fighter. Wherever the party’s activists were gathered, on whatever issue — social or economic, immigration or the flat tax — he would be standing by their side. He would win Iowa, the South, his native Texas, the Mountain West. They wanted Reagan, or at least a fantasy version of Reagan? He would give it to them.
It didn’t work — but the truth is it almost did. In the days before and after the Wisconsin primary, with delegate accumulation going his way and the polling looking plausible once the Northeastern primaries were over, it seemed like Cruz could reasonably hope for a nomination on the second or third ballot.
So give the Texas senator some credit. He took evangelical votes from Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson and Rick Santorum; he took libertarian votes from Rand Paul; he outlasted and outplayed Marco Rubio; he earned support from Romney, Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham, who once joked about his murder. Nobody worked harder; no campaign ran a tighter ship; no candidate was more disciplined.
But it turned out that Republican voters didn’t want True Conservatism any more than they wanted Bushism 2.0. Maybe they would have wanted it from a candidate with more charisma and charm and less dogged unlikeability. But the entire Trump phenomenon suggests otherwise, and Trump as the presumptive nominee is basically a long proof against the True Conservatism theory of the Republican Party.
Trump proved that movement conservative ideas and litmus tests don’t really have any purchase on millions of Republican voters. Again and again, Cruz and the other GOP candidates stressed that Trump wasn’t really a conservative; they listed his heresies, cataloged his deviations, dug up his barely buried liberal past. No doubt this case resonated with many Republicans. But not with nearly enough of them to make Cruz the nominee.
Trump proved that many evangelical voters, supposedly the heart of a True Conservatism coalition, are actually not really values voters or religious conservatives after all, and that the less frequently evangelicals go to church, the more likely they are to vote for a philandering sybarite instead of a pastor’s son. Cruz would probably be on his way to the Republican nomination if he had simply carried the Deep South. But unless voters were in church every Sunday, Trump’s identity politics had more appeal than Cruz’s theological-political correctness.
Trump proved that many of the party’s moderates and establishmentarians hate the thought of a True Conservative nominee even more than they fear handing the nomination to a proto-fascist grotesque with zero political experience and poor impulse control.
That goes for the prominent politicians who refused to endorse Cruz, the prominent donors who sat on their hands once the field narrowed and all the moderate-Republican voters in blue states who turned out to be #NeverCruz first and #NeverTrump less so or even not at all.
Finally, Trump proved that many professional True Conservatives, many of the same people who flayed RINOs and demanded purity throughout the Obama era, were actually just playing a convenient part. From Fox News’ 10 p.m. hour to talk radio to the ranks of lesser pundits, a long list of people who should have been all in for Cruz on ideological grounds either flirted with Trump, affected neutrality or threw down their cloaks for the Donald to stomp over the nomination. Cruz thought he would have a movement behind him, but part of that movement was actually a racket, and Trumpistas were simply better marks.
Cruz will be back, no doubt. He’s young, he’s indefatigable, and he can claim — and will claim, on the 2020 hustings — that True Conservatism has as yet been left untried. But that will be a half-truth; it isn’t being tried this year because the Republican Party’s voters have rejected him and it, as they rejected another tour for Bushism when they declined to back Rubio and Jeb.
What remains, then, is Trumpism. Which is also, in its lurching, sometimes insightful, often wicked way, a theory of what kind of party the Republicans should become, and one that a plurality of Republicans have now actually voted to embrace.
Whatever reckoning awaits the GOP and conservatism after 2016 will have to begin with that brute fact. Where the reckoning goes from there — well, now is a time for pundit humility, so your guess is probably as good as mine.