Before rushing toward a plan to rebuild the conservative movement, let’s pause to ask the right questions about what went wrong.
There is much discussion among Republicans, and particularly for those of us who have long counted ourselves as Never Trump, about the future of the Republican party once Donald Trump is defeated on November 8, as many of us expect he will be.
Sometimes the best way to think things through is by asking the right questions, in order to help elicit the correct answers. (That’s especially true when you’re unsure of what needs to be done, as I am just now.) With the future of the Republican party and the conservative cause in mind, here are some questions I’ve put together, with the help of others, that may help organize our thinking in the months ahead.
1. Does Donald Trump represent, as former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels asked, an aberration, or a long-term, ongoing shift in what the Republican party stands for? Is he an anomaly — or a culmination of worrisome forces within the GOP and the Right?
One could argue that the three previous Republican presidential nominees, whatever you may think of them, were much better representatives of traditional conservatism and the GOP than Mr. Trump; that he is sui generis, the product of a perfect storm; and that when he leaves the stage Trumpism will leave as well. Or one could argue, as President Obama has, that there’s a straight line from Sarah Palin in 2008 to Donald Trump in 2016; that something has gone deeply and durably wrong; that the GOP has become in many cases the party of anti-reason and white nationalism — and to ignore that means you are ignoring reality and therefore unable to shape the future. To use an analogy: Is what we’re dealing with pneumonia that requires amoxicillin and will soon pass — or cancer that requires chemotherapy and may not pass for a great long while?
2. What are the two to three things those of us who are Republicans need to understand after this election because, if we don’t, we can’t possibly fix things going forward? (My assumption here is it would be a significant error to try to return the GOP to a pre-Trump party, as if the last 15 months hadn’t happened and that old, pre-Trump message was working.)
3. How much of what is unfolding is specific to American politics and America itself; and how much of it is connected to forces and movements that are sweeping much of the Western world? To simplify things a bit: What is the relationship between the rise of Trump and something like Brexit?
4. What has this year taught us about voters on the right that needs to inform any rebuilding? 5. What has this year taught us about Republican politicians and institutions that needs to inform such rebuilding?
5. What has this year taught us about Republican politicians and institutions that needs to inform such rebuilding?
6. What do we need to learn and act on from the Trump experience, and what do we need to forthrightly reject?
7. Assuming a significant Trump loss, what needs to be said and done first and most quickly?
8. Is the Republican party still the best vehicle through which to advance a conservative agenda?
9. Is the two-party system the key to stability it’s been — or is it in fact part of the reason our democratic system is in chaos?
10. What do we make of two sets of facts — the first being that the Republican party is made up of thousands and thousands of elected officials, most all of whom are conservative and almost none of whom is running or will run as a disciple of Donald Trump; and the fact that Mr. Trump is the nominee, having easily beaten an impressive Republican field, and that most of those elected officials, including the congressional leadership of the Republican party, have either endorsed or supported Trump?
11. Does the restoration of the Republican party require total reconciliation — or is there a faction that needs to be driven out, similar to what William F. Buckley Jr. did to the John Birch Society? Are there “deplorables”? If so — and I would say the Stephen Bannon/Brietbart.com–led alt-right movement certainly qualifies — how large is that group, and what needs to be done about them?
12. What is it that the center-right party in America needs to stand for? Does the three-legged Reagan stool — an alliance of economic, national-security, and social conservatives — still make sense? If so, is a supply-side growth agenda still the economic priority — or is long-term debt and entitlements a higher priority? Or is there a more pressing agenda than macroeconomic policy in the domestic-policy zone? Is there a non-interventionist/non-internationalist definition of national-security conservatism? What are its key pillars? And what is a socially conservative agenda in an increasingly secularizing country?
The temptation for many will be to sketch out a comprehensive plan now in anticipation of rebuilding the Republican party and the conservative cause post-Trump, and that’s fine. I for one am open to hearing all sorts of ideas.
At the same time, wisdom often starts with understanding the moment, and it seems to me this particular one is unusually confused, unstable, and rapidly changing. Where we are now will be different from where we are on November. “Readiness is all,” Shakespeare wrote — and in this case readiness means posing some of the right questions. An awful lot depends on getting them, and ultimately the answers, more or less right.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.