As a lifelong Republican and a former Fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, I have always preferred voting for the Republican and conservative candidate.
Preferably, the candidate is both Republican and conservative, although that is not always the case.
For only the second time in my life, I did not vote for the Republican presidential nominee: I found him neither Republican nor conservative. I know there are different strands of conservatism: classical, neo-cons, libertarians, religious and economic conservatives. I found Donald Trump to be none of the above.
Trump did appeal to conservatives by supporting regulatory reform, lower taxes, unleashing the private sector and rolling back the administrative state. At the same time, Trump supported existing entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, which he called untouchable, and backed new entitlements like a paid family leave program.
Until the election of Trump, Republicans venerated Ronald Reagan and his brand of conservatism. This included support for free trade, a centerpiece of conservative economic policy. Trump has denounced free trade by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership which conservatives uniformly backed. Trump also plans to end the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which Republicans helped to pass.
Another litmus test for modern conservatism was for America to play a major role in world affairs. Reagan addressed the first Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) meeting in 1974 and argued that America “cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so.”
Reagan cited Pope Pius XII’s remarks after World War II that “Into the hands of America, God has placed the destinies of mankind.” Under Trump, American First has become the guiding philosophy.
Republicans and conservatives have generally opposed entitlements and big government. Trump has made Social Security and Medicare untouchable, even though most conservatives believe these programs are not sustainable given the demographic changes in American society.
Trump has called for a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, in addition to an expansive family leave policy. How do you pay for these entitlements and increase defense spending while cutting taxes?
Shortly after being elected president, Trump helped negotiate a deal with Carrier in Indiana that promised government benefits to Carrier in exchange for keeping jobs in Indiana. That deal struck many conservatives as another example of “crony capitalism.”
The government picks and chooses winners and losers instead of letting market forces work their will.
Where most presidents have had a shaky relationship with the press, Trump is the first to call the press “enemies of the American public.” Where Reagan called the Soviets the “evil empire,” Trump has praised Vladimir Putin and asserted the moral equivalency between American and Soviet policy.
Trump clearly has flip-flopped back and forth between the Democratic and Republican Party, but has actually spent more time as a Democrat. He only registered as a Republican a couple of years before announcing his candidacy. Trump may or not be a lifetime member of the GOP, but has he held consistent conservative values? Let’s look at his own words and actions.
At the 2016 CPAC meeting, delegates threatened to walk out if Trump appeared. He was viewed as a false prophet of conservatism and he eventually withdrew as a speaker.
At the 2017 CPAC meeting, Trump was hailed as the conquering hero. A full 86 percent of the delegates approved of Trump’s job performance and 80 percent believed Trump was “realigning the conservative movement.” As presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway observed, “well, I think by tomorrow this might be TPAC.”
During his 48-minute address to the 2017 CPAC delegates, Trump no mention of Reagan, who has been the face of the modern conservative movement for four decades.
Trump made no mention of “liberty” or the “constitution.” Trump made no reference to keeping government small and limited, and only once uttered the word “conservative,” which seemed odd for an audience of conservatives. Trump said: “Our victory was a victory. . . for conservative values.”
The one common thread between Reagan and Trump was their appeal to working-class Americans. In 1977, Reagan told CPAC: “The New Republican Party I am speaking about is going to have room for the man and the woman in the factories, for the farmer, for the cop on the beat.”
In his 2017 CPAC address, Trump said: “The GOP will be, from now on, the Party of the American worker. … We will not answer to donors or lobbyists or special interests.” (Although, being a billionaire will be considered an asset for all cabinet nominees.)
One congressional staffer, after hearing Trump’s CPAC speech, called him “a moderate disguised as a conservative.” Conservative radio host John Ziegler described Trump’s CPAC speech as having the tone “it was written from a liberal perspective, in that greater government involvement was the foundational answer for nearly every problem.”
Another delegate described Trump as “a fairly liberal conservative,” whatever that may mean.
If CPAC is any indication, Trump is reshaping the conservative movement at breathtaking speed. Ideology is conforming to an individual, and not vice versa.
“Repeal and Replace” was the centerpiece of Trumpism. We all thought he was referring to “Obamacare.” Now we know that “repeal and replace” referred to conservatism in America.
Traditional conservative values have been abandoned and replaced by whatever Trump happens to say today.
Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.