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A Guide for Frustrated Conservatives in the Age of Trump

These are (to put it mildly) tough times to be a conservative.
Image: President Donald Trump congratulates House Republicans
A man and his fans.Mark Wilson / Getty Images

How are we going to survive this thing?

These are (to put it mildly) tough times to be a conservative, especially one who is skeptical of Donald Trump. While there will be some real policy victories — the judiciary for example — conservatives have watched these past nine months as conservativism has been tarnished by a politics of cruelty, insult, and erratic tweet storms. And it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.

So far, only a handful of elected Republicans have been willing to speak out — Jeff Flake, Ben Sasse, John McCain and Bob Corker come to mind — but we are going to have to hear more from contrarian conservatives if the movement has any hope of salvaging its brand, and its soul.

Being a contrarian comes rather naturally to me (maybe it’s genetics), and I suppose this current dissatisfaction takes me full circle. Back in the 1970s, I became a “recovering Liberal,” when I looked around me and decided I no longer wanted to be a part of what that movement had become. My decision came slowly, but it was ultimately liberating to break free from tribal politics and its tendentious talking points.

So this feels familiar to me. If the conservative movement wishes to be defined by the nativist, authoritarian, post-truth culture of Trump-Bannon-Drudge-Hannity-Palin, then I’m out.

So what does that mean?

As difficult as it may be, conservatives need to stand athwart history once again — this time recognizing that Trumpism poses an existential threat to the conservative vision of ordered liberty.

This will be a complicated undertaking, given the pressures of political tribalism and the reality that many of Trump’s policy items appeal to conservatives. Rather than conformity, however, conservativism needs dissidents who are willing to push back. We need, contrarian conservatives who recognize that their movement now finds itself reduced to a remnant in the wilderness.

But the wilderness is a good place for any movement to rethink its first principles, rediscover its forgotten values, and ask: Who are we, really?

If the conservative movement wishes to be defined by the nativist, post-truth culture of Trump-Bannon-Drudge-Hannity-Palin, then I’m out.

Contrarian conservatives will answer: We believe in things like liberty, free markets, limited government, personal responsibility, constitutionalism, modesty, prudence, aspiration, and inclusion. We are conservatives in the great tradition that stretches back from Burke and Tocqueville to Buckley and Reagan.

But people who believe in these principles also are no longer a part of what the conservative movement, or the GOP, has become.

What does it mean to be a contrarian? It does not mean mindless opposition. When the Trump Administration or congressional Republicans are right, we should support them; when possible, we’ll nudge them to do the right thing. But we will have no problem adopting a spirit of contradiction when they go wrong or lose their way.

Contrarians have no obligation to defend the indefensible or reverse their positions based on The Leader’s whims or tweets. They can step out of the Alternative Reality silos and look at things as they actually are, rather than relying on what Trump aide Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts.”

These independent conservatives can affirm that Trump won the election fairly and freely, but also recognize the gravity and implications of Russia’s interference in the campaign. They can support tougher border controls and still be appalled by the cruelty and incompetence of the president's immigration bans. Independent conservatives can applaud Trump’s support for Israel and still be thoroughly taken aback by his slavish adulation of Vladimir Putin and terrified by his attitude toward our NATO allies.

Most important of all, we will take the long view, recognizing that electoral victories do not change eternal verities or the essential correctness of traditionally conservative insights into man and society.

Undoubtedly, this will be lonely work and we may lose a lot of former friends; but the path should also be familiar to conservatives who have a long history of being out of step with the spirit of the age. William F. Buckley Jr. sharpened the definitions of the new conservativism by contrasting it with the “modern” Republicanism of the Eisenhower years. Conservative spokesmen were full-throated and active in their opposition to Nixonism. It is not a coincidence that there is no such thing today as a “Nixon conservative.”

In victory, we need an exorcism of the forces that have possessed and ultimately distorted, conservativism.

After the defeat in the 2012 presidential election, GOP leaders commissioned what became known as an “autopsy” of the failed campaign. In victory, however, conservatives will need something very different: an exorcism of the forces that have possessed and ultimately distorted, conservativism. Conservatives need to:

1. Address the legitimate grievances that buoyed Trump with the white working class, but find a way to separate them from the toxic elements of Trumpism, including its authoritarianism, racism, misogyny, and isolationism.

2. Return to first principles and revive classical liberalism as an alternative to progressivism on the Left and authoritarian nationalism on the Right.

3. Revitalize a policy agenda that has grown tired and nostalgic. Simply repeating the mantras of the Reagan years is no longer enough and demanding ideological purity is a self-defeating strategy. The alternative may include taking a fresh look at what so-called Reformicons have been saying for the last decade.

4. Be willing to tell hard truths: about the importance of limited government (even if it means we don’t get everything we want), free markets (and why governments should not pick winners and losers), and the need for American leadership in the world (despite the siren call of the new isolationism).

5. Break free from the toxic thrall of corporate cronyism and K-Street coziness. Recognize that being pro-business is not the same thing as being pro-free market if it means handing out favors and goodies to special interest moochers. The 2016 election was a revolt against this kind of rigged, insider-dealing culture and the GOP had it coming.

6. Realize the demographic bomb that Trump has planted in the GOP. The appeasement of Trump may have alienated Hispanics, Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, African Americans and women for a generation. Restoring the party’s ability to appeal to those groups will require more than a cosmetic makeover, but failure to do so will consign the party to political oblivion.

7. Drain their own swamp, starting with the alt-right and its bigoted, anti-Semitic minions. Lines must be drawn, lest the GOP morph into a Bannon-esque European-style National Front party.

8. Confront the conservative media that boosted and enabled Trumpism and created a toxic alternative reality bubble that threatens the credibility and sanity of the conservative movement. Conservatives cannot continue to out-source their message to the drunk at the end of the bar or the cynical propagandists on the internet.

Charles Sykes is an MSNBC contributor and former co-host of the national public radio show, “Indivisible,” which is originated from WNYC. His most recent book, "How the Right Lost Its Mind," published by St. Martin’s Press, was released in October 2017.

This essay is adapted from "How The Right Lost Its Mind."