What happens now? Trump was defeated, but more than 74 million people voted for him, and Republicans won’t elect a president in 2024 if they leave the party. And yet that obviously won’t suffice. The party will need both the Trump supporters and the voters who can’t stand him, and that means Trumpism without Trump and a reversion to an older Republican Party.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Heather Richardson have identified a cyclical pattern in Republican policies, where it abandons right-wing ideology for a moderate pragmatism. That is what happened when Eisenhower defeated Bob Taft and won the presidency in 1952. Ike said that the party is sunk if it’s not progressive, and so I’ll call his moderate Republicanism progressive conservatism. After Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, Ike was the movement’s third turning. Trump was the fourth.
Lionel Trilling wrote that each poet’s invocation of a tradition changes the tradition itself, so that it is never fixed, and the same is true of progressive conservatism in America. For Lincoln, it meant the American Dream, a society where artificial barriers are removed, and everyone is permitted to rise. For Theodore Roosevelt, it meant a safety net for those, who through no fault of their own, were unable to rise. For Eisenhower, it also meant a liberal nationalism that was on the right side of the Civil Rights revolution. For Trump it was all of that, as well as a determination to take on a corrupt establishment that had unjustly made itself wealthy and America immobile. At each turning, progressive conservatism renewed itself, while remaining faithful to the central idea of the American Dream.
Eisenhower was a progressive conservative who had shown there was no going back on the New Deal. He staked out what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the “vital center” in American politics, the place where free-market principles are tempered by a safety net for those left behind. In office, he enjoyed a 65 percent average approval rating and was America’s most admired man from 1951 to 1960. Right-wing conservatives were happy to see the Eisenhower era in the rear mirror, however. They decried “me-too” liberal Republicanism and with Phyllis Schlafly wanted the party to offer “a choice, not an echo.” That’s what Barry Goldwater gave them in 1964, and while that was a crushing electoral defeat it was also the birth of a new conservative movement. The Goldwaterites had shown how the right-wing faithful could defeat GOP moderates such as Henry Cabot Lodge for the nomination.
The party’s period of right-wing orthodoxy lasted till 2016. Seventeen serious candidates sought the Republican presidential nomination that year, but only Trump ran as a progressive conservative. Like Ike, he wasn’t an orthodox right-winger and wasn’t going to trench on government entitlement programs. Like another progressive conservative, Benjamin Disraeli, he reached out to a forgotten class of voters who had not shared in the gains of a rising economy. Like Disraeli too, he argued that the duty to care for fellow citizens arose from the logic of nationalism and a sense of fraternity with them. Finally, like Disraeli, Trump looked beyond abstract principles to see how people really fared. Both men parted company with free-market orthodoxy and created a party that was explicitly progressive in its concern for those left behind and conservative in its nationalism.
Progressive conservatism is a distinct, historical tradition in American politics. While it’s been obscured by right-wing doctrines, it is the secret driver of American politics and, when adopted, elects Republicans. But wait, says the right-wing intellectual. Where’s your theory? Ah, you noticed that did you, answers the progressive conservative. You’re right. I don’t have a theory. I think they’re baloney.
What ought to be done in a particular case will always depend upon the multifaceted circumstances before us, and these will call for different responses that cannot be tested against touchstones of a single theory. “It is illogical to guillotine a prince and replace him with a principle,” said Ortega. “The latter, no less than the former, places life under an absolute autocracy.”
Right-wing intellectuals seek the false security of good, hard theories, whether in libertarianism, originalism, or whatever. But they’ve ignored how these may betray the three historical goals of the Republican Party: the American Dream, opposition to corruption, and liberal nationalism. Those goals define a non-theoretical, American progressive conservatism, and in adhering to them, Republicans can become America’s natural governing party.
Progressive conservatism is like the key that nicely fits the slot; like the bolt that slides itself into place, its rightness is intuitively felt. Voters who love our country will happily gather under its folds, and we might even see some Never Trumpers join in. In 2016, they told us that it wouldn’t end well if we elected Trump. Perhaps so, we said, but it’s so much better than what you have to offer.
It turns out we were both right.
F. H. Buckley is a Foundation Professor at Scalia Law School, and the author of Curiosity — And Its Twelve Rules for Life (Encounter Books, April 2021).