Now that Donald Trump has created the legendary “big tent” of strategists’ dreams, a sudden panic has set in among some conservative pundits.
The New York Times reported Thursday: “Conservative intellectuals have become convinced that Mr. Trump, with his message of nationalist-infused populism, poses a dire threat to conservatism, and plan to issue a manifesto on Friday to try to stop him.”
— National Review (@NRO) January 22, 2016
Why would a manifesto work, when nothing else has? And what is the point?
In his lifetime, Andrew Breitbart made two observations about Trump. The first was that he is “not a conservative.”
Trump has become more conservative in recent years, particularly on immigration, but those who distrust him have good reason to do so. As his recent, ill-informed criticism of Justice Antonin Scalia showed, when faced with tough or unfamiliar questions, Trump’s instinct is to revert to liberal mainstream media orthodoxy, then backtrack later.
The other observation Andrew Breitbart made was that Trump could, admirably, unravel the mainstream media’s defenses of Barack Obama.
And that is the true reason for his success in the 2016 campaign.
Many conservative writers and talk radio hosts initially applauded Trump as he waged a one-man war against political correctness, breaking taboos about everything from Mexicans to McCain, from immigration to Islam, and from Clintons to Christmas.
At the start of the 2016 GOP presidential primary, the exceptionally strong field of candidates boasted a throng of solid conservatives, many with long governing experience.
But Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker bogged himself down with consultants, and both former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal alienated voters by attacking Trump from the left.
That left long-shot Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in a position to win–and many conservatives began to dream big.
They apparently expected Trump to dent the opposition while allowing Cruz to draft behind him, and eventually overtake him. But it was always possible that Trump and Cruz would clash–and even foreseeable that Trump might play the “Canada card” if necessary.
Still, the end of the “bromance” took many by surprise. And it suddenly became clear Trump could win the nomination himself, and intended to do so, by any means necessary.
That has left many leading conservative pundits disoriented. Just as the GOP establishment has struggled to accept the demise of its preferred candidates, its intellectual wing is struggling to accept the reality of Trump.
Cruz promises supporters he can run to the right, and stay there. Rejecting the Barry Goldwater warning as a one-time anomaly–the result, it is argued, of public sentiment after the Kennedy assassination–the Cruz campaign hopes to mobilize the electorate behind a clear alternative to liberalism and Washington in general. Its chief selling point is Cruz’s record of delivering on promises of opposition, no matter the political or personal cost.
The strategy’s chief weakness is that it depends on dividing the electorate, much as Obama has done–even though the Electoral College favors Democrats.
To win, Cruz has to be the boldest conservative running, without alienating more timid voters whose support he still needs. In that light, his attack on “New York values” was an unforced error that revived doubts about his ability to win a general election–just as he was becoming the most likable candidate.
The Trump strategy is more primitive: win, and keep winning. That is why he begins every speech by citing his yuge poll numbers.
As Democrat strategist (and convicted felon) Robert Creamer wrote in August, predicting Trump’s nomination: “…Trump seems like a winner. Voters follow winners, not losers…Now that he has established himself as the leader of the GOP political pack, the sense of bandwagon will generate even more supporters.”
His momentum has brought Trump support from moderate Republicans, working-class Democrats, and previously disaffected voters. He has expanded the Republican electorate–and not, as GOP consultants had advised, by pandering to minorities; nor, as movement conservatives would have preferred, by using the persuasive power of ideas.
No, his movement is not an Obama-like personality cult, nor “agrarian national populism,” nor proto-fascism. The Trump phenomenon is neither so ominous nor so complicated. It is today what it has been from the start: a rebellion against the media elite.
Yet while Trump counted on the initial support of much of the conservative media, he no longer needs conservatism to win–or to govern. There are more conservatives than liberals in America, but conservatives may be relegated to minority partner in a winning coalition.
At best, what the conservative intellectuals mounting a likely doomed effort to stop Trump are actually doing–though they may not realize it–is staking a claim to lead the new opposition.
They are laying down a marker, and articulating a set of conservative principles that could guide a Republican-led Congress as it begins, under a hypothetical Trump administration, to take seriously its role as a check on the executive.
The danger is that in attempting to stop Trump, these conservatives risk alienating him totally. If there is one near-constant in the Trump campaign, it is his use of a strategy that game theorists call “massive retaliatory strike“: he is friendly by default, but hits back hard if challenged.
Cruz knocks Trump for being a dealmaker. But his conservative critics may regret a missed opportunity to win policy concessions from Trump in exchange for their support, should he win the nomination.
Now they, too, will watch the debates on television.