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(Compact) Republican voters face a clear choice in the 2024 presidential cycle. Those who think the conservative movement has the solutions to the nation’s crises should vote for a conventional GOP candidate. But those who believe the conservative movement is part of the problem should support Donald Trump.
Only Trump defied the deep state empowered by his Republican predecessors. Only Trump has broken from the disastrous foreign policy championed by the conservative movement. Only Trump has taken on the mania for free trade and outsourcing. No other figure of the right has shown the same willingness to break with his own side’s orthodoxies.
Trump’s opponents on the right often describe themselves as “principled” conservatives. But this is no cause for boasting when one’s principles are bankrupt. The policies pursued by GOP elites since the Reagan era had plunged the nation into costly wars while accelerating the decline of the middle class. Trump promised to punish the architects of these failures. His rhetoric evoked the party’s older Eisenhower-Nixon tradition, which made peace with the New Deal and pursued realism and restraint abroad.
Trump resisted the security apparatus, which sought to keep him from office and then to remove him from it. He also disrupted the broad trend toward depoliticization. From immigration to transnational governance, elites in the years before Trump had removed fundamentally political questions from the realm of political contestation. Voters’ voices on these issues mattered far less than the determinations of elites wielding market rationality and supposedly non-political “expertise”—which just happened to serve their own interests. Trump’s rise promised a return of the political as such. So would his second term.
Trump also exposed the carnage caused by the neoliberal turn in American political economy and the neoconservative turn in foreign policy. For starters, there was the disaster of the post-9/11 wars, which most Republicans defended to the hilt—until Trump came around. “Obviously, the war in Iraq is a big, fat mistake,” Trump declared at a primary debate in South Carolina in 2016. “We have destabilized the Middle East.” The right’s foreign-policy experts were aghast. Yet Trump channeled the anger of military families and millions of others wondering what, exactly, the sacrifice had been for.
In 2019, when Iran shot down a US drone over the Strait of Hormuz, several of Trump’s top advisers—including conservative luminaries John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Mike Pence—supported a retaliatory strike. Trump nixed the attack, pointing out that killing an estimated 150 would not be “proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.” In this and other moments, Trump showed more good sense than the supposed experts.
Then there was the Reaganite establishment’s support for free trade, which had weakened labor organizations and hollowed out the nation’s manufacturing capacity. Once-vibrant industrial regions became desiccated wastelands, strewn with the corpses of the opioid-addled, haunted by memories of good union jobs. Trump—to his credit—sounded more like progressive critics of globalization from the 1990s and early 2000s than any conventional Republican.
Once in office, he tapped Robert Lighthizer, a critic of unfair trade practices, as US trade representative. Trump imposed $350 billion in tariffs, pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (prompting Bernie Sanders to say, “I am glad the Trans-Pacific Partnership is dead and gone”), and renegotiated NAFTA in ways favorable to the United States.
Trump also broke from the right on entitlements. Under the Bush-Romney regime, the GOP had sought to privatize Social Security—the perennial fetish of libertarian extremists and Wall Street fee-skimmers. Trump disagreed. Addressing local radio in Wisconsin, the home state of then-House Speaker and arch-libertarian Paul Ryan, Trump said, “I’m not going to cut” Social Security, “and I’m not going to raise ages, and I’m not going to do all of the things that [Republicans] want to do.”
When Republicans had control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, conservatives pushed for entitlement “reform.” But as Ryan later complained, Trump disagreed. “He and I fought about Medicare and entitlement reform all the time,” Ryan said. “It became clear to me there was no way he wanted to embrace that.” Trump boasted of this record in 2020, telling voters, “I will protect your Social Security and Medicare, just as I have for the past three years.”
Likewise on health care, Trump broke with libertarian dogma. At a debate in Texas, Sen. Ted Cruz assailed him for rejecting Republican policy: “Did you say, if you want people to die on the streets if you don’t support socialized health care, you have no heart?” Trump replied, “Correct. I will not let people die on the streets.” The response should have killed his chances, in the eyes of the conservative press. It elicited wild applause. Trump’s proposed alternative to ObamaCare failed to garner majority support from a GOP-dominated House and Senate in part because free-marketeers regarded it, in the words of a memo from House conservatives, as a “Republican welfare entitlement.”
Even on abortion, Trump defied the conservative movement. His promise to appoint “pro-life judges” who would overturn Roe v. Wade displeased originalist legal scholars, who believe that politicians shouldn’t promise specific judicial outcomes. Trump dispensed with these evasions—and delivered the pro-life movement’s greatest victory.
In all these cases, Trump put the interests of the American people as he saw them ahead of ideological purity. It was the same approach he brought to immigration, in the face of loud protests from the liberal left and libertarian right. Since then, Republicans have moved in Trump’s direction on some issues. But the financial and ideological apparatus of the right—its donors, think tanks, and magazines—has changed less than many think. It is prepared to rally around any alternative to Trump, and will seek to use even a well-intentioned candidate to advance its aims.
Elites of both parties remain committed to extreme and dangerous policies. Under President Biden, the United States has pursued relentless escalation over Ukraine. Washington has also taken a needlessly provocative stance toward China, epitomized by a trip to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi.
Trump criticized the voyage, pointing out that the House speaker had played into Beijing’s hands. Supposedly sober and responsible Republican leaders—including 26 GOP senators—cheered on Pelosi’s folly. These are the people who will take the reins of foreign policy under any Republican candidate other than Trump.
It is true that Trump sometimes failed to translate his rhetoric into reality. On labor questions, standard-issue Republican personnel ensured that the Trump administration fell back into the GOP’s employer-friendly groove; unions too often walked away disappointed. Likewise on immigration, Trump failed to deliver on the full promise of his campaign. But the partial and halting pursuit of sane policies is preferable to the efficient execution of insanities.
Indeed, Trump was often stymied because he faced unified opposition from Democrats, the leaders of his own party, and the intelligence agencies. The effort to prevent Trump from exercising the powers of the presidency began with the Russiagate probe, extended to two impeachment trials, and has now culminated in the investigation by the Department of Justice. Whatever one makes of the evolving case against Trump, it is undeniable that he has been targeted not simply because of his alleged crimes, but because he threatens powerful interests in American society.
Some who support Trump’s agenda still hope for a different candidate. If the deep state is determined to keep Trump from office, they reason, it is better to nominate a different candidate who can advance some of his priorities. This logic is compelling as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Politics isn’t a mere matter of implementing decent policies. It is also a contest of opposing forces. The US security state is now attempting to prevent Republican voters from nominating Trump. Such an assault must be met in a way that is spirited, not merely calculating. Defiance is the only healthy response.
America’s problems haven’t been caused by irresponsible populists, but by a rapacious and feckless establishment. Donald Trump, for all his failings, is the only candidate who recognizes this fact. He alone has broken with the conservative movement’s unquestioning support for foreign wars and the security state. He alone has challenged the right’s economic pieties. He alone offers Americans a chance to confront and chasten their failed elites.
Reporting from Compact.