Whether one considers Donald Trump a flawed partner or existential threat to conservatism depends largely on how one saw our situation before he came along. Most Trump voters were under no illusions about pre-Trump Republicans being honorable men or effective conservatives, while most NeverTrumpers cast 45 as deviating from a principled, competent—and fictitious—national GOP tradition.
National Review’s David French perfectly demonstrated that disconnect last month with a less-than-reassuring attempt to answer, “Before Trump, What Did Conservatism Conserve?” He opens by sharing a tweet he wrote the week before:
Scratch the surface, and this isn’t much of a comparison—the 2002 born-alive law sailed through Congress unopposed in a very different time, the partial-birth abortion ban stops less than 1% of annual abortions, Bush-appointed judges are hardly guaranteed to be originalists (Exhibit A: the disgraceful John Roberts), and Trump reinstated Mexico City too. Bush also made no serious effort to defund Planned Parenthood domestically.
Yes, state-level heroes have meaningfully reduced abortions. But national Republicans clearly don’t share their commitment, states can only do so much under Roe v. Wade, and for all our efforts, public opinion remains roughly tied between “pro-life” and “pro-choice” (with infanticide in the news, Marist did find an encouraging spike towards life, but whether it represents a lasting change remains to be seen).
Bush’s abortion record—delivering easy stuff, resisting some leftist extremes, but doing almost nothing to advance the main objective—is the same pattern we see on issue after issue, despite French’s efforts to convince us otherwise.
He shows impressive progress on gun laws, right to work, charter school attendance, homeschooling, judicial wins on free speech and religious liberty, and various leftist policies Barack Obama didn’t enact. But behind each example lies a deeper, unaddressed threat.
Policy wins can be reversed by a judiciary we’ve done nothing to rein in. Conservatives’ kids exiting public schools doesn’t address the indoctrination of the millions who stay, then go to even worse college (especially when people like French attack those conservatives who are working to expose fanatical leftist professors). The primary threat to free speech today isn’t government; it’s tech companies stacking debates and suppressing ideas. Preventing bad legislation is small comfort as Democrats increasingly turn to courts and bureaucracy to achieve their ends.
And looming over all of it is how little we’ve done to get immigration under control and stop Democrats from using it to permanently transform the electorate.
But foreign policy is where French’s straw-grasping is most obvious:
Has there ever been a great-power conflict whose end was handled as deftly as the Cold War’s? And as for all the hate piled on George W. Bush, his critics ignore two huge accomplishments: a foreign-aid program to combat AIDS in Africa that may be one of the most life-saving foreign-policy initiatives in all of human history, and an effective post-9/11 defense of America from large-scale jihadist attack.
I don’t know what’s sadder: French suggesting that most dissatisfied conservatives include Ronald Reagan (amnesty mistake aside) in their indictment of the GOP, or resorting to citing foreign-aid spending in what started out as a showcase of conservatism. (Whatever one thinks of Bush’s AIDS program, it’s no more indicative of a specifically-conservative agenda than presidents declaring holidays or dispatching disaster-relief efforts.)
More importantly, while French is right about post-9/11 terror prevention, that’s only half of Bush’s foreign policy legacy.
43 was right to topple Saddam Hussein, but by failing to clearly articulate the occupation’s purpose and refusing to commit enough troops until death tolls forced the 2007 surge (among other misjudgments), Bush did more than just preside over needless loss of life, provoke a Democrat congressional sweep, and pave Obama’s path to the White House. He left the Right more fractured and confused than on any other issue, torn between hawks putting too little thought into our “allies” and objectives in the Middle East, and reflexive non-interventionists echoing Code Pink-esque “warmonger” rhetoric.
We know the GOP isn’t a conservative party, but the problem runs so much deeper than that. By and large, conservative thought leaders and activists have neglected to hold Republicans accountable for failure and betrayal, treated candidate selection and vetting like a game, let countless maladies fester while doing little more than complaining in echo chambers, and repeatedly defined down expectations for what we can achieve.
Alas, Donald Trump isn’t the answer to those problems, but he’s not the source, either. Trump never would’ve become president if conservatism had been successfully conserving life, liberty, and prosperity, and until elites can be honest about that, the base will keep searching for champions beyond the “respectable” bench that swampcons keep asking us to settle for.