As it looks increasingly likely that President Trump will lose reelection in November, the interest of disgruntled Republicans has moved down the ballot. Hence the “Burn It All Down” debate: To what extent should Trump’s failures be taken out on the rest of the Republican party?
Mona Charen, for example, argues that “the only thing which will send a message to the Republican party commensurate with its moral abdication over the past four years is to lose in a landslide. Not only Trump, but his silent enablers too.”
To some degree, I suspect this debate is academic. Lots of voters have already decided to extend their disgust with Trump to other Republican officer-holders, and as we saw in 2021, they’re doing it indiscriminately. So we may not have to bother with burning down the Republican congressional majority. The voters are going to do that for us whether we think it’s a good idea or not.
That’s why it’s a mistake to look at this question on a purely electoral level. The real question for the right is: Let's say it’s all burned down already? Let's say it’s not just Republican majorities in Congress or in the statehouses that are in danger?
What when the underlying ideological coalition of the right continues to be shattered?
And what if it’s not going to come back together again?
The unspoken premise behind the present “Burn It All Down” debate is that this coalition will come back together. Many NeverTrump conservatives wish to burn the party down, but only so the old Reagan-era ideological coalition can be magically reborn in the ashes. I’m not so sure that’s going to happen.
The old coalition was the product of conservative “fusionism,” which tried to draw together the religious right, free marketers, and anti-communist foreign policy hawks-all of them held together, particularly in old age, by a kind of cultural populism. One of the things that united all three wings was that they were looked down upon by people in highbrow cultural institutions. So a contempt for “coastal elites” did a lot of work papering over genuine ideological divides within the coalition.
But the ideological rifts remained, and the Trump era has blown them wide open. I don’t think they’re likely to be glued back together.
What has opened the rift is the rise of an openly illiberal vein of conservatism.
Haven’t conservatives alway railed against “liberals”? Yes-while also crowing loudly about how much they love freedom. From a philosophical, historical, and international perspective-pretty much everywhere except America, “liberal” has always meant “pro-freedom” and usually described the more pro-free-market party-this makes no sense. But American conservatives long ago accepted the left’s attempt to rebrand itself as “liberal” and used that term to describe the entire agenda of expansive government as “liberal.”
This historic mistake left an opening for a wing of conservatism to show against freedom itself.
This is driven through the frustration of a subset of religious conservatives who believe that the “fusionist” coalition ripped them off. Because they see it, they made common cause with secular free-marketers inside a partnership where everyone was supposed to benefit, but while free-markets got tax cuts, the religious conservatives got gay marriage along with a precipitous decline in religious belief.
This case vastly overstates what free-marketers have gotten: I don’t know a free-marketer who thinks we’ve won a significant political battle since the 1990s. It’s additionally a bit of an exercise in excuse-making. Keeping the flock within the fold is primarily a job of persuasion and, well, evangelization. The Culture War is supposed to be waged primarily in the culture, not in Washington. But having lost the war in the countryside, there is a group of religious conservatives who want to turn to politics within the belief that if only they can control the government, then they will turn back the secular tide.
There are a few who argue, quite plausibly, that the opposite it true: That it is this association of religion with partisan politics that's driving many people away from the faith.
Be that as it might, the upshot is that the fusion between religious conservatives and free-marketers-their feeling of having a common cause that keeps them together-has been broken. And also the religious conservatives aren't getting along much better with the hawks. Those who think government ought to be using its power to impose traditional values and religious belief have a tendency to be sympathetic to authoritarian regimes, such as Russia or Hungary, which claim to be doing the same.
These are broad generalizations with lots of exceptions. But like most generalizations, they're useful for understanding the overall outline of what is happening.
These divisions filter out to the masses through Trump apologists such as Tucker Carlson, whose whole show is dedicated to promoting an illiberal perspective by which Big Business is more of a villain than Big Government, and also the only problem with Elizabeth Warren is the fact that she’s on the wrong side from the Culture War.
While Trump is resolutely anti-intellectual, some of the more ideological, big-picture politicians are trying to provide a coherent shape to the politics of his era. Begin to see the efforts of that human chameleon, Marco Rubio, who has briskly moved from Reaganesque fusionism to nationalist “common good capitalism.”
Moreover, Trump’s big feature was his willingness to throw out good manners, yet good manners-and yes, just a little hypocrisy-are part of what helps keep an ideological and political coalition together. It may be necessary, once in a while, for a politician to sell out one faction of his coalition. But a prudent politician will do it while still assuring them how much he values and appreciates them. Trump targets them.
An ideological coalition depends on manners that maintain a amount of mutual respect and the sense that we're all on the same side. Built with that, there is also usually a network of private friendships and professional partnerships that keep your factions tied to one another. Trump’s unique genius for constant conflict has broken a lot of those connections apart.
The result is that the ideological factions of the right tend to be more at odds than they will be in at least 50 years-since the factional conflict between the Goldwater Republicans and the Rockefeller Republicans back in the 1960s.
What when the rift can’t be repaired?
The chaos on the right isn't happening inside a vacuum. The ideological coalition of the left is experiencing a rift of their own, one that is opening up between the illiberal left, with its mania for social media mobs and censorship, and the “liberal” center-left that has recently stood up in favor of “open debate.”
A large amount of these center-left types are also hoping for some kind of grand restoration of the status quo ante. The pro-free speech liberals who are rebelling against “cancel culture” often appear to be they just want to rewind the time 10 or 20 years, to the last time mainstream left-of-center culture was hospitable to them.
I don’t think they’re likely to put the pieces of their ideological coalition back together any more successfully than the right will.
And that raises some interesting possibilities.
We are in a period of chaos in which the old ideological coalitions are falling apart as their different factions follow the inexorable logic of their creeds. At the same time, this provides an opportunity for the formation of new ideological coalitions.
There was already some speculation that the alliances of convenience between your center-left and the NeverTrump right could persist past the Trump administration. Certainly, both the left and also the right have relatively liberal factions that are not being well-served by their current leadership and are increasingly at odds using their respective illiberal factions. What if they might find common cause precisely for this principle of liberalism-that is, the advocacy of freedom?
Could we draw together the audience often referred to contemptuously by the far left as “neoliberals”-old-fashioned liberals who still believe in free speech and are willing to grasp the free market has some significant value-and the “classical liberals” currently despised on the right by the rising nationalist faction?
Call it “neo-classical liberalism.”
That’s the sort of deeper strategic thinking we have to start doing. Let’s start thinking less about political parties and much more about the ideological coalitions that lie beneath them.
And rather than debating whether we want to burn something down, let’s start referring to whether we want to build up something new.