Corona Conservatism

Column: The coronavirus accelerates a generational and ideological transition on the right

March 27, 2020

Not long ago, as the severity of the coronavirus pandemic became clear, journalists were quick to say that the crisis marked the end of an era. "The Trump Presidency is Over," declared a headline in the Atlantic. One article in Politico said, "The Pandemic Is the End of Trumpism." A New York Times op-ed column carried the headline, "The Era of Small Government Is Over."

Well, yes. At least so far as that last article is concerned. The era of small government has been over for decades (if it ever happened at all). The highpoint of Republican and conservative efforts to limit the size and scope of the federal Leviathan was either Ronald Reagan's 1982 budget or the Clinton-Gingrich welfare reform of 1996. Then the GOP abandoned its plans for minimal government.

Even the Tea Party insurgency—which began as a rebellion against standpatters in the Republican establishment—protested cuts to Medicare and achieved little more than a sequester that severely damaged military readiness. And, of course, the current Republican president was elected on a pledge not to touch senior health care and retirement benefits. No small-government conservative, he.

What the moment requires is some intellectual modesty. It is far too early in the development of this national emergency to make definitive judgments on its political, economic, social, and cultural effects. We might as well explore alternative scenarios. For example: The coronavirus might not signify a conclusion to or beginning of a historical era, so much as an acceleration of previously germinating inclinations.

This quickening is most visible in the United States Senate. It was the youthful and heterodox members of the Republican conference who first recognized the severity of the challenges emanating from Wuhan, China. As Congress put together its economic relief bill, these lawmakers did not worry about violating free-market dogma. They recognized the extraordinary nature of the situation. Their primary concern was the fate of the unemployed. In so far as "Trumpism," to the degree that it exists, describes a political tendency that is suspicious of overseas commitments, international trade, and unchecked immigration, and more worried about the rise of China than the revanchism of Russia, this pandemic does not spell the "end." It may even serve as vindication.

The Republican senators most widely seen as preparing to run for president in 2024 have used the past few weeks to articulate a conservatism that is more heavily weighted toward security than freedom. Tom Cotton has a bill, cosponsored by Mike Gallagher in the House, to end U.S. dependence on the Chinese manufacture of pharmaceuticals. Josh Hawley introduced an "Emergency Family Relief Act" that was much more ambitious than the (for now) onetime payments included in the economic triage bill. Marco Rubio designed the small-business lending component that is essential to the CARES Act. They all criticized the Chinese government for lying about the coronavirus as it spread throughout the world.

On Capitol Hill, then, the virus has elevated the senators and staffers who have spent the last few years calling for a "realignment" of Republican politics away from the prerogatives and priorities of corporate America and toward those of middle- and working-class families without college degrees. The China hawks, economic nationalists, and advocates of industrial policy have found themselves playing the role of Cassandra, who saw the cost of war firsthand after her warnings were dismissed.

The young people on the right drawn to the agenda of national populism will come out of this experience more skeptical of China, more critical of the pre-crisis economic policy of the GOP, more suspicious of uncontrolled flows of labor, capital, and goods across borders. They may find that they have company, since the number of unemployed and nonparticipants in the labor force is about to swell.

If the results of the disease and recession are widespread and long-lasting, expect the new acolytes of realignment to adopt Tyler Cowen's formulation of "state-capacity libertarianism" as a possible model for reconciling markets with a state strong enough to boost infrastructure, education, and research and development. The lack of capacity in the public health system and in the domestic manufacture of pharmaceuticals and personal protective equipment is a tragic reminder of the consequences of drift. Recent days have provided empirical proof of the aphorism that capitalism is, in the end, a government program.

A traditionalist right that understands the United States is in a full-spectrum competition with China, that uses public policy to strengthen working families in both the service and manufacturing sectors, and that observes and promotes American traditions of constitutional liberty would not be the worst upshot of this calamity. But it is just one conceivable outcome. And by no means the most likely.

The debate over conservative economic policy is just that, a debate, and the pro-market and supply-side constituencies, while no longer fashionable in certain corners of the internet, have lost none of their vigor, none of their intellectual ability, none of their institutional power. The mounting pressure from some on the right to restore economic normalcy as soon as possible testifies not only to the un-sustainability of lockdowns over time, but also to the potency of the status quo ante coronavirus.

After all, the law of unintended consequences stipulates that for every action there is an equal and unplanned and (probably) negative reaction. The cascading collapses of demand, liquidity, and solvency may soon put us in a world more unstable than the creaky one we already inhabit. And if past is prologue, the monetary and fiscal expansion that authorities have used to stave off doomsday will look very different to conservatives out of power. One year from now, the American political scene could well resemble that of a decade ago, when a unified Democratic government was under siege from Red State outsiders who had rekindled opposition to deficit spending.

If that happens, then anyone connected to the coronavirus response will be exposed to intra-party challenges. And Nikki Haley, who defended capitalism with aplomb in the Wall Street Journal, and resigned from the board of Boeing after the company requested a federal bailout, will benefit from an anti-statist turn on the grassroots right. In the long run, then, coronavirus may end up reinvigorating both the nationalist and free-market camps.

But you know what else happens in the long run. For the time being, coronavirus has accelerated a generational and ideological transition within American conservatism toward the politics of social conservatism, foreign policy unilateralism, and economic solidarity.

Published under: Coronavirus