Donald Trump and Conservative Dogma

Column: How the Republican nominee passed the litmus tests

New Trump in Fredericksburg, Va. / AP
• September 13, 2016 1:36 pm


How conservative is Donald Trump? It's a question that's been asked frequently since he entered the presidential race last June, but no one seems to have agreed on an answer. Many of Trump's primary opponents criticized him for not being a "true conservative." Even today, his critics note, positively or negatively, his departures from American conservatism as we have come to know it. Some go so far as to say that these departures contributed to his success in winning the Republican nomination. The editor of National Affairs, Yuval Levin, argues in a piece for Politico Magazine entitled "How Conservatives Lost the GOP" that "over the past three decades, conservatives increasingly fell into the habit of taking the party for granted as a vehicle for advancing our views, and taking the Republican electorate for granted as steadfastly conservative." Along came Trump, who "blew it all up." Levin continues:

En route to the nomination, he paid nearly no heed to the usual litmus tests; he seemed to have no idea they existed. Instead, he spoke in terms of broadly shared contemporary concerns—from the pressures of the global economy to threats to national identity to a sense that America had lost its edge. It’s not that he had a rival policy prescription; his campaign largely amounts to a frantic venting of frustrations punctuated by demagogic chest-thumping. But his approach clearly appealed to a significant portion of Republican voters.

I hold the opposite view. When I look at Donald Trump's campaign, I note how hard he has worked to remain true to the dogmas of the conservative catechism. I was there in 2011 when he told CPAC that he was pro-life, a position that he has not renounced in the years since. He has been stalwart in his defense of Second Amendment rights. His fiscal policy is informed by Stephen Moore and Larry Kudlow, the high priests of supply-side. His speech to AIPAC last spring was unabashedly pro-Israel. He opposes the Iran deal.

Are there more important issues to conservatives than life, guns, taxes, and Israel? One might say immigration. But here, too, how did Trump fail the "usual litmus tests"? The conservative grassroots, and many Republican elected officials, have been against amnesty for a decade. Trump's deviation from the norm wasn't in the position he held but in the way he talked about it.

Where Trump departed most noticeably from the Republican orthodoxy was on the issues of trade, entitlements, and foreign policy. But these cleavages were not with Republican or conservative voters. They were with D.C. conservatives who agree with economists in the net benefits of trade, the costs of unfunded liabilities, and the necessity of intervention in Iraq and Syria. But who really makes dogma—the priesthood or the laity? Trump didn't flunk the trade and foreign policy litmus tests as much as reveal that the answers everyone had thought were right were, in the voter's eyes, wrong.

Over the last month Trump has become, if anything, more conventionally conservative. He has visited minority communities, delivered a speech on school choice, called for a military buildup. He wants to drill baby drill. All the boxes have been checked.

The mistaken idea that Trump is not running as a conservative Republican has led to a lot of confusion and heartache. There are many supporters of Trump who listen to talk radio, watch Fox News Channel, read conservative websites, and think of themselves as conservatives. They do not understand why conservative opinion-makers, who believe in many of the same things they do, would say a Republican running on tax cuts, strict constructionist judges, and defense spending is a heretic. They feel betrayed.

What they do not understand is that the fundamental objection to Trump is not his stated policy positions but his character and judgment. He has given very few reasons to believe he is suited for the presidency of the United States. Conservative opponents of Trump find it difficult to imagine him in the Oval Office, fear what he might do, the agendas of those close to him, what controversies and scandals would result. For most of the last year he has given them considerable reason to worry.

That may be changing, however. It cannot help being disconcerting to opponents of Donald Trump, Democrat and Republican, that since his new campaign team has been in place he has committed hardly any unforced errors. His opponent, meanwhile, has been left on the stage to expose her worst qualities. As Trump has played the role of generic Republican, GOP voters have become more vocal in their support and the race has narrowed. The most important question in world politics is whether Trump can hold it together for another 55 days.

Whatever happens, though, it is worth remembering, and reflecting on, the following: It wasn't Donald Trump who disagreed most with the dogmatic beliefs of the Republican Party. It was his critics.

Published under: Donald Trump