Thursday, June 04, 2020

Trump, the Floyd Protests, and the End of Confident Conservatism

After Richard Nixon's 1968 election, many conservatives came to believe that their movement naturally represented the political views of most Americans. This conservative faith in the wisdom of the average citizen was cemented by Ronald Reagan's popularity in the 1980s, which was widely interpreted at the time (and not just by conservatives) as a decisive expression of the nation's exhaustion with both outdated New Deal economic policies and decadent '60s-era cultural practices. America's mistaken dalliance with liberalism was a passing phase that it was maturing out of, argued the Reaganites, and both the present and future belonged to the right. Reagan himself projected this sunny confidence in the nation's judgment, serenely dismissing liberal expressions of outrage in the same manner that he responded to the attacks of the hapless Jimmy Carter by half-chuckling "there you go again."

Bill Clinton's presidency temporarily shook, but did not ultimately damage, the confidence of the conservative movement. Conservatives found ways to explain away Clinton's electoral success, claiming that he only won because George H. W. Bush had betrayed conservatism by raising taxes, because Ross Perot's independent candidacies temporarily drained conservative votes away from the Republican Party, and because Clinton's slippery political style deceived the electorate about his true nature. Republican capture of both houses of Congress in 1994 for the first time in four decades, combined with a similarly dramatic set of electoral gains at the state and local level, continued to suggest to conservatives that they represented the future of American politics, and several major milestones in the Clinton presidency, from the government shutdown of 1995–1996 to the impeachment of 1998–1999, were conflicts precipitated by conservative leaders who had assured themselves (sometimes incorrectly) that most of the public would side with them in a fight.

Despite the close margin, controversial resolution, and discrepancy between the popular and electoral votes, conservatives generally treated the 2000 election as something of a restoration after an eight-year usurpation, underlined by the fact that the new Republican president was the eldest son of the last Republican president. Especially after the declaration of the War on Terror, the presidency of George W. Bush styled itself as the authentic, patriotic voice of the vast American interior, and mocked its critics as a vocal but small group of coastal elites. Bush's top political aide Karl Rove repeatedly expressed ambitions to construct a durable Republican advantage in the manner of his political hero William McKinley, whose 1896 election marked the beginning of a 36-year stretch of Republican dominance of national politics.

With a few strategic concessions to the nation's changing demographic trends—education reform to appeal to suburban professional women, a softer tone on race and immigration to cultivate a Republican vote among Hispanics—the Bush program of "compassionate conservatism" envisioned a stable popular majority supporting a policy agenda of laissez-faire economics, religious traditionalism, and interventionist military engagements overseas. But the failures and misfortunes of Bush's second term opened the door to the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In retrospect, this was a key turning point in the psychology of the conservative movement.

Obama represented a new and more serious challenge to conservatism's conception of itself as uniquely speaking on behalf of the American public. His race was an important element of this threat, but not the only one. In contrast to Clinton's "triangulation" strategies and propensity to echo conservative tributes to limited government and personal responsibility, Obama made few substantive or symbolic concessions to conservatism. His policies were farther left than his predecessor's, and he succeeded in enacting health care reform where Clinton had failed. He was from Chicago, not small-town Arkansas. And he rode into office on the support of younger voters who represented the generational future of American politics, and who seemed especially resistant to the appeals of his conservative opponents.

Conservative confidence in the nation's long-term direction became notably scarce in the Obama years, as widespread pessimism and fear replaced Reagan's cheerful assuredness. The popular backlash on the right against the "change" that Obama himself claimed to personify was stronger than it had been against Clinton, taking aim at the traditional leadership of the Republican Party as well as the Democrats. Rather than selecting yet another member of the Bush family to succeed Obama, Republican primary voters opted to nominate Donald Trump, an outsider candidate who had built his campaign around passionate contempt for Obama and the state of the nation under his watch.

But whatever expressive purpose the decision to elect him may have served, the current president is ill-equipped to usher in a new conservative age. Trump is not a friendly face with the charisma to increase conservatism's mass appeal, like Reagan was. He is not a man with a 40-year plan, like Rove was. And any hopes that his glowering demeanor and vengeful preoccupations would either intimidate liberals into silence or halt the progression of larger social changes have clearly not been realized. In part because Trump has inspired a backlash of his own, conservatives do not seem much more comfortable with the direction of America today than they were four years ago.

The waning confidence of the American right in its own popular standing has produced other manifestations as well. Its imprint can be seen in conservative opposition to measures designed to increase the ease of voting, in negative portrayals of "millennials" and college students in the conservative media, and in an increased emphasis on the unelected federal judicial branch, rather than the congressional legislative process, as an avenue for conservative policy-making. Perhaps most dramatically, it is expressed by the more frequent displays of firearms at conservative protest events—a clear suggestion that the use or threat of physical force might be necessary to compensate for losses in the court of public opinion.

The current crisis in the streets of America has roots that stretch in many different directions, but it has surely been exacerbated by the current administration's propensity for confrontation with the many perceived enemies that surround it. It's not especially important that Trump apparently moved briefly to the bunker under the White House last week in the face of protests outside the building—a subject of liberal mockery in recent days—but it's crucial that the administration's governing approach from its inception has reflected a bunker mentality. The protestors gathering daily outside the White House and in cities and towns all around the country since the George Floyd killing have come to embody the threat of cultural besiegement that many conservatives, including those in law enforcement professions, have been feeling since 2008.

Trump has started to echo Nixon's famous invocation of a supportive "silent majority." But he is the only president in the history of public opinion polling who has never had a majority of Americans on his side, even on his first day in office, and he has never shown much interest in courting skeptics rather than attacking them. Winning a second term will likely require him to eke out a narrow margin in the electoral college, very possibly without a popular-vote plurality once again. The current governing regime seeks to retain political power from behind barricades that are primarily psychological, separated in spirit more than in physical distance from a growing population of fellow Americans whom it no longer trusts to be on its side. When you see your own domestic political opponents as an irredeemably hostile force trying to destroy the country as you know it, perhaps it's only natural to fantasize about calling in the troops.