Did you hear that the Republicans aren't writing a traditional platform this year? Did you read that the party has only approved a resolution pledging to "enthusiastically support the President's America-first agenda"? Did you happen to catch the quote in today's Politico story from veteran GOP congressional hand Brendan Buck, who quipped that his party has come to stand solely for "owning the libs and pissing off the media"?
Whether you're a never-Trump conservative shaking your head in mourning or a never-Trump non-conservative chortling with schadenfreude, the idea that the GOP has been reduced to a content-free cult of an ideology-free personality has an irresistably appealing emotional truth. The problem is that it doesn't have much factual truth.
Is there any confusion, or serious disagreement, over the Republican Party's current position on abortion? Or gun control? Corporate tax rates? Universal health care? Military spending? Environmental regulation?
Maybe the lack of a new platform in 2020 doesn't mean that the Republican Party is out of ideas. Maybe it shows that there is so much consensus within the party around the ideas it already has that few activists see the benefit in pressing for more internal debate.
The popular story that the Republican Party now revolves around Trump is true enough. But it often leaves out the point that Trump has won this power in part by adopting the party's existing substantive commitments. In terms of both policy and personnel, the Trump presidency is the most consistently conservative administration since Calvin Coolidge. Aside from the area of international trade (which has never been a defining issue for either major party in modern times), Trump governs in an ideologically orthodox fashion. And on some important subjects, such as immigration and international relations, he has helped to pull his party even farther to the right than it was before his arrival.
So where does the myth come from that Republicans don't stand for anything any more?
One clue comes from the types of people who seem the most invested in this argument. Today's Politico piece, which quoted Buck approvingly amidst a larger thesis that the Republican Party has abandoned any coherent animating philosophy, was written by Tim Alberta, an alumnus of the leading conservative journal National Review. Alberta's perspective is common among elite conservatives who dislike Trump: conservatism is good and Trump is not, so a Trump-led GOP is by definition a party that has forsaken its ideals.
It's true enough that Trump does not speak, or carry himself, like a National Review conservative. But that's because Trump is a Fox News conservative, not because he isn't a conservative at all. He has little interest in conservatism either as an intellectual movement built on abstract principles or as a set of moral and personal virtues, so conservative thinkers who do view their cause in such a manner naturally find it difficult to admit him to their ranks. However, the last four years have shown that most Republican voters trying to figure out what, or who, is and is not conservative pay a lot more attention to Sean Hannity's or Rush Limbaugh's thoughts on the subject than they do to Ramesh Ponnuru's or George F. Will's.
In the end, there's nothing new about the argument that the Republican Party has wandered away from true conservatism. This refrain was sounded in the later years of George W. Bush, in the final days of the Gingrich speakership, during the administration of the senior George Bush—even, at times, in the era of the otherwise sainted Reagan presidency. The conservative project of shrinking the size and role of government while simultaneously reversing leftward cultural trends is simply very difficult to achieve in practice, even when Republican politicians are in power and rhetorically committed to the cause. Donald Trump has pushed federal policy in a conservative direction across a broad spectrum of specific issues to the approval of nearly all of his fellow Republicans. That's what the Republican Party stands for, and if it wins another term, that's what it will do for another four years.