The G.O.P. at a Crossroads

Ross Douthat, New York Times, December 17, 2015

A long time ago, in the era we now know as B.T. (Before Trump), it was possible to envision a Republican primary campaign that would be a real contest of ideas, a clash of genuine policy visions–and therefore different from the empty I’m-not-Obama, no I’m-not-Obama contest of 2012. My favored scenario would have pitted Marco Rubio against Rand Paul: The former representing a reform-minded conservatism in domestic policy and a hawkish internationalism abroad; the latter representing a more libertarian domestic agenda and a noninterventionist posture overseas.

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Yet the possibility of a real clash of ideas hasn’t gone the way of Paul’s campaign. Instead, if the race came down to the three men currently leading in the national polls, Republican primary voters would be facing their most ideologically consequential choice since 1980. Unlike many G.O.P. campaigns, in which terms like “establishment” and “populist” are mostly about affect and rhetoric, this time the Republican front-runners offer three very different visions for the future of the party.

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And then there is Donald Trump. On foreign policy, he can sound like Paul when he condemns both parties for the Iraq war and blames United States intervention for many of the world’s ills, and like Cruz when he promises to put an end to the Islamic State from the skies. On immigration and trade, he’s offering a fortress-America vision that echoes the 1920s and 1930s more than the Reagan-era G.O.P.

But on other domestic issues, he can sound center-left (he’s no religious conservative, he loves eminent domain, he’s made favorable noises about single payer) or even liberal–particularly on entitlements, where he’s argued that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should be protected from any kind of restructuring and reform.

This combination of views isn’t incoherent; it just puts Trump closer to Europe’s nationalist right than it does to most of the post-1960s American conservative tradition. Like France’s National Front or euroskeptic parties elsewhere on the Continent, he’s a candidate of government programs for the old and native-born, high walls against outsiders and a romanticized idea of national greatness. And it turns out that this Old World combination, at this particular moment, has a great deal of New World appeal.

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So a vote for Rubio is a vote for adaptation and ambition–for a conservatism that seeks to reassure the anxious middle on domestic policy and shore up the Pax Americana overseas. A vote for Cruz is a vote for rigor and retrenchment–for a more intensely ideological conservatism at home and a narrower definition of the national interest abroad. A vote for Trump is a vote for rupture–for a conservatism defined more by identity politics than ideology, more by nationalism than libertarianism, more by caudillism than the Constitution.

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