As a general disposition, conservatism is a normal tendency. If we define conservatism as a fear of radical change, then all societies at all times have had a large proportion of conservatives. Indeed, we may even think of conservatism as the default position of most people. For decades, polls have shown that more Americans define themselves as conservatives than liberals. Republicans are especially likely to define themselves as conservatives.
Yet the major institutions of organized conservatism do not define conservatism as a disposition; to the leading journalists and intellectuals associated with the movement, conservatism requires devotion to the free market, support for traditional values, and commitment to an aggressive foreign policy abroad–the so-called three-legs of the conservative stool. These are the hallmarks of a “true conservative.”
Americans, especially Republicans, tend to be symbolically conservative; they love the flag, consider themselves religious, and enjoy rhetoric about liberty and the Constitution. But when it comes to actual policy preferences, their operational ideology, Americans are, on average, pretty liberal.
Most Americans do not support upper-class tax cuts; they are not pro-life purists; they are not eager for more wars. In fact, this is not just true of Americans overall. Most Republican voters reject at least one important element of the conservative policy agenda. In terms of operational ideology, consistent conservatives are not just a minority of all Americans; they are a minority among Republicans.
Professional conservatives are faced with a frightening reality: the GOP has been successful in spite of its conservatism, not because of it. The Republican Party can successfully activate voters by appealing to their symbolic conservatism; but Republican leaders, conservative intellectuals, radio hosts, and talking heads have had little success in selling the operational conservative ideology to the public. Even Tea Party supporters, those ostensibly intractable devotees of supply-side economics, are divided on corporate and high-income tax cuts.
Trump kept the GOP’s conservative symbolism (the flag, appeals to greatness and patriotism), added an implied element of ethnic grievance, and otherwise ignored conservative dogma. Conservative pundits are right that Trump is not a true conservative, and they are right to oppose him on ideological grounds. The National Review cover story denouncing Trump, the #NeverTrump movement, and Glenn Beck’s Trump-inspired tears were all justified.
Unjustified, however, was the belief that the conservative movement’s hostility to Trump mattered. The disconnect between the conservative movement’s influence on public policy and the public’s actual support for conservative policies is one of the dirty secrets of American politics.
When Trump won the GOP nomination, in spite of conservative objections, we saw definitive evidence that the organized conservative movement has little popular support. If he goes on to win in November, conservatism is finished. If Trump loses to Clinton, conservatives will try to wash their hands of the defeat. But much damage will have already been done.
In contrast to conventional wisdom, the United States is not a “center-right nation.” The American voting public may be to the right of the electorates in other advanced democracies, but it is certainly not conservative in the sense that William F. Buckley used the term. In fact, despite the claims by various talk-radio personalities, Republicans do not lose because they “betray conservative principles.” Those very principles have been a hindrance to greater electoral success. Trump has broken this illusion, and having demonstrated that there is no conservative consensus among GOP voters, we can expect others to follow his lead. Although the Republican Party will likely survive the 2016 election, its status as a uniformly conservative party will not. The end result of the Trump campaign will be an ideological vacuum on the right, one that will likely be filled by something very different from the mainstream conservative movement we have known for six decades.