Luke Phillips, Assistant Editor
Sam Tanenhaus, an astute center-right thinker sometimes associated with the Reformicons, crossed the partisan aisle and published a piece at Democracy Journal today- “Reform Conservatives, Time to Step Up.”
Tanenhaus argues that there are a good number of parallels between Reform Conservatism and Trumpism- namely, the repositioning of the interests and concerns of the white working class to the center of Republican policy thought. The Reformicons’ ideas about an out-of-touch supply-side elite, in this reading, were fully vindicated by that elite’s trip out behind the shed led by Donald Trump. Why, then, asks Tanenhaus, should the Reformicons not go work for Donald Trump and try to influence his administration’s domestic policies? As Tanenhaus notes,
It can’t hurt to suggest ideas and arguments that might lend humane shape to his Administration. He has completed the first part of the Reformicon mission, blowing up the remnants of the old movement. Why not help him finish the job while also challenging the right to purge itself of its racial and cultural toxins?
There are a few problems with this view.
First off, the Reformicons as a whole, in my reading of them, have always been more concerned with saving Reaganism by tinkering around its blunter edges than with fundamentally transforming conservatism. They never met a standard tax credit or wage subsidy they didn’t like, provided they were sufficiently gimmicky to be “reform” but not sufficiently government-involved to be considered “big government.”
Trumpism, by contrast, wholeheartedly embraces certain elements of “big government” and explicitly rejects the market-based ideas Reformicons are trying to reform and preserve. Everything from immigration restriction to curtailment of free trade to financial regulation would involve a heavier hand of government regulation of sorts. Everything on spending Trump spouts, from infrastructure to entitlements to healthcare, is a slap in the face to fiscal conservatism of all sorts.
Basically the only major thing Trumpism and Reform Conservatism have in common intellectually is the re-emphasis on the white working class. In terms of policies to buttress that class, they couldn’t be further apart- heavy-handed, almost New Deal-style government action, versus incremental market-based reforms to market-based systems.
Granted, there’s a wide range of Reformicons- Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat are much closer to Trumpism than, say, Yuval Levin or Ramesh Ponnuru. They are not a monolithic group, and some would probably be more cut out to work for Trump than others. But if the organizational infrastructure of Reform Conservatism is to be viewed as its intellectual core, the same way Donald Trump is (roughly) the intellectual core of Trumpism, it would seem they’re two movements on two different planets. Read some articles at National Affairs or some of the Conservative Reform Network’s press releases. Their proposals would be greeted by crickets or boos at a Trump rally. Generally, they’re not a natural fit.
But there’s a more important reason the Reformicons probably won’t (and in my opinion shouldn’t) go work for Trump and try to make Trumpism work.
Tanenhaus addresses it over the course of his article, but never seems to come to grips with it. Donald Trump actively courted white nationalists. Donald Trump actively courted white nationalists.
The policy agenda of Trumpism cannot be separated from its social vision, whatever its other merits. And the social vision of Trumpism- at least, so far as can be gleaned from Trump’s rabidly ant-political correctness pronouncements, his broken-dogwhistle appeals to the fears of White America on terrorism and crime, and most tellingly his selection of Breitbart chief Steve Bannon as his chief strategist- is one that does not sit well with many Americans of cultivated taste. And the Reformicons, before anything else, are Americans of cultivated taste.
So if Douthat and Salam went to work for the Trump Administration, sure, they might help make a sensible immigration policy for AG Jeff Sessions to enforce. They might help redesign tax credits to encourage family formation, and they might take a page out of Walter Mead’s playbook and make the Trumpfrastructure projects easier through regulatory reform. They might do any number of good things.
But at what cost? Is associating the reformation of a great conservative tradition with unrepentant, heil-Trumping white nationalism at all, at all, worth the payoff of fixing up some tax credits? Is lending policy legitimacy to the most odious face of the right at all a worthwhile payment for making the trains run on time?
I don’t think it is. Then again, I’m a 23-year-old wannabe young Hamilton who writes for a blog nobody reads, so my opinion doesn’t matter. But this opinion isn’t mine alone- others are taking the stand.
In a beautiful tweetstorm earlier today, avowedly conservative former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin insisted that leaders in the Republican Party and conservative movement must stand against Trump’s excesses and denounce his association with white nationalists, lest the Party of Abraham Lincoln devolve into the Party of David Duke. McMullin, to my knowledge, doesn’t seem to have a Reformicon bone in his body on bread-and-butter policy issues. But to a degree that Sam Tanenhaus either doesn’t grasp or chooses to overlook for higher ends, McMullin gets it. McMullin understands.
The present moment of American history, after Trump’s election, is not a question of whether or not we’ll recreate the New Deal and make America great again. The question, rather, is what Donald Trump will do to the institution of the Presidency, the government as a whole, and the Republican Party. And as things stand right now, he leans towards tarnishing it by normalizing the white supremacist sentiments that patriots died to bury in 1865, and that the more patriots bled to defeat in 1965. He tarnishes it in other ways, too- through his personal corruption and naked favoritism of his court, through his boisterous buffoonery hitherto unseen in the Oval Office, through his blatant disregard for the dignity, patriotism, and sacrifice of American heroes.
At the moment, anyone who thinks the thing at stake is a return to pragmatic New Deal-style governance is delusional, just as delusional as any conservative who sold their soul to Trump for a tax cut. The thing at stake these days is the dignity of the United States government itself, and the norms of good, clean government, racial harmony and social openness, and gravitas in our leaders. Trump attacks all three to the core, through his corruption, his association with white nationalists, and his unseemly behavior.
There are patriots who will work from the inside, particularly in the national security apparatus, to make sure the Trump government runs smoothly. Their work will be the highest honor, and we all ought to acknowledge it.
But those of us in the policy-making sphere and the world of ideas should not be so eager to lend our services to the Trump Administration unless the President seriously and meaningfully addresses the aforementioned concerns. If that does not happen, it seems to me that the task of non-servant patriots would be to oppose Trump’s excesses at every turn and cultivate a higher standard of public service for our leaders. Perhaps a little movement-building would be necessary, too.
In any case, I don’t know what the Reformicons are going to. But I would certainly hope they don’t take Tanenhaus’s advice to work for Trump. And anyway, it would be nice if more of them got beyond Reaganism and thought a little more like Douthat and Salam. That would be progress.