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Posted by: TEEBONE ®

06/05/2019, 19:05:28

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Why limited-government conservatism is likely to make a comeback after Trump

by Philip Klein  | June 04, 2019 05:21 PM
6-8 minutes

As conservatism takes its new shape in the face of President Trump's takeover of the Republican Party, old alliances have been fractured, and multiple fights have broken out about what conservatism should look like. Many of those who waded into the debate have assumed, not without justification, that recent political developments have shattered limited-government conservatism and that any future conservatism is likely going to be less libertarian than that which preceded Trump. But there are a number of good reasons to believe that limited-government conservatism will make a comeback.

Trumpism has managed to expose deep fissures that had been growing for a long time on the Right, and every so often, a commentator will come out and say something that triggers a round of opinion pieces on what conservatism is or really should be about. Fox's Tucker Carlson kicked a hornet's nest earlier this year when he offered a blistering critique of capitalism. More recently, a fight has broken out after Sohrab Ahmari, writing in First Things, used National Review's David French as a foil to essentially make the case for a more aggressive conservative posture in the culture war. I don't want to relitigate the fight at this late stage, but it did strike me that many of the responses to the Ahmari-French skirmish morphed into meditations on what conservatism might look like after Trump, with the assumption that it's likely to be different than it was before.

In one of the more recent entries in this debate, Ross Douthat has considered the future of traditional fusionism on the Right. Roughly speaking, this is the name given to the alliance of social conservatives, economic libertarians, and national security hawks that emerged during the Cold War and existed in some form, with its own set of tensions, until Trump came along. Throwing out some ideas about what a post-Trump version of this may look like, Douthat writes, "the basic concept of a right rooted more in cultural conservatism and economic populism than in libertarianism and individualism isn’t fanciful; it describes the emergent right-of-center ideological formations all across the Western world."

Douthat is not alone in suggesting that the limited government ideology that was a fixture on the Right for decades could continue to recede in influence going forward.

Trump's populist success within the GOP would provide empirical reasons to be skeptical of the future for the limited government branch of the conservative movement. After all, Trump has launched (or threatened) multiple trade wars, has resisted doing anything to address entitlement spending, and has managed to increase deficits during a booming economy. Yet he enjoys sky-high approval among Republicans, and no serious candidate is willing to challenge him in a primary. These are all good reasons to assume that the populist forces that Trump has unleashed will remain after he leaves.

Though Trump has captured the Republican Party, it isn't clear that Trumpism will survive in any coherent form once he exits the stage, because so much of it is tied up in his unique personality. There are plenty of Republicans who may not agree with him on every issue, but like his pugilistic style and the zeal with which he punches back at their common enemies. It's possible that some aspects of his eclectic ideology will succeed him (more skepticism of free trade, more hawkishness on immigration, and less appetite for foreign interventions). But a lot will depend on how successful he is for the remainder of his presidency. Republican candidates haven't exactly tried to follow in the footsteps of either of the Bushes, but for decades, they tried to claim to be in the mold of Ronald Reagan. The shape of the Republican Party will be determined in large part by whether Trump is defeated in 2020/has a disastrous second term or if he gets reelected and somehow miraculously emerges as a popular outgoing president.

There are also several reasons to believe that limited-government conservatism specifically will reassert itself.

One reason is this chart of the Congressional Budget Office's long-term debt projections. As a percentage of the economy, U.S. debt is entering an unprecedented era. It will soon exceed the all time peak of World War II, but unlike the 1940s, the debt isn't caused by one significant event that will soon go away. Baby boomers will continue to retire in large numbers, they will live longer, and they will consume more expensive healthcare. To prevent a crisis will require some combination of tax increases or reductions in spending. Republicans reminded us during the Trump era that if there's one thing they can agree on legislatively, it's that they want lower taxes. So, when the debt problem becomes a more immediate concern, it's inevitable that the faction with plenty ideas for shrinking government programs in the face of Democratic attempts to raise taxes will regain influence.

CBO Long-Term

(Congressional Budget Office)

Another reason why limited-government conservatism is likely to make a comeback is a more cynical one. At some point, a Democrat will be back in the White House, and whenever that has happened historically, Republicans have tended to care more about spending, deficits, and limits on executive power. We saw this when Republicans took over Congress in 1994 and in the Tea Party-fueled victories in 2010 and 2014. As soon as a Democratic president proposes his or her first budget, a new crop of Republicans will be warning about the crushing debt burden. Sure, Republicans have shredded a lot of credibility on the issue given their acquiescence during the Trump era. But that will not inhibit Republicans from advancing such criticisms, especially younger candidates who were not in Congress during the Trump era.

Additionally, Democrats in the post-Trump era are pushing for a dramatic, unprecedented expansion of the size and scope of government. Even Joe Biden, the supposed centrist in the 2020 Democratic race, has called for giving all Americans access to some sort of Medicare-like plan and just unveiled a $5 trillion proposal aimed at combating climate change. Even if Democrats don't go fully socialist in 2020, the direction they're heading in is clear and will inevitably be met with equal and opposite force on the Right.


Democrats wouldn't buy a clue if it was government subsidized.

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