The president got a marker, circled the headline, drew an arrow to it and wrote, “Rich: So True. Donald J. Trump.” Lowry added, “My last three years have felt like that.”
“He has an enormously strong hold on the rank and file of the Republican Party,” he said. “It’s very high and it’s durable … He’s our leader now, and if people attack him, we rally to him. The average Republican says that he’s my guy.”
Ronald Reagan also inspired high, durable support among Republican voters— but only after joining an insurgency in the Republican Party that began with Barry Goldwater’s nomination and included a 1976 primary challenge of Gerald Ford. It was no surprise when he won the GOP nomination in 1980.
2016 was different.
“In my office I have a bookshelf groaning with all these conservative tomes,” Lowry said. “My Russell Kirk. My Friedrich Hayek. All the rest. When Trump was rising in the primary I would look at those shelves and say, as conservatives, we’ve always thought that ideas matter. They don’t matter at all! You have this guy just with sheer force of personality taking over the party. Usually, when you have that kind of shift … McGovern takes over the left but that’s been growing for years in the party. Now, there was this little tendency within the Republican Party or on the right, but you wouldn’t have thought, ‘Oh, it’s about to successfully nominate [this] candidate.’ So how do parties change?”
Rove was stymied.
“We are in a mess,” he said. “We are in a place where the party is going to have to figure out what it stands for. Because Donald Trump is going to be here for four years or eight years but after him it’s hard to see what comes next.”
What parts of Trumpism are viable without that personality––in a country where the Trump coalition gets demographically smaller with each year that passes?
Both men agreed that Trump tapped into right-wing populism. But in Rove’s view, that is not a sustainable recipe for victory. “An unceasing war on elites is a useful note to strike but not a governing agenda,” he said. “Why is it that populism in its purest form, left and right, has arisen in American politics around a personality and not been sustained after him? Andrew Jackson, populist. Does anyone think Martin Van Buren carried that forward? William Jennings Bryan. He was succeeded in the leadership of the Democratic Party after losing three presidential elections in a row by Woodrow Wilson, for God’s sake. Who replaced Huey Long or George Wallace? Somebody grabbed their people in every instance, but who was it that took that populist banner and carried it forward?”
Rove added a sharper critique of the Trump coalition’s populism.
“I think the problems with the populists—first of all, the alt-right should be unacceptable,” he said. “They are worse than the John Birch Society that Bill Buckley read out of the conservative movement in the 1950s. They ought to be read out of the conservative movement. There is no place in our movement for those people.”