Searching for a Conservatism of Normalcy

Why Trump’s Republican rivals need a compelling ideological thesis

Black-and-white photo of Ron DeSantis in profile, talking and gesticulating
Jeff Swensen / Getty

As the race for the GOP presidential nomination gets under way, the party’s ideological divisions are sharpening.

Consider the opening salvo of Donald Trump’s third Republican presidential campaign. The former president and his allies have fusilladed Ron DeSantis over the Florida governor’s past support for curbing the growth of Medicare and Social Security spending, echoing a similar line of attack from President Joe Biden. This all comes before DeSantis has even formally announced a presidential bid, an indication, perhaps, that Trump aims to deter his most formidable Republican opponent from entering the fray.

Faced with a pincer movement from an adroit former president and Democrats keen on a Trump-Biden rematch, DeSantis finds himself in the most vexing position of his strikingly successful political career. His chief advantage in running against Trump has been the widespread perception that as the governor of a competitive, vote-rich state, he would be more appealing to suburban independents and other marginal voters. But with Trump pivoting to the political center—on entitlements but also, more tentatively, on the scope of abortion regulation—DeSantis is at risk of losing the electability argument. Despite his many liabilities, the former president is positioning himself as the only candidate capable of cementing working-class moderates as a core part of the Republican coalition.

Assuming that DeSantis does move forward with a presidential campaign, he’ll have to decide how to counter Trump’s moderate turn on entitlements. He could charge the former president with hypocrisy, pointing to the fact that the Trump administration explicitly called for reducing future safety-net spending in its fiscal 2021 budget. But it’s hard to see that approach succeeding. A famously protean figure, Trump has always worn his ideological commitments lightly. As the political strategist Liam Donovan recently observed in an interview with The New York Times, “In 2016, Trump was exempt from the punitive standards we hold conventional politicians to, and what’s remarkable is that seven years and a presidential term later, that still holds true.”

Recognizing that Trump will continue to press his advantage on entitlements, DeSantis could instead offer a vigorous defense of entitlement reform, leaning into his own apparent vulnerability. In the absence of a larger narrative connecting fiscal consolidation and American renewal, however, the Florida governor would risk reinforcing Trump’s role as the GOP’s defender of middle-class economic interests. And of course DeSantis wouldn’t be the only Republican aspirant to face this dilemma.

What the former president’s Republican rivals are missing, in short, is a compelling ideological thesis, one that offers a clear alternative to Trump’s class-war conservatism and that resonates with the “somewhat conservative” voters who are the party’s center of gravity. What they need is a conservatism of normalcy.

In his influential 1957 essay “Conservatism as an Ideology,” the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington defined conservatism as “that system of ideas employed to justify any established social order, no matter where or when it exists, against any fundamental challenge to its nature or being, no matter from what quarter.” Conservative ideology is thus best understood as situational, not ideational. Rather than offer a substantive vision for the remaking of a given social order, the task of conservatism is to defend established institutions and beliefs against those with the power and determination to remake them.

Given the anti-establishment ethos of contemporary conservatism, this definition might at first seem out of date. But it still captures something important about how conservatives understand their role in American life. Conservatives see themselves as guardians of the nation’s distinctive constitutional and cultural inheritance and their opponents as partisans of destructive innovations that would make Americans less prosperous and free.

The question for conservatives, then, is which threat to the American social order merits their focused attention?

Last month, Jay Caspian Kang of The New Yorker examined the differences between two clashing conceptions of what the right should support: rural economic populism, which he associates with Trump and Senator J. D. Vance of Ohio, and “the ‘anti-woke’ educational crusade that has captured other corners of the GOP.”

In keeping with his class-first sensibilities, Kang sees the populist political formula as more potent. As much as he might doubt the credibility of Vance’s and Trump’s populism, Kang warns that the two politicians “understand how to sell a message to the rural, economically depressed white voting population.” Viewed through Huntington’s lens, this rural populism identifies the most urgent threat to American flourishing as a cosmopolitan corporate elite committed to shredding the social protections, both formal and informal, that have undergirded the civic and economic health of the nation’s middle-class communities.

As for conservative anti-wokeness, Kang deems it little more than a distraction from class politics, “a smoke screen of supposed cultural principles that allow the establishment to feel comfortable with a candidate who likely will protect business interests without inviting the potential chaos of a Trump Presidency.” Michael Lind offered a similarly biting assessment of anti-wokeness in UnHerd, characterizing it as “just a revival of the old culture-war politics of the Bushes, particularly George W. Bush.”

But new cultural fault lines can give rise to new coalitions, and discounting the power and resonance of anti-wokeness would be a mistake. Critics on the left take the notion that there is something deeply flawed with America under “late capitalism” for granted, hence their begrudging respect for class-war conservatism. A large majority of Republican voters, by contrast, describe themselves as believers in capitalism for whom hard work is its own reward, and one of the main conservative objections to wokeness is that it represents a rejection of meritocratic ideals.

Although class-war conservatism undoubtedly has a constituency, it remains a minority persuasion on the right. For example, when Gallup asked voters if they favored imposing heavy taxes on the rich to redistribute wealth in 2022, 24 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents agreed, far lower than the 79 percent support among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. And in April, a Wall Street Journal survey found that 55 percent of GOP respondents prioritized fighting “woke ideology in our schools and businesses” over protecting entitlements. It would be foolish to overinterpret this finding, not least because the same survey found that Republicans oppose entitlement reform by a wide margin. Nevertheless, it speaks to the potential for a conservative synthesis that would incorporate anti-racialism into a larger politics of normalcy.

In 1920, the Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding successfully campaigned on a “return to normalcy,” an implicit rebuke of the dislocation the nation had endured under Woodrow Wilson, who was very much a modernizing progressive. Our own era has been similarly tumultuous, and one can imagine a new return to normalcy having broad appeal. Indeed, as Mike Gonzalez of the Heritage Foundation noted in January, DeSantis explicitly contrasted woke ideology with “normalcy” in his second inaugural address. DeSantis’s formulation—“We seek normalcy, not philosophical lunacy”—offers a way forward for those on the right who consider class-war conservatism a distraction from the threat of militant progressivism.

Rooted in growing Sun Belt suburbs, this ideological tendency would be less nostalgic and more aspirational. If class-war conservatives define business elites and entitlement-cutters as the fundamental challenge to America’s social order, a conservatism of normalcy would stand in opposition to the divisive racialism, unlimited welfarism, and cartel federalism of the progressive left. It would celebrate America’s multiethnic mainstream, defend law and order, and demand responsive, efficient, and limited government. And above all else, it would aim to competently advance its policy priorities.

It might be too much to expect this still-inchoate brand of conservatism to emerge victorious in the coming months. For one, a not-inconsiderable number of Republican primary voters are in no mood for normalcy. But as the right looks to the future, and to an electorate exhausted and demoralized by the politicization of every aspect of public life, the prospects for a conservatism of normalcy will grow only stronger.