Saving Conservatism From Trump's GOP

Avik Roy—a former adviser to Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney—wants to rescue conservatism from Trump’s divisive tribalism. But can he persuade his party to join him?

John Cuneo

Avik Roy, disaffected Republican, surveyed the upstairs room of a tony Palo Alto restaurant where a group of journalists and conservative intellectuals was sipping cocktails before a private dinner. “It’s like that scene in Titanic,” he remarked to me, “where they know the ship is going down, and the conductor decides there’s nothing to do but keep the orchestra playing.”

In an alternate universe, Roy, who is 43 and whose first name is pronounced “Oh-vick,” might be spending his autumn pushing policy papers as an adviser to Republican presidential nominee Marco Rubio. The dinner we were attending—the prelude to a policy seminar at Stanford’s Hoover Institution—might be teeming with excitement about the intellectual possibilities of a Rubio administration. Roy, a health-care expert who has advised Rubio, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney, once looked forward to 2016 as a year of Republican opportunity, when the party would choose a leader capable of reorienting it toward the future.

But in the real world, Donald Trump was running on a platform directly opposed to the pro-trade, pro-immigration, pro-small-government ideology of conservatives like Roy. Many of those at the Hoover gathering, Roy included, feared they would not have a party to come back to post-Trump. They are among a class of conservative operatives, thinkers, and staffers who have spent the campaign season adrift, pondering the causes of their party’s disruption and looking nervously to the future. Fifty Republican national-security experts signed an open letter declaring Trump a danger to the republic; several staffers quit the Republican National Committee rather than work to elect Trump. Allegiances have been sundered, and professional trajectories thrown into confusion. One former top RNC staffer told me he no longer speaks to his once-close colleagues; a conservative policy expert who runs a think tank in Washington, D.C., says he’s become adept at steering conversations away from politics and toward college football. Several Republicans I know, finding the campaign intolerable, have rediscovered old hobbies.

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Of the various explanations that have been advanced in such quarters to explain Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP, Roy’s may be the most explosive. Although he was originally drawn to the party for its emphasis on economic freedom and self-reliance, he now believes that a substantial portion of Republicans were never motivated by those ideas. Rather than a conservative party that happens to incorporate cultural grievances, today’s GOP is, in his view, a vehicle for the racial resentment, nationalism, and nostalgia of older white voters. The element of the party that he once dismissed as a fringe, in other words, now seems to form its core.

“Trump showed me that white identity politics was the dominant force driving the Republican grass roots,” Roy told me when we met a couple of days later at a coffeehouse and co-working space in Palo Alto. Young women with adventurously colored hair pecked away on laptops; youths of South and East Asian descent streamed by our table, sporting giant headphones. Roy, who has a round face and a serious manner, wore a long-sleeved dark-blue Izod polo, his tortoiseshell sunglasses hanging from the collar.

Over a mug of skim-milk cappuccino, Roy explained that, while many fellow partisans still see Trump as an anomaly, he now believes Trump is the “logical end point” of the GOP’s long history of racialized politics. “Barry Goldwater was wrong to oppose the Civil Rights Act in 1964,” Roy told me. While the Arizona senator personally supported racial equality, he opposed the landmark legislation on constitutional grounds. His selection as the GOP nominee that year set off a slow-motion realignment of the parties, as the Democrats—once the party of southern segregation—became the party of minority rights, while the Republicans became dominant in the South. For a time, attracting white voters was a winning national strategy for the GOP. But today, Roy believes, the party finds itself not just electorally deficient but morally compromised. “If we aren’t going to confront that history as conservatives and Republicans,” he said, “we don’t deserve minority votes.”

Since Roy began elaborating his critique—in interviews with outlets like Vox, in speeches, and in columns for Forbes, where he is the opinion editor—the reaction has been intense. Liberals have saluted him; Paul Krugman, Roy’s frequent antagonist in health-care debates, lauded his “moral courage.” “Krugman has never said anything nice about me before!,” Roy marveled. He posted Krugman’s praise on Facebook, with the comment “Hell has frozen over.”

On the right, Roy has encountered more resistance. Interviewing Roy on the conservative Ricochet Podcast, Peter Robinson, a Reagan speechwriter, accused him of naively adopting the left’s critique of the right, and using the GOP’s hateful fringe to tar its decent mainstream. “Now it is apparently the popular thing on our side to say [to the left], ‘… You’ve got us dead to rights, whoa, we’re awful people,’ ” Robinson lamented. His co-host, Rob Long, asked Roy, “Why can’t the Republican Party have a winking, nodding relationship to its crackpot racial separatists, in the same way, let’s be frank, that the Democratic Party has with theirs—use their energy when we need to get out the vote in certain places and repudiate them when we’re forced to?”

“That’s exactly what the Republican Party has been doing for the last several decades,” Roy replied. The result, he explained, has been an increasingly homogenous party that considers Iowa the “Real America,” and writes off the urban and suburban places where minorities live. “White identity politics has permeated our rhetoric,” he said.

When I spoke with him, Roy hastened to add that he doesn’t believe Republicans are all or even mostly racist. But nor does he believe the Republican Party can go back to business as usual after the election. “The cleavages Trump has revealed are too deep,” he said.

The son of Indian immigrants, Roy grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, and initially set out to become a doctor. He was always interested in politics, though. During medical school at Yale, he joined the university’s Political Union, a debating society with a reputation for lively intellectualism, and eventually became the head of the union’s Conservative Party. When he graduated, in 2000, biotechnology was booming, so he decided to put his medical training to work in finance, and took a job as a biotech investor for Bain Capital.

In 2009, Roy began writing about health-care policy, first on his blog, and later in commentaries for National Review Online. His ideas gained the notice of health-care wonks and soon the political world, and in 2012 he began advising the Romney campaign. After the election, he continued to work on the issue, writing a report for the Manhattan Institute called “Transcending Obamacare,” which argued for a market-based system like Switzerland’s.

Roy never went back to finance. In 2015, he moved from New York to Austin with his then-fiancée (now wife) to serve as the chief policy architect of Rick Perry’s second presidential campaign. Eager to overcome his image as an airhead, the Texas governor wanted to run a substantive campaign based on an innovative policy vision. For his part, Roy was excited by the prospect of putting new conservative ideas before the electorate, despite the fact that Perry’s electoral chances looked slim.

Even before his move to Texas, Roy told me, he had begun struggling with the GOP’s civil-rights legacy. He was particularly troubled by party leaders’ rhetoric emphasizing states’ rights, a stance he considers alienating to African Americans. “How do you sell the Tenth Amendment to a community that was liberated by the federal government from state-sponsored terrorism?” he asked me. Perry had written a whole book trumpeting the Tenth Amendment, Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington. But it turned out that his thinking on the issue had evolved. In July 2015, Perry delivered a speech, of which Roy was the principal author, saying the GOP had neglected African Americans by putting states’ rights above equal protection. The speech, which opened with a powerful description of a lynching in Texas, impressed political elites on both the right and the left; The Wall Street Journal excerpted it on the op-ed page. But Trump had already begun to dominate the primaries, and by September Perry was out of the race.

In retrospect, Roy believes Perry’s fate was sealed in 2011, when he defended in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants by saying his opponents didn’t “have a heart.” Why, Roy found himself wondering, did this issue inspire more passion among the party’s base than did an issue like health care? Why, for that matter, was a candidate like Marco Rubio, a onetime conservative darling, being heckled and booed for having previously advocated immigration reform? After Perry dropped out of the race, Roy went to work for Rubio, who lasted until March. By then, Roy had concluded that “the conservative grass roots viewed questions of national identity with far more priority than questions of economic policy.”

I asked Roy whether his own ethnic identity had affected his analysis of the GOP. Might he have been more attuned than others to the party’s tribalism precisely because, as an Indian American, he wasn’t a member of the tribe to begin with? Being nonwhite, he said, had exposed him to experiences most whites haven’t had, like the time he was kicked off a flight to London with no explanation shortly after 9/11. “My mother is a deeply religious person who works hard, has never taken a handout, and is strongly family-oriented,” he said. “Her values are my values. They’re conservative values. She should be a Republican, except for one thing: She’s a Hindu. What she hears from the Republican Party is that she will never be a real American, even though she’s an American citizen who’s lived here since she was 19.” As a result, he told me, his mother is a passionate Democrat.

Roy insists that politics doesn’t have to be a zero-sum contest between competing tribal interests. “Economic growth in America has benefited everyone,” he said. The GOP’s anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism have blinded it to the glories of American meritocracy, he said. “A son of Chinese immigrants who gets into Harvard hasn’t left Real America. That’s the best of America. That’s what America is,” he told me, his Apple Watch jiggling as he gestured for emphasis. “Look around this café: You see Indian kids on their computers who feel just as American as everyone else. The younger generation doesn’t see the world as a collection of ethnic groups fighting for the spoils.”

Though Roy believes the GOP is “imploding,” he has, after a period of grief, regained his optimism about conservative ideas. In September, he and several other prominent conservatives launched a new think tank, the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, which aims to promote policies that will help people with below-median incomes or net worth. Whether Trump wins or loses, the White House will not soon be inhabited by a conservative policy wonk. But Roy believes that the foundation could still make a mark: He notes that what he considers the landmark conservative policy achievement of the past 25 years, welfare reform, passed under a Democratic president.

When I asked Roy whether he stood a chance of convincing anyone, he paused for a long time. There was, he felt sure, a constituency for his ideas. But a plurality of Republican voters clearly hadn’t found Trump’s divisiveness as troubling as he did. “My goal is to persuade those who disagree with me that we ought to reorient the conservative movement to embrace the diversity of America,” he said. “But I don’t know if the Republican Party is capable of doing that.”