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In our conversations with some members of the Masthead who identify as conservative, I’ve heard a common theme: President Trump has scrambled up what “conservative” means. Conservatives, even those who also identify as Republican, can feel like a minority within a minority at this moment. Last week, I asked conservative members to tell us how the past year has affected their political identities, and many of their stories surprised and moved me. Today, I’ll share a few. And I’ll relay an answer to one of our members’ common burning questions: How do third parties start?

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Members who responded to our call offered four different archetypes of conservatism at this moment. One note: Only men answered the question, and none were full-throated supporters of the president. This probably isn’t a representative sample of the conservative membership, and we’d love to hear from some conservative-identified women—and supporters of President Trump—on the matter.

The Policy-First Supporter

While Trump’s tweets draw the most attention, he is advancing some core Republican policies. The confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court will be at the top of any list of conservative achievements for the Trump era. That made a difference for one member, Dan, who wrote that it had to be weighed alongside Trump’s unpresidential behavior. “Should Trump's in-your-face approach matter if I’m getting the policy I desire? I mean, I really like his Supreme Court pick. But, character counts.” If Donald Trump were his kid, Dan wrote, “I’d sit him down to have a talk about honor, dignity, and reputation.”

But at the end of the day, what keeps him squarely in the Republican camp is his perception that Democrats won’t engage with his party’s policies and ideas. The other side, he wrote, throws grenades but doesn’t give alternatives. “There has been no battle of ideas to win me over, so there is no likelihood of me changing political parties or staying at home on election day. Because in the end, parties still reflect policy positions and Trump’s ridiculousness has not changed that.”

The Homeless Republican

For Michael, Trump’s success in nominating conservatives to the judiciary was not enough to outweigh changes he sees in the Republican Party he has traditionally called home. “My closest political friends argue that it's worth it for the judicial nominations, but I'm not convinced. Almost by definition, the damage being done institutionally to the very fabric of the republic by this president will not easily be mended by conservative judges or justices.”

Michael described himself as a highly educated evangelical Christian. His values, he wrote, came first. “From my commitment to the protection of life at every stage, to my conviction that governmental power best serves the body politic when it is most cognizant of its limits, to my assumption that market forces as an expression of human choice are more like gravity (something to be accepted and worked with) than they are like landscapes (something that can be shaped and molded to a designer's will), I am out of step with the core assumptions of the current party, regardless of which wing we're talking about.”

Like Dan, Michael didn’t find a home with the Democratic Party. But that experience put him in a difficult place. “If the Republican party is indeed the party of Trump, then it's not my party.” He did find solidarity, though, with African-American Christians. “For much longer than white evangelicals,” he wrote, “they have not had the luxury of single issue, of even single cluster-of-issues voting.” Like those voters, he says, he sees the very survival of his community to be at stake in his votes: “not my evangelical sub-community, but the community of the republic itself.”

The Libertarian, Pushed Out

Murray writes that he has never identified as either conservative or liberal. “Nonetheless I was a registered Republican until the night of the Republican Convention when Trump was nominated. That night I went online and changed my registration to independent.” Trump, he writes, “represents the least attractive aspect of the conservative movement.”

Murray, who has served in local elected office, says that upholding principles like those is no easy thing. “Being a libertarian in a democracy can be tough. Everyone is all for freedom for themselves, but not so much for other people.” Big-money national politics poses a particular challenge. He writes, “There’s no special interest group that will profit from a libertarian agenda, so—except for the principled and overly vilified Koch Foundation—no money coming in for libertarian candidates.” Nonetheless, some politicians have risen to the moment. “I respect John McCain and Jeff Flake a great deal,” writes Murray. “I am proud that they are speaking out against Trumpism, even though it has destroyed Flake's career.”

A Man of No Party

Nels writes that he never truly found a home in either party, although he identifies as a moderate conservative. He considered libertarianism, but, “sadly, I have realized that I share virtually no beliefs on foreign policy with most libertarians, and many seem too extreme on issues of economics and the purpose of government.” The energy of the Tea Party movement in its early days swept him up, but when it resulted, he wrote, in the election of President Trump, he felt let down. “Now I am left wondering, where do I belong?”

For Nels, one of the hardest aspects of national politics is how it has affected his relationship with his family. “For the first time in my life I can't talk politics with my dad,” he writes. “He taught me that conservatism meant standing for the rights of the individual and the free market.” But that’s no longer true of conservatives, in his view. Politics has left him distant from his father, Nels wrote. “I don't know what he thinks of the current situation because I can't ask him.”

“Sometimes I fantasize about creating my own party, a Utilitarian party which could bring in moderate Democrats and Republicans to actually come up with good solutions to the problems we face.” But then he remembers how polarizing today’s politics can be, he writes, and it’s clear that’s just a fantasy.


Nels is not the only American wondering about third parties. It’s on the minds of many Masthead members, including Jan, who wondered aloud on our Facebook group about the role third parties might play in reducing extremism. Earlier this year, in response to a note from another reader, Michael, we asked Atlantic politics buff Ron Brownstein how third parties come about. Some of the earliest Masthead members may remember his answer. We’re sharing it again here.

New parties have emerged only when new issues disrupt the existing partisan alignments. There are two big examples in American history, one of which was much more successful than the other. The Republican Party emerged in the 1850s when the dispute over whether to allow the spread of slavery into new states and territories divided the two existing parties. That provoked a sharp backlash in the North, which ultimately destroyed the Whig Party and decimated Northern support for the Democratic Party. This tilted the balance of power in the Democratic Party more decidedly toward the South, making it even less attractive in the North. With neither of the existing parties able to take a clear stand against the spread of slavery, the Republican Party emerged in the 1856 election as an alternative for Northerners who wanted that position forcefully articulated. And of course the party won the presidency just four years later behind Abraham Lincoln.

Something similar happened in the 1880s and 1890s with the emergence of the Populist Party (or the People's Party). Both the Democrats and Republicans were unable to respond decisively to the new issues that emerged from mass industrialization and urbanization; neither party gave voice to the labor and farming interests that felt overrun by those developments. The Populist Party emerged, electing governors and House and Senate members, but ultimately imploded in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination and incorporated important parts of the Populist platform into the Democratic agenda. That election defined the modern split between a Republican Party committed to alliance with business and limited government, and a Democratic Party committed to using government to tame the power of business. But that sharper differentiation left no room for the Populist Party. Its demise, I believe, inspired the political science maxim that third parties are like bees: They sting (that is, change the agenda of one of the major parties), and then die.

—Ron Brownstein, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Atlantic Media


  • Question of the day: We broke Masthead conservatives down into four categories. Do you identify with another group? Reply and tell me.
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  • What’s coming: Next week will be a shorter one for us, as we head off to celebrate Thanksgiving here in the U.S. But before we do, we’ll leave you with a few gift ideas, curated especially for Masthead members.

Matt Peterson


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