James Lawler Duggan / Reuters

During the final year of the Bush Administration, I began to attend a series of panels and conferences on what would come next––what’s next, a moderator would ask,  for the Republican Party or the conservative movement or the American right? Another round of panels began after John McCain and Sarah Palin were defeated. “Whither Conservatism?” National Review asked at its post-election conference.

Looking back on perhaps a dozen panels as an audience member and half-a-dozen more as a participant, I recall deep disagreements about the less predictable half of U.S. politics. But I can’t recall anyone predicting what we’ve now seen: Donald Trump decisively defeating a field filled with movement conservatives; elected Republicans renouncing their party’s presumptive nominee; even a push among some to ignore primary results at the Republican convention.  

So Tuesday, when I attended “Deep Dive: The Future of the Right” at The Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, I decided to deeply discount all predictions about the future, a posture that caused me to perk up when Kristen Soltis Andersen, a close observer of public opinion research, offered a bit of backward-looking analysis. This year’s Republican primaries showed “the notion that in order to win a primary you have to be the most conservative person possible got blown up a little bit,” she said with understatement.

There are a lot of Republican voters, she added, who aren’t looking for an ideological purity test from their preferred candidate so much as someone who gets where they are coming from emotionally, even if he says things that conventional wisdom regarded as fatal.

With months to go until the November election, it’s far too early to know who will win the White House. And the fate of Trump––or his replacement, on the off-chance he is ousted or drops out––will have such a powerful affect on the future of the right that forecasting it today is even more difficult than it was in bygone years when we all got it wrong.

But there is one bit of forward-looking analysis about which I’m confident.

Whether Trump wins or loses or decides to return to reality TV rather than complete the general election, the approach he took to winning all those primaries will not be lost on ambitious young Republican office-seekers. And they can’t help but see that one needn’t hue as close to conservative movement orthodoxy as Paul Ryan or National Review or Mark Levin to win Republican primaries.

The future of the right is uncertain… and less ideologically constrained than it once seemed.

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