The Republican Party in Exile

The world of GOP intellectuals and policymakers has been upended by Donald Trump. What is there to do but carry on?

Beck Deifenbach / Reuters

PALO ALTO, Calif.—A few minutes into the conservative policy seminar, the economist John Cochrane made a point of clarification. “This is not,” he specified, “advice for a Trump administration.”

At Cochrane’s elbow, George Shultz, the former secretary of state, muttered, “God help us.”

Shultz, the Republican elder statesman and veteran of the Nixon and Reagan administrations, had spent the preceding months assembling a far-reaching book of policy recommendations on matters domestic and foreign on behalf of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He commissioned a decorated group of experts—men and women with gaudy constellations of letters after their names, generals and ambassadors and national-security experts—to pen chapters outlining their vision for such topics as health-care reform, banking legislation, counterterrorism strategy, and the U.S. posture toward Asia. On Monday, the group summoned a group of reporters here for a special summit to unveil these policy ideas—grandly titled Blueprint for America—to the world.

“Hopefully,” said John Cogan, a Hoover economist who wrote the Blueprint chapter on entitlements, “these ideas will be picked up by some enterprising politician.”

Hope springs eternal for the Republican Party-in-exile. The vast apparatus of right-wing policy, built up over decades and seeded with millions of dollars to promote a conservative vision, has never seemed more quaintly irrelevant than it does today. Despite various attempts to allude to the world beyond this leafy campus, an air of unreality hung over the proceedings. In a presidential campaign year in which no candidate seems remotely interested in the fine points of conservative policy, what was it all for?

The Blueprint calls for international free-trade agreements and a more liberal immigration system; it recommends reducing spending on Social Security and Medicare and promoting democracy and human rights abroad. Even as the Hoover scholars spoke, Trump was in Youngstown, Ohio, delivering an address on an altogether different vision of foreign policy—one in which America’s interests are paramount and relations with allies are transactional, in which immigrants and their children are subject to what he termed “extreme vetting.”

Other Republicans, like the party’s Senate candidates and House leadership, are “doing the best they can to make the Republican brand as inclusive as possible,” noted Lanhee Chen, a former policy adviser to the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio. But that, he lamented, could only go so far in an atmosphere dominated by Trump: “So much is driven by the top of the ticket—it just is.”

With the rise of Trump, institutions like Hoover—the sole public monument to the 31st president, who famously was blamed for exacerbating the Depression— have come to seem like an alternate universe, created in the vain longing that reality were not so. In today’s political climate, it isn’t only these particular ideas that seem quaint—it’s the very idea of having ideas at all.

And yet the intellectuals persist; what else can they do? Having formulated the Blueprint, there was nothing to do but release it, orphaned, into the world. Shultz recalled fondly a meeting at the Kremlin with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at which a previous Hoover report came up for discussion. “All of a sudden he attacks me for something in the book,” Shultz recalled. “And I said, ‘Oh, my God, somebody read it!’” A lively discussion of markets ensued.

Chief among the many disturbances to the Republican psyche prompted by Trump is the realization on the part of many of the party’s erstwhile mavens that their voters were not nearly as interested in their agenda as they previously believed. The party base proved, in this year’s primaries, not only willing to go along with a candidate who called many of its dogmas into question, but perhaps actively supportive of his heretical ideas. “So much of what you read, what’s in the political agenda, is just so wrong,” Cochrane sputtered, exasperated. “It’s really frustrating. Immigration is good, and trade is good!”

But Republicans don’t have anything they agree on anymore, as the conservative columnist Matt Continetti recently noted. There are Republicans who favor more foreign adventurism and those who favor less of it; those who would drastically shrink the government and those who would consider raising taxes; those who favor gay marriage and those who oppose it. (President Hoover’s great-granddaughter, Margaret Hoover, is a pro-gay-marriage activist.) Nonpartisan analyses of Trump’s tax proposals say it would explode the deficit, something of great concern to budget hawks like Cogan. “But, judging by the candidates’ proposals, I’m not sure there’s agreement that a problem exists,” he said mournfully.

The reporters attending the seminar, who represented major newspapers, television networks, conservative outlets such as National Review, and of course The Atlantic, kept asking versions of the same question. How, we wanted to know, could these ideas be made relevant to a skeptical public? Cochrane suggested that, given that people are angry, perhaps their sentiments could be redirected at more appropriate targets. “We have to harness their justified rage,” he said. “The reason your students are getting a lousy education is that teachers’ unions have taken over the political system and are screwing your kids!”

Many in the GOP have convinced themselves that Trump is an anomaly, a one-of-a-kind celebrity interloper whose nomination was a fluke. All that is necessary is to wait for the election to be over; then they can return to their regularly scheduled programming. It is as if the presidential campaign is a bad dream from which they’ll soon awaken. When the seminar broke for lunch, the eminent scholars could be heard asking the political reporters, in bewildered tones, to explain the state of the campaign. The hope of institutions like Hoover, which are carrying on their business and preparing for the day that the party comes back to its senses, is that this too shall pass.

But in other quarters, there are heretical whispers. What if Trump has exposed something fundamental—the hollowness of the party’s old agenda, the troubling priorities of its most reliable voters? What if nobody wants the old-time religion of supply-side economics, or the neoconservatism that produced the Iraq war? Can there be any going back once that realization sets in?

At the day’s final session, the upcoming presidential debates were considered. An attempt was made by the moderator, Bill Whalen, to treat this campaign as a normal one. “Who exactly is doing policy for Donald Trump? What does he have in his policy binder?” he asked. “Who is going to put ideas in front of him so that he can prepare?” He put a series of questions to Chen and Kori Schake, a former National Security Council and State Department staffer under George W. Bush, trying to get them to imagine the contours of a Trump administration.

The experts seemed exhausted by the very thought of it. Schake, who has endorsed Hillary Clinton and signed a letter declaring Trump a danger to national security, expressed the hope that Trump would not only lose the election but lose it by a wide margin, in order to discredit his ideas. In matters of both policy and rhetoric toward minorities, Chen noted sadly, “the party has taken steps back, not forward; it’s very discouraging to me personally.”

Conservatives, Chen said, are already having discussions about next steps, forming institutions to revitalize the party and the movement. “Trump has surfaced a number of things that Republicans are going to have to deal with after November 9,” he said.

But before the party can fix itself, it must decide what ails it. After the election, Chen anticipates that this will be the first fight to break out. The establishment faction, he said, will insist that the problem was figures like Ted Cruz who fanned the anger of the grassroots. Others will blame the party’s positions and advocate reorienting it toward a populist platform of protectionism and expanding entitlements. And others will say the policies are fine; it’s merely the tone that needs to be fixed.

“Maybe the answer is that we won’t agree—we’ll always have this roadblock,” he concluded.

A reporter asked whether Trump winning the election might speed the process of reflection, and Chen shook his head. “All the soul-searching we need to do has been provoked already,” he said. “I would rather not see him win. That’s my view. The impetus is already there. I’m not sure what ore is gained by four years of this.” At the thought of that prospect, a shudder seemed to go through the room.