How Trump Is Changing What 'Conservative' Means

The 45th president may already be redefining the right’s dominant philosophy.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

From the moment Donald Trump first launched his unlikely ascent to the presidency, Republicans fiercely debated whether they could consider him a true conservative. Now, there’s evidence that Trump’s conquest of the GOP is causing activists to redefine “conservatism” itself.

In a paper presented last week at a conference in Chicago, two political scientists compared Republican senators’ voting records to their perceived levels of conservatism among grassroots activists. (You can read a detailed description of the paper’s methodology here, but it’s worth noting that the surveys were conducted throughout the 2016 election.) What they found was that some of the senators with the most traditionally conservative voting records—like Arizona’s Jeff Flake, and Nebraska’s Ben Sasse—were viewed among activists as fairly moderate. Meanwhile, former  Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions—whose record is considerably more moderate than many of his peers’—was viewed as one of the chamber’s most conservative lawmakers.

The explanation for these discrepancies?

The paper’s authors—Daniel Hopkins, from the University of Pennsylvania, and Hans Noel, from Georgetown— have a theory: Sasse and Flake were both outspoken Trump critics during the election, whereas Sessions was one of the president’s earliest and most vocal cheerleaders.

Indeed, it appears many of the grassroots-level Republicans surveyed for the paper—the kind of people who make small-dollar donations to candidates, volunteer for phone banks, and staff local campaigns—believed that the more loyal a senator was to Trump, the more conservative he was. Needless to say, that’s a controversial assumption in elite right-wing circles, given Trump’s open disregard for conservative orthodoxy on issues like trade, foreign policy, and government spending.

As I wrote recently, many Republicans have found the traditional Left ↔ Right spectrum increasingly unhelpful in identifying the GOP’s ideological tensions during the Trump era. If activists do, in fact, begin to define “conservative” as “pro-Trump” and “moderate” as “Trump-averse,” it seems all the more likely that the old taxonomy will give way to a new, more useful vocabulary.

But the paper’s findings could have political implications that extend far beyond diction, Noel told me. This could be an early signal that Trump-style nationalism is supplanting old-school conservatism as the Republican Party’s dominant ideology.

“If Trump is shaping and changing the next generation of Republican foot soldiers to think of conservatism as what he thinks it is … instead of what Paul Ryan thinks it is, he’s going to lead the party in that direction,” Noel said.

Exhibiting all the usual modesty of careful academics, Noel cautioned that it’s too early to drawn any definitive conclusions from their findings. He also noted that it typically takes a generation or so for a party to undergo a wide-scale ideological transformation like the one he was speculating about. And unlike modern conservatism—which William F. Buckley and his comrades spent decades articulating and popularizing before Ronald Reagan ever carried it into the White House—Trump’s brand of politics doesn’t yet have a robust support system or intellectual infrastructure in Washington.

That said, Trumpism has an unusual head start compared to the historical rises of other ideologies—it’s already being championed by the most powerful man in the world. And as long as grassroots Republicans are demanding fealty to Trump from their elected leaders—lest they be branded “moderates” and made vulnerable to primary challenges—Trumpism has a good chance to flourish and spread throughout the GOP.

Conservative purists, and perhaps many in the broader political intelligentsia, will no doubt object to conservatism being summarily redefined simply because voters and activists moved the goalposts. But Noel, who specializes in the study of ideology, takes a practical view of the philosophical debates on the right.

“People argue about these things forever,” he told me. “There are deep debates among conservative thinkers, and whoever ends up convincing more people wins. You can say, ‘That’s not real conservatism,’ but … at the end of the day, you’re wrong if no one agrees with you.”

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