Posted: May 12, 2016
his is the most important election of my lifetime.” Activists and commentators of many political persuasions say so—as they do during every presidential election. A claim so routine, portentous, and dubious is not, however, always wrong. The 2016 election really will be exceptionally consequential for the kind of country America becomes in the 21st century.
For one thing, the carnage in Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels has made clear that terrorists’ determination and capacity to murder civilians far from the Middle East exceeds Western governments’ determination and capacity to thwart them. The terrorist’s grim calculus has not changed since the Irish Republican Army spelled it out after an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984: “[W]e only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”
The idea that pressure and forbearance will cause Islamist bloodlust to subside is a comforting hope, but an unlikely scenario. If that hope is unrealized, and Western governments can’t, or won’t, discharge the basic duties of providing physical safety and domestic tranquility, the question becomes whether democracies’ citizens will come to regard the attributes that define their societies, such as pluralism, tolerance, and civil liberties, as unaffordable luxuries. The resulting democratic repudiation of democratic government and social norms will be a logical contradiction capable of generating a political crisis.
What’s more, we must expect that a polity divided against itself will become predominantly one thing or the other. The revival of Republican Party fortunes that began in the 1994 congressional elections has solidified during Barack Obama’s presidency, and pervaded state politics. After being in the minority in the House of Representatives for 58 of the 62 years prior to 1994, Republicans have been in the majority for 18 of the 22 years since. The GOP has held a Senate majority for more than 12 of the past 22 years, after spending nearly as many years in the minority as House Republicans. In the wake of down-ballot gains in 2010 and 2014, there are now only seven states where Democrats control both the state legislature and the governor’s mansion. By contrast, Republicans completely dominate—governorships with legislative majorities in both chambers—in 23 states, and in the other 20 there is either a Republican governor or the party controls at least one legislative chamber. Of the nation’s nearly 7,400 state legislators, there are 900 fewer Democrats in 2016 than there were after Obama was first elected eight years ago. Republican state legislators now account for more than 55% of the national total for the first time since the 1920s.
At the same time, however, the Republicans have won only one popular-vote majority in the past six presidential elections (when George W. Bush received 50.7% of the vote in 2004), after winning four in the five contests of the 1970s and ’80s. A Democratic presidential nominee now begins a general election campaign from a dominant position. There are 19 jurisdictions (18 states plus the District of Columbia) that every Democratic presidential nominee has carried in each of the past six elections, beginning with Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992. Together, they cast 242 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. Only a Democratic nominee more inept or unlucky than John Kerry or Al Gore is likely to lose any of these states to a Republican rival, which means a Democrat now starts the race to an Electoral College majority 90% of the way to the finish line. As a result, Democrats have numerous ways to secure the 28 additional electoral votes needed for victory, while Republicans have no margin for error: a near-perfect campaign is needed to win the presidency, but even perfection may not suffice.
The New Imperialism
Republicans who recall what they learned in school about the separation of powers and federalism might believe that they can enact a few good policies, and thwart most bad ones, even if there’s a Democratic president.
Their adversaries have made clear, however, that the “living” Constitution has evolved beyond such procedural impediments. During his first six years in office, for example, President Obama sought changes in the immigration laws to greatly reduce deportations of people living here illegally. He made a point of cautioning the activists pushing to “normalize” the status of illegal immigrants that it was necessary for Congress to enact legislation to achieve this goal. Executive power could extend just so far. The problem, he explained in a 2013 interview, is that “we have certain obligations to enforce the laws that are in place even if we think that in many cases the results may be tragic.” Having “stretched our administrative flexibility as much as we can,” the president was constrained by a fundamental constitutional fact: “I’m the president of the United States. I’m not the emperor of the United States.”
The 2014 election results, however, which foreclosed any prospect Obama would get to sign an immigration reform bill before leaving office, immediately got him in touch with his inner emperor. Two weeks after the election he announced that he would indeed stop deporting broad categories of illegal immigrants, such as the parents of children born here. The necessary changes in the law suddenly proved to be unnecessary. “I take executive action,” Obama said, “only when we have a serious problem, a serious issue, and Congress chooses to do nothing.” In this reading, if Congress fails to address problems that rise to a certain level of seriousness, which is set by the president, then after an expiration date, which is also set by the president, it forfeits its power to formulate or impede policy, which the president will then devise and implement unilaterally.
For her part, Hillary Clinton has made clear that her only reservation about Obama’s 2014 immigration policy is that it wasn’t imperial enough. She promises, if elected president in 2016, to “[d]efend President Obama’s executive actions to provide deportation relief…and extend those actions to additional persons with sympathetic cases if Congress refuses to act.”
It is not just presidents, sitting or aspiring, who embrace this boundless understanding of executive power. Progressives generally are making clear that those who assure each other they’re on the right side of history should never moderate their pursuit of social justice for fear of being on the wrong side of the Constitution. For Matthew Yglesias of Vox.com, the evidence—stretching from her statistically miraculous success investing in futures markets as the first lady of Arkansas, right up to conducting official business on a private email server as secretary of state—that Clinton “is clearly more comfortable than the average person with violating norms and operating in legal gray areas” counts as a powerful reason liberals should vote for her. Yglesias argues that since any Democratic president must now expect to face divided government, rather than enjoy the huge congressional majorities that made the New Deal and Great Society possible, liberal policy victories will come about only through “the profligate use of executive authority, and Clinton is almost uniquely suited to deliver the goods.” Her singular virtue is that “[s]he decides what she wants to do…and then she sets about finding a way to do it—exactly the mentality any Democrat would need to move the needle on policy in 2017.”
Contest for the Court
The prospect of clashes between the legislative and executive branches brings up yet another reason the 2016 election is extremely important: the Supreme Court is on the ballot, neither a surprising development nor a well-kept secret. Many news stories appearing as the presidential campaign began in 2015 made clear that when the next president is sworn in on January 20, 2017, three Supreme Court justices would have reached their eighties, and a fourth would be 78 years old. That the next president could replace a third of the Court before facing reelection in 2020 appeared entirely plausible, and clearly had the potential to determine whether the Court’s disposition for the next quarter-century would be fundamentally liberal or conservative.
Theoretical possibilities derived from actuarial tables gave way to a pressing reality on February 13 when the news broke that Justice Antonin Scalia had died. Majority leader Mitch McConnell immediately announced that the Senate would not confirm any nominee submitted by President Obama, leaving the seat open until the next president nominates a successor, to be voted upon by the next Senate. If the Senate Republicans relent on this point, or if a Democrat wins the presidency in November, then the Supreme Court will soon have five justices appointed by a Democratic president for the first time since 1969.
As conservatives are bitterly aware, five Republican appointees doesn’t guarantee a conservative Court majority. Some Republican appointees turn out to be members or even leaders of the liberal bloc: Earl Warren and William Brennan (appointed by President Eisenhower), Harry Blackmun (Nixon), John Paul Stevens (Ford), and David Souter (George H.W. Bush). Other appointees, such as Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy (Reagan), end up as the swing vote between liberals and conservatives in politically charged cases, such as those concerning abortion, same-sex marriage, campaign finance regulation, or affirmative action.
The next justice appointed by a Democratic president who disappoints or outrages liberals to a comparable degree will be the first in living memory. (Byron White, appointed by President Kennedy, did join William Rehnquist as the only dissenters in Roe v. Wade , but usually voted with Brennan or Thurgood Marshall in politically controversial cases.) This means that there’s every reason to believe that if a Democratic president appoints Scalia’s successor, the newest Court member will join Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor to form a sturdy liberal majority, one that could be reinforced with a sixth or seventh vote if a Democrat is elected president in 2016.
If you liked Warren Court 1.0, you’ll love the 21st-century update. Erwin Chemerinsky, law school dean at the University of California, Irvine, is thrilled by the prospect. The liberal court he sees on the horizon will make affirmative action unassailable and the death penalty unconstitutional. Legislative restrictions on abortion and labor unions will be struck down, while those on gun ownership and campaign finance will be upheld. The Court’s creative interpretations might, Chemerinsky believes, someday lead to the discovery of “a constitutional right to education and conclude that disparities in school funding violate the Constitution,” or a finding that “racial injustices in the criminal-justice system violate equal protection.”
End of an Era
Imagine, for example, Justice Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (2014) as the majority one. The Court would have ruled that it was impermissible for states to ban affirmative action programs, Sotomayorian logic having yielded the counterintuitive discovery that the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws mandates an equal right to seek unequal protection of the laws. Accordingly, the voters of Michigan would have had no lawful authority to amend their state constitution by a ballot proposition, “Proposal 2,” that prohibited public educational institutions from using admissions policies that discriminated on the basis of race, religion, or national origin.
The people lacked this authority, she held, because their state constitutional amendment left members of some groups, such as military veterans, free to pursue preferential admissions policies through ordinary political channels. At the same time, it required others, such as blacks, to complete the harder task of rescinding Proposal 2 with another constitutional amendment in order to begin pursuing preferences. The problem with Proposal 2, Sotomayor wrote, is that it “reconfigured the political process in Michigan such that it is now more difficult for racial minorities, and racial minorities alone, to achieve legislation in their interest.”
As George Mason University law professor David Bernstein pointed out, however, Sotomayor’s argument cannot be reconciled with the way the Supreme Court has treated affirmative action since first ruling on this issue in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). The Court has held consistently since then that the sole justification permitting a university to depart from color-blind admissions policies is “diversity”—enrolling a student body whose carefully chosen heterogeneity would enhance every matriculant’s educational experience. It follows from this diversity rationale that making it more difficult for blacks than for veterans to secure preferential treatment in admissions policies cannot be unconstitutional, given that, as Bernstein writes, “it would be unconstitutional for the state government to respond to such lobbying by enacting racial preferences.”
Sotomayor’s position in Schuette will make sense, though, if a liberal Court majority jettisons diversity in favor of the wider justification for affirmative action urged, unavailingly, by Justices Blackmun, Brennan, Marshall, and White in Bakke. A law that prohibited discrimination on the basis of race countenanced, Brennan believed, a state university medical school policy that set aside a portion of its admissions slots solely for applicants who were members of racial minorities. He squared this circle by arguing that the school’s goal was merely to put “minority applicants in the position they would have been in if not for the evil of racial discrimination.” As economist Thomas Sowell has argued, however, “the idea of restoring groups to where they would have been—and what they would have been—” if past discrimination had never taken place “presupposes a range of knowledge that no one has ever possessed,” combined with “ignorance of vast disparities in performance, disparities favoring groups with no power to discriminate against anybody.”
Justice Blackmun’s Bakke dissent prefigured the Orwellian future that awaits us when equality before the law is subordinated to the imperatives of social reform. “In order to get beyond racism,” he wrote,
we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.
On a broad range of issues, the prospective Sotomayor Court would render Republican majorities on Capitol Hill and in the states irrelevant, while guaranteeing that a Democratic president’s ability to make policy through executive action is irresistible. This broad operational latitude will be attached to the moral hubris that leads liberal officeholders to call for prosecuting climate-change skeptics, or closing down businesses that decline to participate in same-sex weddings.
Scalia’s death early in the 2016 presidential campaign raises the prospect, then, that Democrats will not only end the Reagan era but efface the Reagan legacy. What he and conservatives accomplished, beginning in 1981, will be dismantled, and all the work left undone in 1989 will remain undone for decades…at best. Barack Obama once said that, in 1980, Reagan “changed the trajectory of America” and “put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” For 36 years, Democrats have anticipated the country being ready to return to the New Deal-Great Society path. After many false hopes, they may at last get their wish. To rework a famous line of George Will’s, a Democratic presidential victory in 2016, and a Democratic Supreme Court majority thereafter, would mean that it took 32 years to count all the votes, but Walter Mondale was finally declared the winner of the 1984 election.
The Path to Victory
Because it’s so important not to lose the 2016 presidential election, the famous “Buckley rule”—nominate the most conservative candidate who’s electorally viable—didn’t really apply. The GOP’s path to 270 electoral votes has become so difficult, that is, and the conservative cast of the party so pronounced, that there was no way to justify any course but nominating the strongest candidate, period. Obsessing about gradations of conservatism was pointless and reckless.
If the necessity to nominate the strongest candidate was clear, the attributes that would render a nominee the strongest were not. Some Republicans, including a majority of the Republican National Committee, looked at Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 and said the problem was that the GOP’s appeal was too narrow. Getting higher percentages of white voters, especially those without college degrees, was not enough to offset the fact that such voters were a steadily declining part of the electorate. The resulting belief that Republicans needed to be electorally competitive among Hispanic voters in order to be competitive nationwide was behind the desire to strike a bargain with Democrats on comprehensive immigration reform. Among the 2016 candidates, Jeb Bush was emphatically in favor of such reform—it had been one of his brother’s priorities as president—and Marco Rubio had been for it before he was against it, a stance that damaged his campaign.
The competing theory was that Republicans lost presidential elections because their support was too shallow, too unenthusiastic. There is still, in other words, a conservative majority. Discouraged by the rhetorical and substantive concessions John McCain and Mitt Romney made to Democrats, however, a subset of voters large enough to have secured a GOP majority chose, instead, to stay home on Election Day. This argument, in essence, was the rationale for Ted Cruz’s candidacy. And since he could not find a conservative majority even within the Republican primary electorate, it is safe to say that the idea one exists in the national electorate is far-fetched.
Of the 17 candidates who started the race, the one now all but certain to win the GOP nomination is Donald Trump. His popularity has yielded a string of primary victories, and his ascent has been the most astounding political development in many years. Trump, to put it mildly, is not the obvious choice for a party seeking the most electable general election candidate. No major party has ever nominated a presidential candidate who relished being abrasive while flaunting his indifference to taking coherent policy positions. And for good reason: it’s extremely difficult to imagine any such candidate winning the presidency.
There’s an argument that Trump has a puncher’s chance against Hillary Clinton in November. Her unfavorable ratings in public opinion polls are very high—though his are even higher—and Trump’s electoral appeal has been misunderestimated for a year. Although nominating Trump doesn’t reduce Republicans’ chances of capturing the White House to zero, it does increase the prospect of a wipeout that costs the GOP the Senate and even jeopardizes the House majority, the biggest Republicans have enjoyed since 1930. (Maintaining a majority in the Senate, where there have been 54 Republicans since the 2014 elections, was going to be difficult even with a strong presidential nominee. Of the 34 seats being contested in 2016, the GOP currently holds 24, including seven in states that Obama carried twice.)
The rise of Trump has been the most analyzed political development of 2016. Regardless of what happens at the GOP convention or in the general election, it will be the subject of books and articles for years to come. A comprehensive theory is premature and ill-advised, but two observations are in order.
First, were it not for Trump, the big story of 2016 would be Bernie Sanders. More specifically, it would be that a 74-year-old Vermont socialist’s strength in the Democratic presidential contest reveals how completely that party, swayed and cowed by Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, has repudiated Bill Clinton’s triangulating “Third Way.” (In the same fashion, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of Great Britain’s Labor Party demonstrates its vehement rejection of Tony Blair’s market-friendly centrism.) What Howard Dean called the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” is now, simply, the Democratic Party. It has come to regard Bill Clinton’s most notable accomplishments—the North American Free Trade Agreement; financial deregulation; deficit elimination; welfare reform; prison sentences that were longer and more numerous, and crime rates that were dramatically lower—as shameful betrayals of liberal principles, craven capitulations to Big Money and heartless, bigoted conservatives. Both Clintons have found it necessary to apologize for, or distance themselves from, achievements they boasted about for 20 years.
Ordinarily, nominating Bill Clinton’s wife would be a curious way to repudiate Bill Clinton’s legacy. And Hillary Clinton has, indeed, had more difficulty securing the nomination than she and most observers expected. Her triumph, in part, results from good fortune—always a useful ally. If her chief opponent had been Senator Elizabeth Warren instead of Sanders, Clinton might have lost her second “inevitable” presidential nomination to a more compelling opponent, eight years after losing the first. The key reason Ms. Clinton has successfully offered herself to Democrats as the vehicle for undoing her husband’s accomplishments, however, is the flexibility of conviction she puts at the service of her unresting ambition. Her career has been defined by frictionless evolution: from Saul Alinsky acolyte to Arkansas insider, health reform czarina, carpetbagging New York senator, Iraq War supporter and Iraq War critic, Trans-Pacific Partnership friend and TPP foe, Obama detractor and Obama defender. She has made clear, along the way, that her radicalism, liberalism, or centrism at any given moment is always in the service of her careerism. Convinced of her destiny and singular fitness to hold high office, she will say, do, or be whatever it takes to get there. The vacuous, inane slogan for her 2008 presidential campaign, “I’m in it to win it,” really does capture the essence of her political philosophy. Her other beliefs are contingent, but Hillary Clinton’s belief in herself is unwavering.
Now that the political weathervane points left—certainly for her party, maybe for the country—so does she. If elected, her task will be to fashion a post-(Bill) Clintonism that is also, in large measure, anti-Clintonism. The process should be interesting, awkward, and revealing. Last year Ms. Clinton became testy when a radio interviewer tried, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to establish whether her not-so-long-ago opposition to gay marriage had been something she really believed when she said it, or something she said only because she thought the correlation of political forces at the time required it. The best explanation for Clinton’s anger at such interrogations is that she does not acknowledge, or perhaps even grasp, a meaningful distinction between sincere beliefs and politically useful ones.
In this sense, the dismantling of ’90s Clintonism by Democrats in general and the Clintons in particular confirms that the Third Way was never more than a way to follow the First Way, the progressive path that led from Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson to George McGovern, for whose 1972 campaign both Clintons worked. It’s now clear that the policy compromises, and the rhetoric about the era of Big Government being over, were simply practical concessions, adopted entirely as a matter of political necessity.
Thus, although the New Clintonism promises to reject and reverse the Old Clintonism, it’s really all just the Same Clintonism. There’s been no change of heart, only a change of tactics. Clintonism once entailed defending liberal achievements and winning new liberal victories by accommodating Reaganism, to the point of signaling that some conservative critiques of the liberal project had merit. Clintonism now proceeds in the belief that, politically, Reaganism is a spent force. Consequently, there’s no longer any need for liberals to pretend that they might learn something or avoid serious errors by taking conservative arguments into account. As the title of the 1996 book by Clinton advisor James Carville had it, We’re Right, They’re Wrong. (He’s writing a new version for this election year.)
Politics of Resentment
Thus, my second observation: the rise of Trump has done more to vindicate than disprove the idea that liberals can now safely disregard conservatives and conservatism. Trump’s strength has revealed, rather than caused, the weakness of the Republican Party and the conservative movement (distinct but overlapping entities). Healthy organisms do not spontaneously lose the capacity to resist pathogens.
Commentators have explained his success as a rebuke of the “establishment.” But if the GOP had an establishment worthy of the name, political insiders like the old-time machine politicians who shrewdly discerned and addressed voters’ preferences, Trump would have remained the irrelevant sideshow everyone expected him to be a year ago. The great and powerful establishment turned out to be a group of weak, foolish men behind the curtain. Conservatives believe in markets, after all, and the market returns from primaries and caucuses around the country are unambiguous: a large part of the GOP base actively dislikes what the party has to sell, a product the establishment leaders thought would fly off the shelves.
What these voters want, however, is harder to say, since they’ve chosen to express their grievances by supporting Donald Trump, a man who generates policy pronouncements randomly. It’s difficult, as a result, to take Trump’s agenda seriously when he so obviously does not. After the San Bernardino killings, for example, Trump called for temporarily banning all Muslims from entering the U.S. He immediately made clear, however, that the ban would be administered on the honor system: if a visa applicant said he wasn’t Muslim, then the paperwork would be approved.
Such missteps would sink any other office-seeker, but Trump continues to defy the laws of gravity. It’s clear that for many supporters, his defects are his virtues. If your chief purpose in the voting booth is to say, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” better to vote for an obnoxious candidate than a respectable one. Voters who have come to believe all politicians are dissembling phonies can be confident about non-politician Trump’s authenticity: no one capable of mature, gracious behavior would consciously choose to act like such a jerk, or be able to go on playing the part so convincingly, from rally to rally and interview to interview.
Trump isn’t running against Ronald Reagan the way Bernie Sanders and this year’s Democrats have run against Bill Clinton. But Trump’s success has revealed that Reaganism’s purchase on the electorate, even the portion that votes in Republican primaries, is weaker than previously realized. Part of this development results from the passage of time: no American under the age of 50 is old enough to have ever voted for Reagan.
Part of it, however, is the cumulative, disillusioning effects of political futility. After some number of decades, it appears, Republican politicians who extol the sacred mission of limiting government, but never seem to try very hard—or at any rate, very consequentially—to actually limit government, leave their supporters wondering whether they would be better advised to support less quixotic crusades. When even the low-hanging fruit, like defunding the National Endowment for the Arts, is higher than any Republican ladder, it becomes difficult to keep believing that GOP victories are a matter of any real urgency. This state of affairs leaves Republicans arguing that the strongest case for their party is the need to make it more difficult for Democrats to do their worst. “Join the team committed to losing slowly,” however, isn’t much of a recruiting pitch.
One reason that Trump has taken positions contrary to those in recent Republican platforms, but paid no political price, is that Republican voters disposed to care about such things find it hard, after decades of unfulfilled promises, to take fealty to the agenda all that seriously. The Washington Examiner’s James Antle described Ted Cruz as a “checklist conservative,” who commended himself to GOP primary voters by reminding them that he’s committed to every item on the conservative agenda: social issues, taxes, regulation, limited government, national defense. But the list is mostly a list of things that haven’t gotten done for a long time and are unlikely to get done for an even longer time. A checklist that’s a wish list loses the power to compel assent or distill a candidate’s fundamental convictions.
By contrast, Trump and his supporters are, for Antle, “attitudinal conservatives.” Their conservatism is more concerned with solidarity and reciprocity than programs and policies. The Sarah Palin phenomenon was a precursor to the Trump one, in the sense that it’s unclear what policies she really cared about, but very clear that her supporters took a defiant, Okie from Muskogee satisfaction in the contempt she elicited from journalists and academics. The people who disdained Palin disdained her supporters, who responded by embracing her candidacy and celebrity as a way to provoke those detractors.
Similarly, “Trump voters believe that they have upheld their side of the American social contract, while others—businessmen, politicians, journalists, professors—have violated it,” according to Henry Olsen in National Review. A much discussed Peggy Noonan column interpreted Trump’s popularity as a revolt of the “unprotected” against the “protected.” The protected set policy and the terms of national discourse. The unprotected live with the consequences—and when they’re harsh, the protected adroitly exempt themselves from any ill effects. Professors don’t lose tenure and hedge fund managers don’t lose clients because of competition from illegal immigrants. The protected do, however, benefit when high immigration levels yield affordable, high-quality lawn care and child care.
Back to the Future
Whatever happens in Cleveland, and then in November, conservatism cannot stay the same. One challenge will be to find politicians who, unlike Palin and Trump, have the gift for appealing to the unprotected but also possess the capacity, and take the trouble, to formulate a thoughtful policy agenda. The point of politics, after all, is governance, not anger management.
But the anger is real, and the attitudes of the attitudinal conservatives must be understood. If Republicans a) nominate Trump, and b) get shellacked in November, it will confirm suspicions that the GOP’s future must not entail having the Trump faction drive the bus. At the same time, however, it’s impossible to imagine a competitive GOP coalition unless Trump voters are on the bus, and feel that their ideas about where it should go receive a full and fair hearing.
After the Tea Party emerged in 2009, many Republican politicians began to describe themselves as “constitutional conservatives.” One lesson from the rise of Trump is that this welcome development must go further. Constitutional conservatives must address not only the written Constitution but also the essential qualities that constitute the American nation. In Olsen’s analysis, the concern that animates Trump’s voters is “a perceived failure on the part of government to protect vulnerable Americans from threats to their way of life.” The “American way of life” may sound like the most leaden of clichés, but the rise of Trump means that it again poses resonant, contested questions.
National Review, the conservative movement’s flagship magazine, devoted nearly an entire issue in February to denouncing Donald Trump. Three months earlier, however, the magazine offered the most persuasive explication of Trumpism, though one that did not mention the candidate by name. In its 60th anniversary issue, former editor John O’Sullivan argued that America’s political life is animated by its founding principles, but the nation’s civilization rests on the fact that “Americans are a distinct people, with their own history, traditions, institutions, and common culture.” This richer, enveloping sense of Americanism means that the United States has assimilated people from around the world not simply by getting free agents who happen to share one patch of land to abide by certain rules of citizenship, but by getting them to commit to a way of life that makes them part of the unfolding heritage of a particular people. America “evolved under the influence of a particular set of ideas,” O’Sullivan wrote, but it encompasses much more: “the laws, institutions, language of the nation; the loyalties, stories, and songs of the people; and above all Lincoln’s ‘mystic chords of memory.’”
The late Andrew Breitbart held that “politics is downstream from culture.” This is normally understood to mean that conservatives must attend much more closely to shaping sensibilities through popular culture, such as movies and TV shows. Winning all the debates won’t matter if liberals tell all the stories.
But politics is downstream from culture in the broader, anthropological sense of the term. How we govern ourselves is inseparable from how we define who we are. Since the 1960s the Left has insisted that America’s only real heritage is one of crimes and brutalities, and that its only worthy future is one of never-ending atonement. Decency forbids assimilating to that sick society, so multiculturalism dictates that every demographic group with a grievance deserves to unilaterally set the terms of its membership in America, claiming all the rights it wants, observing only the obligations it cares to.
The direct results of the Trump campaign are likely to be very bad: a Democratic president emerging from an election Republicans might have won, sending nominations to a Democratic Senate, guaranteeing a Democratic Supreme Court. In this sense, the Trump campaign slogan is likely to become a self-fulfilling premise: it will be necessary to make America great again after President Hillary Clinton and the Sotomayor Court have had their way. If there’s a silver lining in this large dark cloud, it is that the imperative to keep Trump voters in the Republican coalition will help conservatives summon renewed will and more persuasive words to rebut the Left’s narrative of American depravity. Conservatives will find better answers by pondering more deeply what makes America great, and what makes it America.