The Death of Principled Conservatism

As the promise of Reagan wanes in the American consciousness, President Trump proposes a new take on the role of government.

The Death of Principled Conservatism

In 2016, Donald Trump was running just as much against the Republican Party as he was Hillary Clinton. Throughout the electoral cycle, Trump’s most vocal opposition continually came from his own party, with the Republican Party establishment proving to be one of his biggest obstacles to winning the presidency

In a 2017 tweet, Michael Tracey aptly wrote:

“For all the (fair) complaints about the various unseemly ideological elements which have glommed onto Trump, the most powerful and destructive one has always been the standard-fare GOP. . . In an alternate universe where a more politically-astute Trump didn’t outsource his legislative agenda to the congressional GOP, he might be ‘chiding’ ambivalent conservative senators today to back his promised infrastructure bill. Instead, he brought on establishment chieftains like Priebus and through him deferred almost entirely to Ryan/McConnell in terms of agenda-setting.”

There is a clear-cut schism between the party establishment and the grassroots base. Even the voters recognize this — a 2017 Rasmussen Reports poll indicates that 43% of voters believe the Republican Party is a bigger roadblock for Trump than the Democrats. The poll also found that while 33% of Republican voters felt more aligned with Trump, only 12% felt more aligned to congressional Republicans.

Principled Conservatism

Dogmatic fiscal conservatism first came to prominence during the Reagan presidency. Later, these policies were adopted by some moderate Democrats during the centrist Clinton presidency. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, neoliberalism eventually became the mainstream foundation of both parties. Characteristic of fiscal conservatism are supply-side economics tax cuts for the wealthy, free trade deals, economic deregulation, and faith in markets as exemplified by privatization of government services.

The shortcomings of neoliberalism have been ignored, with the burden falling upon the poor, especially poor Whites. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements were the first major outcries against this status quo, but the movements did not fully come to fruition until the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders respectively. One movement decries government as too corrupt, while the other decries corporations as too corrupt, but perhaps they are both correct—neoliberalism has led to the intertwining of business and government, each working for the other with the single goal of economic growth, no matter who gets left behind.

While the fiscal conservatism of mainstream Republicans has been consistently rejected by voters on the national level, Trump’s protectionist message is far more popular with voters. In order to maintain relevance and continue winning elections, Republicans must explore different avenues. Trump offered them an alternative.

The “America First” Doctrine

Trump breathed new life into the GOP with his “America First” doctrine. This message of economic protectionism is one that resonates with voters beyond the traditional Republican voter base. Republicans have a vital opportunity to expand their electoral coalition and maintain governing power. Winning working-class voters—especially White working-class voters—is crucial to maintaining a majority coalition over the Democrat’s “coalition of the ascendant,” and Trump’s “America First” message is a surefire strategy to secure this voting bloc.

In his inauguration speech, Trump stated, “From this moment on, it’s going to be America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families,” a line that resounded with voters. According to Morning Consult, 65% of voters supported that message, including 64% of independents and nearly half of Democrats. Additionally, “About 6 in 10 voters, including 48 percent of Democrats, also said the federal government should be required to follow Trump’s mantra: Buy American and hire American.” Pollsters also found that “Roughly three-fourths (74 percent) of voters with blue-collar jobs had a positive reaction to the ‘America first’ argument, and 87 percent said they thought the federal government should conduct business with those rules.” Furthermore, the poll revealed that during this speech, Trump’s approval rating hit an all-time high of 49%.

Trump’s “America First” slogan is significant because it set him apart from the bland Republicans he ran against. The slogan is also a useful tool because it acts as an ideological lens through which all policies can be scrutinized. For instance, in his Inauguration speech Trump stated that “…a nation exists to serve its citizens”. Later in the speech, Trump said: “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”

The Post-Reagan Era

This “America First” view on the role of government deviates from conventional conservatism, which holds the limited government and free market dogma above all else, even when it could cause legislative gridlock or lose elections. Exemplary of this self-defeating mindset are the previous budgetary priorities of Republicans. In past budget plans, Paul Ryan has made the privatization of Social Security a primary objective. Despite his fixation on this goal, Social Security is favored by 85% of Americans according to a 2013 poll conducted by the National Association of Social Insurance.

A new attitude is developing among the collective American ethos. The previous national character, which took hold during the Reagan era, was that of standard conservatism: government gets in the way of solving problems. In recent years, this attitude has seen a sharp decline, as more people begin to believe that maybe the free market isn’t as reliable for solving problems as was previously thought.

The two most significant events contributing to this new attitude among the electorate are the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the financial crisis a decade later. With both of these events, we saw the public overwhelmingly favor government action to solve the problems, in the form of increased surveillance and financial regulations, respectively. People now believe that government is, in fact, necessary for national security and economic regulation.

Trump embodies this change in attitude by offering an alternative to the same old stale policies proposals voters have heard for decades. Fellow Republican primary candidates who ran on hardline laissez-faire economics just did not receive the degree of popularity as Donald Trump and his populist message. Looking at 2012, when Reaganism culminated into a free market Republican presidential ticket personified by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, voters on a national level soundly rejected the option. The truth is that public opinion has shifted so far from the attitude of Reaganism that a free market conservative may never be able to win the presidency again.

Rather than opposing bigger government, voters simply want a government that works for them, instead of for a few at the top. More evidence of this fact is revealed in a 2016 FiveThirtyEight/Survey Monkey poll, which found that “more Republicans than Democrats, the survey found, were against free trade, with 47 percent of GOP voters saying it was a bad thing for the economy compared with 28 percent of Democrats who felt the same way.”

Some of the Republicans in Washington opposing Trump seem all too ready to sacrifice their constituents at the altar of unfettered capitalism. The Republican Party needs to make choices: police the world or rebuild at home? The free market or the voters? Israel first or America first?


Donald Trump may be the first non-conservative candidate elected in the modern Republican Party, which is why it is no surprise he also set the record for most Republican primary votes in history. Under President Reagan, the GOP became a definitively conservative party, home to business-minded fiscal conservatives and libertarians. But Reagan is dead. In the post-Reagan era, voters no longer place the same trust in the free market. Reagan once said, “Government is the problem,” and Trump responded, “America First.”

Donald Trump won the presidency precisely because he was not a conservative, and none of the principled conservative candidates running against him would have stood a chance against Hillary Clinton. Fiscal conservatism is a niche ideology; mostly wealthy voters identify as very conservative and fiscal conservatism is difficult to market, especially when trying to expand a party coalition. A principled conservative has not — and will not — win a national election because these neoliberal policies do not have a path to victory in a national election. If American voters had wanted a fiscally conservative president, they would have elected Romney in 2012, or picked Rubio in 2016. But they did not; instead they voted for the billionaire populist and great White savior, Donald J. Trump.

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