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Is Today’s GOP “Anti-Ideological”?
Or is it highly ideological?
[Damon Linker has written here and here that the current Republican party, under the leadership of Donald Trump, is “anti-ideological.” He explained his theory on the June 9, 2023 episode of The Bulwark’s ‘Beg to Differ’ podcast. The transcript below—which also includes copanelist William Galston and guest Peter Wehner respectfully disagreeing with Linker—has been lightly edited for clarity.]
Damon Linker: Well, my posts on this are not meant to be absolute statements of the way the Republican party is or will develop, but it’s more a way of sketching two tendencies. And I think the Trump and DeSantis campaigns give us a good opportunity to see variations here. Now obviously, there’s a lot of overlap between the two, but there is a real difference in attitude, where . . . DeSantis is running a campaign that is very policy focused. You can tell that his thinking—and the thinking of his staff—is that the reason Trump is popular, the reason the party has evolved the way it has since 2016, is that the Republican voters were tired of a whole bunch of elements of the Reaganite ideology, and they wanted another ideology. And that, for want of a better summary statement, is anti-wokeness.
That is the new ideology and everything else . . . has to follow from that. And then from that follows a series of policy commitments: that what we need is a very efficient manager or leader, like Ron DeSantis, to enact those policies, to go after the left, and defeat the “woke-mind virus,” as he so elegantly puts it.
Whereas, Trump, I think, is actually practicing a slightly different variation of right-wing politics, which is actually not very ideological, even if on particular issues he ends up haltingly and inconsistently sort of where DeSantis is. . . . But his is much more about individual judgment. Basically: “Vote for me, Trump, ‘I alone can fix it,’” as he famously declared in 2016. He alone can fix it. And that means: “You need me personally to look at the world, size up every situation as it is, and in the moment just decide to do X, Y or Z based on my feeling, based on the last person I talked to, based on some polling I saw, based on some Fox News segment I just watched and got me all revved up. . . .
And so, there’s a way in which this is a difference in outlook about how to conduct oneself in politics. Ideology is a form of principle. It’s rules. It’s saying, ‘We as a group, people who belong to this party, believe in certain principles, and we will adhere to them and then do the work of applying them to policy initiatives, on the basis of those principles.’ Whereas Trump is purely in favor of relying on the individual judgment or prudence of the statesman, who sizes up each individual thing, based on a million considerations in the moment. Now, if you have Churchill in office, then relying on the judgment of the statesman is a perfectly fine thing to do. If it’s Donald Trump, I think it’s incredibly reckless. But I do think there’s a large faction of Republican voters who very much want to put themselves in the hands of this great strong man/savior/protector, who is Donald Trump, and in that respect, no one else can equal him. That partly explains why Trump just keeps doing well and never seems to take a hit to his numbers. And no matter how much DeSantis is basically saying, “I’m Trump-Plus, I’m Trump who can get things done,” it works okay. It gets him up to around 20, 25 percent in the polls, but he doesn’t really overtake Trump because he’s still not “that guy.” So again, is this an absolute schematic thing that unlocks everything about the Republican party these days? No, but I do think it gets at something important about what DeSantis is about. . . .
William Galston: There’s no way of addressing what Damon just said quickly. So, I’ll address it all too briefly. The assumption underlying your remarks, Damon, is that Trump’s populism is devoid of ideological content. And I think that’s just wrong.
And I would be happy to explain why at considerable length, but I will content myself with saying that Trump, in a way, has been the most consistent of the candidates for the longest time. He has been American Firsting for the better part of four decades. And America First is an organized way of thinking about domestic and foreign policy and their interaction. He has never wavered on issues of trade or immigration or international alliances, or the role of morality in politics—domestic or international. And only if you believe that populism has no ideological content can you believe that Trumpism has no ideological content. It is a counter-ideology to Reaganism.
Pete Wehner: I largely agree with Bill on that. I’ve understood Trump not as a conservative, but as a populist. He’s incidentally conservative—like on the judges and some other issues—but it’s not based on any kind of ideological belief that he’s developed over the years. So, the way to understand him is populism. To the degree that there’s an ideological construct, you actually need to go back to Pat Buchanan in 1992. That’s the closest that there is, because Buchanan was in a sense a canary in the coal mine, and he pre-shadowed a lot of what we see with Trump. Trump went after entitlement reform, which was not a conservative policy—Paul Ryan had set that up. His spending was enormous. International relations—he certainly wasn’t a conservative, the way that he played footsies with so many dictators.
But I think his populism is not intellectual as much as it is dispositional or temperamental. He is just tapping into a ferocious anger at the so-called establishment. And I don’t think he’s ideologically committed even to populism. I think his view is whatever gives voice to the anger, the rage, the sense of grievances—he’s going to use that. . . . Conservatism is more than a set of policies. Indeed, I think in its most fundamental sense, it goes deeper than that. And Trump, in terms of disposition and sentiments, is the most anti-conservative figure imaginable—he taps into mob passions, promotes mob violence [and] lawlessness. . . . From a Burkean-Oakeshott view of conservatism, he’s the antithesis of that. The Republican party is not a conservative party anymore. It’s a populist party, and it’s the ugliest side of populism.
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