But by any definition, the word “conservative” must be foremost in describing each and every variant of Republicanism in 2017. And, if that point is conceded, then I posit that at present, there are three Republican parties, none of which includes Donald Trump’s personal or political philosophy, which I will describe as “Trumpism."
So, let’s look at Trumpism first. By his own description Donald Trump is a nationalist who, as stated in his speech to Congress, represents America, not the world. He neither espouses Woodrow Wilson’s lofty rhetoric of making the world safe for democracy nor Ronald Reagan’s belief that America was the leader of the free world whose might would serve as a shield against tyranny and oppression. In some ways, Trump’s nationalism can be looked at through the prism of George Washington’s admonition against becoming entangled in foreign alliances and British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s oft-repeated belief that Great Britain had “no permanent friends nor permanent enemies, just permanent interests.” But a more recent and more accurate label for Trumpism, I believe, would be “Fortress America” preached by the isolationists of the 1930s. And, we all know how that turned out.
On the domestic and economic front, Trumpism is a “clean-out-the-refrigerator-stew” of leftist dogma and tea party phobia against free-trade, lobbyists, Wall Street, an unfair tax code, and the ultimately unifying whipping boy—the “establishment.” It’s a philosophy steeped in the populist belief that the rules are stacked against the little guy, the common man. Trump either brilliantly manipulated this paranoia into support from across the political spectrum or he was manipulated by those of the “alt-right,” led by Steve Bannon and Britebart News, into a caricature of the “Ugly American,” which he seems to have embraced.
Very little in Trumpism translates even tangentially into the commonly understood and accepted tenets of traditional republicanism such as support for a strong national defense and the willingness to use America’s might in support of its free-world allies. Nor is Trump’s economic protectionism synonymous with traditional republicanism’s belief in free and unfettered trade. It’s a bedrock principle of the “movement conservative” that American workers in the capitalist system of “supply and demand” economics, free from the strangling hand of government overregulation, will outwork, outthink and out-produce their counterparts in countries hampered by government-imposed restrictions on commerce and the organs of production. Give American businesses and American workers a free hand and free trade agreements will always redound to America’s benefit.
This “movement conservative” brand of Republicanism is founded on the beliefs of men such as Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan and a generous dose of everyone’s favorite political philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr and his “world as it is realism.” Their thoughts and beliefs are embedded in think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society and in stalwart conservative publications such as the National Review and Weekly Standard. Members of this movement conservative brand proved to be the most steadfast opponents of Trump’s candidacy and remain in that mode as his presidency begins. Traditionally, these conservative thinkers have formed the deep intellectual bench from which Republican presidents have drawn their cabinet members and White House economic, national security and foreign affairs advisers.
A second brand of today’s Republicanism is personified in Congress by the self-identified “Freedom Caucus.” This group of about 50 congressmen are doctrinaire conservatives whose mantra is small government, balanced budgets, 2nd Amendment purity and social conservatism. They are unified in their beliefs and are a power beyond their numbers because of their ability and willingness to challenge their party’s leadership on legislative initiatives which violate their principles. This “caucus” flexed its power in 2015 by ousting John Boehner as Speaker of the House because of his willingness to compromise with Democrats in order to advance needed legislation. Its ascendance and iron-clad refusal to compromise mirrors that of the Tea Party to which it continues to be beholden for electoral support. And while nominal supporters of Trump, these Freedom Caucus members may yet prove to be among his most vocal and forceful opponents over Trump’s disregard for fiscally sound legislative initiatives. Witness, their howls of disapproval over Trump’s plan to overhaul Obamacare.
The third brand of today’s republicanism is the “governing pragmatist brand.” Dwindling in numbers and influence, it is personified by senators and congressmen who still believe that the art of politics is compromise. Its leaders are senators such as John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Lisa Murkowski, Rob Portman, and Susan Collins. Its proponents in the House are fewer and farther between because of their fear of being “primaried”—singled out for being challenged in primaries by more conservative Republicans for the apostasy of compromising on bedrock conservative principles. Among the few “governing pragmatists” of the House are Tom Cole, Cathy McMorris Rogers and Kevin McCarthy. Not listed, but pragmatists nevertheless, are Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. McConnell, for all his bluster about opposing Obama at every turn, was still the one Joe Biden went to strike a deal. Ryan has to deal with the most recalcitrant of House Republicans to reach a caucus consensus but is the voice of reason behind closed doors.
Make no mistake about the conservatism of this pragmatic brand of republicanism, though. These members and their peers will fight as hard as any brand for the principles of limited government, fiscal responsibility, a strong and engaged national defense, individual rights and an adherence to a literal interpretation of the Constitution. But when the fight has been fought and the votes are not there, they will compromise to get the best deal possible with the least harm to their conservative principles. This is the strategy that legendary legislative Republican leaders such as Everett Dirksen, Howard Baker and Bob Dole followed and it particularly marks the successful presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower. Reagan had his battles with Tip O’Neill and Eisenhower with Lyndon Johnson but at the end of the day, both were willing to take half a loaf now, vowing to come back for the other half at a later date.
Where does this Republican schism leave me and the many like me who hold dear our lifelong conservative principles but who can’t abide the gross and insulting politics of personal destruction practiced by a nominally Republican president nor the extremism that so deeply rives Congress to the point of impotence. Do we just ride out the storm and hope for an eventual return to civility and politics that put our nation’s interests first? To whom do we place our confidence that the different philosophies of the separate brands of republicanism can be joined in a consensus that works for the common good? Where do we look for guidance for an example of a leader strong enough to do what’s right because it is right? A leader strong enough to compromise for the sake of the country, political consequences be damned. As an historian, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I look to the past for such a person.
For many Republicans growing up in the 1950s, party identity was directly tied to Abraham Lincoln and his vision of a country dedicated to the principle of freedom and dignity for all Americans. In an era when the Democratic party was rife with segregationists officeholders throughout the south and had, in fact, sold its soul for electoral victories, Republicans were being led through consecutive elections by social progressives such as Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie, and Tom Dewey. Electoral losers all, still they were men one could be proud of as the leader of the Republican party. And while Dwight Eisenhower, when he entered presidential politics, could not be labeled as a progressive, he was a man of the law and Constitution who had led his country to victory in a war fought to sustain the principles that safeguarded human rights.
As a history nerd from the age of seven when I watched my first presidential nominating convention in 1952, one moment of my childhood that made a lasting impression on me was when President Eisenhower sent troops of the 101st Airborne into Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 to enforce the integration of its schools and to provide for the safety and protection of black children who simply wanted the same chance as their white classmates. In truth, Eisenhower had been a proponent of a gradual approach to school integration following the 1954 Supreme Court decision, knowing the resistance it would meet in the South. But once challenged on the law, he enforced it with all the might of the Federal government.
Eisenhower shaped my view on government as an instrument of power that should be yielded most often cautiously and sparingly, but aggressively and decisively when circumstances require it. Sending troops to Little Rock, building the national highway system, signing the Civil Rights Act of 1957 were instances where Eisenhower followed an expansive view of the use of Federal power. But perhaps his greatest achievements lie in his restraint of government. He fought continuous battles to balance the budget. Even as a man of the military, he said that every dollar spent on the military was a dollar not spent on education. In Korea, instead of expanding and prolonging hostilities, he agreed to a truce. In Vietnam, he refused to send American troops to support the French in their death battle in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu. And, perhaps in the greatest military decision of his life, Eisenhower refused the entreaties of his military advisers and others to send American soldiers to prop up South Vietnam in its civil war with the communist North Vietnamese (Would that future presidents had followed his example). And in his prescient farewell speech, Eisenhower warned against falling prey to the “Military/Industrial Complex.” As a man of the military who entreated President Kennedy to restore his rank of five star general so that he could be buried as such, no such admonition could have had more prestige behind it.
(It is no wonder that in the C-SPAN 2017 poll of 91 historians Dwight Eisenhower was ranked as America’s fifth greatest President).
This concept of restrained and limited government balanced with the certain knowledge that there are circumstances and events when the forceful exercise of the full authority of government is both justified and necessary, is this conservative’s governing philosophy.
The belief in the concept of the common good is as old as Plato and the need to compromise for the common good is at the heart of the “separation of powers” in our Constitution. The willingness to pursue this accommodation to political reality is, to me, a strength to be wished for in our public officials, not a weakness.
At the end of the day, all of us—Democrats, Republicans, Conservatives, Liberals—must recognize that maybe, just maybe, we don’t know all the answers or have all the wisdom. Maybe the other side has a legitimate point or two. We should be looking for politicians such as Dwight Eisenhower who understand and share those beliefs and who are strong enough to say, “I’m willing to compromise on this issue because it is the right thing to do.”
Richard L. Claypoole served in a variety of leadership positions for the National Archives, including being the Director of the Office of the Federal Register and the Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries and Museums. He was an editor of the Public Papers of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and editor in chief of the Public Papers of Ronald Reagan.