Conservatism wasn’t on stage at the GOP debate

Photo by Cole Murphy Student Publications

Conservatism is an ideology without a home, and August’s Republican debate felt like a brutal reminder of its eviction from the GOP. In its place stands only Donald Trump. A party that for decades has stood for conservative principles nominated Trump for the presidency in 2016, and by 2020, it forwent a party platform in favor of “reassert[ing] the Party’s strong support for President Donald Trump and his Administration.” It’s not just my position that the Republican party has abandoned its fight for conservatism — it’s the position of the party itself.

In late 2020, a plurality of Republicans raced to support Trump’s attempts to overturn his November election loss. By 2021, the vast majority of the party defended a populist insurrection, marking the first time in our country’s history there was not a peaceful transition of power. And in 2023, Trump is leading the Republican primary by over 40 points in the polls. It’s a downward spiral so wildly fast that it’s remarkable every Republican officeholder doesn’t have whiplash.

On Aug. 23, 2023, the Republican candidates for president, with notable exceptions Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson, renewed their vows of fealty to Trump and rejected conservatism live on the debate stage.

To step back for a moment, it is helpful to remind ourselves what ideological principles the GOP primary candidates are actually trampling on. Each candidate, after all, proudly describes themselves as “conservative,” but they’ve changed its definition.

The modern conservative movement rose to prominence in the 1950s, championed by outlets like the National Review and the brilliant William F. Buckley. Jr. Jay Nordlinger, a senior editor for National Review, provides a helpful guide to understanding conservatism as it has been known for the past 70 years:

“I believe that to be a conservative is to be for limited government. Personal freedom. The rule of law. The Constitution, and adherence to it. Federalism. Equality under the law. Equality of opportunity. Relatively light taxation. Relatively light regulation. Free enterprise. Property rights. Free trade. Civil society. The right to work. A strong defense. National security. National sovereignty. Human rights. A sound, non-flaky educational curriculum. School choice. A sensible stewardship over the land, as opposed to extreme environmentalism. Pluralism. Colorblindness. Toleration. E pluribus unum. Patriotism. Our Judeo-Christian heritage. Western civilization.”

As Nordlinger later notes, conservatism is not only a set of ideas but a posture towards political life. It is characterized by prudence, moderation and the value of institutions. Most of all though, it is a conservation of the liberal revolution of the American founding. The ideas of personal freedom, individual rights, small government — these were radically liberal at the time of the Constitution. It’s why, often, the word conservatism is used alongside the term “classical liberalism.”

By 1980, figures like Ronald Reagan helped carry the mantle of these ideas in politics, making “Reganite” a proud moniker for conservatism and “neocon” a less-proud one. More subtly though, in the public consciousness, it made “Republican” a synonym for conservative too. While the Republican party was a helpful vehicle for conservative ideas, it was never as important as the ideas themselves. Since 2016, while the Republican party could still be described as right-wing, it is certainly not conservative. Vivek Ramaswamy said at the debate that he was “the only one on the stage that wasn’t a neocon.” I wish.

One of the defining moments of the debate was when moderator Bret Baier asked these oh-so-serious candidates whether they would still support front-runner Trump as the Republican nominee if he was convicted of a federal crime. Every hand but two shot up with embarrassing enthusiasm. That includes Ron Desantis, who Trump refers to as either “Meatball Ron” or “Ron Desanctimonious” depending on how he feels that day. It includes Mike Pence, who I’m sure still has fuzzy memories of the January day where Secret Service agents scrambled to protect him as a Trump-supporting mob stormed through the Capitol chanting “Hang Mike Pence.” It even includes Nikki Haley who, in response to the Jan. 6 attack, stated, “[Trump] went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.” I suppose Nikki thinks we should take her seriously, not literally. 

None of these candidates have reasons — ideological or otherwise — to support Trump. They support him solely because that’s what earns them good-standing as a Republican, and there is nothing these candidates fear more than being called a RINO (Republican-In-Name-Only), a favorite right-wing pejorative, on Fox News. This unmooring from any kind of ideological principle is profoundly dangerous. 

If you were to ask any of these candidates what their guiding principles are, they would all eventually respond the same way: “conservatism.” 

Many of these “conservatives” spent the night backing an accused felon for president, shrugging off election denial, praising Vladimir Putin, decrying the “two-tiered” justice system and expressing their disgust towards today’s America. There’s not even anything particularly right-wing about those sentiments, which is maybe why the candidates sprinkled a few sneering comments about “boys in girls’ locker rooms” to establish their
right-of-center bona fides.

To go back to Nordlinger’s definition of conservatism, how does scoffing at Trump’s felony charges stand for the rule of law? How does wielding government power to fight a war against “wokeness” constitute light regulation? Is dismissing climate change as a “hoax” exercising sensible stewardship over the land? Isn’t shrugging-off the atrocities being committed by Russia dismissing both human rights and national security? I don’t know what word encapsulates these ideas, but conservative certainly isn’t it.

The deeper implications of the candidates’ positions were more disheartening. 

If conservatives are to protect our societal institutions, why are they supporting Trump, a man who has put more strain on religious, educational, legal and communal institutions than any politician in recent memory? How can you value the liberal revolution of the American founding and support those who advocate suspending the Constitution, as Trump asked Mike Pence to do on the day of the infamous insurrection? 

The anti-conservative worldview displayed at the debate reveals a sickness that has infected the whole of the Republican party.

Some symptoms of this sickness were worse than others, though. Mike Pence at least tried to seem conservative. He spoke with forced reverence about his oath to protect the Constitution, mostly to justify his actions at the Jan. 6 attacks to the skeptical audience. Pence patted himself on the back for not overturning the election at Trump’s behest, which is, at best, the moral equivalent of being in a bank that’s being robbed and bragging about not helping the robbers load the truck.

In the midst of all this, though, there were glimmers of actual conservatism that broke through. Anti-Trump candidate Chris Christie stood up for conservative ideas all night, if you could hear him through the “boos” of the crowd. “I will always stand up for our Constitution, regardless of the political pressure.” He was heckled, but he stood his ground. There were other examples too. Christie, Haley and even Pence stood against Desantis’ indifference towards Ukraine and Ramaswamy’s adulation of Putin. 

If there is anything conservatives should be against, it’s authoritarianism, and if there’s anything they should be for, it should be a country fighting tooth-and-nail for its freedom. Some on the stage seemed to recognize that. There was even discussion of lowering the national debt, and there was a general respect for fiscal responsibility. The rule of law was brought up, even if it had a glaring Trump-sized exception.

It’s good to recognize these moments of hope for the Republican party. But, at the same time, conservatives should not reward half-hearted nods toward their ideals. There was no collective defense of conservatism that emphatically labeled Trump as anti-conservative and no realistic contenders who are speaking out against the new right-wing ideas that seemed to be the real stars of the night. 

If conservatives want the Republican party to be the party of conservatism and not the party of Trump, we are going to have to demand better from our elected officials. Principles over party; conservatism over Republican-ism.