For most of American history, the “conservatives” have included those thinkers who were willing to look hard truths in the face — to realize that mankind is sinful, that the world is fallen, and that anyone who hopes to govern must face real and difficult choices. While fuzzy-headed liberals dreamed of building Utopia here on earth, conservatives recognized that sometimes there are no win-win solutions — sometimes you have to make the best of a bad lot. You can fight the South to preserve the Union — but it will result in hundreds of thousands of deaths. You can stop Hitler — but you will have to ally with Stalin to do so. You can preserve the free enterprise system — but you will have to compromise on some issues to prevent the rise of socialism.
Conservatives are supposed to understand these facts. We are supposed to be the grown-ups in the room, the ones who understand that not all endings are happy, that evil is ever-present, and that wielding power means taking responsibility for moral choices that are often excruciatingly difficult. But after America’s stunning victory in the Cold War, many conservatives drifted off into a haze of optimism. In many ways, they began emulating the same type of pie-in-the-sky thinking that one normally associates with liberals:
- When many voters worried about the threat from Islamic terrorism, conservative leaders insisted that Islam was a “religion of peace,” and that the societies of the Middle East were simply democracies waiting to flourish.
- When many voters worried about the rising economic power of China, conservative leaders claimed that the global trading system was working great, and that increased wealth would make China’s leaders more pliable on geostrategic issues.
- When many voters worried that illegal immigrants were overwhelming our society, conservative leaders insisted that illegal immigration was an “act of love,” and that we would all benefit from borders that were effectively open.
- When many voters worried that liberals on the Supreme Court would enforce gay marriage in all 50 states, conservative leaders said we didn’t need a constitutional amendment to define marriage.
- When many voters worried that President Obama was abusing his executive authority, and elected a Republican Congress to stop him, conservative leaders insisted that nothing could be done for now – but that everything would be OK once we put someone like Jeb Bush in the White House.
- When many voters expressed their concern about Obama’s willingness to look out for their interests, conservative leaders rushed to give Obama sweeping power to negotiate new trade deals.
For years, it has been obvious to the voters that conservative leaders were simply wrong on each of these points. Thousands of deaths, and trillions of dollars, have gone to waste in the Middle East. China becomes more belligerent — and richer — year after year. The surge in illegal immigration has bitterly divided our country, and has made a joke of GOP claims to be the party of law and order. Liberals on the Supreme Court — with help from a Reagan appointee — did impose gay marriage in every state, and now threaten the religious liberties of those Americans brave enough to express traditional Christian teachings on marriage. President Obama continues to abuse his power. And with the authority given him by a Republican Congress, he’s negotiated a trade deal so bad that Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of state, now has to pretend that she opposes it.
But none of these disasters shook conservative leaders from the optimistic haze in which they had lived since the Berlin Wall fell. They continued to insist that our basic policies of free trade, open borders, social liberalism, and near-permanent war were working fine, and that we just needed a thoughtful Republican — someone like Jeb Bush — back in the White House. U.S. debt continued to rise, American wages continued to struggle, China continued to threaten — but there was no real reason for a major re-think. Don’t worry, be happy. After all, wasn’t Reagan an optimist?
So the voters started to take things into their own hands. In 2010, GOP voters in Utah refused to re-nominate Sen. Bob Bennett, who had represented them since 1992. In 2012, Sen. Richard Lugar, a prominent Republican moderate, lost his seat in a Senate primary. In 2014, Rep. Eric Cantor — the House majority leader — was beaten in a GOP primary. By late 2015, Speaker John Boehner had resigned over yet another unpopular deal with the president. And the polls showed GOP voters leaning toward Donald Trump for president.
Still we were told that everything would be OK. The voters would come to their senses. They would inevitably turn to a “normal” Republican candidate. Someone like Jeb, perhaps. Or maybe Rubio. Or another “respectable” Republican office-holder who recognized the importance of open borders, political correctness, and playing nice with China. By this point, many conservative leaders had been lost in the fog of hope for so long that they couldn’t even see a threat aimed directly at them.
They were wrong again. Jeb dropped out of the 2016 GOP primary, spending over $100 million on a campaign that had almost no support from actual voters. Rubio blew up in a key debate, done in by his habit of robotically repeating his talking points. He was gone a few weeks later. Soon Trump and Ted Cruz — two outsiders — were the only serious candidates left. Still the optimists insisted that things would be fine. We’d go to a contested convention. Everything could be worked out in Cleveland. After all, Trump had “peaked” and his numbers were declining, proclaimed Karl Rove in February. He could never get over 50 percent of the Republican vote.
And they were wrong again. Now Trump stands as the presumptive GOP nominee, after a string of crushing victories from Rhode Island to Indiana. His voters aren’t optimists. They’ve been hurt by unfair trade. They’ve lost jobs to illegal immigrants. They’ve seen their faith attacked in the press. They’ve seen their culture mocked by people who spend more on their kids’ high school tuition than many people make in a year. They know how hard it can be to live in this country. And in Trump, they have found a candidate who speaks their language — someone who understands that the world is dangerous, and highly competitive. Someone who recognizes that in life, there are winners and losers — and who repeatedly states his desire for Americans to win.
It’s far too early to tell what will happen next. The Democrats will try to convince Americans that winning is no longer possible — that our best days are behind us and that this is as good as it gets. Given their support in the press, and from much of the business community, the Democrats may succeed. Fear is a powerful weapon in an election, and no one wields fear as well as the Clintons.
But if nothing else, we have to hope that the results of the last few months have finally — finally — woken many Republicans and conservatives from their slumber. It is sad but literally true that many professional conservatives are more upset over the rise of Donald Trump than they were over the rise of China — that they are more upset over the losses suffered by Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio than they were by the millions of jobs lost by working-class Americans.
I believe, however, that this defeat will sharpen their thinking, and that going forward they will not be so willing to trust that everything will work out. And some of them, at least, will come to see that our nation is in severe peril, that the dreams of free trade and open borders have not delivered what they promised, and that we need to try something else. If this happens, the Trump movement can lead to a new and stronger conservatism — and our best days really will be ahead of us.