If Trump loses the race for the presidency, the GOP will have lost five of the last seven presidential races — and, in effect, a generation who will have never experienced a Republican president and would likely never vote for one. Young voters haven’t gone Republican since 1990 — and won’t in 2016.
That’s not because of Trump. It’s because conservatism doesn’t actually move voters, even “conservative” ones.
Conservatism, as articulated in the United States, prizes limited government, focus on family and faith, championing the free market economy and American exceptionalism. But it’s about more than that for true believers. Russell Kirk, the conservative historian and theorist, wrote in 1957 that “men and women are best content when they can feel that they live in a stable world of enduring values.” Conservatism holds that change should be slow and steady, or not attempted at all. In short, if progressivism is about moving forward, conservatism is about staying still. The challenge, then, is that conservatism is at odds not only with progressivism and liberalism, but with the voters of the party most closely associated with it — the GOP.
“Conservatism is rarely popular,” Michael B. Dougherty, senior correspondent for The Week, told MTV News. “And it is also a particularly difficult sell in America. Conservatives likely fooled themselves on the popularity of their entire package. Many people who vote Republican may be attracted to just one or two ideas that conservatives espouse, not everything that goes with it.” That's why traditionally, successful Republican candidates for president aren’t actually as conservative as the party says they are.
Take Barry Goldwater, for example. In 1964, Goldwater was the Republican nominee for president. He was perhaps the most conservative nominee in American history, advocating not only a final battle with the forces of Communism, but an end to farm subsidies (which remain, over half a century later, very popular with Republican voters). And he lost, badly, partly because of his conservatism. In the New Hampshire primary, Goldwater was forced to refigure his campaign after his opponent, Nelson Rockefeller, alleged that Goldwater wanted to end Social Security. President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign seized on the moment, producing an ad featuring two hands tearing up a Social Security card to illustrate Goldwater’s extremism. The ad made it crystal clear to voters that Goldwater — and conservatism — were not just bad ideas, but actually dangerous. Of course, Social Security, a massive government program providing support for older Americans using payroll taxes, has been hated by conservatives since it was launched in 1935. But even the most conservative presidential candidate in history couldn’t get away with actually saying that.
Ronald Reagan learned from Goldwater’s mistakes. While decrying “big government,” Reagan increased the number of federal employees by about 324,000 to nearly 5.3 million. Reagan’s speeches and sentiments about how America could do anything it put its collective mind to were inspiring, but not very conservative. Reagan blasted his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, for imploring the nation to self-regulate, while telling Americans that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” The author Andrew Bacevich wrote, “Beguiling his fellow citizens with his talk of ‘morning in America,’ the faux-conservative Reagan added to America’s civic religion two crucial beliefs: Credit has no limits, and the bills will never come due.” Conservatism isn’t optimistic, it’s realistic. But Reagan recognized that in 1980s America, that’s not what American voters wanted — and he won two terms in office. Running as an incumbent in 1984, Reagan won young first-time voters by 20 points.
In 2016, the most conservative primary candidates were Scott Walker — who dropped out in September 2015 — and Ted Cruz, who lost the race in May of this year. It’s not conservatism that’s popular with GOP voters right now — it’s Trumpism. Trumpism rejects American exceptionalism and believes that America, as it exists today, is a failure. Trumpism wants the federal government to use eminent domain to seize thousands of miles of territory from Texans to build a multi-billion dollar wall with Mexico. Trumpism opposes abortion — or doesn’t, because despite more than 40 years of GOP rhetoric, it’s just not very important.
Even the GOP itself has recognized that conservative ideology doesn’t attract voters, and was beginning to try to adjust its message to a changing electorate. “If you look at what the GOP House under [Paul] Ryan — it’s like an alternate universe,” Mark Hemingway, senior writer for The Weekly Standard, told MTV News. “They were pursuing antipoverty efforts and criminal justice reform. And heading into 2016 you had the ‘reformocon’ [reformist conservative] project trying to get GOP tax policy away from slashing marginal rates and moving it toward a tax code that supports family formation and encourages income mobility.” But even that is losing to Trumpism — an ideology focused on racial and economic resentment. Its voters, in Dougherty’s words, are “just desperate for some kind of change to the system, some kind of kick in the guts.” They don’t want conservatism. They want a fucking war.
Trumpism, which might lose the GOP the presidency again, is more popular than conservatism, and it’s the GOP’s fault. Unable to sell voters on its stated core values, the party has tried everything else before settling on a toxic brew of increasingly explicit racism and nationalism. “The GOP has been a party to creating the discontent that shapes Trump’s hardcore support,” Dougherty said. “It’s the GOP’s fault for encouraging a corrosive style of politics, in which people try to will their personal anxieties onto the country itself. Truly, people now consciously decide to act more embittered and victimized than they are in real life, and think that by acting this way, reality starts to conform to the act. It really is the kind of self-talk of a huckster.”
The GOP is now effectively two parties. One is the party of Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, with bow ties and foundation grants and an understanding of the party as a tool for change. One is the party of Donald Trump, with “meme magic” and outrage and an understanding of the party as a weapon to bludgeon opponents. They hate each other. By 2020, they could break apart entirely. And conservatism, the basis of the GOP's purported ideology, has already lost.