This election is the final proof we didn’t need that the Republican Party of 2020 is truly the party of Donald Trump. He remade the party in imago Trumpi. As a result of his ascent within the party, many conservative ideas are ideologically homeless. Though Trump continues to cite legal challenges, Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States. This will undeniably change Republican strategy compared to the last four years. But instead of mourning Trump’s loss, conservatives should look for a silver lining. Conservative ideas will benefit from an internal power vacuum, a chance to build unity, and the energy that comes from being the party out of executive power. The silver lining of a Biden presidency is that conservatives have a unique window to regroup, refresh, and re-energize.
The party now has a chance to regroup after the loss of the presidency. It now can explore a diversity of ideas without having to play loyalty games. Trump’s personality cult and Twitter stream allowed him to squash opposition internally. During his presidency, Republican members of Congress reduced internal debate in order to minimize the risk of raising Trump’s ire. They were under continuous threat of Trump unleashing a public barrage of criticisms, not to mention snappy nicknames. This created genuine fear of questioning his choices and reduced diversity of thought and leadership. When Biden solidified his lead in the polls, a growing number of Republicans began to break ranks with Trump. In this new power vacuum, a politician with a solid foundation of ideas, such as Ben Sasse or Nikki Haley, could unite constituents.
In recent history, the Reagan coalition – made up of libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-communists – allowed intellectual diversity within the party and a critical mass for collective action. These groups generally believed in freer markets, the need for a morality as a bedrock of society, and U.S. protection of freedom abroad. Trump rejected each of these tenets in different ways. He questioned markets with his aggressive tariff schedule, the need for morality in his personal actions, and foreign interference with his intention to withdraw from the war in Afghanistan and various international bodies. It is increasingly difficult to find any overlap between current libertarians and national conservatives. One is pro-market and skeptical of social engineering, the other skeptical of markets and pro-social engineering. In other words, what does Rand Paul have to do with Marco Rubio?
A Biden administration offers a chance to refresh the ideas of the party. Liberal news outlets gleefully latched onto the fact that the Republican Party this year didn’t offer a new platform from 2016. Their criticism was generally warranted. The party has been tall on personality and short on ideas.
One set of ideas that has been homeless the past four years is fiscal conservatism. Trump is certainly no proponent of limiting government spending. The federal government is poised to spend more during four years of Trump than in eight years of Obama. Even when you exclude the pandemic period and the 2008 crisis, Trump spent more in his first three years than Obama spent in his last three. “Trump’s pugilistic style masks the fact that his policies on fiscal management, federal entitlement programs, trade and various social issues are all considerably to the left of his party’s historical orthodoxy.” New leadership within the party has the chance to cast a new vision of why fiscal conservatism is important.
A Biden presidency would also be an opportunity to re-energize support. A potential split government with a Democratic presidency and Republican Senate could energize grassroots organizations. The Tea Party movement was a direct result of conservatives being out of power and forced to find solutions and common ground. They formed movements which were more about ideas and less about the will to power. Conservatives must deftly resist the pull of conspiratorial voices such as those from the QAnon movement and instead build a coalition that has both a solid intellectual backing and can garner popular support.
At risk is conservatives’ ability to communicate their ideas to a large enough demographic. As David Brooks argues, the Democratic Party has convinced the majority of the U.S. to accept its basic assumptions:
The Democrats won the big argument of the 20th century. It’s not that everybody has become a Democrat, but even many Republicans are now embracing basic Democratic assumptions. Americans across the board fear economic and physical insecurity more than an overweening state. The era of big government is here.
This assessment is dire for the future of conservative ideas. While the presidential election proved that Trump could still garner a sizable portion of the popular vote, support for him personally does not necessarily translate into support for conservative ideas. Conservatives will need to have a singular focus to create a compelling alternative to a headlong rush into progressivism.
Instead of continuing to play the unappetizing role of reactionary, conservatives must create a compelling, positive vision of what America could be. To start, a focus on a grounded American optimism would unite disparate elements within the movement. The U.S. can celebrate the novel ideas of its founding while recognizing that we have not always lived up to those lofty ideals. Nikki Haley described the optimism that the U.S. inspires abroad, saying, “When the cameras were off at the UN, ambassadors from all parts of the world made it clear to me they envy our ability to live and speak freely.” Disparate factions of the conservative movement can all support a vision of American in which our freedoms are uniformly protected and we are all equal under the law. Those rights and privileges are unique and valuable.
Additionally, conservatives can and must demonstrate true compassion for the downtrodden. Free marketers have been rightly criticized for using the market as a big, red “that was easy” button instantly solving all problems. Instead, they must communicate both the pragmatic and principled case for freer markets. Capitalism is not preferable because it creates wealthy individuals; every society creates an upper class. The free market is preferable, because it has been the greatest engine for lifting the desperate out of poverty. These ideas are only a small start to the work that needs to be done to clarify and strengthen the conservative consensus.
For at least the next four years, Joe Biden will be driving policy in the White House, and he will have his own divisions within the party to work through. But instead of mourning the loss of power, perhaps conservatives should welcome the opportunity to regroup, refresh, and re-energize around a grounded optimism for the future of the country. A Biden administration might be bad for conservative policies, but it would be good for conservative ideas.