I never thought this would happen, but Donald J. Trump is now the nominee of the Republican Party for the 2016 election. Much could be said about this. How sad, pathetic, and self destructive it is. How the other candidates attacked each other and never took Trump seriously. How the anger and ignorance of the GOP voters has gotten us into this pickle and given Hillary Clinton the greatest gift one could give her: a head-to-head match up against a buffoon, who can draw a majority of Republican voters, but who will be hard pressed to do the same with the general public (there’s a chance Trump could beat her, but it will be tough).
But I don’t want to focus on all that at the moment. Instead, what are true conservatives to do now that Trump has secured the nomination? We never thought we’d have to say this (because up to now only Democrats have uttered this phrase), but we didn’t leave the Republican Party, it left us. For the last 70 years (since 1945), the Republican Party has been the home of the conservative political movement. It has fought for women’s rights and the equal treatment of blacks; it has believed that free enterprise and economic growth are the path to prosperity and cultural vitality, championing lower taxes, property rights, the rule of law, and limited government. It has believed in the power of liberty, and free people, to live their lives as they please in order to change the world. The Republican Party certainly hasn’t been perfect, and various political and presidential candidates have at times wandered far from the conservative base. But all-in-all, the party and the philosophy have nicely merged.
However, it seems that this is now changing. The Republican Party that just embraced Donald Trump has rejected conservatism and constitutionalism. They seem well aware the Trump is not a conservative, that he is a two-faced opportunist and hypocrite who only cares about advancing his own interests. They aren’t voting for Trump based on principle or agenda; they’re voting for him because he is a strong man who will impose his will upon the political class and shake the political establishment to its core (although, I even doubt this; Trump has successfully sold himself as the “anti-establishment” candidate, but he’s not. He’s very well established, for example, as a long-time Democratic donor). The Trump train is the antithesis of classical liberalism, libertarianism, and constitutional conservatism. And now that the GOP has hitched itself to The Donald, it has left its political conservative roots behind. The Party has left us.
What then shall we do? It will be helpful to put things in perspective. During an election year, party politics can seem to dominate. Everything is about the party: securing delegates, SuperPAC money and support, winning the nomination — and all in order to beat the other party. Party politics can be nauseating and poisonous, but it is a necessary part of our political system as it is the most efficient way to build a coalition to win the White House and Congress. Yet arguably, the party is the least important. Parties come and go (Whig party anyone? Know-nothings?); and parties change over time (the Democrats of today are a far cry from Jacksonian Democrats of the early and mid nineteenth century). I believe we are witnessing a major transition in the nature and purpose of the Republican Party. Perhaps from the ashes that Trump will leave behind, a Conservative Phoenix will arise that will rebirth the GOP. Or perhaps a third party of constitutional conservatives will emerge as the current GOP self-destructs.
A few months ago, I signed the #NeverTrump pledge. I meant it, and I won’t be voting for Donald (or Hillary). A few months ago I also listened to Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse speak about the relationship between a political party and a political ideology and its movement. His words rung true, and they went something like this. We are:
- Christians first (for those who are Christians)
- Americans second
- Conservatives third
- Republicans fourth
This is the proper priority. As a Christian, my allegiance is 100% to God and Christ before anything else. I’m not falling prey to a civil religion that conflates America with God’s People, or views the Constitution as being on par with Scripture. That’s nonsense, even though it has been quite popular throughout our history. My hope first and foremost is in Christ’s return, his just judgment, his vindication of the saints, and his consummation of his Kingdom. However, I am also an American. This is my nationality and my ethnic heritage. It is part of my bodily existence and enculturated life. I don’t know what it’s like to exist as a non-American. I am rightly proud of America, as I believe she has been an incredibly good and great nation — not without her sins and faults of course, many of which she has overcome. I deeply believe in the goodness and rightness of the American creed: that all people are created equal, have been endowed with dignity by their Creator, and have been given the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of human flourishing (which is what “happiness” meant in the 18th century; look up Aristotle and the concept of eudaimonia). I believe that humans are by nature corrupt, and so limited government with delegated power and the balance of powers is an absolute necessity to guard agains the evils of tyranny. I am an American, and unashamed to say I’m proud to be one.
Third, I am a political conservative. This goes beyond the basic ideas that make America America (republicanism, limited government, balance of power, human equality, rule of law, public virtue and religion, etc.), and speaks to a more specific and robust political ideology: lower taxes, less regulation, no price fixing, less government spending, cutting waste, strong entrepreneurship, powerful military, the importance of marriage and the family, strong national borders, welcoming the immigrant, and so forth. If the idea of America is the foundation of our nation, then conservative ideology is the framework and superstructure around which we build our lives.
Lastly, there is the Republican Party. It would be a mistake to conflate the Republican Party with Christianity or America or Conservatism. No, the Republican Party is simply a political tool, not a belief system. It is the organization and collaboration that makes political movements and coalitions possible. Its function has been to serve as the apparatus within which conservative political ideology legislatively functions and is implemented throughout society. Within this schema, to become beholden to the Republican Party above all else and at the cost of one’s religious beliefs, Americanism, or political ideology is to be very confused. It is to reveal that one’s priorities are completely backwards and upside down. If the GOP goes down the tube with Trump, so be it. We’ve simply lost the fourth item on the list, and it can be replaced. We haven’t lost our faith, our Americanness, or our conservative political beliefs. Whether the Republican Party is transformed or a completely new party takes it place, what’s important are the first three items.
While we conservatives shouldn’t freak out, we have lost the political machinery by which we can advance conservative ideology. This is a loss; don’t think otherwise. Ideology without coalition, political willpower, and a party is mostly ineffective — at least on the national scale we are talking about. The two need to be wed to positively impact a society, but there’s nothing saying the conservative movement has to be wed to the Republican Party. So while this election is likely lost, we should neither abandon our conservatism, our Americanism, nor our Christian faith. We should do what we can to continue to teach others about our beliefs, to work toward retaining the House and Senate, to contribute to local politics, and to reflect on just what happened this election cycle. This last part is important. Without addressing the root cultural dysfunction and fragmentation that has become settled fact in America, without combatting ignorance and fear and corruption, our efforts in 2018 and 2020 will likely make little difference.
So keep on keeping on. Hold to your faith. Continue to live as people of integrity and honesty, serving your family and friends, loving your neighbors and your enemies. Continue to believe in the American experiment, and if you don’t know much about that, then be curious and open-minded enough to learn about our history. Don’t abandon conservative political principles; instead, seek to strengthen them, test them, and find creative ways to share them with others. Trump may have left the station and taken our party with him, but we are still here and we won’t be going away anytime soon.
Ben is a graduate of Denver Seminary, having completed a double MA in New Testament Biblical Studies and Christian Apologetics and Ethics. He will be pursuing a PhD in Politics at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College starting in fall 2019. He loves reading, drinking coffee, and hiking in the Colorado Rockies. His academic interests include biblical languages and exegesis, theology, philosophy, politics, and economics.