How Donald Trump Broke The Conservative Movement (And My Heart)
The conservatism of Goldwater, Reagan, and Buckley and its romantic notions of limited government dominated Republican politics for half a century. The rise of Trump marks a seismic shift for those of us for whom this wasn't just a philosophy — it was an identity.
Outside the city limits of Phoenix, past an electric gate, up a bare hill, and inside a sandstone house of triangular rooms, Barry Goldwater announced he was running for president.
He got destroyed. He won just six states in 1964, including his own. His campaign was a disaster. His candidacy was buoyed by a box of snakes: segregationists, anti-communist conspiracists, the remnants of Midwestern isolationism. His vote against the Civil Rights Act forever shadows his legacy.
But Goldwater is not remembered only for these things. He was, in 1964, the vehicle for a new kind of conservatism in American politics. Amid an optimistic, tectonic expansion of the federal government, this was the idea that America was blindly accepting the answer to choices about what government could do and ignoring what it meant — even if government could do the job — for the individual.
This vision for conservatism had a uniquely American premise: that conservatism could be divorced from European nationalism. Why, instead, couldn’t conservatism be coupled with free-market economics? Why couldn’t conservatism hew to the U.S. Constitution, the classically liberal principles of the Enlightenment? “Those who flee the crowded, regulated cities of the East, with their noise, congestion, and friction, find here that all the virtues of private enterprise extolled by John Stuart Mill are still valid,” Theodore White wrote of Arizona at the time." And in embodying these virtues, these ideological choices, Goldwater then becomes conservatism’s John the Baptist.
“The fault is not only in government, but in us, too,” he would tell a Memorial Day crowd. “Ask yourself before going to bed tonight: Did I live today with hate? Did I steal, cheat, hate, take shortcuts? If you answer yes, you haven’t been a good American.”
Movement conservatism began in the 1950s (when William F. Buckley Jr. founded National Review). And movement conservatism prospered long after 1964 (when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980). And in between, thousands would create groups, join groups, write books. But in Goldwater — a complicated figure — the movement had its first major party nominee.
So here, in the desert, remote from the money, remote from the Republican Party, remote from everything, Goldwater announced his bid for the presidency to local reporters and state troopers, with young supporters standing at his gate. This was the beginning. “Here,” White wrote at the time, “in a world of exuberant growth, dreams come true.”
And it was here, outside Goldwater’s house, that three local TV reporters recently realized the dream of waiting in vain for Donald Trump. For more than an hour, they languished in 109-degree heat, just to watch Trump drive up the street for a fundraiser inside. (He drove up the back way, of course.)
But the original house without rectangular rooms no longer exists: The current owners (Goldwater admirers) oversaw a major demolition; it was an old home. It's now the kind of neighborhood (the hill is no longer bare) where along a police-approved dead-end road, the local TV reporters watched a new black Range Rover drive by, then a Lexus in that ugly ’90s teal, driven by a high schooler visibly confused by the TV truck and the cops and the people just milling around, the kind of confusion that might make you wonder: What if Donald Trump were in your neighborhood? Since 1963, the Phoenix metropolitan area has grown 529.9% to become the country’s 12th largest. The effect, as in large swaths of Florida, is staggering natural beauty and friendly familiarity. Fifteen minutes away, you can step into a Staples, Starbucks, and Whole Foods that look and smell just like every Staples, Starbucks, and Whole Foods in America. The Goldwater girls aren’t standing at the electric gate anymore.
What he has revealed is how conservatism isn’t sacrosanct, how precarious ideology is, how little people need to accept something in the name of partisanship.
There’s a way to look at Trump’s fundraiser — and his candidacy — that offers clarity: This is the end of the conservative movement. Trump is the grinning skeleton in the crowd; what he reveals about other people is the most important thing about him. And what he has revealed is how conservatism isn’t sacrosanct, how precarious ideology is, how little people need to accept something in the name of partisanship. “That’s when I know it’s over,” Junot Diaz writes in a story about a breakup. “As soon as you start thinking about the beginning, it’s the end.”
In 1966, about two years after Lyndon Johnson beat the hell out of him but just before conservatives began their sweeping takeover of the Republican Party, Buckley interviewed Goldwater about the state of the conservative movement. Goldwater sits stiff, tucked into a chair while Buckley swings his leg around, talking and talking, all in plodding black and white. You expect the girl with the chainsaw to walk out and chop the screen off to reveal MTV.
“I might say, Bill,” Goldwater tells him, “this is my chief worry as a conservative, that we have put so much power in the office of the presidency that someday, the wrong man could come along.”
Something unusual happens before Donald Trump speaks at some rallies. A young man in a sharp, slim-cut suit walks onstage and delivers an ideological speech. And maybe because people are expecting Trump to finally appear instead of his adviser, or maybe because his speech is immediately and jarringly followed by “Tiny Dancer,” Stephen Miller does not garner the response he deserves.
The Deloitte recruiter, the college tour guide, that one Walgreens clerk who always tells you to take the survey on your receipt, to tell us how we’re doing — this is the tone in which Stephen Miller addresses a crowd. Forceful yet chipper, familiar yet contained. Practiced passion. He’s a good speaker, folks.
“Are you ready,” he begins, “to elect a man who’s going to finally secure the border of the United States of America? Are you ready to elect a man who will never apologize for putting the American people first?”
What about a man who will ensure your children come first in their own country? A man who can’t be bought, who can’t be purchased?
Well, folks, if you aren’t ready, Stephen Miller is here to reassure you.
“Don’t let anyone,” he says, “tell you you’re not a good person because you want to control immigration.”
“Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not a good person because you believe the American people should come first.”
The phrase “America First” has a bad history. It originated long before Donald Trump started saying it in speeches, long before Pat Buchanan used it. This was before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, when a group of American elites argued against entering World War II.
“Most of us feel that our first duty — not our only duty, but our first duty — is to our own family and nation,” wrote Anne Morrow Lindbergh, then a novelist of some success, in 1940. “Only by following this precept can we effectively give to the outsider.” She wrote those words in a slim volume titled The Wave of the Future: A Confession of Faith, which became something of an infamous fascism apologia. (She wasn’t supporting the behavior of the Nazis, you see, but she could not help but notice how the Germans, the Russians, and the Italians had captured a revolutionary economic spirit.)
Only through such pacifism could we preserve our pristine American values. “Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength,” her husband, the famous Charles Lindbergh, explained in 1941. “History shows that it cannot survive war and devastations.” Also, he added, “A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not.”
But that was a long time ago, this is now, and Stephen Miller's America First talk isn't like that. (His family is Jewish, for one thing.) He’s talking about the border.
“Folks, the definition of compassion is protecting your own neighbors,” he explains. “The definition of compassion is looking out for your own countrymen. ”
Today, we have a “rare and special” opportunity. You can guess what it is. There is a man, a rare and special man, who will tell those “who let down all of our families” that a “new day” is upon us, that “a new era of American history will dawn.” By now, the crowd is willing to answer with enthusiasm. YES, they are ready to elect a man who can’t be bought. YES, they are ready to elect a man who puts people before donors. YES, they are ready to elect a man who is going to put the American people first, last, and always.
So Stephen Miller has one more question for now, and, folks, he wants you “to shout so loud that everyone who betrayed you can hear you, everyone who let you down can hear you roar, everyone who said borders don’t matter, American citizens don’t matter,” he wants them to hear and “know a new day is coming in America.”
“Folks, are you ready to send Donald Trump to the White House?”
Four nights after the 2008 election, I sat in the back of a hotel ballroom in Charlotte, North Carolina, directly behind a wide pillar, for the duration of several speeches about conservative journalism. I was then the editor of a college conservative newspaper. Three people fell asleep at my table sometime after they stopped serving wine. It was on this special night that I learned how entertaining Twitter could be.
Welcome to the annual conference of the Collegiate Network, the child of 1964! The Collegiate Network holds a reputation for being a conspiracy — a well-funded effort to find college conservative journalists, place them in jobs, and one day remake the media itself. But the conspiracy isn’t very good.
It started in the early ’50s, when an anti-war libertarian named Frank Chodorov founded the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, with Buckley installed as its first president. Then, it was called the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (modeled after the Intercollegiate Society of Socialists, or ISS), and the goal was to furnish college campuses with conservatism. Walter Lippmann, one of the luminaries of mid-century journalism who had also been a member of the Harvard socialists, described those days thusly: “Our object was to make reactionaries stand-patters; stand-patters conservative liberals; conservatives, liberals, and liberals, radicals; and radicalists, Socialists.” ISI would do the reverse. And since the Buckley tradition was funding college conservative newspapers, the Collegiate Network, an affiliate of ISI, funded college conservative newspapers.
This was the sort of thing an older man, one with the air of never having actually done anything real, might tell you about at a happy hour. The tricky parts of the once glorious past — e.g., race — were usually left out. Wood paneling and an oil portrait were usually nearby.
If you were a college conservative in the mid-2000s, there were plenty of groups like this, most of them somewhat hapless remnants of that glorious past. There was Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), which Goldwater sparked when he told its founders to redirect their energy toward organizing. There was University Information Services, another college conservative group of that era, that then became Young America’s Foundation, so it too is YAF. (Yaff!) There was the Leadership Institute, a slightly more populist and active group, founded by — yes — a Goldwater delegate. Thousands of people belonged to these groups in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. (Yaff!) Millions of dollars were poured into them over the years. (Yaff!) And if many involved were still talking about the Reagan administration, if many of the relevant people were now dead, well, the movement lived! Look at the wonderful work we’re doing!
This was something narrower — less a movement than an opportunity, less a conspiracy than controlled chaos.
The snag: This didn’t work very well. The media had not been remade. The government was bigger than ever. And the days of thousands of activists, bound together by purpose and the promises of a conservative revolution, were gone. This was something narrower — less a movement than an opportunity, less a conspiracy than controlled chaos.
It was, to be fair, a weird time to join a young conservative group; a girl at my high school had driven around with “NO BUSH NO DICK ABSTINENCE 2004” written on her back window for the better part of that fall. Everything was wrapped up in Iraq and in 9/11. The latter rearranged everything that came before and after, and if you were the kind of kid who went to conservative conferences, you either supported freedom to the ends of the earth, or you’d come down with deep skepticism about war. (In high school, as a lame and quiet rebellion, I put Bush-Cheney stickers on all my binders.)
Meanwhile, conservative groups would send us boxes of posters (George W. Bush, Ann Coulter) and books (e.g., a slim volume titled Who’s Deceiving the Liberals? with an arty drawing of Satan on the cover) that nobody quite wanted. What success meant was never quite clear. The year after the conference in Charlotte, James O’Keefe — then hot off his videos that killed ACORN, the liberal organizing group — told everyone how he’d protested the Lucky Charms leprechaun in college to expose the fallacy of identity politics. (A middle-aged investigative reporter sat miserably beside him.) The Leadership Institute once sent a guy to rile us up for the cause of liberty at Vanderbilt University, where tailgates continue past halftime. He proceeded to tell an audience of six people — who would go on to become three lawyers, a consultant, a Weekly Standard editor, and me — that we should be barnstorming the campus.
Think of a group of college kids endlessly negotiating the tension between deep nerdiness, posturing, and unsettling enthusiasm. You can, more or less, hear Trump describing the scene. (Smart guys. Very smart. Top of the class. But, I mean, dweebs with little flag pins. You ever see a beautiful woman with a guy wearing a little flag pin?) While leaving an event one summer, I promptly fell down the esteemed stairs of the University Club in Washington, D.C. Another year, some kids got in trouble for drinking too much and throwing up in the hotel pool. That’s what we’re talking about here.
Anyway, the point of all this was that we’d go, and we’d read the readings (George Orwell and Tom Wolfe and so forth), and we’d put out the paper, and meet other people who put out the paper, and who liked doing the things we did, who thought like we did, the kind of friends whose weddings we might someday attend, and in the end, set in our conservative beliefs, we would go forth into the media and change it from within.
The thing is, I wasn’t really about it. I didn’t want to protest for the cause of liberty; I’d never read William F. Buckley or G.K. Chesterton. I was unromanced by that prospect, and I remain so. I joined the paper because they let me write whatever I wanted, and I got involved because the people involved — so smart, so cool, I thought — were so nice, so welcoming, to let me into this literary club. And in the place in my heart where I am forever a little lonely, where I am forever hoping that I can pass through the day silently and avoid some mistake, I can see my future unfurling from that kindness.
But that doesn’t validate conservatism. Basically, as Chodorov put it in that 1954 barnburner The Income Tax: Root of All Evil: “Tradition has a way of hanging on even after it is, for all practical purposes, dead.”
Shortly after Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president, as balloons and confetti fell with disorienting snow-globe slowness, the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” blared through the arena.
That song is a hallmark of the Trump rally — maybe a screw-you to conservatives, maybe just a song that Trump likes, or maybe just one he knows you like, since that’s what Trump’s playlist is all about. At Trump rallies, they play Motown. They play jock jams. They play “Tiny Dancer.” They do not play the darker Stones songs, but they should.
After all, he is a man of wealth and taste, can’t you hear him knocking? Love, sister, it’s only a kiss away. Those songs — “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” “Gimme Shelter” — are all premised on the idea that there is something tenuous about modern life, that the difference between this moment and something darker is fragile, and that we are more complicit in the bad than we might realize.
“We will be a country of generosity and warmth,” Trump told the nation in his speech. “But we will also be a country of law and order.”
“There can be no prosperity without law and order.”
“Our plan will put America First,” he said, as the room exploded with applause, then whistles, then a USA! USA! USA! chant. “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.”
Trump’s America is in crisis. The country now is all “crying mothers” and “wounded American families,” a place of death and killing, a place where “innocent people suffer.” Only if it is strong again, proud again, safe again, can it be great again.
Nearly absent from this speech — Trump’s coronation before millions of people — were many of the issues that have defined and dominated the Republican Party in recent years (abortion, Israel, soluble entitlements) at the exclusion of one (immigration). More to the point: Trump is all about government. He is for a government that takes care of you. He is disinterested in talk of democratic principles. He is concerned with the inactivity of the state, not the tyranny of power. The idea that you don't want government in your life, the premise of movement conservatism for six decades, is gone.
What was the point of the last 60 years?
And nobody seems to mind that much. Yes, Trump is unpopular, but he’s popular enough. Yes, people skipped his convention, but enough went. Rick Perry spoke, Scott Walker spoke, U.S. senators spoke, the speaker of the House spoke, the majority leader of the Senate spoke. Marco Rubio appeared in a video. Bob Dole sat in his box. The delegates, who are not forgotten, who are not voiceless, cheered the hell out of that speech. Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan — Paul Ryan, the agent of free-market conservatism — took a grinning photo in the arena. What was the point of the last 60 years?
But Trump knows what the room wants. He always does.
If you didn’t think Jeb Bush was up to it, Donald Trump knows. If you didn’t quite trust Ted Cruz, Donald Trump knows. He knows that the polls aren’t really about process — they’re about validation. (We are not alone!) He understands the internet, and the way that the internet prizes novelty, authenticity, and emotional connection — all the stuff that some bemoan as lesser than. Now, data reveals that we want that emotional connection badly, that we like being entertained, that acts of kindness captivate, but so do stories of violence and injustice. We aren’t any different than we were 60 years ago. Events change; we don’t. The human condition is flawed. Trump understands that.
There is a slice of a slice of the population that may understand that need for emotional authenticity even better than Trump, or at least have internalized it. If you are currently in your mid- to late twenties, you were at an interesting age on 9/11 — old enough to understand the event, but not quite adult enough to fully comprehend.
But you know the score. The people in that hotel ballroom in Charlotte knew it! And I suspect Stephen Miller knows it too. First the impression of sweeping emotional cohesion (the forever month after 9/11), then the breakdown and a vacuum (everything after). Bad thing after bad thing after bad thing — hurricanes, wars, mass shootings — bookended with a global financial crisis. The loose organizing principle was that something worse could always happen.
And yes, yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking — that’s simplified, that’s not so unusual, the intersection of the individual and history, that’s just becoming an adult. And here’s what I’m suggesting to you: It is unusual for that process to start with 9/11 and end with a global financial crisis, and perhaps we in our late twenties are on the seams of change in the United States in a way that others are not.
The reality is that there we’re currently witnessing rapid shifts in: the geopolitics of Europe and the Middle East, the politics of U.S. and Russian hegemony, the demographic makeup of the United States, the way we buy things, the way we communicate. The reality is that Hillary Clinton is the last globalist, the last interventionist, the last corporatist left in the race. The American tradition for a century has been globalist, interventionist, corporatist. But traditions can end, parties can change, ideologies can die out. We are living through the end of an inflection point that started 15 years ago. Do not underestimate that what happens next could be something you’ve never seen before.
And yes, it could be that this year has been a fever dream rather than an unraveling, that the political process will right itself, that the next thing will look a lot like the last thing. But if it isn't, if the jaggedness doesn't recede, if something doesn’t break, if things continue to be so disorienting, if you always suspected that this was coming, well, Stephen Miller and I have one last question for you and, baby, we want to hear you scream:
Are you ready for a new era of American history?