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October 19th, 2017

Insight

Trump, Trumpism and the conservatives' challenge

Ramesh Ponnuru

By Ramesh Ponnuru Bloomberg View

Published April 3, 2017

Trump, Trumpism and the conservatives' challenge

If President Donald Trump really wants to bring the House Freedom Caucus to heel, he will probably have to escalate his attacks on them. Tweets about the group of 30 or so of the most conservative Republicans in the House won't do it. He will have to name individual members and recruit strong primary challengers against them -- and not just threaten to do it.

And while we often hear that the Republican Party now belongs to Trump, primary challengers hoping to defeat conservative congressmen will have three problems he didn't face during his run for president. They are unlikely to be as famous as Trump, they probably won't command the media attention he did, and they will be running against established incumbents. Last year, candidates attempting to run as mini-Trumps took on two conservative incumbents -- House Speaker Paul Ryan and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio -- and lost badly.

You can see why Trump would want more loyal allies in Congress. Rich Lowry, in a column published in JWR, writes that "Trumpism is in crisis," because there is no Trumpist cadre in Congress. The Freedom Caucus is generally animated by a vision of limited government to which Trump is at best indifferent.

Trumpism has a deeper problem, though, which is that it doesn't, well, exist.

You can piece together a coherent and distinctive political program, maybe even a political philosophy, from some of Trump's most deeply held positions and from the interests and views of his most dedicated fans. The components would include restrictions on trade and immigration, a foreign policy based frankly on a narrow conception of American interests, a moderate social conservatism, and support for activist government when it helps working-class voters.

Trumpism so defined would surely appeal to a lot of Republican voters, and probably to a lot of non-Republicans, too. But it would leave a lot of other Republican voters cold. And it doesn't just lack the allegiance of Congress.

It's not even the worldview of many of Trump's executive-branch appointees. Rex Tillerson, Betsy DeVos, Tom Price: It's a Cabinet full of business Republicans and movement conservatives. Even if Trump had wanted to staff his administration with Trumpists, he could not have found enough of them who were remotely qualified. (Barry Goldwater would have had the same problem if he had been elected in 1964.)

And it's not clear that Trump is a Trumpist himself. If he were, he probably would not be criticizing the Freedom Caucus for refusing to support Speaker Ryan's health-care bill. He would be criticizing the bill because it would cause many working-class voters to lose their health insurance. A true Trumpist wouldn't have made tax cuts geared to the affluent central to his agenda, either.

Perhaps the logic of Trump's positions and his support base will move him toward a consistent Trumpism. Even if it does, governing in a Trumpist way would require him to act in cooperation with non-Trumpists -- most of the time, with conventionally conservative Republicans.

Since he doesn't have much of an alternative, that's what he's mostly doing. He is emphasizing points of agreement between conservatism and Trumpism, such as immigration control. He is letting conservatives have their way on issues that are important to them but not to him, such as the courts. An additional step that may be beyond him would be to find ways to pursue Trumpist goals, such as facilitating the creation of good middle-class jobs, that are congenial to conservatives.

Attacking your coalition partners over Twitter would probably not be a major component of any rational Trumpist strategy.

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Ramesh Ponnuru has covered national politics and public policy for 18 years. He is an author and Bloomberg View columnist.


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