Almost two years ago, I wrote an article for Politico endorsing Donald Trump for president. It was a tongue-in-cheek effort—I “supported” Trump only because I thought he would lose to Hillary Clinton, disastrously, and that his defeat would cleanse the Republican Party of the extremism and nuttiness that drove me out of it. I had hoped that post-2016, what remained of the moderate wing of the GOP would reassert itself as it did after the Goldwater debacle in 1964, and exorcise the crazies.

Trump was a guaranteed loser, I thought. In the Virginia presidential primary, I even voted for him, hoping to hasten the party’s demise. In the weeks before the November election, I predicted a Clinton presidency would fix much of what ails our country. On November 8, I voted for Clinton and left the ballot booth reasonably sure she would win.

Needless to say, I was as dumbfounded by the election results as Max Bialystock was by the success of “Springtime for Hitler.” For two months after Trump won, I couldn’t read any news about the election, and considered abandoning political commentary permanently. It wasn’t just that Trump disgusted me; I was disgusted with myself for being so stupid. I no longer trusted my own powers of observation and analysis.

Almost everything that has happened since November 8 has been the inverse of what I’d imagined. Trump didn’t lose; he won. The Republican Party isn’t undergoing some sort of reckoning over what it believes; his branch of the Republican Party has taken control. Most troubling, perhaps, is that rather than reassert themselves, the moderate Republicans have almost all rolled over entirely.

Trump has turned out to be far, far worse than I imagined. He has instituted policies so right wing they make Ronald Reagan, for whom I worked, look like a liberal Democrat. He has appointed staff people far to the right of the Republican mainstream in many positions, and they are instituting policies that are frighteningly extreme. Environmental Protection Administration Administrator Scott Pruitt proudly denies the existence of climate change, and is doing his best to implement every item Big Oil has had on its wish list since the agency was established by Richard Nixon. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is actively hostile to the very concept of public education and is doing her best to abolish it. Every day, Attorney General Jeff Sessions institutes some new policy to take incarceration and law enforcement back to the Dark Ages. Trump’s proposed budget would eviscerate the social safety net for the sole purpose of giving huge tax cuts to the ultrawealthy.

And if those policies weren’t enough, conservatives—who, after all, believe in liberty and a system of checks and balances to restrain the government to its proper role—have plenty of reason to be upset by those actions Trump has taken that transcend our traditional right-left ideological divide. He’s voiced not only skepticism of NATO, but outright hostility to it. He’s pulled America back from its role as an international advocate for human rights. He’s attacked the notion of an independent judiciary. He personally intervened to request the FBI to ease up on its investigation of a former adviser of his, then fired FBI Director James Comey and freely admitted he did so to alleviate the pressure he felt from Comey’s investigation. For those conservatives who were tempted to embrace a “wait-and-see” approach to Trump, what they’ve seen, time and again, is almost unimaginable.

And yet as surprising as this all has been, it’s also the natural outgrowth of 30 years of Republican pandering to the lowest common denominator in American politics. Trump is what happens when a political party abandons ideas, demonizes intellectuals, degrades politics and simply pursues power for the sake of power.

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In the wake of Goldwater’s defeat, many conservatives concluded that their philosophy was insufficiently well-grounded in the social sciences and lacked an empirical foundation. For example, Goldwater talked about privatizing Social Security, but had no plan whatsoever for how to do it. Hearing his rhetoric on the subject, those receiving Social Security assumed, not unreasonably, that they would just be cut off.

Conservative leaders like William F. Buckley, the editor of National Review, the leading conservative publication, took to heart progressive historian Richard Hofstadter’s critique of widespread paranoia on the right. Buckley purged the extreme libertarians like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, anti-Semites like Willis Carto of the Liberty Lobby, and the conspiracy-obsessed John Birch Society. And he made peace with the civil rights movement, as historian Al Felzenberg has documented.

In the 1970s, the conservative movement became receptive to moderate conservatives, called “neoconservatives,” such as Irving Kristol (father of Bill, the prominent anti-Trump conservative), who had been turned off by the anti-intellectualism of movement conservatism in the Goldwater era. Irving Kristol established an important journal, The Public Interest, which brought intellectual rigor and sophisticated policy analysis to the conservative table. Politicians like my former boss, Representative Jack Kemp, began reading it religiously. Others, like Rep. Dave Stockman, wrote for it and made names for themselves in the process. Eventually, this crowd found a powerful leader in Reagan, who appointed important neoconservatives like Stockman and Jeane Kirkpatrick to high-level positions.

The Heritage Foundation, established in 1973, was formed in part to provide policy analysis that was conservative, deeply studied and concisely digestible. When I worked there in the mid-1980s, it was a genuine think tank, an intellectual institution that did academic-quality research. We saw our job as putting policy flesh on the bones of Reagan’s conservative rhetoric, helping plow the ground for conservative initiatives too radical to be proposed by the administration just yet. In this era, important work was done at Heritage on reforming the tax system, welfare, Social Security and the health system—work that has stood the test of time.

When I became active in the Republican Party in the mid-1970s, it was the party of thoughtful men and women who were transforming America’s domestic policies while strengthening its moral leadership on the global stage. As Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a July 1980 New York Times article, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.”

And then, everything began to change.

Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 after nationalizing the election into broad themes and catchphrases. Newt Gingrich, the marshal of these efforts, even released a list of words Republican candidates should use to glorify themselves (common sense, prosperity, empower) and hammer their opponents (liberal, pathetic, traitors); soon, every Republican in Congress spoke the same language, using words carefully run through focus groups by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Budgets for House committees were cut, bleeding away policy experts, and GOP committee chairs were selected based on loyalty to the party and how much money they could raise. Gone were the days when members were incentivized to speak with nuance, or hone a policy expertise (especially as committee chairs could now serve for only six years). In power, Republicans decided they didn’t need any more research or analysis; they had their agenda, and just needed to get it enacted. Only a Democratic president stood in their way, and so 100 percent of Republicans’ efforts went into attempting to oust or weaken Bill Clinton and, when that failed, elect a Republican president who would do nothing but sign into law bills passed by the GOP Congress.

President George W. Bush didn’t realize he was supposed to just be a passive bill-signing machine; he kept insisting that Republicans enact his priorities, which, often, were not very conservative—No Child Left Behind Act, steel tariffs, a tax cut with few supply-side elements. His worst transgression, for me, was the budget-busting Medicare Part D legislation, which massively expanded the welfare state and the national debt, yet was enthusiastically supported by a great many House conservatives, including Congressman Paul Ryan, who had claimed to hold office for the purpose of abolishing entitlement programs. Republican hypocrisy on the issue caused me to become estranged from my party.

In the 14 years since then, I have watched from the sidelines as Republican policy analysis and research have virtually disappeared altogether, replaced with sound bites and talking points. The Heritage Foundation morphed into Heritage Action for America, ceasing to do any real research and losing all its best policy experts as it transformed from an august center whose focus was the study and development of public policy into one devoted mainly to amplifying political campaign slogans. Talk radio and Fox News, where no idea too complicated for a mind with a sixth-grade education is ever heard, became the tail wagging the conservative dog. Conservative magazines like National Review, which once boasted world-class intellectuals such as James Burnham and Russell Kirk among its columnists, jumped on the bandwagon, dumbing itself down to appeal to the common man, who is deemed to be the font of all wisdom. (For example, the magazine abandoned the ecumenical approach to immigration of Reagan, who granted amnesty to undocumentedimmigrants in 1986, to a rigid anti-immigrant policy largely indistinguishable from the one Trump ran on.)

One real-world result of the lobotomizing of conservative intellectualism is that when forced to produce a replacement for Obamacare—something Republican leaders had sworn they had in their pocket for eight years—there was nothing. Not just no legislation—no workable concept that adhered to the many promises Republicans had made, like coverage for pre-existing conditions and the assurance that nobody would lose their coverage. You’d think that House Speaker Ryan could have found a staff slot for one person to be working on an actual Obamacare replacement all these years, just in case.

With hindsight, it’s no surprise that the glorification of anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism that has been rampant on the right at least since the election of Barack Obama would give rise to someone like Trump. Anyone who ever read Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here,” which imagined a fascist dictator taking power in 1930s America, recognizes that Trump is the real-life embodiment of Senator Buzz Windrip—a know-nothing populist who becomes president by promising something for everyone, with no clue or concern for how to actually accomplish it. Windrip was “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic,” Lewis wrote. “Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only the wings of a windmill.”

Conservatives are starting to accept that Trump is not the leader they had hoped for and is more of a liability for their agenda than an asset. They are also starting to recognize that their intellectual infrastructure is badly damaged, in need of repair, and that the GOP and intellectual conservatism are not interchangeable. The Heritage Foundation recently fired its president, former Senator Jim DeMint, in part because he had allowed its research capabilities to deteriorate. The journal National Affairs aspires to be the serious, conservative policy-oriented journal that The Public Interest was. And some leaders, like Bill Kristol, have courageously stood up against the GOP’s pervasive Trumpism (“I look forward to the day when American conservatism regains its moral health and political sanity, and the David Horowitz center is back on the fringe, where I’m afraid it belongs,” Kristol recently told the Washington Post).

These are small steps, and promising—you have to start somewhere, after all—but what conservative intellectuals really need for a full-blown revival is a crushing Republican defeat—Goldwater plus Watergate rolled into one. A defeat so massive there can be no doubt about the message it sends that Trumpian populism and anti-intellectualism are no path to conservative policy success. In the meantime, there are hopeful signs that the long-dormant moderate wing of the GOP is coming alive again. In Kansas, Trumpian Governor Sam Brownback was recently rebuked when a Republican-controlled Legislature overrode his veto to raise taxes after the cuts previously enacted by Brownback proved disastrous to the state’s finances. And although their efforts have been modest thus far, moderate Republicans in Congress have helped soften Republican initiatives on health, the budget and gays.

The implementation of long-term, successful policy change cannot be short-circuited, it must be built on a solid foundation of thinking, analysis and research by smart, well-educated people. Listening to the common man rant about things he knows nothing about is a dead-end that leads to Trump and failure because there is no “there” there, just mindless rhetoric and frustration.

Having so badly miscalled the 2016 election, I’m not going out on a limb here and predicting a 1974-style defeat for GOP members of Congress next year, and I am fully aware that Democrats are always capable of seizing defeat from the jaws of victory. But the preconditions are falling into place for a political transformation between 2018 and 2020 that could result in the type of defeat that I think is necessary for my old party and the conservative movement to rebuild themselves from the ground up.

Ideally, I’d like to see an intellectual revival on the right such as we saw after the Goldwater defeat and the Watergate debacle. Freed from the stultifying strictures and kowtowing to know-nothing Trumpian populists—perhaps building on new outlets and institutions that celebrate intellectual rigor and reject shallow sound bites—a few conservative thinkers can plow a path toward sane, responsible conservative governance, just as people like Irving Kristol and Jack Kemp did during the Carter years. (Some conservative thinkers, such as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, speculate that Mitt Romney may emerge as the leader of a sane, modern, technocratic wing of an intellectually revitalized GOP.) If a leader doesn’t emerge, moderate Republicans—many of whom did not and will not support Trump—could be lost to the Democratic Party for good.

If the Republican Party and the conservative movement abandon populism, mindless appeals to the electorate’s lowest common denominator, and the pursuit of power for the sake of power and instead pursue a fully formed policy agenda based on solid analysis and research, then I don’t think it will take very long for a Republican revival. If it takes a Trump debacle to make that happen, it will have been worth it.

Source: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/06/24/intellectual-conservatives-lost-republican-trump-215259

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