I don’t buy it, mainly because there is no evidence that in the post-Reagan era there has ever any popular demand for the three utopian projects of libertarian economic policy, neoconservative foreign policy or “theoconservative” moral restoration. The first two were elite projects, at odds with the popularity of Social Security and Medicare among working-class Republican voters—and at odds as well with the unpopularity of neocon wars of regime change and nation-building, in countries which are not immediate threats to the United States. The “moral majority” was always a moral minority, even among white working-class Republicans. The success of Trump in winning the support of many evangelical voters shows that even those voters care about issues other than sex and school prayer.
If anything, the Republican masses are more conservative, in the traditional sense, than the so-called conservative intellectuals. They want the federal government to enforce existing immigration laws and to retaliate against the attempts of state-capitalist mercantilist regimes like China to gain unfair market share in the United States and the world. These policies have costs, but as long as Americans are willing to pay the costs it is quite possible to deter illegal immigration and retaliate against cheating in international trade.
Most illegal economic migration is demand-driven, not supply-driven. Slap a few high-profile employers of illegal immigrant labor with fines or jail sentences, and the flow will dry up with employer demand, even without a sea-to-sea border fence or wall.
Likewise, imposing penalties on foreign mercantilism and/or enacting local content requirements mandating a degree of in-market production in the United States or North America technically is quite easy to do. One can argue that the costs, in the form of higher import prices or foreign counter-retaliation, exceed the benefits, but the policy is hardly utopian. A few trade treaties might have to be torn up, but what is the point of treaties that already have been rendered dead letters by foreign cheating?
My purpose is not to defend Trump voters, much less Trump himself, but to point out the absurdities of establishment conservatism. Many establishment conservatives claim that enforcing immigration laws or protecting American manufacturing are crazy, utopian pipe-dreams. And yet many of these same conservatives are committed, at least in public, to the far more utopian orthodox conservative agenda of a borderless global market and ending tyranny by American force or suasion in every country in the world. These conservatives can be compared to Soviet hacks in the 1970s or 1980s who insist that modest market reforms at home were too difficult even to attempt; best to stick to the party line of the global overthrow of capitalism, comrades!
The American right already has a non-utopian voter base whose voters are evidently uninterested in the revolutionary projects of global free trade and wars for democracy, and far less religious than their parents and grandparents. This means reconciling Republican voters with Republican policies is simply a matter of changing the policies to what the voters want.
It’s simple, really. The conservative movement merely needs to jettison its three utopian projects of libertarian economics, global democratic revolution and the reversal of the sexual revolution. Once this operation takes place, plenty of differences will remain to distinguish the American right from the American left and center, even if conservatives end their war on Social Security and switch from foreign nation-building to nation-building at home.
To be sure, a post-utopian American Right might disappoint and drive away some conservative thinkers and activists who actually believe in one or more of the three utopian crusades. But if I am correct, and most movement conservative operatives are really just paying lip service to these policies, I would expect them to adapt quickly to a new, post-utopian American conservative movement. All they need to do is drop the pretense of believing in utopian fantasies that hardly anyone believes in anyway.
Michael Lind is a contributing editor to the National Interest, a fellow at New America, and author of The American Way of Strategy.
Image: Flickr/ Renee Eppler.