Why the Rights Changed (or Another Conservative Manifesto)
From the crash landing of the fiscal hawks to the left turning into a video game, here are some reasons that aren’t discussed that often.
There is such a thing as a creation myth about the origin of Trump’s right. It’s going ok: in the days before time itself (i.e. 2015), the conservative movement was stuck and adjusted. Then a new morning dawned. Donald Trump rose over the hill like a great sun and devastated old conservative shibboleths. Then he launched a new movement, a more nationalistic, less libertarian one, determined to face the challenges of its time and not afraid of struggle.
Like any good origin story, this story has its limits. It is not true, as is sometimes said, that libertarians unilaterally conducted Republican economic policy before Trump emerged; Libertarians would have trouble running a lemonade stand, let alone a large political party. But the broad lines of this narrative achieve something real nonetheless. Conservatism has changed palpably since Trump took that fateful journey down the golden escalator. He has grown more fond of it, more concerned with class, more combative, more sensitive to how free trade and foreign wars have affected the heartland.
Conservatives have written innumerable manifestos explaining all of this, and Far be it from me to throw another log into the fire. Rather than repeat what has already been said, let me examine a few reasons that may not be mentioned that often.
The rise of the zoomers: Politics is a strange business. I am 34 years old; I have (hopefully) most of my life ahead of me, but I’m a creaky Methuselah, which Washington D.C. regards. The energy in this city comes from youth and that increasingly means Gen. Z who were born after 1996. The Zoomers, as psychologist Jean Twenge noted in an interview with Abigail Shrier, are very different from their previous cohorts in many ways. They are more involved in social media, are more likely to delay their most important life milestones, are more lonely and more pessimistic.
No wonder, then, that Gen Z Conservatives are more skeptical of Big Tech, more eager to regain institutions like marriage and family life that they postpone from their friends, are more concerned about atomization, and are more radical in their leanings. On the latter point, keep in mind that my fellow Millennials have some memories of the 1990s, a decade when America seemed at least to be functioning well. The zoomers don’t; for them it was wars, recessions, pandemics, political dysfunction, all the political failures of the past 20 years, piled on top of each other. Is it any wonder they believe that simply analyzing the text of the revenue clause or exhuming Ronald Reagan from the grave is no longer enough?
The crash landing of the Fiscal Hawks: It was 2009 and Barack Obama had a plan to fight the recession: throw money on it. In response, many right-wing economists predicted doom. If the government pushes the economy up by hundreds of billions, as Obama intended, it would result in too many dollars chasing too few goods while recovery would happen anyway. That would mean inflation, a return to the dire 1970s, perhaps even a prolonged or double recession, triggered by soaring prices.
None of that happened. Instead, both interest rates and consumer prices remained largely low, leading Congress to believe it could borrow essentially indefinitely. This ushered in a new era of federal mass spending without serious fiscal constraints after the Tea Party. The harm to libertarian arguments was great. If the government could spend money, why shouldn’t it? The lack of tangible consequences for large federal spending forced the fiscal conservatives back to hypothetical projections and ideological disputes that always fail given practical circumstances. When Trump accepted easy money and big administration, it was just a sign of the times in many ways.
That being said, inflation is and always will be a drag on federal expansion, and right now inflation is very real. If it gets bad enough, it could force Congress to make tough decisions. This, in turn, could force the right to rediscover some affinity for limited governments, albeit perhaps more reluctantly than before.
Supercommittees and Sequestration: The tea party had a compelling ethos from a bird’s eye view: don’t step on me, the state has grown too big, the government needs to be accountable to the people. And so the Gadsden flags waved – but from a political point of view, this criticism was always less than sexy. When rhetoric met reality, the result was supercommittees arguing over deficit reduction and words like “sequestration” that made your saliva taste like acid. Even the occasional government shutdown couldn’t detract from what a grueling business that really shrank the state really was.
Put simply, anti-Obama rights became boring politically. And because those who understand the day-to-day details of government live mostly in Washington, and because Washington is reflexively against Washington ever having to save, the Tea Party was ultimately chewed up and spat out. Their only accomplishment was seizure, which was quickly gutted by well-known coupé Randian Paul Ryan. The way was clear for a more emotive right-wing politics that dealt with big cultural issues and not with the charter of the Export-Import-Bank, which was more everyday and digestible in the social media.
And nobody does it as viscerally as Donald Trump.
The full-speed ahead left: This one gets mentioned more often, but I’ll mention it anyway because it’s so important. Ten years ago, the left-wing president since LBJ was still pretending that he was against gay marriage. Today it’s about abolishing gender, destroying children’s sports, normalizing puberty blockers for minors, teaching that whiteness is bad and breaking off anyone who looks even slightly askew at the tele screen.
The cultural left has become one of those platformer video game levels where a giant buzz saw is chasing you and you always have to be one step ahead of it (I told you I was old). Unstoppable social change is the order of the day. Hold on or die. No wonder, then, that it is the social conservatives who are now apparently behind the story and stop shouting. That drag queens shouldn’t twerk in front of kids is not a “new way of thinking”; it goes back to about forever. And it is in this space where politics meets circumstance, common sense, where movements catch fire and elections are won.