“It’s the death of Reaganism!”
This is the lamentation we hear from conservative intellectuals and activists dismayed by the rise of Donald Trump. Over the last year, Trump, campaigning on a kind of populist nationalism, demolished not only his moderate Republican rivals, but also those candidates, such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who tried hardest to present themselves as the heirs to Reagan. Trump’s triumph culminated last week at the Republican National Convention, where the Reaganite Ted Cruz was booed off the stage, and where Trump accepted the Party’s nomination by making a speech reiterating the populist-nationalist themes—on immigration, trade, and foreign policy—that had brought him to victory. This, we are told, marks the end of the Republican Party as the Reaganite party.
What are traditional, religious conservatives to make of all this? They should be grateful for Reaganism and what it accomplished, but they should also be willing to bid it farewell if it is no longer politically salient, as would seem to be the case.
The public principles religious conservatives hold most dear—the integrity of the family, respect for innocent human life, the flourishing of religious belief and its influence on the culture—are vital to the health of our society. Religious conservatives are therefore bound, out of love of neighbor and love of country, to promote these principles. And since we live in a democracy and have the freedom to be active in politics, we are bound to promote these principles by political action.
If we are to be involved in politics, we have to approach it with a proper realism. The things we care most deeply about, while essential to the health of our society, are not politically compelling to a majority of voters. No political party could win national elections in America by campaigning only on respect for life, for the integrity of the family, and for the positive role of religion in our culture.
If religious conservatives seek to promote these principles through political action, they will have to join in a larger political coalition, one that also emphasizes other issues and represents other interests. At least, such alliances are necessary if our political activism seeks to win elections—if it aims at putting together an actual governing coalition, and is not content merely to be a form of moral expression.
In judging whether to enter into such a political coalition, politically responsible and politically astute religious conservatives must ask themselves three questions. First, are the other issues and interests that go into the coalition themselves conducive to the common good? Second, are those other issues and interests friendly, or at least not hostile, to the core principles that religious conservatives cherish? Third, is the coalition politically viable—that is, can it wield enough political influence to win elections and shape public policy?
There was a moment in American politics when religious conservatives could answer “yes” to each of these questions in respect of Reaganism—a moment when Reaganism was a perfectly suitable political vehicle for the political aspirations of religious conservatives. Reagan himself was openly a social conservative and friendly to traditional relgious believers, but he ran for the presidency primarily on cutting taxes and standing up to international Communism. Religious conservatives could join in such a political movement because it welcomed them, and because there was good reason to think that the nation was overtaxed and that Soviet foreign policy was a threat to world peace and freedom.
It should not shock or sadden any realistic observer to find that some of the key issues associated with Reaganism are no longer powerful in American politics. This fact arises, to some extent, from Reagan’s victories. In domestic policy, Reagan succeeded in cutting taxes, and nobody of consequence proposes returning them to pre-Reagan levels. In foreign policy, Reagan succeeded in bringing down the Soviet regime, thus eliminating the enemy that unified and justified his coalition.
The diminished relevance of Reaganism has much to do, also, with the changed circumstances facing the country. The questions about illegal immigration and trade policy that Trump has raised were simply not much on the radar screens of Americans in the 1980s. Also, whereas Reagan showed that a freedom-promoting foreign policy can succeed, at home and abroad, if it is defined as anti-communist, we have learned through hard experience that such a policy is less likely to succeed if it is defined as exporting democracy to nations that have no history of democratic self-government.
If Reaganism as a political program is dead, then politically active religious conservatives must think about what new political coalition they might join with a view to defending their core principles and otherwise promoting the common good. Their choices are constrained by the political lay of the land. An alliance with the left is out of the question, since the American left regards religious conservatism as a form of bigotry.
Accordingly, religious conservatives must ask themselves whether they can fruitfully and conscientiously enter into a political coalition such as Donald Trump is trying to build. That means asking the three questions identified above. Is there anything in the new populist nationalism that is intrinsically hostile to religious conservatism? Are its issues—its concerns about immigration, trade, and foreign policy—consistent with the common good? And does it plausibly point the way to the creation of a governing coalition in which religious conservatives might play a helpful role?
Religious conservatives have a responsibility to think through these questions without their minds being clouded by either nostalgia for Ronald Reagan or disdain for Donald Trump. Reagan should still be admired for his qualities as a statesman, even if Reaganism is no longer a viable political program. And the issues Trump has raised deserve careful consideration, even if one find’s Trump’s private life or his demeanor as a candidate troubling.
Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration.