This essay is a response to “Against the Dead Consensus.”
Many in the Republican establishment regard Donald Trump's presidency as something merely to be endured, a temporary disruption that too shall pass, after which the party’s long-standing orthodoxy can reign once more. Such thinking is misguided, both positively and normatively. While President Trump may himself be an aberration, his victory improbable and overdetermined, the economic challenges and political fractures that he helped expose were already features of the American landscape and are going nowhere. The GOP (and the Democratic party) must adapt to and address them.
Options for the future shape of American conservatism are not confined to what came before Trump and what Trump himself represents. His role is not that of builder, constructing some compelling new vision to compete with the old one, but of earthquake, toppling everything built with flawed principles on shaky foundations and leaving open space in which to build anew. “More earthquake” is not a rebuilding plan. The question is where old structures should be resurrected and what new ones should be preferred.
This is the spirit in which to read “Against the Dead Consensus,” published last month by a formidable group of conservatives. At first glance, their manifesto perplexes. The “old conservative consensus” they reject was, in their view, a socially liberal one that “fetishiz[ed] autonomy” and “surrendered to the pornographization of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness.” What an odd description of the pre-Trump GOP; it certainly does not bear much resemblance to the platforms or personas of recent GOP leaders, from the 2012 presidential ticket on down. Conversely, it would be difficult to identify a figure in American public life, or even imagine one drawn in a Tom Wolfe novel, who fetishizes autonomy, promotes the pornographization of daily life, or embraces the cult of competitiveness more aggressively than Donald Trump.
But these conservatives are not talking about Trump—beyond acknowledging their wildly divergent views of the man, they say almost nothing about him. They are builders gazing upon the rubble left in his wake, with a vision for what might come next. Trump’s vulgarity is beside the point. The cultural conservatism of the pre-Trump GOP, as compared to the Democratic party, is likewise beside the point. Their blueprint calls for the next iteration of American conservatism to be far more culturally conservative than any of these reference points.
Countless builders are gazing upon the same rubble, alongside those determined to see their collapsed buildings resurrected. So long as Trump controls the party, each can measure and design and argue and lobby, but none has much chance of breaking ground. When the earthquake ends, then the deluge. In that competition to define a viable, constructive conservatism, three questions should be paramount: Is it viable, is it constructive, and is it conservative? That third question will itself trigger endless discussion of what conservatism even means. But the “Dead Consensus” authors bring the other two questions into focus.
First: Is it viable? While philosophy prizes the truth, the truest of all political stances gets only so far if it cannot attract a governing majority. The Cold War-era “fusionism,” which joined cultural conservatism with libertarian economics and muscular foreign policy, was in many ways a marriage of convenience. Members of the coalition each got some of the things they cared most about in return for supporting the priorities of the others. The “Dead Consensus” principles would jettison libertarians entirely while doubling down on culture. It’s apparent who departs from the coalition, but who is added? Who within today’s Democratic party would be persuaded to change sides?
Of course, politics entails persuasion, too, which means any vision might be viable if it meets the second test: Is it constructive? Views once non-obvious or even irrelevant might now be critical, and if they are critical they might also form the basis for a governing majority. The “Dead Consensus” authors put particular emphasis on pornography, abortion, and transgender ideology. Does insufficient resistance to those phenomena explain what ails America? Would reformed attitudes provide relief?
A brief statement by numerous contributors can hardly explore these questions in depth. One set of answers might position this vision as the most viable, constructive conservatism. Another might determine the manifesto is best understood as staking a general claim about “the nature and purpose of our common life” and elaborating just a few of the many implications. Whatever the answers, they will have to be evaluated against those from the many other authors of many other such manifestos to come—and against the old consensus, which, while a consensus no more, still has adherents eager to reassert their claim.
Oren Cass is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America.