In July of 2019, conservatives gathered in Washington, D.C. for the National Conservatism Conference, the coming out party for the new Edmund Burke Foundation and a three-day discussion about the future of conservatism in the Age of Trump. Everyone from J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, to James L. Buckley, the former senator and brother of the late William F. Buckley, was in attendance. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri closed the conference with a rousing call to action. Everyone agreed on one fundamental thing: The old GOP coalition of Big Business and social conservatives was dead. It was time to forge a new one.
The pivotal question was whether Trump’s 2016 victory was a fluke or a realignment. Trump, after all, is Trump. Did he expose potential new coalitions and growing fault lines in the Democratic base, or did his unique brand of celebrity and barnstorming rallies make him a one-off candidate? With the 2020 election results coming in, we have our answer. There was no blue wave. Trump lost by a handful of votes in a handful of states; the GOP unexpectedly won congressional races; if Republicans win the two run-off races in Georgia, they will retain the senate. Trump, the “white supremacist” candidate, won the highest share of non-white voters of any Republican presidential candidate since Nixon in 1960—double Romney’s 2012 count and nearly triple Bush’s count in 2000.
The realignment is real, and Republicans are faced with unprecedented opportunities. Renowned conservative intellectual Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, says that the message for the GOP is clear.
“The elections of 2016 and 2020 seem to show that there is a large constituency for a combination of social conservatism and economic populism,” he told me. “That was Donald Trump’s message, and it worked—outperforming even Trump himself in 2020, as the down ballot races tended to show. The GOP is becoming a working (and small business) class party. Its supporters are saying: ‘Uphold our moral and religious values; protect our industries against unfair practices and unfair competition, thus securing our jobs and reasonable prospects for real wage growth; and protect and improve programs that we rely on such as Social Security and Medicare.’”
“So far, the big inroads against the Democrats—who are now the party of the professional classes, ‘Woke’ corporate America, and the super-rich—have been with the white working class,” George observed. “The obvious goal for Republicans now is to win over minority working class voters. Their values and concerns line up well with those of the white working class. Clearly, there has been some movement by working class minority voters (Black and, especially, Latino voters) towards the Republicans, and this should terrify Democrats. Because of their professional class base, Democrats don’t have the option of trying to compete with Republicans on social issues such as abortion; if minority voters see the Republicans as friendly, or at least not hostile, to them on economic issues, the Democrats are in trouble—big trouble.”
For years, the political arm of the pro-life movement has known that large numbers of Hispanic and Black voters are socially conservative, but still consistently vote Democrat. Many of these voters have grown increasingly turned off by gender ideology, Drag Queen Storytime, and other boutique social issues that have become so front and centre in the increasingly progressive Democratic Party. This, George told me, indicates that a realignment is possible, “though the Republicans could blow it. The way to not blow it is to begin aggressively recruiting and supporting socially conservative Black and Latino candidates for office. Republican candidates of all backgrounds need to compete vigorously for the votes of socially conservative, economically populist voters, including minority voters. Smart Republicans like Josh Hawley have figured this out.”
In fact, the 2020 results could upend years of conventional political wisdom. “The ‘demography is destiny’ trope presupposes that minorities are ‘wholly owned’ by the Democratic Party and will vote for its candidates no matter what,” George told me. “I wouldn’t bet on that—not after 2016 and, especially, 2020. Trump has many personal faults—some of them hurt him badly with key segments of the electorate in the most recent election. But he pulled back the curtain on American elites—including economic elites—and he revealed that there is a yawning gap between elites and working-class Americans.”
Social conservative scholar Charles Camosy, Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University, has been advocating this path for years—and the 2020 results confirm his thesis. “The alignment was, in some major sense, already underway,” he told me. “Independents’ highest rates in polling and historically weak parties. Trump destroying and rebuilding the GOP coalition such that it isn’t even clear what the party stands for (appropriately, there was no platform this year.) The Democrats are in total disarray in their own caucus, with Joe Biden being, in the eyes of ‘The Squad,’ almost totally unacceptable except as a means to defeat Trump.
To Camosy, the potential is obvious. “Gone is the classic left/right binary around big and small government,” he pointed out. “Instead, there is a party—the Democrats—who seem to be becoming the party supported by elite money, elite ideology, and Big Tech. The GOP, by contrast, seems to be becoming the party of populism and the working class. I say ‘seems’ because the major complicating factor is the Black and Latino working class. While still not doing good enough, the exit polls seem to suggest Trump and more populist Republicans are doing a much better job than they have done in recent years. There is a real opportunity to build a multi-racial working-class party here.”
The author of several books on abortion (the most recent being Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People), Camosy is especially enthusiastic about the potential for the pro-life movement.
“Being associated with Trump himself is toxic, especially for young people, but the fault lines his ‘blowing up the system’ have uncovered are incredible,” he told me. “For many decades now, pro-lifers have been part of a political coalition in which small-government mindsets dominated. If massive government intrusion into private life regulating pregnancy seemed counter-intuitive in this coalition, social welfare programs to support mothers, children, and broader families were generally off the table. But now, in the new realignment, pro-lifers need not choose between resisting abortion on both the demand and supply side.”
Additionally, says Camosy: “We need not choose between making assisted suicide illegal and providing better care for our elders and those with disabilities. Again, for decades our inability to do this has hurt our outreach to Blacks and Latinos, natural allies to the pro-life movement. There is an amazing opportunity to put our libertarian past behind us and build an ‘all of the above’ approach to protecting and supporting life. The GOP should immediately move to build on the gains with Blacks and Latinos, especially with an eye to religious beliefs, social welfare for families and education, and life issues. They should develop a populist approach with a focus on vulnerable populations that our elite leadership and institutions have left behind.”
Camosy agrees with Robert P. George on the practical way forward. The GOP, he says, needs to “listen. Do outreach. Foster leadership from the working classes, not ‘the Ivies.’ This doesn’t mean being stupid, as Trump often was in his anti-intellectual approach to so many things. What it does mean is listening to the wisdom of the working classes as a contrast to the censorious and extremist monied and elite class who ignore or castigate as regressive the views of the very people they claim to support.”
The 2016 election upended conventional wisdoms and inaugurated political chaos, with Donald Trump at the center of the maelstrom. Democrats have been desperately hoping—even assuming—that Trump was a one-off detour on the long march towards Progress (a goal that is forever just beyond the horizon.) Instead, the 2020 election results prove that the conservatives who gathered last year are not delusional—they’re on to something. Demography is not destiny. A new fusion of economic populism and social conservatism just might be.
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.
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