The death throes of American conservatism

Here is a thought experiment. If Donald Trump said the US government should seize ownership of the means of production, would conservatives repudiate him? The answer is unclear. As Trump pointed out in 2016, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his fans would not flinch. The link between Republicans and the conservative political tradition was badly weakened over the past five years. It has snapped since he left the White House. The party is now built around whatever Trump says, however absurd. As George Orwell put it: “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

Next week Liz Cheney, one of the most conservative Republican lawmakers, looks likely to be ejected as number three in the party’s leadership. Few Republicans can outdo Cheney’s conservative voting record. Even her father, Dick Cheney, the pugilistic former vice-president, would struggle to match her history of support for any tax cut going and opposition to all forms of social liberalism. For most of Trump’s presidency, she was a loyal supporter of the Trumpian “we’re America, bitch” foreign policy, although she did not put it that way.

Her unforgivable sin is to have disagreed with Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen. Cheney was rapped once on the knuckles in February for having insisted that Trump’s stolen election narrative was a “big lie”. But she held onto her position with two-thirds of her colleagues’ votes. It is a measure of how much further the party has fallen under the Trumpian spell that she looks set to lose in the upcoming second attempt to remove her. She has not changed her stance. Her colleagues have simply fallen into line.

The worst of it is that most of them, including Kevin McCarthy, the Republican minority leader, privately agree with Cheney. They know that Joe Biden’s election was legitimate. They, like Cheney, were targets of the mob that stormed Capitol Hill on January 6 that claimed five lives. Many rioters were chanting “hang Mike Pence”, the then vice-president. Trump told the mob that he loved them. Yet Pence, too, has succumbed to Trump’s will to power. Last week Pence said that serving Trump had been “the greatest honour of my life”. No Republican with ambition can afford to contradict the overlord of Mar-a-Lago.

Cheney’s abiding sin is to keep telling colleagues the truth, thus reminding them of their complicity in a ferocious assault on America’s democratic principles. The situation would be comical were it not so dangerous. Many evenings, Trump regales guests at Mar-a-Lago with his greatest hits of stolen election complaints. The footage of these perorations is redolent of an ageing rock star serenading one of Las Vegas’s smaller auditoriums. Trump will never change his tune because he can never admit to having lost anything, least of all an election. But appearances are deceptive. The sobering reality is that at least 70 per cent of Republican voters, and therefore most elected Republicans, agree with him.

What will be left of American conservatism? Many Republicans are opting for discretion over valour. Their plan is to wait out Trump’s demise. This is an uncourageous stance since Trump shows every sign of wanting to run again in 2024. The majority have chosen to submit to his whim. McCarthy has little chance of becoming speaker of the House of Representatives if Trump is against him. An increasing number, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, both of whom are avowed QAnon supporters, are taking Trumpianism to the next level. They are the party’s rising stars. The more preposterous their theatrics — taking guns into the chamber of the House, for example, or claiming Biden is a traitor — the more cash they raise. Since money talks, their colleagues are following. The more outlandish the conspiracy theory, the bigger the sweep.

A vanishing minority, including Mitt Romney, the Utah senator, and Cheney, are publicly sticking to their principles. Their courage earns them applause from Democratic opponents and the professional media. But it is destroying their in-party standing. Conservatism used to mean support for strong defence, small government and family values. At its best, conservative political philosophy championed truth-telling and character.

Those qualities are now career-killing. Cheney recently told her Republican colleagues: “We cannot become the party of QAnon. We cannot become the party of Holocaust denial. We cannot become the party of white supremacy.” She was right. Unfortunately for her, being right is unforgivable.