In a country where political power is divided between advocates for the right to destroy unions and advocates for the right to destroy unborn children, we communitarians—social conservatives and fiscal liberals who would probably fit best in the increasingly notional pro-life wing of the Democratic Party—seldom feel that we have any real representation in government. On Election Day we drag ourselves out to the polls to make the impossible choice between the prophets of inhuman economic progress and the prophets of inhuman social progress; the rest of the time, we do our best to muster real enthusiasm for policies we like while forgetting that the politicians who propose them today will, as we understand it, be undermining them tomorrow.
But for a while, this election cycle seemed as if it might be different. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton, between her cozy relationship with Wall Street and her strident defenses of abortion, was our worst nightmare. Nevertheless, Bernie Sanders seemed committed to the sorts of family-oriented redistributive policies that many of us long to see implemented, and his ironical attacks on Republican appeals to “family values” struck a chord with more than a few of us. And on the Republican side, we had a few reasons for hope. Marco Rubio was rumored to be in contact with the Reformicons, conservatives who have abandoned Republican anti-tax orthodoxy in favor of a more robustly pro-family set of policy prescriptions, and the venerable “compassionate conservative” John Kasich had accepted the ACA Medicaid expansion as governor of Ohio and appeared to be softening his stance on unions even as other Midwestern governors pushed for right-to-work laws.
But in time, Clinton ground out a hard-won victory over Sanders, and Rubio and Kasich slipped out of the running. Still, there was one candidate left in the presidential race who might have been thought to espouse something like the consistent ethic of life that we defend. Although he was running on the Republican ticket, he rejected his party’s usual merciless disregard for the poor. He opposed abortion and defended religious freedom while attacking the political and business elite who leave the little man to starve. He promised to champion the working class and even displayed an anti-war streak that endeared him to many pro-lifers. Had communitarians found their candidate?
They might have, had the candidate in question not been Donald Trump.
Trump’s communitarianism is a fairly transparent illusion. His inability to get his story straight on abortion puts to rest any question that he might be a serious pro-lifer. His fumbling declarations of support for Christians’ religious freedom are entirely negated by his attacks on Muslims’ religious freedom. His regressive tax plan and his sordid career in real estate give the lie to his populist promises, which are in any case devoid of any policy substance. He also supports mass incarceration (which destabilizes families) and torture, and is, to borrow a popular phrase that understates matters somewhat, temperamentally unfit for the presidency.
Trump’s rise leaves people of my political persuasion in a confusing position. On the one hand, he’s blown a massive hole in a two-party system that has long acted as if we don’t exist. After 2012, Republican elites decided that the party’s only way forward was to embrace the capitalist-internationalist liberalism of The Economist and the Davos Forum. That meant doubling down on rigid opposition to corporate taxes while abandoning retrograde social conservatism. But Trump’s success—and the socially conservative zealot Ted Cruz’s second-place finish in the nomination race—has proven that Middle America isn’t interested in the GOP as a slick, pro-business alternative to the Democrats. For those of us who have watched in horror as both parties have moved left on social issues while embracing the neoliberal economic consensus of the Clinton Administration, this is good news. A significant coalition of Americans evidently rejects the brand of capitalist progressivism that strips the poor of their livelihood and then offers them abortions and prescription opioids to make up for it.
The hope is that a better man or woman than Donald Trump—someone who’s capable of reading policy briefings and speaking in complete sentences, doesn’t court white nationalists, and possesses real convictions instead of Trump’s childlike certainty that he alone is capable of solving every problem—will be able to appeal to Trump’s disaffected legions without sacrificing the core values of the republic. Reformicons Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam laid out their case for a purified Trumpism in the New York Times the weekend before the Republican convention, and other conservative intellectuals have made their own attempts at imagining how this year’s revolution can be turned to the good.
But Trump’s success also poses some enormous problems for communitarianism. The first is that he’s probably going to lose the presidential election and may take Republican majorities in both houses of Congress down with him. If he does, the Republican establishment could choose to take his defeat as a sign that they were right all along and Trumpism was an aberration—a possibility that Leon Hadar, among others, has explored. The two-party system and the enormous power of pro-business donors means that the GOP could easily go back to business as usual, and would probably manage to shepherd many more Jeb Bush-like candidates through the primaries without facing any significant opposition from the chastened Trump coalition. A blowout loss for the Republicans could discredit Trump supporters’ complaints for many years to come.
And a Trump win, which the polls intermittently suggest is a real possibility, would also be a disaster for communitarianism. Michael Brendan Dougherty suggests that friends of Trump’s nationalist agenda should “prefer the incompetent Hillary Clinton discrediting her beliefs than the incompetent Donald Trump discrediting [theirs].” The same goes for communitarians. If Trump spends four years making catastrophically ineffective attempts to implement some kind of conservative anti-capitalism, the intelligent, competent people who share his views won’t dare show their faces in politics again.
Our second problem is that the core of voters that propelled Trump to victory in the primaries doesn’t seem to care much more about social issues than he does. Ted Cruz was more or less the only person to mention abortion at the RNC. Douthat and Salam don’t bring social issues up at all in their NYT manifesto. Trump himself makes occasional appeals to social conservatism because he knows there’s a substantial block of the American electorate (including yours truly, until this election) that votes almost entirely on the basis of the president’s power to make judicial appointments. The great cultural battles of our time are almost all fought in the courts, and by promising to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, Trump has apparently secured the support of 80 percent of white Evangelicals (and a similar proportion of white Evangelicals who attend church weekly, a group that had been much more reluctant to support him during the primaries). But movement conservatives have always known that; it’s how they’ve gotten suckers like me to vote for them year after year even as they’ve slashed welfare and fought endless foreign wars. The Trumpian revelation—that a substantial part of the Republicans’ white, working-class base is very, very excited about ditching the GOP’s small-government dogmas—actually has little to do with social conservatism. Trump’s communitarianism is just as accidental as traditional Republican fusionism, and a Trump victory or the emergence of a reconstructed Trumpism could actually herald the dawn of a new, progressivist American consensus on abortion (and eventually euthanasia, transhumanism, and restrictions on religious liberty, which Trump has already assaulted with his Muslim immigration ban and calls for mosque surveillance). If communitarians are going to take advantage of the Revolution of 2016, we may have to be rather clever about it.
The third and greatest problem is related to the second. The caricature of all Trump voters as simple racists is surely in large part a product of elites’ own prejudices against the working class, and, certain moments at the RNC notwithstanding, claims that the campaign is straightforwardly fascist have been overstated. Still, there’s no denying that America’s white nationalists, who have mostly stayed aloof from practical politics in recent years, see Trump as their candidate. The disturbing possibility that anyone who wants to spin Trumpism into something positive has to reckon with is that his appeals to the working classes can’t be separated from the ethno-nationalism that’s on display at his rallies. If Trump voters aren’t motivated by the consistent ethic of life that seems to unite some of their diverse policy preferences, what do they care about? If the answer is something like “Taking America back for white people,” then we’re in trouble. Not only would the promise of a post-Trump pan-ethnic communitarianism prove to be a mirage, but the credibility of conservatives claiming to oppose both capitalism and social progressivism would, rightly, be damaged for decades.
That would be a great pity, because a communitarianism that’s willing to recognize people who aren’t white and Christian as part of the American community could attract voters from well outside the traditional Republican voter base. GOP elites often note despairingly that even socially conservative blacks and Hispanics overwhelmingly vote for the Democrats. But it’s not hard to understand why non-whites would put their religious convictions aside to vote against a party that stands in resolute opposition to anti-poverty measures and relies on racially coded appeals to whites to marshal support. Ironically, given the character of the Trump campaign, a post-Trump GOP that treated liberal social policy and neoliberal economics as two sides of the same pernicious coin might find itself representing a significant number of non-white Americans for the first time since the 1960s.
But although I’m pretty confident that Trump will lose in November, I’m not sure that Republican elites are capable of questioning neoliberalism, or that Trump’s ethno-nationalists will simply fade away as the party tries to put itself back together. If those two factions end up locked in a struggle for the future of the GOP, communitarians will be forced to wait until the next great party realignment for another chance at winning some kind of representation in American politics. In the meantime, some of us will cast our lot with the tiny American Solidarity Party, which calls for single-payer healthcare, a citizens’ dividend (akin to a universal basic income), and an end to abortion. And some of us will do what we’ve always done: choose the lesser of two evils and hope for the best.
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