Steve V. Roberts: Who are the real conservatives?

Published 11:55 pm Thursday, February 10, 2022

Who are the real conservatives in the Republican Party? Certainly not Donald Trump and his tribe of true believers.

Here are three, starting with former Vice President Mike Pence. He stands strongly for the Constitution and against Trump’s despicable campaign to undermine the last election. Many Trumpists still share the sentiment — politically, if not personally — expressed by the Jan. 6 rioters who chanted, “Hang Mike Pence.”

Add Republican Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, who embrace the rule of law and joined a congressional committee investigating the invasion of the Capitol. Their refusal to abandon their conservative principles has earned them a formal condemnation by the Republican National Committee.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines conservatism as the “political doctrine that emphasizes the value of traditional institutions and practices.” It adds, “Conservatives thus favor institutions and practices that have evolved gradually and are manifestations of continuity and stability.” Under this doctrine, “politicians must therefore resist the temptation to transform society and politics.”

That is precisely what Pence, Cheney and Kinzinger believe, valuing “traditional institutions and practices.” And that is what Trump and his followers cannot abide. They are not conservatives at all, but instigators and insurrectionists. Rather than resisting that “temptation to transform society and politics,” they embrace that goal fervently and fervidly.

As conservative columnist Max Boot wrote in the Washington Post, “The Jan. 6 Party has little in common save its name with the one I joined in the 1980s. It is no longer a conservative party but a radical nationalist-populist party that poses a dire danger to U.S. democracy — and to the lives of ordinary Americans.”

Founded on conservative principles in 1854, the Republican Party has evolved into one dominated by the insults and interests of Donald Trump. As The Wall Street Journal editorial page, long a bastion of Republican orthodoxy, wrote: “Too many in the GOP seem to have lost their constitutional moorings in thrall to one man.”

Pence’s role on Jan. 6, to count the votes in the Electoral College, was clearly ceremonial. But Trump insisted then — and still does today — that Pence somehow had the right to “overturn” those results.

Pence has rejected Trump’s fantasies before, but in a recent speech to the Federalist Society, his excoriation of his former boss was particularly devastating: “President Trump is wrong. The presidency belongs to the American people, and the American people alone. And frankly there is no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.”

It’s a black mark on today’s GOP that such an anodyne and obvious comment requires such courage, but it does. And it’s truly appalling that so few Republican voices were willing to join what the Journal called “Mr. Pence’s finest hour.”

One who did join was another outlet that values “traditional institutions and practices”: the National Review, which condemned the RNC’s censuring of Cheney and Kinzinger in an editorial headlined, “RNC Should Take a Lesson From Mike Pence.” The writers called the party’s action “both morally repellent and politically self-destructive,” and they make good point.

This remains a center-right country. In 2020 exit polls, only 24% identified as liberals, while 38% called themselves conservatives and the same number chose a “moderate” label. But there are signs that the GOP’s slavish attachment to Trump, while attracting many of MAGA Nation’s diehard loyalists, could backfire with the broader electorate.

Trump has never appealed to a majority of Americans, and his average approval rating today stands at 42.7% — more than 4 points below the total he received in losing to Joe Biden. More seriously for Trump, a recent Quinnipiac poll found that 58% of American voters do not want him to run again, while only 35% favor a third run for the White House.

Politics is always about addition, not subtraction, which is why rational Republicans who can actually count think Trump’s purge of heretics amounts to “political malpractice of the highest order,” as the National Review put it. Bill Palatucci, a longtime member of the Republican National Committee, told Politico, “for us to convene a circular firing squad, that make no sense to me.”

The stories of Pence, Cheney and Kinzinger pose this question: Will the Republican Party return to its honorable and invaluable devotion to conservative principles? Or will it continue to be dominated by the ruthless and relentless radicalism of Donald Trump? And if Trumpism prevails, will that cost them the next election?

 Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com. 

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