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by Alex Manzoor
On Monday 20th of February, the Henry Jackson Society welcomed Yuval Levin who is the Founding Editor of National Affairs to discuss the American Right in the age of Trump. He began by describing his extensive personal experience working for Republican politicians and outlined the key themes of his talk which were the expectations, opportunities and dangers of the Trump administration for the American Right. Levin claimed that the 2016 Presidential election and its result was an earthquake for the American political system, however its impact on the Right was more complex because whilst the Left and the Democratic Party could position itself as the anti-Trump movement, the Right and Republican Party were forced to confront what his victory meant for their ideology. The real question therefore was: how did Trump win the Republican nomination for the Presidency in 2016?
Levin postulated that this came about because due to a culmination of a series of institutional breakdowns and public alienation in a profound way. During the Presidential campaign this feeling of alienation was at the core of Trump’s message and he spoke to it directly; this alienation has been present for far longer than Trump’s campaign but has been consistently ignored by the leadership class in both parties. In the 2000 Presidential election, both Al Gore and George W. Bush ran traditional and civil campaigns in which they offered plausible paths for governing in what was seen as the end of history. Just two years later after the September 11th attacks and a recession, the foundations of American life were shaken. Instead of an inexorable march of progressive and liberal democracy, there was a resurgence of long submerged tendencies like Nationalism and Populism.
The elites however treated the cultural and economic challenges that people were facing as threats to their dreams as oppose to threats to the people themselves and they treated people’s frustrations as a part of the problem. Levin cited the example of immigration where the cosmopolitan consensus attacked any opposition to immigration as rooted in racism. The desire of the elites to go back to a world that looked like the year 2000 was epitomised in the attempt for the 2016 election to be a contest in which George W. Bush’s brother ran against Bill Clinton’s wife. The unwillingness of leaders to address certain concerns has given Trump the opportunity to address but not offer any solutions to these problems, instead merely offering a recognition of a sense of loss most clearly through his slogan of “Make America Great Again.”
Trump’s appeal to the frustrations as oppose to aspirations of people allows him to forge an effective electoral but not governing coalition, so what is Trump going to do with the power he now has? Trump may not be a traditionally conservative but the Republican majorities in both houses of Congress are and his Cabinet and other executive appointees are the kind of people that would not be out of place in any other Republican administration. However throughout the campaign Trump has highlighted the limits of conservative power and derided many litmus tests even saying “this is called the Republican Party, it’s not called the Conservative Party.” The emergence of Trump as a political force has been a wakeup call for US conservatism that has been too detached and as Levin put it: repeated the ends of Reagan’s sentences but forgot how they started.
Domestically, it looks likely that the Right will adapt to many of Trump’s ideas as there is clear evidence of exhaustion with the old approach; this adaptation will involve the Right being less Libertarian and more Nationalist. In the international arena the situation seems more disconcerting because there is indication of less support for the international order and the United States’ role within it. Policies like a commitment to NATO and international coalitions have persisted over the years but without much enunciation of why they are important and there is a real danger that Trump will break with such policies. Levin argued that Trump has no instinctive commitment to the post-World War Two let alone post-Cold War order and more worryingly that he seems to lack a fear of chaos. Although this does not bode well for people in the world, these are still very early impressions as Trump has only been President for four weeks. Levin concluded by stating that these are interesting times and that whilst we are in a period of profound transition the question is: what is it transitioning in to?