I have to confess feeling a certain amount of schadenfreude right now. For years I’ve been watching conservatives pushing themselves into an escalating cycle of dickishness, promoting tribalism, bravado, self-serving hypocrisy, self-righteous bigotry, and disregard (if not outright contempt) for the objective facts. This downwards political spiral was one of the things that led me to stop being so conservative myself: I felt shamed and betrayed by the political philosophy I was raised in, and I left it.
So I’m taking a certain amount of satisfaction right now in seeing Donald Trump running for president as a conservative. As others have pointed out, he has not been a particularly conservative person as far as his past attitudes and behaviors are concerned. But in many ways, he’s the epitome of everything the Republicans have worked so hard to make themselves into. He may not be the hero the GOP wants, but he’s the hero they deserve.
What’s particularly striking about Trump’s dominant standing in the polls is the way it reflects the entirety of American political conservative culture right now. Conservative leadership has consistently and increasingly trained the rank and file to respond to dog whistles, baited code words, and narratives with little or no connection to reality, and in return the rank and file has increasingly rewarded those leaders who are most adept at belligerent, self-congratulatory cheer-leading with lip service to conservative ideals. And that’s what Trump is: the distilled essence of shallow, narcissistic, bombastic outrageousness, dressed up as patriotism and old-fashioned common sense. He’s not just the tail or the head, he’s the whole dog, all in one.
Republican leadership, of course, is aghast. This is the worst of all possible worlds for them, because on the one hand, Trump is making a complete mockery of conservatism, and yet on the other hand, everyone who wants to be a successful conservative politician has to be a little bit Trump. This is the world they have made for themselves, and these are the qualities they’ve groomed their voters to respond to and to reflect. Donald Trump is conservatism’s brave new world.