Trump has successfully portrayed himself as an outsider, populist, and enemy of the dreaded "GOP Establishment." But, while doing so, he has repeatedly attacked traditional Republican policies, and paid very little price for it.
Reagan Republicanism famously rests on three legs: religious conservatism, national security conservatism, and economic conservatism. On issue after issue, Donald Trump has taken delight in thumbing his nose at Republican orthodoxy.
First, in addition to previously proclaiming himself "very pro-choice," Trump has during this campaign cycle rejected a basic tenet of many Christians' faith by noting he hasn't needed to ask God for forgiveness, and on more than one occasion, missed opportunities to display his felicity with Scripture.
Second, as opposed to a traditional Republican muscular approach to foreign policy, Trump instead wants the United States to serve as an independent negotiator without taking sides, as opposed to forcefully advocating for Israel, and embraces President Barack Obama's de facto policy of allowing Russian President Vladmir Putin to reverse America's bipartisan foreign policy consensus of the last 50 years and increase Russian influence in the Middle East. And of course, he apparently wants to get rid of NATO for some reason.
Third, Trump has famously derided free trade agreements championed by many Republicans (and Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Obama), and has also rejected the need, championed repeatedly by Paul Ryan and other Republican leaders, for reforming entitlement programs in order to save them and help balance the budget.
He has embraced eminent domain to benefit private developers, and other uses of government power inconsistent with a libertarian or conservative view of property rights and the proper role of government.
Trump has certainly not contradicted every Republican belief, and has felt the need at times to change his positions, but the frontrunner's departure from traditional party positions is remarkable. The mainstream media and other critics have attacked his voters for being "low information," and -- unaware of Trump's positions -- blindly following him, due to his celebrity and outsized personality.
It is true that Obama has epitomized and ushered in the age of fame over achievement. (Thank goodness a Kardashian isn't running for president!) Eight years ago, Sen. Obama sold the country a vacuous campaign of "hope and change," devoid of substance or experience. And Trump has been brilliant at manipulating the earned media cycle, but this criticism gives him and his supporters too little credit.
Trump has succeeded in part due to his recognition that the country is finished with Obama's liberal policies and prescriptions of government dependence and redistribution as answers to stagnant growth and low wages. But, and this is the painful part, Trump has also recognized that the voters do not yet see Republican alternatives of limited government as the cure either.
It's time to face the facts -- as Republicans, we have failed to convince or demonstrate the wisdom of our conservative policies to the voters, and we are thus partially responsible for the rise of Trump.
Oh sure, Republicans have won elections these last several years by being the anti-Obama, much as Obama won eight years ago by being the anti-Bush, and have made the same mistake of misinterpreting these victories as a mandate for our ideology.
But Trump realized that many voters, including Republicans, are still wary of foreign entanglements, after years spent in Iraq, and are sympathetic to populist calls for nation-building to begin at home. He realized that many voters are angry about expanding means-tested entitlements, like Obamacare and food stamps, especially for able-bodied adults, but at the same time are fiercely protective of universal programs, like Medicare and Social Security, supported in part by their payroll contributions.
He realized that even if trade agreements generate dispersed benefits, workers hurt by the localized dislocations are much more aware of the pain than consumers are of the benefits.
These may seem like strikingly obvious realizations, but they in part explain why Republican leaders who tout the benefits of cutting government, free trade, and entitlement reform to struggling middle class voters are falling flat. To be clear, I believe in these things, but I do fear that we have failed to sufficiently make our case for these policies.
Meanwhile, middle-class voters can be forgiven for thinking that perhaps a government fighting for them, defending their jobs from foreign workers abroad or coming here illegally and defending their lives and values from radical Islamic terrorists, makes more sense than a government taking from them, as offered by Obama -- or a government they see simply defending those who have already succeeded, as offered by Republicans.
Republican voters have tired of their leaders saying one thing to get elected, and then doing precious little once in power. But, it would be naïve to pretend that simply electing more sincere leaders will resolve our challenges at a time when many voters are no longer convinced of conservatism's first principles. There are still plenty of voters who embrace traditional Republican positions, but there are many others who remain to be convinced.
Trump is not the first, nor will he be the last, Republican candidate to embrace populist elements to soften conservatism's apparent rough edges. Gov. Mike Huckabee similarly opposed Medicare and Social Security reform, Sen. Rick Santorum faulted Republicans for focusing on job creators to the exclusion of workers, and even President George W. Bush famously described himself as a "compassionate" conservative years after his father described a "kinder and gentler" Republican party.
President Obama certainly bears much responsibility for the rise of Trump, especially with his rhetoric and policies dividing us by class, race, gender, age, and geography.
The President's endless rhetoric on victimhood and identity politics has found its fulfillment on the Republican side in Donald Trump. But he is not alone. As long as Republicans are viewed as out-of-touch elites, simply fighting for different special interests than the Democrats, voters will be tempted to embrace the candidate who extols their interests, narrowly defined.
Trump is not opposed to big government; he is simply opposed to other folks running that government. But, we as a country are and have always been better than that. Middle-class workers, long the backbone of our aspirational society, are not simply a special interest group whose needs can be met with set asides and quotas, tax breaks, earmarks, or other special treatment from the government.
The challenge for conservatives is to explain anew why our principles are universal and relevant to the modern age, to translate our vision of limited government and increased freedom and opportunity into concrete policies that benefit middle class workers, and to renew our movement so that it truly encompasses a bottom-up approach that empowers individuals to pursue their dreams.
I am all for reducing the size and expense of government, and do not agree with the mainstream media that the Republican Party needs to abandon its conservative beliefs to be relevant or to win.
However, I believe the conservative movement must be about more than austerity for the sake of austerity; we must be more than the accountants, revenue collectors, and technocrats that make the Democrats' larger government run better through incremental change. We must go in a fundamentally different direction and show how our beliefs and resulting policies result in the type of economic growth that benefits all Americans and, again, make the case why a larger government is not the answer to our challenges.
The American people are, I believe, still optimists who will respond if we provide that roadmap, but they won't wait forever; Trump's populism provides, for many, an attractive safety blanket in the absence of a viable conservative alternative.
The idea of America -- not simply our abundant natural resources or providential geography -- the idea of limited government that guarantees, but does not create, our God-given rights, has created more wealth and freedom, done more for the weak and defenseless, than any other civilization.
The Founding Fathers recognized the power of the freedom for entrepreneurs to create something from nothing, for parents to raise their children according to their values, and for individual Americans to make their own decisions and live their lives as they see fit. The hour is late for this vision of America, and our conservative ideals, but not too late.