Last week, Elon Musk set the Twitter world ablaze by re-posting without credit this meme that Colin Wright made to explain his own alienation from the left.
The discussion that followed largely focused on the meme’s characterization of the evolution of the left (and we’ve got a post on that in the works), but the more straightforwardly wrong claim here is that “the right” has remained totally unchanging over the past 13 years. I don’t think anyone thinks that, including the people who are on the right themselves or even those who are newly affiliating with the right.
A lot of this change has to do with Donald Trump, obviously.
But I think the extent to which Trump as a personality looms over American politics obscures the real nature and timing of the changes. In particular, even though Mitt Romney and the late John McCain both stand out as avatars of a certain kind of principled conservatism that refused to bend the knee to Trump, they ran on rather different platforms. Both McCain and Romney had reputations as moderates before winning the GOP nomination and both moved to the right in order to capture it. But McCain upheld moderate stances on certain key issues that Romney abandoned. Trump shifted further right on some of those positions, but only in the very waning days of the Trump presidency did we see some now prominent conservative ideas come to the fore.
And I think it’s worth really digging into the current state of conservative thinking because the shape of American political institutions makes it likely that they will govern more than half the time.
Mitt Romney and the rightward turn
I often emphasize the importance of position-taking and policy issues to political outcomes because I think these factors have become underrated in certain circles.
But the fact that Romney came a lot closer to winning in 2012 than McCain did in 2008 is a clear example of how they certainly aren’t the only factors.
McCain did shift right to win the GOP presidential nomination — he embraced the Bush-era tax cuts he’d voted against in 2001 and 2003 and vowed to promote their extension — but he maintained Bush’s support for comprehensive immigration reform even though most congressional Republicans seemed to disagree. And critically, while Bush ran a climate denialist administration, the McCain climate platform was genuinely moderate. As David Roberts detailed contemporaneously, McCain wanted a cap-and-trade program that would aim for 1990-level emissions by 2020 and a 60 percent reduction in emissions between 2020 and 2050. It was Romney, not Trump, who dropped support for carbon pricing.
Of course McCain lost, and Obama tried and failed to enact a cap-and-trade bill with similar targets, but then emissions fell in line with those targets anyway.
So you can imagine a world in which President McCain enacts a bipartisan cap-and-trade bill, and while the emissions path isn’t particularly different, the vibes and politics around climate change are completely transformed. Instead, we had Trump running around saying climate change is a Chinese hoax.
Meanwhile, the Bush/Obama years also featured an elite consensus that deporting upwards of 10 million long-settled undocumented residents of the United States was impractical and that letting these individuals come forward, pay fines and back taxes, and get legal status if they could pass a criminal background check would essentially drain the swamp. With a much smaller undocumented population remaining, it would be feasible for interior enforcement to then focus on new arrivals and those with criminal records.
And it was Romney, not Trump, who broke with this consensus by calling instead for “self-deportation” — you don’t actually need to deport millions and millions of people, you can just make their lives as uncomfortable as possible and they’ll find they have no choice but to leave. Then Romney really gilded the lily by teaming up with Paul Ryan to run on privatizing Medicare.
If issues were all that mattered, Romney should have done much worse than McCain. Instead he did better because McCain was dragged down by the Great Recession, while Obama had to run for re-election amidst a kind of meh recovery. But I think it’s plausible that Romney could have won if he’d had McCain’s more moderate platform.
And I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that he could have won if he’d had Trump’s platform.
Donald Trump’s relative moderation
Trump was right-wing on immigration relative to McCain and Bush, and he was to the right of McCain (though not Bush) on climate, but I think it’s actually pretty hard to identify any areas in which Trump was explicitly to the right of Romney.
Romney called his border security proposal a “fence” rather than a “wall,” but it was not so different from Trump’s. And Romney ran not just as an opponent of same-sex marriage equality, but was seemingly committed to bringing back Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and barring gay and lesbian soldiers from serving openly. Trump’s positions on these issues were never really clear, but he gave the impression that he didn’t plan on rolling back the LGB aspects of LGBT progress under Obama, and that’s more or less how he governed.
As a candidate, Trump also famously promised to eschew cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and also to deliver health care for everyone in some non-specific way. As president, Trump obviously never outlined a plan to expand insurance coverage. He also tried repeatedly to cut Medicaid and to cut Social Security Disability Insurance. But he really did leave Medicare and Social Security old-age benefits alone (and argued that’s what he’d meant the whole time).
Long story short, if I were to try to do a cartoon about the Republican Party, I would have them moving right between 2008 and 2012 and then part of the way back to the center again by 2021. Except the things they moved to the center on post-Romney aren’t the things that Romney moved to the right on. So while I think it’s pretty easy to describe what happened — Romney moved right on climate and immigration, Trump moved a bit left on entitlements — it is challenging to summarize it graphically.
But there is also a whole new agenda.
The war on wokeness
An awful lot of what we’ve been talking about for the past two years is the result of policy entrepreneurship by Christopher Rufo, formerly of the Discovery Institute and now of the Manhattan Institute.
There’s a charlatan aspect to Rufo’s activism, but he also had a very real insight that only broke through in GOP circles in the final months of the Trump administration: to the extent that people are annoyed by “wokeness” or “political correctness,” Republicans could try to actually do something about it. This started with a September 2020 executive order about the content of diversity training programs for the federal workforce
I don’t think anyone on the left actually cares much about the content of the diversity training programs for the federal workforce. But Rufo established two things here:
Critical Race Theory was codified as conservatives’ preferred name for certain ideas and practices with a loose relationship to CRT as defined by legal scholars
It became a public policy issue rather than a thing about which people sling takes at each other.
And it’s (2) that is the real significance of Rufo’s work. Were these diversity trainings an important issue? No. But they are indisputably within the purview of the executive branch of the federal government. Trump wasn’t just tweeting a complaint about cancel culture; he actually made policies to wage a battle against progressive cultural ideas. And this concept is now dominating Republican Party politics. A lot of conservatives might still have some qualms about telling a purely private company what it can say in internal diversity presentations, but wherever the hand of the state is already present — in government workforce trainings, in libraries, in K-12 schools, even in university faculties — Republicans are now looking to clamp down on progressive wrongthink.
Rufo himself, meanwhile, clearly feels that this should be pushed into arenas like private companies and private schools.