How conservatism can survive Trumpism

“We must, as a nation, become more unpredictable.”

This may be the truest and least controversial statement Donald Trump has made throughout his tumultuous run for president. Whatever the result of the November election, American politics − and in particular the cohesion and ideological character of the Republican party − has never seemed more fluid and less predictable than right now.

Trump’s polarizing ideas and deliberate hostility towards key voting blocs such as women, Blacks and Hispanics, has turned the once-unlikely scenario of a third straight term in the White House for a Democrat, something that hasn’t happened since the 1940s, into a strong bet come November. That a candidate as personally unpopular and fraught with baggage as Hillary Clinton should be the beneficiary of such a situation makes this turnaround all the more remarkable.

Presumptive nominee Trump, a populist rabble-rouser extraordinaire, has also destabilized the Republican Party’s policy foundation. His platform scorns much of the party’s traditional core values dating back to the Reagan era: free trade, immigration, entitlement reform and American internationalism. In its place he offers protectionism and punitive tariffs, border walls magically paid for by neighbours, invoices sent to military allies and a guarantee Social Security will never be touched. It is a bitter pill to swallow for many conservatives.

Perhaps even more significant, his abrasiveness undermines the respect for the establishment that is emblematic of modern Republicanism. For an organization that’s long prided itself on orderly succession plans and candidates who wait their turn − Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line, the adage goes − Trump is fracturing the bedrock of American political conservatism. And its adherents are making their displeasure known.

Bushes both elder and junior have said they won’t campaign on Trump’s behalf. Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney called Trump a “fraud” and a “phony.” Republican House Leader Paul Ryan dawdled for weeks before offering up a tepid and grudging endorsement of his own party’s nominee. Then, after Trump questioned the bias of a judge because of his Mexican heritage, Ryan called the comment “racist” but did not disavow his candidate. And after Trump repeated his vow to suspend Muslim immigration following the Islamist-inspired massacre in a Florida gay bar, Ryan again repudiated his candidate’s position.

Even talk radio, typically a reliable bastion of support for the Republican party, is also deeply split over the prospect of a Trump presidency, with well-known right-wing hosts such as Glenn Beck disavowing his campaign. Conservative Washington Post columnist George F. Will has written that loyal Republicans have a duty to ensure Trump actually loses every state in November, calling it “condign punishment for his comprehensive disdain for conservative essentials.” Unless the party actively works to ensure Trump’s defeat, Will predicts voter antipathy towards the candidate could bring down the entire Republican party edifice, including the loss of majorities in the Senate and House. For many conservatives, the prospect of another Clinton presidency has become preferable to the potential ruination of the Republican brand at the hands of Trump.

Success, of course, has a way of papering over differences. If Trump is triumphant in November − perhaps by winning vote-rich, blue collar and traditionally Democratic states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan with his tonic of angry populism − and carries the rest of the party along on his solid gold coat-tails, much will be forgiven.

For now, however, the American conservative movement appears closer to breaking apart than breaking out in song. The least predictable aspect of the 2016 presidential election is the future cohesiveness and coherence of Republicanism itself. Given the animosity Trump has stirred with his party and his iconoclastic approach to policy, some experts predict the party faces a devastating rupture in the wake of a Trump defeat. If this proves the case, Canadian conservatives have some lessons to offer their ideological cousins to the south. They’ve been there before.

Déjà vu for Canadian conservatives

The 1993 election stands as the biggest Dear John letter in Canadian political history. From a comfortable majority of 156 seats, the Progressive Conservative (PC) party was reduced to an embarrassing two-seat toehold in Parliament as conservative voters abandoned the party en masse. In an instant Brian Mulroney’s grand coalition of central Canadian business interests, Quebec nationalists and western populists blew apart: in its place two regionally dominant and proudly un-centrist parties − Reform and Bloc Québécois − gloating over the squashed remains of the middle-of-the-road PCs.

This break-up of the Canadian conservative movement has been much picked over. As has the 13 long years conservatives spent in the political wilderness fighting amongst themselves while the Liberals ran the country, before finally coming together to create a new Conservative Party and win the 2006 election. Within the collapse and reformation of the Canadian conservative movement lies some important insights for Republicans contemplating the potential crack-up of their own party in the Trump era and beyond.

There are, of course, also some significant differences in how political disagreements play out on either side of the border; a quick nod to comparative politics is in order. “Canadian political parties tend to be quite rigid and difficult to change, so disaffected voters are more likely to break away and form new parties,” observes Peter Woolstencroft, a retired political science professor at University of Waterloo and a long-time PC organizer in southwestern Ontario. This process of musical chairs is particularly evident on the political right. The oxymoronic Progressive Conservative party was the result of a 1942 merger between traditional Conservatives and agrarian Progressives. Alberta’s opposition Wildrose Party has only been around since 2008. The Saskatchewan Party, in power since 2007, was born just ten years earlier. Coalition Avenir Québec, the third party in Quebec’s legislature, appeared in 2011, a year later merging with Action démocratique du Québec.

The U.S., on the other hand, hasn’t seen the creation of a major new party capable of seizing power at the federal or state level since before the Civil War. This is because American politics is dominated by decisions made at local and state levels. Consider, for example, the tremendous diversity (and associated incomprehensibility) of rules for presidential primaries across states. This is indicative of the distinct bottom-up nature of U.S. political discourse. The two parties are also quite flexible in membership rules and it is common for voters to change their registration in order to vote in the other party’s primary. “Disaffected U.S. voters have a much greater ability to change their own party from inside,” says Woolstencroft. “And so ideological differences are resolved within existing parties rather than through the creation of new ones − as Trump’s take over of the Republican party demonstrates.” The winner-take-all aspect of the presidential race also forces voters to pick from one of the two established parties. If Canadian politics followed the American model, motivated western conservatives could have quickly taken over the PC party and recalibrated it from within shortly after the 1993 debacle, rather than decamping to the Reform Party.

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Despite these fundamental differences, some American experts speculate the Trump effect could be so great as to create a Canadian-style disintegration. Lewis Gould is an historian at Monmouth College in Illinois and author of Grand Old Party, an authoritative history of the Republicans. He admits the GOP has faced its share of ruptures since the party’s creation in 1854 as a northern-based, anti-slavery party. Most notable was the 1912 election when former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt ran as an independent, thus delivering victory to long-shot Democrat candidate Woodrow Wilson. But the Trump experience looks very different from these previous problems, he says in an interview. “This is a much more ideological challenge for the party than anything that has ever happened before. Trump is so opposed to what modern Republicans believe in that it’s hard to see how they will ever be able to bring it all back together.”

If the Republican party does shatter into several pieces after the election − angry Trump populists, establishment free-traders, social conservatives, Tea Partiers etc. − and finds itself in the political wilderness, the Canadian conservative experience will prove useful.

Lessons from the Great Right North

The first lesson is to spend time on enforced vacation wisely. Political purgatory offers parties an opportunity to be creative and rethink fundamental principles and policies. “Reform innovated like crazy,” following the collapse of the PCs, recalls Tom Flanagan, University of Calgary political science professor and key backroom figure in the Reform, Canadian Alliance and Conservative movements. The result of Reform’s robust policy-making process was a host of new ideas sprung upon the Canadian voting public, including a harder-edged approach to balanced budgets, grass roots democratic principles and tougher stands on crime and Quebec separatism. Banishment from electoral relevance also provided motivation to invest in political organization. One result was the Conservative party’s vaunted Constituency Information Management System, a database that allowed them to keep tabs on huge numbers of voters and potential donors and provided an important leg up on political competitors in subsequent elections.

All this innovation proved necessary. “We finally won the 2006 election because we were good at one thing − correcting our previous mistakes,” Flanagan wrote in Harper’s Team, his history of the rebirth of the conservative movement that culminated in the first of Stephen Harper’s three federal victories at the head of the reborn Conservative party. Of note, the winning 2006 platform was tightly focused on pocket-book issues such as child care and lower taxes, and hence was dramatically different from Mulroney’s penchant for big sweeping initiatives such as free trade, GST and constitutional reform that had left Canadian voters weary of the PCs.

Learning from mistakes can be more difficult than it sounds, however. After their 2012 defeat by Barack Obama, the Republican party vowed to mount a comeback in 2016 via an exhaustive post-election autopsy meant to correct previous platform errors. The resulting report by the Republican National Committee recommends, for example, paying much greater attention to the “women problem” as well as to Hispanics and Blacks. It also suggests openness to immigrants and a softer and more caring side to its policies. Reading the Republican 2012 election post-mortem through upside-down glasses gives you a pretty close approximation of the 2016 Trump platform. On nearly every demographic and strategic issue, he is diametrically opposed to what the party brass recommends. This is partly because the Republican National Committee exerts little effective control over the party due to the diffuse nature of American politics. But widespread hubris among the Republican establishment also plays a large role. “Republicans have always believed they are the country’s natural governing party,” says Gould. “If they get their clocks cleaned in November can they embark on an effective soul-searching journey? That remains to be seen.”

One of the biggest roadblocks to restoring political unity is overcoming the personal animosity that motivated the break-up in the first place. “It certainly didn’t need to take so long,” says Adam Daifallah of the decade-long process to unite the Canadian right. Daifallah is co-author of several manifestos in the 2000s that exhorted the Canadian conservative movement back to wholeness, including Gritlock and Rescuing Canada’s Right. He figures a merged party was possible as early as the 2000 election if the issues of personality could have been overcome more quickly: “Unfortunately you had [former PC leader] Joe Clark, who was so recalcitrant towards Reform.” Not until Clark was removed as leader was the PC party able to contemplate a union with their conservative cousins.

It takes some purging to escape purgatory

Perhaps not surprisingly, former PCs tend to consider the problems with match-making as more of an issue with Reform policies than PC personalities. “Time spent in the wilderness has to be spent going through policy options and creating a viable alternative to the party in power that are reflective of traditional conservative principles,” says Hugh Segal, the long-time federal PC political fixture, former Senator and now Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto. For a Red Tory such as Segal, ‘traditional conservative principles’ means dropping anything suggestive of western populism and learning how to woo Ontario and Quebec. “Reform had to moderate itself if there was going to be a conservative government in Canada ever again. And to their credit, that’s the conclusion they finally came to,” says Segal. “I suspect the Republican party will face the same challenges when it goes through its own rebuilding process.”

This lingering debate over why conservatives took so long to get back together − Joe Clark’s obstreperousness or Reform’s deeply-held populism − offers ample evidence of the animosity that once animated these discussions. The old divisions never entirely went away and could re-emerge in the upcoming Conservative Party leadership contest. But internecine feuds and personality conflicts inevitably prolong the agony of defeat. Conservatives should know this and Republicans may soon discover it. It’s hard to imagine establishment figures such as the Bushes or Romney reaching out to make nice with Trump any time soon.

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(It’s also interesting to consider why Canada’s Liberal party seems immune to these sorts of ideological break-ups. Segal says the reason is simple: they have no ideology over which to disagree. “Unlike conservatives, Liberals are not driven by a philosophical vision of government. They are driven by what works. Liberal has always been the managerial option in Canadian politics.”)

Finally, revitalizing a conservative movement that has gotten off track will inevitably require a course correction towards the vote-rich centre. Among his “Ten Commandments of Conservative Campaigning” that concludes Harper’s Team, Flanagan lists the virtues of moderation, inclusion and incrementalism. The process behind conservatives’ ultimate return to power in Canada consisted, in large part, of jettisoning what once seemed to be core Reform tenets, such as a one-member-one-vote leadership process and a commitment to a Triple-E Senate, in favour of more centrist policies meant to appeal to the median voter. “The net result was a reconstitution of the old Conservative Party, but under new management,” says Flanagan.

A Republican party that drifted far from the centre during its neoconservative, Tea Party and now Trump eras, also seems in need of a realignment if it hopes to recapture the middle ground. As David Frum, former George W. Bush speech writer and a key figure in early Canadian unite-the-right efforts, observed earlier this year in The Atlantic magazine “the plutocratic cast of Republican politics since 2009” no longer resonates with average Americans. “The job ahead, post-November,” he writes, “is to build a new kind of conservative politics − a politics with broader social appeal.” Such a solution could provide a permanent home for Trump’s anxious adherents without alienating traditional Republicans or other necessary voting blocs.

So what are the ultimate lessons of the Canadian conservative crack-up? Learn from your mistakes, get along with others, make new friends and play in the middle. This might sound like the sort of things everyone was supposed to learn in kindergarten. Yet it took Canadian conservatives a very long time to grasp these simple truths. If the Republicans find themselves falling apart after the 2016 presidential election, it’s the same advice they’ll need to rely upon.

“Party splits can be very creative,” adds Flanagan, “but sooner or later you get back to the old model, which has developed over time for good reason.” That reason being: winning elections.


Peter Shawn Taylor is editor-at-large of Maclean’s. He lives in Waterloo.

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