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Conservative columnists discuss conservatism, Republican Party at Sanford talk

During a panel discussion Wednesday, two prominent conservative columnists said President Donald Trump has flipped the traditional conservative script and left Republicans with questions about the party’s new identity. 

Ross Douthat took the stage alongside Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle, the Pamela and Jack Egan Visiting Professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy. The conversation—titled “Conservatism in the Age of Trump”—was hosted by the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, the Center for Politics, Leadership, Innovation and Service, and the Sanford School of Public Policy. 

Both Douthat and McArdle said conservatives should look to solidify an identity ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. McArdle likened the 2016 primary election to a “Republican civil war,” and said most conservative voters still have yet to pick a side. Both noted that disagreement among Republican leaders about whether to fully embrace Trump’s populist ideology is holding the party back.

“The definition of conservatism right now is extremely up for grabs,” said Douthat. "The fundamental reality is that the Republican party controls the government of the United States, has no agenda, is run by Donald Trump, and doesn’t have plausible future leaders who have a clear agenda or path to leadership.... It’s terribly depressing.”

Douthat said the conservative platform’s longevity has been surprising given how reluctant Republicans have been to developing a new and specific vision for change. 

“There is no figure in the party who has a coherent vision of how you integrate 'Trump-ian' populism and the existing Reaganite infrastructure into whatever the next thing is that conservatism should be," he said.

He noted that today’s Republicans have built their brand around resistance to Democratic ideology and are “united on not wanting the Democrats in charge without being united on any substantive agenda.”

“[Journalists] believe in these narratives where the party loses an election, goes into the wilderness, emerges with a new agenda, rides the new agenda to victory, implements the New Deal, Great Society, Reagan Revolution, Contract with America, etc.,” Douthat explained. “The Republicans have proven that’s completely wrong and you don’t need to develop a new agenda to retake power. You just need a closely divided party, some luck, and an opposing party that the rest of the country doesn’t like.”

Douthat called Trump a "terrible president," but also called on Democrats to construct an effective anti-Trump campaign that focuses on policy and does not presuppose that the conservative side is always wrong or immoral. 

On a larger scale, McArdle said she worries that politicians from both parties may no longer be capable of reaching compromises. 

“You can shout at each other and you can denigrate each other," she said. "But can you discuss and can you actually reach a conclusion?” 

Douthat said the easiest fix for this dilemma is a president who can mediate between political winners and losers. The best presidents are “capable of standing a little bit above some of these debates and trying to make sure basically that the groups that are losing politically don’t feel like the stakes are existential for them,” Douthat noted.

He added that Trump has proven especially inept at assuming this role. 

“He is incapable of reassuring anyone outside his core coalition that he is not out to get them,” he said. “If Trump were a good president, he would have spent an enormous amount of time in his first six months in minority communities.”

Still, both Douthat and McArdle said the future could be bright for conservatives.

“There is a version of Trumpism that I think would be good for the Republican Party and good for the country,” Douthat said. “This is a moment in American politics where you have to consider outside-the-box ideas.”


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