Back in 2010, newly-minted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Heritage Foundation, “Our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term.” It was a blunt statement of Republican principle. Lower taxes and deregulation are well and good, but the central plank in the modern GOP platform is winning. Maybe it started when John McCain mortgaged his reputation for Sarah Palin. Maybe it began with the election of Barack Obama and the party’s redefinition of itself as his negative image. But it ends like this. Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination for president on the strength of saying whatever works. And between now and November, most of the people who called him an unqualified catastrophe—party leaders, conservative commentators, other Republican politicians—will get behind him.
They don’t have to, of course. Maybe Bill Kristol, who declared the end of Trump’s candidacy several times over the last year, will tell people to vote for Hillary Clinton instead. Maybe he will tell them not to vote at all. It would be thrilling if the Kristols and the John Podhoretzes—the sons of public intellectuals who inherited their positions in conservative politics—stood up for principle against their party when it had so clearly gone astray. But I bet they won’t.
I bet by August, Kristol and Podhoretz will both write columns about how Trump isn’t perfect, but he’s clearly superior to Clinton. What other choice do they have? They didn’t build their careers on bucking consensus with better ideas. They were born into it. They don’t hold positions in the world of discourse but in the world of the Republican Party. When that world turns upside-down—as it appears to be doing now—they will turn upside-down with it.
Most conservative commenters and Republican leaders didn’t inherit their jobs the way Kristol and Podhoretz did, of course. But figuratively, the GOP has become the party of fortunate sons. Half of this operating principle is obvious: attempts to repeal the inheritance tax, clumsily paternal policies toward women, opposition to welfare and every other government program that might correct for accidents of birth. But the other way in which the GOP is a party of fortunate sons is more subtle. They are scared, because they have taken ownership of a brand they didn’t build.
Both parties have existed for more than 150 years now, so in a way this observation is axiomatic. But the contemporary Republican Party is riding an identity it took on in 1980, before most of the people now operating it arrived. Democrats, by contrast, rebuilt their brand during the Clinton and Obama presidencies. The Democratic Party 2.01 is ugly to its longtime constituents in many regards, including finance and foreign policy. But at least it is the product of the people now running it. The Republican Party, in the meantime, has done little but beatify Ronald Reagan and recite a litany of negations: against Obama, against change, against what this country has become.
That last negation is the central plank in the Trump platform. Make America great again. Make it like it was 50 years ago, when the undereducated but affluent white voters at the core of his constituency were just entering an economy they hadn’t built, which almost no white man could lose. This is the policy of the fortunate son: make it like it was when I was a kid. The question of how to make it that way is unanswerable to them, because they didn’t do it the first time. Trump has gotten around this problem by promising to change America by changing its people. He has hit on an issue that separates those who don’t know what they’re doing from those who pretend to. Against immigration is the rallying cry of the fortunate son who isn’t otherwise fortunate. It reduces the American dream to getting born here.
I submit that most Americans are at this moment enjoying a country they couldn’t build from scratch. According to José Ortega y Gasset, that’s the fundamental condition of modernity. But the Republican Party is more deeply ensconced in it than most. They have chosen a tough-talking con artist to make America great again because they lack confidence in their own understanding of what made it great in the first place. They are driven by the fortunate son’s worst fear: that he will lose his position because he does not, in fact, deserve it. They have become not politically but paranoiacally conservative.
The Republican Party has clung more tightly to its position every year since 2008. Donald Trump is the cramp, and though he pains them, they will not let go. Watch the whole conservative apparatus reorganize itself around the principle that the conservative thing to do is win this election, regardless of whom that puts in office. Watch it get behind a winner, because the alternative is to lose something.