Commentary: The GOP's civil war is over

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, meets with the media after he talks about tax reform during a visit to the New Balance Shoe Factory on July 20, 2017 in Lawrence, Mass.


The most overrepresented ideology in American politics today is conservatism. You see conservatives everywhere: on cable news, in opinion columns, in their magazines and most importantly in Congress. But as Donald Trump continues to show us, conservatism is at best a marginal ideology, a very junior partner in the GOP it once controlled.

The Republican civil war is over, and the conservatives lost. We saw yet more evidence of their defeat last week, when Trump sided with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer over the debt ceiling. This is now the Party of Trump, and its dominant ideology is a right-wing populism that puts the emphasis on style and not substance.

Trump will make deals with the Democrats when he can and he finds it expedient. He'll indulge in some ideological adventurism on economic issues because he knows his voters will back him up. The much-heralded Republican resistance to Trump in Congress will remain small and ineffective when it comes to obstructing his agenda, regardless of how many op-eds dissident senators publish in the Washington Post.

Or perhaps that's reading too much into it, and this "pivot" signifies less than it looks. There are two points to consider on this note, the first of which is Trump's familiarity and comfort with Schumer, to whom his family has donated money for years. Juxtapose this with Trump's obvious exasperation with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, with whom he has very little in common, and last week's big surprise starts to make a bit more sense. McConnell treats Trump like a putz; Schumer likely treats him like a donor.

Trump also had zero interest in fighting over hurricane relief, a reflex that can be attributed somewhat to the fact that he is a New Yorker. Trump tends to think like a big city mayor, as big city politics is a world he knows well. And in New York, screwing up the response to a storm is famously lethal to political ambitions. A product of Queens, Trump would remember how Mayor John Lindsay effectively ended his career as a national figure by mismanaging a 1969 blizzard that devastated the outer boroughs. Trump will not make the same mistake.

But the bigger picture is still clear. Trump has no patience for the ideological fixations of a guy like Ryan, and is done pretending otherwise. Moreover, nobody likes the GOP Congress, including Republican voters, so why would Trump cozy up to them at all?

One big reason for that antipathy to congressional conservatives is that not that many Americans are conservatives, or at least conservative in the sense that old guard Republicans like Ryan can recognize. The fact is, there are two big political persuasions in America today: liberalism, and the right-wing populism Trump embodies. Then there are numerous smaller, marginal political groupings, such as socialists and social democrats, libertarians, and now conservatives.

Trump, we were reminded throughout the Republican primaries, is no conservative. To the extent he has serious beliefs on policy, he's agnostic on higher taxes for the rich, has opined on the need for a more robust social safety net and infrastructure, pledged to protect entitlements that conservatives like Ryan are obsessed with cutting, rejects democracy promotion abroad, has little use for traditional sexual morality, and so on. For these reasons and more, the flagship publication of the conservative movement, National Review, dedicated an entire issue to lambasting Trump as the primaries got underway.

As it turns out, the Republican base wasn't very conservative either, and gave the Trump the party's nomination rather quickly. Dumbfounded conservatives organized themselves into the online battalions of #NeverTrump, which tended to promise that Trump's vulgarity and deviations from conservative scripture would be punished in the general. And we all know the end of that story.  

Since the election, and for all his other political failings, Trump has refashioned the party in his image. His inelegant and often contradictory right-wing populism, sewn together in large part by Steve Bannon, is the party's central governing ethos.

And where conservatism is ideologically rigid, Trump's populism is largely symbolic, a series of gestures that connote his cultural solidarity with Republican voters. Because those voters believe he is with them on the important stuff, he has the flexibility to make deals with Democrats on a whim. If those deals undermine Ryan and McConnell, who are both widely loathed by the party's grassroots activists, then that's all the better for Trump.

#NeverTrump lives on in the world of punditry and a few think tanks, and may in time fashion a replacement for Trumpism that's attractive to rank-and-file Republicans. But for now, conservatism has receded to become just another ideological interest group, a niche concern whose footprint in our political discourse vastly outstrips its support among actual voters.

Trump understands that, and now apparently he's finally acting on what he knows. McConnell and Ryan and Ben Sasse and all the fuddy-duddy Beltway ideologists can be pushed around and made to bend the knee.

They don't have the power anymore, and they're unlikely to ever get it back.