A three-way conservative split?

Our friend Tevi Troy has an article in Politico about what he perceives to be a three-way split in conservatism produced by the Trump ascendancy. Tevi identifies the three branches as (1) “ever-Trumpers,” the president’s ardent supporters; (2) “conservative critics”; and (3) “safe-space conservatives.”

Members of the third group “are trying to find a ‘safe space’ by focusing their attention on media bias against Trump and the excesses of anti-Trump protesters.” They are anti-anti-Trump. As for their view of the president, it fluctuates. In Tevi’s words, “they will be discomfited some days, and exhilarated the next; sometimes these extremes will happen on the same day.”

Tevi sees the three-way split he describes as akin to the “arguments that helped define and solidify a movement in the 1960s and 1970s [that] helped move conservatism towards governing and electoral successes in the 1980s.” He adds:

As fascinating as these divisions are within the conservative movement, these splits can also have important implications for the future of America. Whichever group wins over conservatism will likely dominate the Republican party for the foreseeable future.

With that party controlling the White House, Congress, and a majority of state houses and governors’ mansions, the direction of the GOP will also help determine the policy direction of the country. What seems like an intramural squabble among talking heads and scribblers could emerge as the start of a defining moment in 21st century political history.

Yet, the ideological content of the three-way split does not quite live up to this billing. The split between the “conservative critics” and the “safe-space conservatives” strikes me as more about attitude and tactics than ideas.

The critics are inclined to speak out when they disagree with Trump. The safe-spacers are inclined to hold their fire, at least for now. But it’s not clear that the two camps differ much as to the merits of whatever they are criticizing (or refraining from criticizing).

The “ever Trumpers” diverge ideologically from the other two groups, but how much? In Tevi’s telling, their view of conservative critics of Trump has at least as much to do with anger over lack of support for their man as it does with sharp ideological differences.

To illustrate a split on ideas, Tevi cites an article on foreign policy by Michael Anton, who wrote as Publius Decius Mus during the campaign and now works for the Trump administration. Last Fall, Decius clashed with some conservatives after he dubbed the contest between Trump and Clinton “The Flight 93 Election.” His thesis, expressed in the opening sentence, was:

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

This was hardly a ringing endorsement of Donald Trump’s merit as a leader. It was mainly a commentary on how bad the alternative to Trump was. The dispute over “the Flight 93 election” can be viewed as more about attitude and strategy than ideology.

What about Anton’s foreign policy piece? I’m certainly not an “ever Trumper.” Yet as I re-read Anton’s article, I didn’t find much with which sharply to disagree.

Anton’s argument is that the “liberal international order” that Trump critiques is “not an end, but a means to preordained ends.” The ends it should serve are peace, prestige, and prosperity for America and Americans.

In Anton’s view, the liberal international order continues, for the most part, to serve these ends. But there are “important exceptions that require correction.”

The main exception, for Anton (as, it appears, for Trump) is trade. The second is our alliance structure. The third is democracy promotion.

Anton doesn’t call for abandoning NATO, though (Trump hasn’t either). He argues only for making it more relevant. The devil is in the details, of course, but I doubt that Trump’s conservative critics are wedded to keeping NATO just as it is.

The only detail Anton mentions is not pushing NATO any closer to Russia. This is an issue that likely will divide conservatives, but it doesn’t seem like the basis for a schism.

Turning to democracy promotion, Anton points to differences among conservatives as to just how viable democracy is in some parts of the world and, relatedly, how valuable it is in serving the U.S. interest in maintaining peace and stability. The debate is interesting, but probably not of great moment. I know of few conservatives who these days want to build American foreign policy around democracy promotion. Indeed, the extent to which conservatives have wanted this in the past has been overstated, in my view.

Finally, there is trade. Here the rift may be significant. Anton says “the Trump administration is right to be skeptical of free trade ideology and to revisit trade policy based on core interests and commercial realities.”

Sure. But if, in practice, this ends up meaning restrictive trade policies, then the administration’s approach will divide conservatives on a matter of core concern. Such a division would be a two-way, not a three-way, split. Would the two-sides co-exist within a single conservative movement? I’m not sure.

In the end, I agree with Tevi that the Trump administration stands a good chance of producing ideological divisions that might well reshape conservatism. I suspect, though, that it will be the approach President Trump takes to some issue or crisis not yet on the horizon that brings this about.