Since I had written speeches for Trump and his family in 2016, I was asked to provide an inauguration address for him. What I came up with was the kind of speech that Biden delivered today, a healing speech that reached back to earlier ones that had been given by Martin Luther King and JFK. But when I listened to Trump’s inaugural speech, from the balcony of the Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue, I knew that my speechwriting days were over. Trump’s address was an angry, Bannonite screed devoid of any sense of graciousness.
Biden’s halting delivery today reminded us why a majority of Americans had supported him. It wasn’t his sparkling personality. Rather, he was Chance the gardener, the un-Trump. Americans had tired of the petulance and thin-skinned pettiness we had seen on January 20, 2017. Trump lacked Dwight Eisenhower’s reassuring manner and George W. Bush’s self-deprecating sense of humor. Such friends as he had, crude fixers like Michael Cohen or pushy sycophants like Anthony Scaramucci, made our flesh creep and we were happy to see the last of them. He brought in a few respected establishment figures, the Jim Mattises and Rex Tillersons, but he couldn’t persuade them to agree with him and they seldom lasted very long.
Though it’s made a sweep of the White House and both Houses of Congress, the Democratic party is poised for a fall. It will overplay its hand, as Democrats always do, and its nominal head, the President, is 78 and shows marked signs of mental decline. During the campaign he hid in his basement and seemed befuddled when his handlers allowed him upstairs to answer the press’ softball questions. Virtually every other leader in the party is an extremist whose politics lie far outside the American mainstream. They want to impose a burden of racial guilt on Americans without offering the possibility of absolution or any escape in the formerly innocent pleasures of entertainment and sports. And while Biden promised to unify the country, that won’t go over very well with Democrats who are mired in what the New York Times’s Charles Blow praised as the left’s ‘insatiable rage’. Finally, for good measure, the left has asked us to hate America. With Trump gone, we’ll quickly tire of them.
A new Republican party, shorn of Trump but faithful to the policies he brought to the party, might thus emerge to unite the country. What this won’t be is a snap-back to the way conservatism was defined for the last 50 years. The Goldwater movement, whose touchstone was economic liberty, and which opposed civil rights reforms and national welfare policies, ran its course and was repudiated by Trump’s victory in the 2016 Republican primaries. In doing so, Trump added a new meaning to conservatism, one that represents a rejection of the former keepers of the flame and a return to an earlier kind of Republicanism. If this was defeated in 2020, that was because it was 2020, and a year not to be repeated.
The GOP has to reinvent itself, but in a way that retains the 74 million of us who voted for him. This will entail Trumpism without Trump, and the party can do so by reaching back to an earlier Republican party, that of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Eisenhower. It will have to abandon the wrong turn it took in 1964 where it rejected the honorable, progressive conservative traditions of an earlier GOP.
Trump told us that right-wing, libertarian principles had left millions of people behind, and that he was a different kind of Republican, one who said that whoever you are and wherever you live, you should be able to get ahead and know that your children will have it better than you did. That is the American Dream, and he said that the government has a duty to make it happen. Second, he promised to drain the swamp, and end the rule by interest groups and elites who line their own pockets while ignoring everyone beneath them. Third, he told us of his pride in America, his belief that our country is a beacon to the world that has always surmounted its difficulties and will continue to do so. That is Trumpism, and it was the same kind of progressive conservatism that we saw in an earlier GOP.
At a time when Democrats have rejected the country’s liberal traditions, the GOP must become the party of liberalism. And when those who call themselves progressives embrace an intolerant cancel culture, let’s give a new meaning to the word and agree with Eisenhower that ‘the Republican party must be known as a progressive organization or it is sunk’.
F.H. Buckley is the author of Curiosity: And its 12 Rules for Life (forthcoming Encounter Books, April 2021).