When Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, it may have put a Republican into the White House, but it surely did not put in a conservative.
During his tenure as president, Trump pursued some conservative policies – on taxes and judges, for example – but he also led the Republican Party away from its conservative roots in more than one area. Republicans were no longer a party of free trade and balanced budgets, of a strong American role in the world, of personal responsibility or morality. It was with this shift that conservatism – in the words of conservative author George F. Will – became “a persuasion without a party.”
Even worse than the shift on many policy preferences was the shift on the very idea of what our country is supposed to be about. The Trump presidency has featured the reversal of the belief that we must be a nation of laws, not of men, to the belief that we are the nation of Trump, and any laws which interferes with his aspirations are unjust and can be subverted.
It is that reversal that led to the events on Jan. 6.
While a Trump presidency that came and went in four years would have seriously hurt the conservative cause and the Republican Party, the events of Jan. 6 destroyed them. In the aftermath of a free and fair election, Trump stoked anger among his supporters, falsely claiming that it was a “rigged” and “stolen” election. Consequently, a terrorist mob of his most fervent supporters – draped in the stars and stripes which have represented the pinnacle of freedom to millions in the United States and around the world – committed violence in the U.S. Capitol. They even killed a Capitol Police officer, one of those brave souls who put their life on the line so we can live safely.
These domestic terrorists were instigated by the president of the United States – a president who has not been shy about flaunting the rule of law. Except, this time, the aim of him and his supporters’ lawless attitudes was our democracy.
While Trump has perverted the Republican Party – stripping it away from its conservative roots – the path forward must be one of a return to true conservatism. If the conservative movement has any chance of survival, it must return to first principles – and that starts with students like us. Some elected Republicans still cherish those values — Sens. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, among them – but the truth is that they have largely been abandoned. As a result, it is the job of the future leaders of the party to change course.
While most countries around the world are defined by their history, the United States is defined by its founding creed. It is the American creed that conservatives must wish to conserve. This creed – outlined in the Declaration of Independence, realized in the Constitution and explained in the Federalist Papers – posits that the purpose of government is to secure its citizens’ natural rights, among them life, liberty and property.
This government should be limited in scope. Any government that attempts social engineering or economic planning is doomed to fail because “people are not inanimate objects like chess pieces.” Using them for some “grand design” isn’t successful or productive.
While the Constitution is the single most liberty-ensuring document in world history, politicians now see it entirely as an obstacle to their supposedly “superior” vision of what America should be. Limited government within a constitutional framework is not in vogue with political leaders on any side of the aisle because it is simply not in their self-interest. If government downsized, those in power would be less relevant and then there would be no incentive for the people to donate to them. As government shrinks, those within it lose influence.
Government’s increased power, and role in American life, has proved most detrimental – not only for the American people but for itself as an institution. Will, the conservative author, points out that as government’s role in our daily lives has increased, public trust in government has plummeted.
The only way to effectuate this new vision for America and for conservatives is for the next generation of conservative leaders and students to embrace it. We are the ones who will be given the torch to continue the conservative ideal, and it is our job to defend it. In essence, the conservative ideal must be the American ideal that has sustained us through many dark days in history.
In order to do this, we must make a concerted effort. Former President Ronald Reagan said if freedom is not continually fought for, then “one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” In the aftermath of an insurrection, these words are more relevant than ever. Over the past four years, some Republicans have aided in the destruction of our freedom. Over the next century, it is our job to fight mercilessly to preserve it.
Jack Elbaum, a freshman majoring in international affairs and economics, is an opinions writer.
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