These Conservatives Don’t Feel Fine
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s hard to see your political faith shattered.
The cruel irony is that it looked so much like what grassroots conservatives had dreamed of: Their fan favorite, Ted Cruz, speaking to a raucous crowd at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, giving a stirring speech outlining the aspirational dream of conservatism with one of its most inclusive elucidations to date. And yet, that’s where the dream ends. Because as his speech trailed off to a chorus of boos, in entered the most public acknowledgment of Donald Trump’s coronation yet, as Newt Gingrich, House Speaker Paul Ryan and VP pick Mike Pence all paid homage to their new presidential nominee. Delegates celebrated on the floor, turning their attention to the general election with chants of “Lock her up!” while gleefully waving their “America Deserves Better Than Hillary” signs.
But even as the celebration of party unity rages on today, now echoing beyond the convention floor, a segment of next-gen conservatives are in mourning. These are the young folks who had devoted degrees, internships and fledgling careers to the party of Ryan and Ronald Reagan — and are now inheriting what they perceive to be a different kind of party instead. Their coping mechanisms vary. Some vow to seriously consider Libertarian Gary Johnson, or not vote at all. Others who spoke to OZY say they’d delay their ambitious political goals, pursuing the apolitical world of the judiciary system for a while or stumping for state and local candidates. Then there are those who are thinking of dropping the party entirely — starting fresh once the hangover of this year fades. “How do we reconcile being conservative and realizing that, in reality, this is not a candidate we can support? People are going to take different paths,” says David Cahn, the 20-year-old co-author of When Millennials Rule: The Reshaping of America.
I don’t know what to call myself anymore. I’m a conservative. But am I still a Republican?
A recent Harvard Law grad and former student president
There’s a feeling that many don’t fit into this new family portrait of nativist rhetoric. Enter those broader, existential questions you may catch on Facebook: “I don’t know what to call myself anymore,” a recent Harvard Law grad and former student president posted the night Trump clinched the nomination, though he declined to speak with OZY. “I’m a conservative. But am I still a Republican?” Another longtime Republican, an Ohio millennial who campaigned vigorously for George W. Bush as a teenager, says his life would be entirely different if it weren’t for conservatism, which gave him meaning and his current career working in right-leaning politics. “I’m probably going to vote for Donald Trump, but I will do it with tears in my eyes,” the 29-year-old says. “It breaks my heart that this is the embodiment of conservatism in this race.”
Not everyone is sure the end of conservatism is truly at stake. That’s because Trump is a “non-ideological” candidate, says Ken Cuccinelli, the former Cruz campaigner who staged a doomed floor fight to free delegates to vote for anyone else. And some young voters actually favor Trump’s new brand of rightish populism: “I’m a conservative at heart, but I just want to be a patriot,” says Clay Chapman, an 18-year-old from Noblesville, Indiana, who traveled to Cleveland with a Trump T-shirt and “Make America Great Again” hat. These inheritors of the Trump legacy, at first blush, seem more interested in upending the status quo than the solvency of a party and its platform. “It’s not about these ideas,” Chapman says. “I couldn’t care less about the Republican Party.”
What happens if a non-ideological candidate leads a once-principled party into the White House for the next four or even eight years? “They’re not getting conservatism,” argues Regina Thomson, a Colorado delegate who helped lead the anti-Trump efforts. “They’re getting a man who gives them promises he either can’t, or won’t, fulfill.” Already, Trump’s nomination has sown confusion with young intellectual conservatives, who now find themselves caught between principle and practicality. “I go back and forth,” says Larissa Martinez, the 33-year-old leader of RightNOW, a social welfare organization that promotes women with center-right views. “Nobody is excited — nobody I know.”
To make matters worse when it comes to inspiring a more diverse generation of millennials, the RNC has struggled to hire and retain Latino and Black outreach directors in the wake of Trump’s candidacy.
While critics deride rightward politics as unfeeling, clinging to hard numbers and religious doctrine while advocating cuts to safety nets and abortion rights, many conservatives feel the opposite. They view themselves as deeply idealistic, operating with a belief that free people can accomplish anything, so long as the government gets out of their way. It’s a belief that risks minimizing the role of racial bias or intergenerational poverty in outcomes, but it’s hopeful nonetheless. “The American dream is that you lift yourself up by your bootstraps, and some of the draw is that nobody is going to help you do that,” says Jack Bell, a convention delegate from Washington. Yet when asked about his party’s nominee, the 18-year-old demurs. When pushed, he says, “My view of conservatism and Donald Trump don’t always coincide.”
Even if Trump wins the presidency, his barnstorming of aspirational conservatism has led to a talent drain that will echo for elections to come. Likable stars with wide appeal such as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse never took to the convention stage — an opportunity they almost surely would have had, or taken, with another nominee. While other up-and-comers rose in their place, Trump has put on hold the party’s dreams of inclusiveness when it comes to staffing, as outlined in its 2012 platform. To make matters worse when it comes to inspiring a more diverse group of millennials, the RNC has struggled to hire and retain Latino and Black outreach directors in the wake of Trump’s candidacy. Only 18 Black delegates, of 2,472, reportedly attended the GOP convention this week, comprising the lowest percentage in a century, according to a 2012 Joint Center for Politics and Economic Studies report.
The lament doesn’t escape the Old Guard, either. “We’re witnessing the death of the party,” says establishment Republican strategist Howard Schweitzer. “Where’s the soul?” And Schweitzer’s former boss, George W. Bush, touched on a similar vein of despair. “I’m worried that I’ll be the last Republican president,” Bush reportedly told former aides and advisers earlier this year. Yet it’s upcoming voters, a crowd not easily typecast, who present the biggest lost opportunity for a party enamored by a big-tent mentality but ensconced in a feudalistic candidacy. And if young voters sit out this time, there’s no promise they’ll return four years from now, says Cahn, the millennial author: “There is a stickiness to voting — the more times you vote for one party, the more you continue to,” he says. “People aren’t just voting for Clinton; they’re disassociating with the Republican Party.”