The age of Trump & the crisis 
of American conservatism

The Trump presidency is finally over. An end to four years of pugilistic outbursts, midnight tweets railing at the world, taking on foreign leaders and the Nero-like behaviour over the Covid crisis that has left almost 10 million people infected and 240,000 people dead. But it was not just that he was erratic, egotistic and a boor, he was all that in addition to being someone who normalised racism, sexism, and political incorrectness towards one and all.

With Joe Biden being declared the 46th president of the United States, the door has been shut on a tumultuous period for Americans, where the divisions between those who wanted an inclusive society and those who believed that white people had the first right on resources came to a head. The Trump presidency, more than any other in the last 100+ years, ended up deepening the divide between races, communities, and ethnicities. The number of coalitions that got together to defeat Trump was unprecedented. Amongst the more prominent ones were Republicans – conservatives and neo-conservatives – who strongly believed that America would be harmed by one more Trump term and organised themselves to prevent it.

Groups like the Lincoln Project, Republican Voters against Trump, and others endorsed Joe Biden. The Lincoln Project harked back to the values of Abraham Lincoln, who risked civil war to keep the nation united under one law. The Republicans who came together to form the Lincoln Project believed that while they had policy differences with the Democrats, they were opposing Trump because of patriotism. They said, “The priority for all patriotic Americans must be a shared fidelity to the Constitution and a commitment to defeat those candidates who have abandoned their constitutional oaths, regardless of party,” in a clear indictment of the behaviour of Donald Trump.

Neo-conservative intellectuals like Billy Kristol and his organisation, Defending Democracy Together, made up of large numbers of professionals who had served in earlier Republican administrations, campaigned for Biden. In a statement, they said that Trump had gravely damaged America’s role as the leader of the world; and more damningly, they condemned his handling of the Covid crisis, railed at the misinformation that he spread and said he was ‘unfit to lead during a national crisis’. While much of the Republican Party kowtowed to Trump, a few patriots and nationalists stood up to the President, because they believed what he was doing went against both the nation, and the right-wing movement.

The term right wing was not always associated with bigots, misogynists, xenophobic, and others who want exclusionary policies to protect their inherited privilege. While there was fascism that was very clearly defined, it was never conflated with the conservative movement. The conservatives stood for core values and ideologies, including a belief in ‘societal values’, individual responsibility, lesser government involvement in people’s lives, a balanced budget, and a sense of prudence. Abraham Lincoln, in whose term slavery was abolished, was a Republican.

From the 1980s onwards, the American Republican Party began to be slowly and systematically infiltrated by religious zealots, race supremacists and those who believe that a return to traditional roles was needed to save their country. They have campaigned against immigration, against abortion, against gay rights, and against most things that any modern country would take for granted. Many of them believe that the USA was a god-granted place for ‘white people’ and want to see those rights upheld against the growing onslaught of multiculturalism. The concept of identity, race, religion, and privilege are intermingled in the USA, just as it is in other diverse nations. The conservatives have slowly found themselves being marginalised at first and then edged out of the party itself. People like them have no room in organisations that are driven by fear of the outsider and the fear of change.

But American conservatism has a robust ideological base – both in terms of the rights and duties of individuals, and the rights and duties of the state. While they used the ‘crazies’ to win elections, those crazies didn’t end up defining most policy. And that is what had changed with Trump. The lunatics had taken over the asylum, prompting the best and the brightest in the Republican and the neo-conservative movement to walk away. For the latter, the biggest challenge is to take back their party from those who go against the spirit and the letter of their Constitution.

In a world where the capacity of those at the fringes of the right-wing movement to gain traction by being a lightning rod for those disenchanted and angry with diversity and inclusion is immense. Their ability to vitiate the atmosphere with lies, and conspiracy theories is even higher. In such a world, the conservative movement has a tough task to save its party from the bigots. It would be interesting to see if the Republicans will close ranks and become more dogmatic, or will there be a purge, followed by a return to being the party of Lincoln.

The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker.

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