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Two men, one in a blue suit and one in a dark suit, with one leaving and the other waving.
Mitt Romney, left, represents an old-fashioned GOP conservatism. Donald Trump, right, doesn’t − and Romney is leaving politics. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Reagan wouldn’t recognize Trump-style ‘conservatism’ – a look at how the GOP has changed

When Mitt Romney announced his intended retirement from the U.S. Senate on Sept. 13, 2023, the Atlantic published an excerpt from his upcoming biography, in which the 2012 Republican presidential nominee told author McKay Coppins, “A very large portion of my party really doesn’t believe in the Constitution.”

This claim would have been startling 15 years ago. For decades, the Republican Party has been the party of conservatism and a champion for the Constitution.

Romney is clear that Donald Trump, who leads what he calls a “populist” and “demagogic” portion of the party, is to blame. And Romney is not the only concerned Republican.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, now running for the GOP presidential nomination, recently asked a crowd at a campaign event, “Will we be the party of conservatism, or will we follow the siren song of populism unmoored to conservative principles?”

What are the conservative principles Romney and Pence spoke about? And what has happened to them since Trump’s rise?

As a political scientist, I spent the past five years researching ideological identity and Trump’s effect on conservatism and on the Republican Party.

Defining “conservatism” is complicated. It has taken many forms over the course of U.S. history. It reinvents itself over time. But a main tenet was summed up by President Ronald Reagan in his 1989 farewell address to the nation: “There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts.”

I focus here on features of what’s called “principled conservatism,” the cohesive belief system that emphasizes liberty and the status quo.

Here is a short inventory of these ideals and how they were violated in recent years. This is not an exhaustive list – but it captures much of Reagan’s style of conservatism, which has been the touchstone for most Republican presidential candidates until recently.

A man dressed in a blue suit, white shirt and red tie posing in front of three American flags.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, now a GOP presidential candidate, has asked, ‘Will we be the party of conservatism, or will we follow the siren song of populism?’ Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The Constitution and limited government protect liberty

Outspoken conservatives often emphasize the importance of the Constitution, which established laws to protect the liberty of citizens.

First, the Constitution laid the groundwork for federalism, a system where local governments hold some level of power to ensure the national government does not have absolute control. This is where the conservative phrase “states’ rights” comes from.

Second, the Constitution established checks and balances between the three branches of government to prevent any one of them from abusing power.

These safeguards against tyranny are the beating heart of conservative thought.

But when Trump, backed by 126 Republican legislators in Congress, tried to overturn election results of key states in 2020, it was seen as a violation of states’ rights by conservative lawyers and a handful of Republican legislators. When only 17 Republicans voted to impeach or convict Trump for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, it gave the appearance that the abuse of power can go unchecked at the federal level.

Government intervention should be restrained

Since principled conservatism is averse to an overly active, centralized government, it typically opposes federal intervention in business, increased spending, higher taxes, public programs and subsidies.

But using the bully pulpit and his presidential powers, Trump threatened retaliation against companies that moved jobs overseas, increased the national debt, instigated trade wars by raising tariffs and gave subsidies to farmers who were harmed in the trade war process. These behaviors and policies also fly in the face of conservative principles.

Though Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley still considers Republicans to be “a party of free trade,” Trump’s trade war deviated from past GOP policies – with some exceptions – and was mostly met with “statements of discomfort.”

Institutions can support stable civic life

In addition to protecting limited government and free markets, conservatism strives to preserve American institutions such as the military and the justice system, in the belief that they help organize and maintain the stability of civic life.

Yet Trump’s rhetoric persistently attacked the free press, the Department of Justice, the FBIoften considered a conservative organizationmilitary leadership and the integrity of the electoral system. Some of these organizations enforce justice and hold government accountable through free speech, ideals that are embedded in the conservative principles laid out by Republican Rep. Mike Johnson for the Republican Study Committee in 2018.

Two men in suits and ties in front of microphones.
Two exemplars of principled conservativism in 1980: Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, right, later the 40th president of the United States, with running mate George Bush, later the 41st president. Keystone/CNP/Getty Images

Conservatives in name only?

Is Donald Trump solely to blame for the unraveling of American conservative ideals?

Yes and no. One the one hand, he is responsible for implementing anti-conservative policies like trade wars, eroding trust in institutions through his rhetoric and inspiring candidates to run for office in his image.

However, Trump is also a product of his voter base. He loses power without them and therefore often reflects what they want. What do they want, though? Here’s where it’s handy to know some political science.

One of the most cited findings in political psychology is that the average American lacks “ideological sophistication.” Most people simply don’t structure their politics around an abstract attitude about the proper role of government. This includes many Americans who call themselves “conservatives.”

Instead, people often form preferences by asking, “How will this policy or person help me and people who are like me? How will this protect the status of my group?” Positive feelings toward one’s own group and positive – or negative – feelings toward other demographic groups hold real influence over political orientations. This is the stuff that motivates people politically – consequently, there has been a disconnect between the conservative ideals promoted by elites and the attitudes of their voter base.

You may hear conservative principles mentioned sporadically in the 2024 campaign. But until Republican voters reward politicians who embody them, it is unlikely actual conservative ideals do – or will – guide politics on the right.

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