One cannot imagine William F. Buckley or Russell Kirk or Richard Weaver or Milton Friedman tolerating Donald Trump's disgraceful conduct and rhetoric. Indeed, conservatism in our time, whether gentle or harsh, has always claimed an intellectual coherence, a moral seriousness, espoused by thinkers like these, who epitomized a consistency of aim that is irreconcilable with Trump's vapid, scattershot, "trust me — I'll be great" messaging.
Why, then, have so many conservatives lined up with Trump, while others are open to the idea? Clearly, part of the reason is that they feel (although we think they exaggerate the extent to which) the conventional politicians on the right have long failed to advance their goals — and have also refused in most cases to boldly state them, employing the innocuous buzzwords of George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and the party's congressional "leadership."
But other candidates such as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina share these frustrations and are making that clear. A conservative need not support any of them, yet, to hold off from backing Trump. What requires explanation is not the deep skepticism on the right toward everyone in public office, or the openness to nominating a person who has never held office. It is the seeming lack of skepticism toward Trump despite his obvious vulnerability to multiple questions about his own political trustworthiness.
This is a grave hour for the modern conservative movement. Trump's sound and fury — signifying exactly what Macbeth said it does — may be the death rattle of a project that took generations to build.
George Will picks up the theme:
In 1964, Barry Goldwater mounted a successful conservative insurgency against a Republican establishment that was content to blur and dilute the Republican distinctiveness that had been preserved 52 years earlier. Goldwater defeated New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for the nomination, just as Taft had defeated TR, a former New York governor. Like Taft, Goldwater was trounced (he carried six states). But the Republican Party won five of the next seven presidential elections. In two of them, Ronald Reagan secured the party’s continuity as the custodian of conservatism.
In 2016, a Trump nomination would not just mean another Democratic presidency. It would also mean the loss of what Taft and then Goldwater made possible — a conservative party as a constant presence in U.S. politics.
It is possible Trump will not win any primary, and that by the middle of March our long national embarrassment will be over. But this avatar of unfettered government and executive authoritarianism has mesmerized a large portion of Republicans for six months. The larger portion should understand this:
One hundred and four years of history is in the balance. If Trump is the Republican nominee in 2016, there might not be a conservative party in 2020 either.