How Republicans can build on Trumpism and become the party of progressive conservatism

The conundrum facing the Republican Party is how to nudge former President Trump off the stage while keeping his voters. If the party snaps back to the libertarian pre-Trump party, that won’t happen. What is wanted instead is a party that is progressive on economic issues and conservative on social ones. That’s the sweet spot in American politics, and if progressive conservatism sounds like an oxymoron that’s because of an imperfect understanding of progressivism, conservatism, the GOP and America.

The party’s leading statesmen were progressive conservatives: Abraham Lincoln for his invention of the American Dream, Theodore Roosevelt for his willingness to tackle corruption and Dwight Eisenhower for making peace with the New Deal. They knew, with Edmund Burke, that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”

Lincoln invented the American Dream, the idea that, whoever you are, wherever you come from, you can flourish and know that your children will have it better than you did. He ended slavery, of course, but on July 4, 1861, he told Congress that the fight to preserve the Union was about a more encompassing principle. The central idea of America was the promise of income mobility and the possibility for everyone, Black or white, to rise to a higher station in life.

From Lincoln on, America’s progressive conservatives supported policies that would permit free men to rise and knew that the American Dream didn’t happen by itself, that it required progressive reforms — things like good schools, sensible immigration policies and the rule of law.

But are we still the country of the American Dream? When polled in 2014, a majority of Americans said it had become more difficult to achieve the American Dream, and the evidence bears them out. Among highly developed countries, the U.S. ranks near the back of the pack in terms of intergenerational mobility.

Since the reasons for our decline can be laid at the door of Democratic education, immigration and regulatory policies, that should have been a leading issue for Republican candidates. But in 2016 only one of them spoke to it, and we elected him president.

There is a cyclical pattern in Republican policies. After a progressive moment, the party reverts to rightwing dogmas. So, it was after Lincoln’s assassination until the rise of Theodore Roosevelt at the cusp of the American Century. Roosevelt began his political career as an anti-corruption urban reformer who opposed a Democratic patronage machine. Back then, corruption was a Republican issue, and so it should be today. It’s foolish to let House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pass herself off as a champion of clean government when there’s real work to be done by Republicans on closing the revolving door between Congress and K street and reforming political contributions by lobbyists.

Theodore Roosevelt called himself a progressive and said he was not afraid of being called a radical when it came to defending popular rule and a conservative when it came to reforming government in a cautious manner. Right-wingers tend to be Manicheans who think it all went to hell with Roosevelt’s embrace of a regulatory state. But then a lot of things needed regulating back then. Blaming TR for today’s overregulation is like blaming the Chicago Fire on the guy who first rubbed two sticks together.

TR’s progressive conservatism was distinctly Western in the sense of the first great progressive historian, Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932). What made Turner both a conservative and a progressive was his celebration of democracy and freedom, which he said were the gifts of the frontier. Our history was forged in the way in which America had constantly reinvented itself in its restless movement westward, even as Roosevelt became Mark Hanna’s “damn cowboy” when Roosevelt bought a ranch in the North Dakota badlands. The West was mobile and democratic, while the East was immobile and aristocratic, and that is how campaign finance reform, initiative and referendum laws and term limits emerged as progressive conservative policies.

After TR, the Republican Party turned right again, until Eisenhower in 1952. Ike called himself a “modern Republican,” but the progressive label is more apt. He wrote that the GOP would be sunk if it weren’t progressive and resisted calls to eliminate New Deal programs.

What followed Ike was another turn to the right, until Trump arrived. But now the GOP must ease him out. He lost in 2020 and would lose if he ran again. Flawed as they are, the Jan. 6 hearings might help by persuading his supporters that it’s time to move on. If so, the hearings, like a boomerang, might come back to hurt the Democrats. What would also help is a Republican Party that adopts Trump’s policies, which just might persuade Trump not to run again.

F.H. Buckley is a Foundation Professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. His newly-released book is “Progressive Conservatism” (Encounter Books, July 12, 2022).