They’re Building a Trump-Centric Movement. But Don’t Call It Trumpism.
In its inaugural issue last summer, the journal published “Our Declaration of Independence From the Conservative Movement,” which argued that what worked for Ronald Reagan could no longer define the movement.
“We cannot slavishly attempt to relive the politics of 40 years ago,” the editors wrote.
These disillusioned academics see plenty of things they like in the Trump administration, including Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and his proposal to reduce legal immigration by half within a decade. And though Republicans have failed so far to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, they don’t blame the president, whom they applaud for at least trying to undo what they see as an unconstitutional expansion of government power.
But in this view, Mr. Trump is not so much a movement leader as he is a vessel. “We see a lot of potential here with this particular administration,” Mr. Boychuk said, “but we’re not going to live or die by him.”
If nothing else, these conservatives see Mr. Trump as a disrupter who is already jolting a movement they believe is badly ossified and reflexively devoted to an agenda of corporate tax cuts, global trade agreements and military adventurism — “checklist conservatism,” as an essay by Chris Buskirk, the publisher of American Greatness, described it.
They accept the almost socialist-sounding “pro-worker” label. They believe the Republican Party has been far too complicit in the expansion of the federal bureaucracy, what they scorn as the “administrative state.” And they tend to de-emphasize social issues as a priority.
“When they started saying Trump wasn’t a conservative was when I started paying attention,” said Julie Ponzi, who helps edit American Greatness from her house in Glendora, a small community about 20 miles east of Los Angeles at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains.
“What’s the problem?” she insisted, referring to Mr. Trump’s many critics on the right. “He’s not a neoconservative? Good. He’s not working for the Chamber of Commerce and wanting to import a bunch of cheap labor? Good. He’s interested in America’s interests abroad, first and foremost? Good.”
Until now, this brand of conservatism thrived mostly at the periphery of the movement. Its scholars hail from conservative bastions like Hillsdale College in Michigan and the Claremont Institute, which is just a few miles from Glendora and publishes the Trump-friendly Claremont Review of Books. Another new journal, a high-minded quarterly called American Affairs, recently debuted in Manhattan.
The brand’s admirers include the likes of Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist; Stephen Miller, a senior White House aide involved in immigration policy; and Peter A. Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has embraced Mr. Trump as someone who could pull the Republican Party away from what he called “the dogmas of Reaganism.”
It sees American sovereignty as the overriding principle that should guide everything from military to economic to immigration policy. Engagement overseas is noble only if its goal is to protect American citizens and their prosperity. Trade deals have been too open ended and harmful to the middle class. And the virtues of citizenship only further erode as our borders become more porous.
Much of this happens to be at odds with the agenda that Republican leaders in Congress have spent years promoting. And it is in some ways at odds with Mr. Trump himself, who is pursuing efforts to significantly cut taxes and increase military spending and has launched military strikes in Syria and Afghanistan.
But the growing prominence of these ideas speaks to the void that Mr. Trump’s victory has created in the conservative world, where the thought leaders and multimillion-dollar policy shops that have traditionally set the agenda have become unmoored. The Heritage Foundation, once at the vanguard of conservative thought, recently replaced its president, Jim DeMint, in a messy coup.
“No think tank has tied this together as an intellectual construct — this populist, nationalist movement,” Mr. Bannon said in an interview, noting how dismissive and often hostile Washington’s conservative ideas machine was to Mr. Trump. “There is still a massive void.”
Today the work of these outsider conservatives is closely read at the White House. The publisher of American Greatness was part of a group of conservative journalists who recently met with the president.
West Wing aides speak their lingo. They were delighted this year to hear Mr. Bannon call for the dismantling of “the administrative state.”
“Five, 10 years ago, only a handful of people knew what that meant,” Mr. Boychuk said.
And Mr. Trump hired one of their own as the head of communications for the National Security Council: Michael Anton. Mr. Anton, a graduate of Claremont Graduate University, has written extensively on what Mr. Trump offers conservatives, most provocatively under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus, a Roman who sacrificed himself for the republic.
Mr. Anton’s most famous essay, which he wrote for the Claremont Review of Books and called “The Flight 93 Election,” made the case that the choice between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton was like the one the passengers on that hijacked flight made on Sept. 11, 2001, when they rushed the hijackers and forced the plane to crash into a Pennsylvania field.
The glaring problem with attaching a set of ideas and principles to Mr. Trump is, of course, Mr. Trump, a man with a notoriously fickle and unpredictable nature who has always preferred the transactional to the ideological.
“His policies always seemed to me to be improvisational, and still are to a certain extent,” said Charles Kesler, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute and the editor of the Claremont Review of Books, which has provided a forum for discussing the intellectual framework of the Trump movement but warned of grafting any fixed ideology onto him.
“You can be building castles in the air that have no reference to reality,” Mr. Kesler added. “And that’s a real danger for anyone who’s in the business of trying to detail/enumerate/explain the elements of Trumpism.”