What happens when the partnership that created the modern Republican Party shatters?
By Tevi Troy
April 19, 2016
One of the most spectacular fissures of this already dramatic political season has been the messy, public divorce of the Republican intelligentsia from the party’s suddenly energized populist voter base. As Donald Trump grips crowds and racks up delegates with a blunt nationalist message of jobs, protectionism and “winning,” true-believing conservatives—from dean of the conservative commentariat George Will, to Pete Wehner, who has worked for every GOP administration since Ronald Reagan, to Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol—have peeled off in anti-Trump directions. When National Review, the flagship magazine of modern conservative thinking, devoted an entire issue to rejecting the GOP front-runner, it felt like a separation being finalized. Trump, of course, was unfazed, saying, “You have people that are in National Review—they’re eggheads. They’re just eggheads.”
It’s easy to lay the blame at Donald Trump’s feet (after all, it’s hard to imagine another Republican candidate of the last four decades rejecting National Review so cavalierly), but this year’s split between intellectuals and the rank-and-file GOP goes beyond the front-runner. In fact, neither of Trump’s remaining rivals, Ted Cruz nor John Kasich, is particularly cozy with the conservative intelligentsia. (Think tankers tended to coalesce behind Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, who are long since out of the race.) What’s really going on is that the ideas that the conservative intellectual community has been peddling for decades have failed to appeal to an angry blue-collar voter base. What worked in Reagan’s era just doesn’t work anymore, and Trump is simply exploiting the divide.
Perhaps the GOP needs some new intellectuals? Seriously, if you keep peddling ideas your dads’ came up with 45 years ago, ideas that, at their best, worked so well in Reagan’s era that they permanently solved the various problems they were intended to ameliorate, you should eventually notice that you need some new ideas to solve the new problems of this century.
Moynihan warned the president that the GOP needed to develop a robust group of Republican intellectuals rather than rely on Democrats, ex-Democrats or even Democrats with some conservative inclinations, such as Moynihan, to fill the ranks of the conservative intelligentsia. In 1970, Moynihan wrote in a memo to Nixon that there was a limit to the outreach he could do on Nixon’s behalf, emphasizing that this work “needs to be done by real Republicans.”
Like I’ve said before, the care and feeding of intellectuals isn’t all that expensive, but it’s not free. Rich guys do a pretty good job of paying for a libertarian intellectual counter-establishment, and rich Israel fans (and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) pay for a lot of the foreign policy establishment. But, unsurprisingly, there’s not much big money behind intellectuals with ideas more relevant to 21st Century problems.