While most of the attention in the 2024 GOP primary right now is on Donald Trump vs. Ron DeSantis, the battle worth watching is the shadow primary between Trumpism and Reaganism. A key to understanding this comes from Nikki Haley’s top consultant and former deputy at the United Nations, Jon Lerner, who argues, “the fundamentals of campaigns are more the same than they are different over the years.”
It’s no coincidence that at Haley’s campaign launch, South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman introduced her as “America’s version of Margaret Thatcher.” If Lerner is correct, it’s plausible that a “Reaganesque” candidate can catch fire.
Let’s be clear: Reaganism is not misty-eyed nostalgia about a bygone era or mere reflections about the man and his unique attributes. Instead, it’s more of a shorthand expression for a strategy. Reaganism asserts that balancing factions, channeling populist impulses toward productive ends, and maintaining the three-legged stool of fiscal, foreign policy, and social or cultural conservatism gives conservatives the best chance of success. It’s a formula that has been consistently successful for four decades and resolves tensions on the right that existed long before Reagan and will exist long after 2024.
In a sense, Reaganism is code for “normal” but normal does not mean moderate. Instead of the dark nihilism some in the Trump camp seem to espouse, Reaganism embraces the optimistic belief that America is an idea that is still being born, an imperfect country in pursuit of a perfect ideal in which constitutional conservatives view democratic institutions simultaneously in need of constant protection and renovation.
In 2024, Haley and the rest of the field won’t be trying to carve out their own “lanes” along the conventional moderate-to-conservative spectrum as much as they’ll be trying to rebuild the highway system that Trump and previous GOP nominees neglected and damaged.
Those arguing that the fundamentals are more different than similar are an odd alliance between Trump’s most ardent supporters and his loudest critics. In the New York Times, former Romney and Bush adviser Stuart Stevens makes this case in a blistering critique of Haley:
No political figure better illustrates the tragic collapse of the modern Republican Party than Nikki Haley … Her rise and fall only highlights what many of us already knew: Mr. Trump didn’t change the Republican Party; he revealed it. Ms. Haley, for all her talents, embodies the moral failure of the party in its drive to win at any cost, a drive so ruthless and insistent that it has transformed the G.O.P. into an autocratic movement.
Meanwhile, at The Bulwark, Sarah Longwell writes, “Haley would be the frontrunner in a Republican party that no longer exists. … While many Republican voters may be moving off Trump the man, the forces that he unleashed within the party – economic populism, isolationist foreign policy, election denialism, and above all, an unapologetic and vulgar focus on fighting culture war issues – remain incredibly popular with GOP voters.”
The counterargument begins with confronting how unlikely it is that Donald Trump marks the end of conservative history and the dawn of a permanently and irreversibly authoritarian party. As Matthew Continetti explains in The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism, the arguments the Republican Party is having today about trade, immigration, foreign policy, and the administrative state have been going on for a long time. Trump is offering nothing new that conservatives haven’t been debating for a century.
American conservatives have long confronted, contained, and moved beyond conspiratorial and destructive populist movements and personalities like the John Birch society, George Wallace, and Joseph McCarthy while elevating figures like Reagan and movements like the Tea Party that channeled populism toward productive ends.
The strange irony of the Trump administration is that his agenda was a bit of a magic trick that illustrated the staying power of Reaganism. Trump covered Reagan’s three-legged stool with a MAGA flag but understood that his success depended on his fidelity to conservative orthodoxy. On the economy, Trump bent the knee to Sen. Mitch McConnell, Rep. Paul Ryan, and Reaganites like Larry Kudlow who passed his tax cuts and helped him clear away regulations. On judges, Trump deferred to Leonard Leo, whose Reagan-era Federalist Society shaped Trump’s judicial picks. On foreign policy, Trump talked like Pat Buchanan but governed like Haley, who channeled Reagan’s idealism tempered with realism as U.N. ambassador. Reaganism wasn’t on life support during the Trump era. It was its lifeblood. But after January 6, and his string of losses, voters may never again trust him to steward that coalition. When Trump goes, the so-called “intellectual” movement around him will retreat into the camps that existed long before him.
It’s only a matter of time before today’s “national conservatives” discover they are advancing ideas America’s founders explicitly rejected when they asserted that rights don’t come from nations, states, tribes, or monarchs but from natural law. National conservatives aren’t wrong when they describe this as a “classically liberal” understanding of rights, but they haven’t come to grips with the reality that their fix is to engineer a government takeover of civil society in which conservative cancel culture can protect tradition. Fortunately, our classical liberal tradition of principled pluralism (i.e. constitutional conservatism) gives them space to discover they haven’t stumbled onto something new. And, besides, does anyone seriously believe Trump spends his time meditating on the nature of rights and will swoop in to resolve this argument in favor of the national conservatives?
Exhibit A in this wishful thinking comes from a recent piece in the American Conservative on the train derailment in Ohio. Sohrab Ahmari unintentionally illustrates why Reaganism (and “normal” constitutional conservatism) will be more potent than Trumpism in 2024. In a tweet promoting his piece blaming the train derailment on lax regulation, Ahmari writes:
Complex economies require complex regulations and regulators who are empowered to tame market actors whose gargantuan size would otherwise permit terrible abuses, against which the little guy is defenseless.
Populism must be FOR the administrative state.
Ahmari is channeling President Obama, who was a pyromaniac in a field of “anti-government” strawmen. Small government Reagan conservatives don’t argue for no government, just government that has a light touch and is not incompetent and hostile to little guy entrepreneurs. Top-down, heavy-handed regulations that erect barriers to innovation (such as the antiquated National Environmental Policy Act) enable cronyism and create suffering for the people Ahmari wants to protect.
Again, a political reality check is in order. What candidate in 2024 is going to turn “FOR the administrative state” into a bumper sticker? Who will say, “Vote for me, because, like you, I know that government is too small?” Or “I’ll make regulations more complex.” Or, “I’ll give regulators the power they have lacked.” No one who wants to win in 2024 will heed Ahmari’s dreamy call for a Leviathan whisperer who will bring us a kinder, gentler administrative state.
Instead, we’ll hear more of what we’re already hearing regarding fiscal conservatism from Haley and now Vivek Ramaswamy, who jumped into the race promising to reduce the size of the administrative state. Expect the rest of the field to sound less like Trump and more like Benjamin Franklin who said, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Or, Thomas Jefferson who said, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”
Neither the Always Trumpers nor the defeatists are reading recent history correctly. The painful truth some Romney and Bush era consultants like Stevens won’t accept is this: Nikki Haley didn’t throw it all away. They did. When Haley says she doesn’t want to go back to the days before Trump, Reagan conservatives know exactly what she means. They hear NOT hypocrisy but insight. Haley is calling out the Bush- and Romney-era Republicans who squandered the Reagan coalition because they were out of touch, especially on spending and immigration. As Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan lamented in 2007:
The White House doesn’t need its traditional supporters anymore, because its problems are way beyond being solved by the base. And the people in the administration don’t even much like the base. Desperate straits have left them liberated, and they are acting out their disdain. Leading Democrats often think their base is slightly mad but at least their heart is in the right place. This White House thinks its base is stupid and that its heart is in the wrong place.
As a congressional staffer for Sen. Tom Coburn at the time, I can say it’s impossible to overstate the level of frustration, exasperation, and desperation conservatives in Congress felt. The Tea Party didn’t start with Rick Santelli’s rant; it started with members desperately trying to keep the Reagan coalition from flying apart at a time when a Republican president should have been keeping it together.
One instructive episode from this era came in 2007 when a group of members led by Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, and Coburn formed an organization called “Reagan 21” that aspired to reboot happy warrior constitutional conservatism as Reagan had decades earlier. Among staff, the exercise was met with unanimous eye rolls. The nostalgic appeal to Reagan was way too blatant and on the nose, we thought. Sure enough, the effort was panned and went nowhere. Our allies politely said the members’ hearts were in the right place. In hindsight, their hearts and heads were in the right place even if their words weren’t.
Reagan 21 didn’t take off, but the Tea Party’s focus on the fiscal conservative leg of the Reagan stool produced tangible policy and political wins including a Republican blowout victory in 2010, a ban on earmarks, and the first real spending decreases in 60 years. This progress went sideways with Ted Cruz’s postmodern “defund Obamacare” fight. If we “stood firm” and kept the government shut down, Cruz argued, President Obama would be compelled to defund his signature achievement. Trump watched Cruz’s invent-your-own-reality conservatism in action and the rest is history.
Haley watched this unfold and is applying these lessons in real time. She emphasized fiscal conservatism in her launch video and blasted earmarks in her launch speech. In fact, it would be difficult to find anything Haley is saying that doesn’t fit within the Reagan stool of fiscal, foreign policy, and social/cultural conservatism. The other challengers waiting to jump in will be more like the congressional conservatives in 2007 struggling with how to apply Reaganism to today than Trump post 2020.
Voters will decide the future of the Republican Party, but it is not wishful thinking to argue that Reaganism will defeat Trumpism in 2024. Those who argue that the combined early support for Trump and DeSantis means the case closed in favor of Trumpism are making a very big assumption about DeSantis. The campaign may well show that DeSantis is more of a Reagan conservative pretending to be Trumpy than a less Trumpy version of Trump. Moreover, Reaganite candidates like Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin may argue DeSantis could be this cycle’s Rudy Giuliani or Scott Walker, both of whom who peaked early at this stage (in 2007 and 2015 respectively) then faded.
The deeper trends of voter attitudes and preferences favor a return to normal, but campaigns are about other fundamentals as well. Message and likability matter immensely as does combat. Candidates live under the cruel and unforgiving reality that they must define themselves and their opponents, or be defined. Haley clearly decided that starting a firefight with Trump would be a political Pickett’s Charge, but she’s setting up sustained attacks on his age, competence, and fiscal irresponsibility. Challengers can be forgiven for being shrewd and patient but if they’re too passive for too long, they’ll be doomed.
For Haley, this is especially true. Trump-friendly voters will forgive Haley for reneging on her promise to not run against Trump, just as they forgave Trump for changing parties five times. Haley will have a harder time convincing informed, Reagan-friendly suburban voters she’ll unambiguously confront Trump’s pathologies and is not merely in the race to be his running mate. To his credit, Ramaswamy has called out Trump for creating a culture of victimization on the right by not conceding that he lost in 2020. Haley and any subsequent challengers should co-opt that argument.
For the 2024 field, Trump offers countless contrasts that ought to inspire courage. Trump is a weak frontrunner with many flaws for his opponents to exploit. He is obsessed with “loyalty,” and that may be his Achilles heel. Trump’s challengers don’t have a loyalty problem. He does. Trump has habitually betrayed conservatives by desecrating the Constitution and giving Democrats power over their lives by being a loser in 2020 and by backing losers three elections in a row.
Rather than focusing on the follies of the progressive left, the former president has introduced new follies into public life like not conceding elections. He has spent his time out of office not criticizing leftist policy proposals or articulating his own vision but waging a fake fight about stolen elections.
Haley and other challengers are well positioned to make the case that they’ll be more loyal to the Trump agenda than Trump. And the challengers should understand it’s not about them, but about defending and rescuing the people who are being abused by Trump’s Stockholm Syndrome-like grip on 30 percent of the base.
And maybe history isn’t shaped by deeper trends as much as by dominant leaders. That’s even more reason for 2024 candidates to step up and take risks. Every challenger is going to run against “the establishment.” Yet, today’s Republican establishment isn’t in Washington, D.C., but Mar-a-Lago, the headquarters of the RINOs (the Rebels in Name Only). That’s where the 2024 fight will have to go.