The acceleration of the Republican presidential primary race and Donald Trump’s entry into that contest has exposed rifts within the conservative movement that have since deepened. Wounds within the movement that have their origins in the earliest years of the tea party ascendancy — wounds that lingered and festered — have grown putrescent. They can no longer be ignored. Conservatism is in the midst of a civil war and, like all wars — even the figurative variety — the differences over which they are fought will not be resolved until one side emerges unambiguously victorious. Only when there a clear victor and an admitted loser emerges can there be reconciliation. It is wise, however, to expect reunion, not bifurcation, will be the result of this contest of ideas. After all, the Grand Old Party has survived greater schisms than that which is currently roiling its ranks. It is wise to prepare for the moment when conservatives meet at their Appomattox Court House and forge a new path forward. 

It is not merely the rise of Trump that has accentuated the divisions within conservatism. The political environment is so tempting for Republican candidates that 17 have jumped into the race for the White House. It is the most crowded primary field since a comparable number of Democrats joined the race for the presidency in 1976. The scent of Democratic blood is in the water, and Republicans of all stripes are vying to lead their party into what looks to be a new era of conservatism and a generation-defining moment for the Republican Party. The stakes being this high, it stands to reason that conservatives would fight to the last man to impose their vision on the future.

And the fight has been a vicious one. “If this is the conservative movement now, I guess you’re going to have to count me out,” wrote National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. Adopting a Marxist taxonomy in order to classify Trump’s supporters, Goldberg called them “Trumpenproletariat.” The implication is that Trump’s conservatives are no conservatives at all, and that no amount of evidence indicating that the avatar of their rebellion is no conservative can dissuade them from their self-destructive course. What’s more, their unreasoning attachment to an unprincipled and emotional grievance renders them a virtual enemy class.

Goldberg singled out a person he called a friend and ally, Breitbart’s John Nolte, as one of this movement’s thought leaders. Nolte responded to his friend Goldberg with courtesy but a commensurate level of frustration by dubbing him and his allies in the GOP’s establishmentarian wing the “anti-Trump Bourgeoisie.” The implication therein is that Goldberg and his supporters on the right bear a thoughtless attachment to materialistic and conventional attitudes. They see their influence wane and lash out in fear and contempt. When two conservatives — friends and allies — are appealing overtly to Marxist nomenclature in order to define their internecine adversaries, you know it’s bad.

I will not pretend that I am neutral in this debate; I have my biases and predilections. The particulars of the policy contrasts that serve as the basis for this intraparty dispute are real. They cannot be papered over, and they may only be resolved at the ballot box. When that fight is over, and a distinct conservative ideological inclination has won out, what will be left to salvage of the conservative movement? It would serve the right well to identify universally shared principles now before the grating differences between these two warring camps become all-consuming.

Although they are hard to identify now, there are shared beliefs that continue to unite the factions fighting over the conservative cathedra:

The robust defense of American interests abroad: Conservatives may disagree about the instruments of this defense or whether that includes a military dimension in some individual cases, but all would agree that American primacy on the global stage has been sacrificed in the Obama era to gauzy and unworkable globalist ideals. All would further agree that the president’s internationalist, professorial approach to foreign affairs has failed. The United States needs a champion for its interests, not those of the community of nations, in the Oval Office.

The affirmation of American sovereignty at home: The current debate within the GOP over immigration policy glows incandescent. Republicans disagree over the level of appropriate legal immigration, working visas, and what to do about those immigrants who are here illegally. But the 2014 border crisis revealed a common commitment among elected Republicans to the principle of border security, of the protection of American sovereignty within those borders, and of the preservation of American culture. Conservatives may debate the particulars of the application of these principles, and the devil resides in the details. But a granular approach to litigating this issue obscures the shared principle that American law and civilization must be maintained.

The preservation of the American middle and working class: The rise of Trump has exposed that some conservatives were not as hostile toward Obama’s preferred tax policies as many had believed. Trump has determined to end what he has dubbed unfair tax incentives provided to investors and money managers. Those on the right who support this policy do so with the understanding that shifting the progressive tax burden onto the well-heeled would open the way toward tax breaks for middle-income Americans. Those who oppose this policy do so on the principle that it creates disincentives toward investment that, in turn, reduce the number of opportunities for middle and working class Americans. In both cases, the right believes that the maximum benefit for the nation’s middle and working classes should be federal policy.

An unapologetic defense of America’s virtuousness: Conservatives believe that the United States of America is God’s chosen country, the greatest nation on Earth, founded on the radical notion that a people can govern themselves in the absence of a divine sovereign. While this idea may be a touch less radical than it was in the final decades of the 18th Century, mankind is no less prone now toward government by autocrats than antimonarchists. Conservatives of all stripes want their leadership to trumpet, unafraid and unapologetically, the fundamental goodness of the American system. They want a standard-bearer who will not buckle under pressure from self-conscious elitists to diminish the sacrifices Americans have made on behalf of human liberty. They reject at all levels the notion that the United States is not, all things considered, a force for good.

Decency, morality, and honor: Not all conservatives believe in God, but they do believe in morality. They believe that the nation’s executive should have some attachment to the principles that have served as the foundation for Judeo-Christian theology; a foundation that led to the Enlightenment and, ultimately, to secular governance. Religion and spirituality has and will always be controversial because it is not unanimously shared, but fundamental human decency, honor, and generosity of spirit are universal values that all conservatives believe their party’s leader should promote.

Meritocracy: Conservatives who deserve to be called conservatives believe that all men and women of character and determination have the right to realize their full potential. At a fundamental level, conservatives agree that the government should be disinclined toward picking winners and losers. Society should be blind to skin color, to all accidents of birth, to class, and to social status. America should be a place where those with the conviction and aptitude can manifest their dreams and make a better life for their children.

Conservatism is not an amorphous belief structure without moorings; it is a comprehensive philosophy. There are ideals to which Donald Trump and his supporters adhere which many – including myself – would contend are divergent and antithetical to the Republican constitution. But there are greater principles and personal belief systems to which many Americans adhere that are also guiding forces for the bulk of those who would call themselves conservative. One need not read the works of Edmund Burke to be a faithful conservative, nor must one attend a tea party rally in order to hold conservative principles dear.

When the final shots of the Republican civil war ring out and the cannons are silenced at last, these are the principles to which both sides can look and again find a common bond. Perhaps even fraternity. There are greater fights to be fought. There must be unity among conservatives if they are to be won. This is a place to begin the healing ahead of the next battles.

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