Nixon, Trump and Courting the Silent Majority

by Seth Blumenthal, author of Children of the Silent Majority;Young Voters and the Rise of the Republican Party, 1968-1980

Listening to White House aides such as Kevin Phillips, who urged a shift to the right on social and race issues during the 1970 midterm campaign season, President Richard Nixon attempted to lure Democrats into the Republican fold with rhetoric that channeled the frustrations and concerns shared by the voters he labeled the “great silent majority.” Just days before the election, in the wake of a raucous and violent demonstration against his speech in San Jose, California, earlier that week, Nixon pleased one Arizona crowd with his trademark tough talk. “The time has come to draw the line,” Nixon fumed against “the haters.” “The time has come for the great silent majority of Americans of all ages, of every political persuasion, to stand up and be counted against appeasement of the rock throwers and the obscenity shouters in America.” However, rather than gain seats in Congress, Nixon watched several coveted campaigns fail to provide the mandate he anticipated, instead puncturing his claim to a new majority. In retrospect, even Nixon admitted the approach went “too far overboard.” In the weeks following the 1970 election, Nixon’s staff scrambled to explain the poor showing and the shortcomings of his “law and order” appeal to America.

Ever since Nixon coined the term “silent majority” in his 1969 address concerning the Vietnam War, commentators became obsessed with debating this voting bloc’s contours and its character throughout his presidency and beyond. Rick Perlstein defined the silent majority’s amorphous impetus as follows: “The silent majority is always going to be a state of mind. It’s a feeling. It’s a feeling of dispossession. And that feeling of dispossession can come about most dramatically in times when things seem to be changing, when all that’s solid melts into air.” This vague sentiment still resonates today as President Donald Trump and his voters continually call themselves the “silent majority.” Comparing Nixon’s definition—or definitions—of the silent majority and Donald Trump’s coalition reveals similarly dubious patterns in conservatives’ claim to a majority and their explanation for this majority’s silence. Meanwhile, Cheri Bustos, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s chair of Heartland Engagement who guided 2018 candidates in twelve states, attempted to steer the silent majority in a different direction: “If you look throughout the heartland,” Bustos hoped, “there’s a Silent Majority who just wants normalcy, just wants to see that people are going to go out to Washington and fight for them in a civil way and get something done.” Unfortunately for Bustos and other Democrats borrowing this conservative phrase, even when defined in moderate terms by its civility the history behind this mythologized voting bloc demonstrates the crucial role that the concept of a silent majority plays in backlash politics.

Despite the 1970 campaign’s failures, Kevin Phillips continued to paint a backlash image of Nixon’s silent majority: “Young policemen, truck drivers, and steelworkers,” who Nixon sought to include in his constituency along with Sunbelt suburban voters, “lean towards a kind of hippie stomping, anti-intellectual, social ‘conservatism’ in the [Governor] George Wallace vein.” The secret to politics, Phillips once said, “is knowing who hates who.” In Phillips’s attempt to map a political majority, this quote meant targeting young leftists but also opposing civil rights legislation and channeling racist resentments to win white voters from the Democratic Party. As he claimed, “From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that.” Phillips’s view of the silent majority connected this voting bloc to Wallace, a firebrand segregationist, and garnered important conservative adherents within the White House such as Tom Huston and Pat Buchanan. Not all of Nixon’s aides agreed with Phillips’s assessment.

Capturing the perspective of the moderate, middle-of-the-road advisers who suggested Nixon temper his approach to court the silent majority, a revealing memo from his White House aide, Daniel P. Moynihan, offers a lens into this internal discussion. Moynihan, a Democrat in a Republican administration, understood the potential of backlash politics and encouraged Nixon’s attacks on countercultural permissiveness, but he added that Nixon should balance this tough approach with a more civil and positive embrace of patriotism and the United States’ political and cultural traditions. While Moynihan also explored a populist vision of a resentful silent majority, he maintained that these voters required finesse and demanded an intellectual defense of their traditions in the face of the 1960s challenges from the Left. Moynihan explained, “The silent majority is silent because it has nothing to say,” as he believed these voters begged Nixon for a convincing counter to the robust debate raging between the political extremes on the Right and the eft.

The real problem, according Moynihan, was that the majority of Americans had no response to the challenges to capitalism and “American virtues.” As he advised Nixon, “The adversary culture which dominates almost all channels of information transfer and opinion formation has never been stronger, and as best I can tell it has come near to silencing the representatives of traditional America.” Citing the “fourth rate minds around the administration” and worrying that the “only persons with vigor in their argument are the real right wingers,” Moynihan complained about the dearth of outspoken, effective communicators of conservative virtues that he defined as “moderation, decency, common sense, restrained ambition, attainable goals, comprehensible policies.” “You may have more troops,” Moynihan conceded, “but the other side has more firepower. Infinitely more.” Thus, Moynihan hoped that if Nixon and his administration could give these voters a moderate voice to marginalize the extremists across the political spectrum, it would provide the silent majority with the rhetoric and confidence to stand up for the middle and prove they outnumbered the “authoritarian left.” Hardly the “hippie stomping, anti-intellectual, social ‘conservatism’” Phillips advocated.

Furthering his contrast to Phillips’s backlash thesis, Moynihan warned Nixon about the dangers of wading into student politics. Especially after the Ohio Army National Guard’s traumatic shooting of four unarmed students during a Kent State demonstration in 1970, Moynihan feared that “the general impression is that we have been running against the kids.” After all, William Scranton’s Presidential Commission on Campus Unrest reported that Kent State’s student body “are predominantly the children of middle class families, both white collar and blue collar, and in the main go on to careers as teachers and as middle-level management in industry.” These students belied the notion that all protesters were fringe radicals, or a minority. Still, even though Moynihan urged caution when confronting the “sons and daughters of the silent majority,” he demonstrated the racial limits of moderation when he supported Nixon’s targeting of “black militants” and “racial extremists.” Despite Moynihan’s distinctions, conservatives often conflated black and white protesters to separate both groups from the majority.

While Nixon and his advisers debated the silent majority’s significance, conservative activists on campus targeted antiwar voices and dismissed them as a minority. One conservative group at the University of Tennessee distributed a flyer on campus during the (predominantly white) student strike following Kent State, asking, “Who helped these long haired, unintelligent, dark skinned, poorly dressed . . . protesters?” The term “silent majority” always carried racial connotations because the word “majority” claimed political power and appealed to white fears that the minority gained preferential treatment under LBJ’s Great Society and urban programs to combat poverty. As Perlstein points out, “To say majority is to say minority, and everyone knows who minorities are. They are people in America who are not white.”

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

The term “silent majority” continues to prove resilient and influential because it motivates a conservative voting constituency’s political identity in contrast to the Left. As one Trump supporter complained, “The reason why we’re silent is because we’re not allowed to talk.” He continued, “My favorite thing about Trump is that he wants to get rid of political correctness.” Though similar to Moynihan’s claim that that the silent majority lacked a voice, Trump’s version of this coalition leans more toward the anti-intellectual, vitriolic strain Phillips identified and blames the Left more directly for intentionally muzzling conservative perspectives. Even this more recent claim that the silent majority has been silenced is rooted in racial politics. In fact, Trump’s rhetoric reveals the exact expressions of patriotism and white identity politics that his voters feel unable to discuss in what Moynihan called “terms that will win a respectful hearing.” For example, due to this revived sense of “dispossession,” loyal Trump supporters believe the president’s racist appeals work with the predominantly white silent majority today. Greg Gallas, a county GOP chairman in Minnesota, recently bragged that Trump’s targeted criticism of Representative Ilhan Omar is “awakening a ‘silent majority’ of supporters.” As he gushed, “I love it. It’s called winning.”

From its inception, the silent majority’s racial boundaries—who it included and their interests—have been shaped and debated by political experts. Van Jones, a liberal commentator on CNN, recently challenged the contemporary vision of a backlash-driven silent majority when after Trump’s rally in North Carolina where supporters chanted “send her back” he claimed, “I think there’s a silent majority of people who have been getting increasingly uncomfortable with what Trump is up to.” However, Jones and other Democrats looking to borrow the phrase also espouse the same emphasis on civil moderation that Moynihan exaggerated, and they overlook the crucial role race, resentment, and alienation played in framing the silent majority. Thus, while these voters aren’t always silent nor a majority, they always stand in opposition to a minority that is perceived as disproportionately influential and growing, no matter the reality. Certainly, considering its history, asking the silent majority to resist Trump’s politics seems a quixotic exercise.

Seth Blumenthal is a senior lecturer at Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences. His work has appeared in the Journal of Policy History and The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture.

 

[1] Richard Nixon, “Remarks at Phoenix, Arizona,” October 31, 1970, John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-phoenix-arizona.
[1] Kevin Phillips, “‘Kidlash’ a Possibility: Important Changes Could Come from Vote of 18–21 Year Olds,” Post-Crescent, May 2, 1971.
[1] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Memorandum for the President,” November 13, 1970, Nixon Library, https://www.nixonlibrary.gov/sites/default/files/virtuallibrary/documents/jun09/111370_Moynihan.pdf.
[1] President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, “The Report of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest” (Washington, DC: US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Institute of Education, 1970), https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED083899.pdf.
[1] Flyer, University of Tennessee Special Collections, Folder: Student Unrest 1970s.
[1] Sam Sanders, “Trump Champions the ‘Silent Majority,’ but What Does That Mean in 2016?” NPR, January 22, 2016, https://www.npr.org/2016/01/22/463884201/trump-champions-the-silent-majority-but-what-does-that-mean-in-2016.
[1] Judy Keen, “Trump-Omar Sparring Influences the Fight for Minnesota in 2020,” StarTribune, July 29, 2019, http://www.startribune.com/trump-s-feud-with-rep-ilhan-omar-influences-the-fight-for-minnesota-in-2020/513297212/.
[1] Ian Schwartz, “Van Jones: Silent Majority of People Uncomfortable with What Trump Is Up To,” RealClear Politics, July 19, 2019, https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2019/07/19/van_jones_silent_majority_of_people_uncomfortable_with_what_trump_is_up_to.html.

Intellectual Conservatism Cannot Save the Mainstream American Right

Dr. George Hawley, author of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, has been busy. Of course, when you start this election year publishing a book about the troubles plaguing the American Conservative movement, it’s hard to stay silent. Dr. Hawley has been closely monitoring the presidential campaign and possible fallout from the Republican’s internal bickering…

By Dr. George Hawley

9780700621934As Donald Trump rampaged through the already fragile infrastructure of the American conservative movement, we saw justified panic on the mainstream right and Schadenfreude on the left. Superficially, at least, the Trump campaign seemed to undermine what little intellectual respectability the right possessed, returning us the days when Lionel Trilling could reasonably state that conservatives do not “express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” It makes sense that those laboring to foster and maintain a high-brow, literate conservatism would distance themselves from Trump’s brash, populist nationalism. Unfortunately for the #NeverTrump conservatives, the intellectual wing of the American conservative movement is simply not a plausible alternative to Trumpism.

donald-trump-supporter-yells-sieg-heil-nazi-salute-at-las-vegas-rallyConservatives are always quick to declare that “ideas have consequences” – a rallying cry taken from the title of Richard Weaver’s most important book. They argue that, although the left is a collection of interest groups expressing a litany of grievances, conservatism is based on principles. Conservatism officially rejects identity politics; as Ramesh Ponnuru once wrote in National Review, conservatives “hoist their ideas on flagpoles and see who salutes.”  Trump, in contrast, is a pure identity politics candidate, and one with little interest in abstract principles.

Progressives may roll their eyes at the suggestion that conservatives are deeply invested in political theory or that the conservative movement has a long history of rejecting identity politics. But intellectually serious conservatives do view political and economic theory as important, and they try to frame their arguments using universal principles rather than the language of interest-groups.

More so than liberals, conservatives are deeply concerned about their own movement’s intellectual pedigree. This has been true since Russell Kirk wrote The Conservative Mind. Scouring the internet, it is easy to find lists of sites explaining which books all conservatives should read. Conservatives believe reading books by the founding conservatives is more than important; it is indispensable. As conservatives shudder at Trump’s position at the top of the GOP ticket, they regularly declare that the conservative movement has lost its way, that is must return to its roots, to the conservatism of William F. Buckley and Frank Meyer and the other icons of the right. Just re-read back issues of National Review, the thinking goes; they will tell you what you need to know. Columnist Matt Lewis made an argument like this in his new book, Too Dumb to Fail.

When looking for a usable model for the American right, conservatives point to their own movement’s canon – those books written between the mid-1940s and the early 1960s. From The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek to The Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater, a small number of books forged the heart of America’s post-war conservative political philosophy. For a discussion of the importance of these books and their authors, I recommend Michael Lee’s excellent work, Creating Conservatism. Among these books written by the founding fathers of conservatism, we can find flashes of genuine brilliance. Today’s conservatives are right to admire what was produced by Weaver, Kirk, Meyer, Hayek, Friedman, Burnham and the other journalists and scholars that created the intellectual foundation for the conservative movement.

Unfortunately for conservatives, the intellectual wing of the conservative movement is not actually an alternative to the populist nationalism represented by Donald Trump. Aside from a few stale talking points, these conservatives have little to offer 21st century America. The arguments made in the conservative classics are completely disconnected from contemporary problems and can provide little guidance for today’s policymakers. For all their virtues (and they had many), Russell Kirk, Whitaker Chambers, and Richard Weaver are now largely irrelevant. A policymaker formulating solutions to growing economic inequality, terrorism, a broken immigration system, and all the other salient issues of 2016 will find little guidance from the conservative canon.

Many of the most important works from the early conservative movement were focused almost single-mindedly on the Cold War or on the folly of planned economies. Yet those battles are over. On these issues, the conservatives won, and won decisively. The Soviet Union is not coming back, and the mainstream left has lost interest in state-directed economics. Conservatives can justifiably boast about this victory, but the conversation has since moved on. Contemporary conservatives that insist their future leaders understand the problems with central planning would be equivalent to 1887 Republicans demanding their leaders study the case against slavery. They are building up an arsenal for a battle that is already won.

The left is no longer fighting to nationalize industries; for the most part, the left is fighting to strengthen the social safety net and increase economic equity within a capitalist framework. The mainstream left made peace with free enterprise long ago. When the debate is framed in these terms, a strong knowledge of the errors of socialism is not particularly helpful. If the debate has transitioned from being about ownership of the means of production to questions about the role of government in guaranteeing some minimal level of economic welfare for all, certain aspects of the canon may actually be harmful to the conservative cause. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek actually expresses positive sentiments toward welfare policies, stating, for example, that “there is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has attained the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom.”

Although conservatives could justifiably crow about the end of the Cold War, on other issues, the conservatives lost – and lost badly. Unfortunately, the conservative canon does not show a way forward after the left triumphs. Much of the conservative canon was written by authors that viewed the United States as a conservative country, arguing that diligent effort could keep it a conservative country. National Review promised in its first issue to “stand athwart history, yelling stop.” Yet history did not stop in 1955. On multiple issues, especially cultural issues, the left was victorious. If history came to a halt right now, it would simply calcify societal developments that conservatives opposed.

Conservatives love to point to Edmund Burke as their inspiration, especially Russell Kirk’s interpretation of Burke. Yet this brand of Burkeanism is similarly futile for conservatives in 2016 America. Many of the left’s most resounding victories on issues of culture and economics occurred a generation or more in the past. To an important degree, progressive egalitarianism, supported and promoted by a large central state, is now an American tradition. Reversing these liberal victories in any substantive way would require revolutionary changes at this point. Where does that leave the traditionalist working from a Burkean framework? According to Russell Kirk, “Conservatism is never more admirable than when it accepts changes that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of a general conciliation; and the impetuous Burke, of all men, did most to establish this principle.” This brand of conservatism can only lead to a society that moves like a ratchet in a more liberal direction. At most, it can slow the rate of change. Perhaps this is the ideal role for conservatism. But this kind of conservatism surely does not offering an inspiring vision. Who would sign up for such a movement?

It is true that the founding fathers of the post-war American conservative movement were deeper thinkers than the most prominent conservative voices of today. But even the most brilliant conservatives of the 1950s have few valuable insights for current activists and policymakers. This is not a criticism of their work; they were dealing with ephemeral issues of their day, and often discussed them cogently and persuasively. But the world is now very different.

Besides the end of the Cold War, 2016 differs from the 1950s in other important ways that undermine basic conservative assumptions. There may have been a time when big business and cultural traditionalists were natural allies; mainstream conservatism is largely dependent on such an alliance. Is there such alliance today, or even shared interests? Are there any cultural issues where traditionalists can count on support from major industries? The answer is clearly no.

For the most part, big business is not concerned with issues like gay marriage, affirmative action, and abortion. In fact, major corporations frequently align with liberals on these issues. Even corporations that are widely despised by progressives often align themselves with progressive social causes. Walmart, for example, played an important role in killing or weakening religious freedom laws that would have protected businesses that discriminated against the LGBT community. The recent examples of major corporations that fought for more traditional values on questions such as homosexuality and contraception – such as Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby – are notable precisely because they are so rare. If conservatism is based on a presumed alliance between cultural traditionalists and corporate America, and corporate America actively opposes the traditionalists, what does that say about conservatism?

Conservatives who think Buckley-style conservatism is a legitimate substitute for Trumpism are mistaken. Conservative intellectuals, those who know who Peter Viereck was and subscribe to Modern Age, have failed to generate real, practical solutions to today’s social and economic problems. Keeping the memory of the founding generation of conservatives alive may be a noble undertaking, but it will do nothing to create or sustain a contemporary political movement that both addresses important issues and has a chance at winning.

A few exceptions aside, conservatives stopped generating new ideas long ago, instead focusing on marketing old ones. Unfortunately, the movement is now showing its age. The claim that Trump is killing mainstream American conservatism is mistaken. Mainstream conservatism was already dying.

 

The End of the Conservative Movement (Still)…

A few weeks ago we posted a new piece from Dr. George Hawley, author of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, that dissected the possible effects of Donald Trump’s candidacy on the American conservative movement. Because his great piece is even more timely now, we are re-running it below…

By George Hawley, PhD

donald-trump-supporter-yells-sieg-heil-nazi-salute-at-las-vegas-rallyIn American politics, we are accustomed to thinking about people and groups in binary terms: liberal and conservative, left and right, and Republican and Democrat. Because the GOP has established itself as the conservative party, and the GOP has won many impressive victories in recent cycles (presidential elections being prominent exceptions), we might infer that there is large grassroots support for conservatism. At the very least, we should be able to describe the average Republican voter as a conservative. Such a description would be wrong. Observers make this mistake because they fail to understand that conservatism as a general sensibility is very different from American conservatism as an ideology and dogmatic collection of inflexible policy demands. Once we disaggregate these two phenomena, Trump’s success, and the conservative movement’s ineffectual efforts to stop Trump, make more sense.

As a general disposition, conservatism is a normal tendency. If we define conservatism as a fear of radical change, then all societies at all times have had a large proportion of conservatives. Indeed, we may even think of conservatism as the default position of most people. For decades, polls have shown that more Americans define themselves as conservatives than liberals. Republicans are especially likely to define themselves as conservatives.

Yet the major institutions of organized conservatism do not define conservatism as a disposition; to the leading journalists and intellectuals associated with the movement, conservatism requires devotion to the free market, support for traditional values, and commitment to an aggressive foreign policy abroad – the so-called three-legs of the conservative stool. These are the hallmarks of a “true conservative.”

Political scientists use different terms for these two types of ideologies. To understand the distribution of Americans across the ideological spectrum, we must understand that operational ideology is different from conceptual ideology – for the best recent examination of this issue, I recommend Ideology in America by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson. Americans, especially Republicans, tend to be symbolically conservative; they love the flag, consider themselves religious, and enjoy rhetoric about liberty and the Constitution. But when it comes to actual policy preferences, their operational ideology, Americans are, on average, pretty liberal.

Most Americans do not support upper-class tax cuts; they are not pro-life purists; they are not eager for more wars. In fact, this is not just true of Americans overall. Most Republican voters reject at least one important element of the conservative policy agenda. In terms of operational ideology, consistent conservatives are not just a minority of all Americans; they are a minority among Republicans.

To get a sense of just how little the Republican electorate supports the conservative policy agenda, we can examine polling data. Looking at the 2012 American National Election Survey, we see that almost 62 percent of Republicans would support new taxes on millionaires; only about 19 percent said they supported cutting the federal budget for education; fewer than ten percent supported cutting Social Security spending. Republicans are also, on average, rather moderate or even liberal on many social issues. Fewer than one in five Republicans said they wanted to prohibit abortion in all circumstances; a majority of Republicans supported legal recognition for same-sex couples. If we define a “true conservative” as a person who supports the conservative position on every policy issue, then such conservatives are a tiny percentage of the electorate.

Professional conservatives are faced with a frightening reality: the GOP has been successful in spite of its conservatism, not because of it. The Republican Party can successfully activate voters by appealing to their symbolic conservatism; but Republican leaders, conservative intellectuals, radio hosts, and talking heads have had little success in selling the operational conservative ideology to the public. Even Tea Party supporters, those ostensibly intractable devotees of supply-side economics, are divided on corporate and high-income tax cuts.

The weak hold that conservatism has on any segment of the electorate is not a new development. But Donald Trump has put the conservative movement’s weakness on very public display. Trump kept the GOP’s conservative symbolism (the flag, appeals to greatness and patriotism), added an implied element of ethnic grievance, and otherwise ignored conservative dogma. Conservative pundits are right that Trump is not a true conservative, and they are right to oppose him on ideological grounds. The National Review cover story denouncing Trump, the #NeverTrump movement, and Glenn Beck’s Trump-inspired tears were all justified.

Unjustified, however, was the belief that the conservative movement’s hostility to Trump mattered. The disconnect between the conservative movement’s influence on public policy and the public’s actual support for conservative policies is one of the dirty secrets of American politics. The real problem that Trump presents the conservative movement is not that he ensures a new Clinton Administration – though he may. Instead, Trump showed that conservatism is a spent force, easily abandoned by ordinary Republicans when they are provided with a right-wing alternative, even a flawed and erratic alternative.

When Trump won the GOP nomination, in spite of conservative objections, we saw definitive evidence that the organized conservative movement has little popular support. If he goes on to win in November, conservatism is finished. If Trump loses to Clinton, conservatives will try to wash their hands of the defeat. But much damage will have already been done.

In contrast to conventional wisdom, the United States is not a “center-right nation.” The American voting public may be to the right of the electorates in other advanced democracies, but it is certainly not conservative in the sense that William F. Buckley used the term. In fact, despite the claims by various talk-radio personalities, Republicans do not lose because they “betray conservative principles.” Those very principles have been a hindrance to greater electoral success. Trump has broken this illusion, and having demonstrated that there is no conservative consensus among GOP voters, we can expect others to follow his lead. Although the Republican Party will likely survive the 2016 election, its status as a uniformly conservative party will not. The end result of the Trump campaign will be an ideological vacuum on the right, one that will likely be filled by something very different from the mainstream conservative movement we have known for six decades.

The 2016 Election and the End of the Conservative Movement

photo courtesy of CNN
photo courtesy of CNN

Every Thursday from now until the election, we will feature a piece by a UPK author that deals with an aspect of American politics. Today, Dr. George Hawley, author of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, dissects the possible effects of Donald Trump’s candidacy on the American conservative movement.

By George Hawley, PhD

In American politics, we are accustomed to thinking about people and groups in binary terms: liberal and conservative, left and right, and Republican and Democrat. Because the GOP has established itself as the conservative party, and the GOP has won many impressive victories in recent cycles (presidential elections being prominent exceptions), we might infer that there is large grassroots support for conservatism. At the very least, we should be able to describe the average Republican voter as a conservative. Such a description would be wrong. Observers make this mistake because they fail to understand that conservatism as a general sensibility is very different from American conservatism as an ideology and dogmatic collection of inflexible policy demands. Once we disaggregate these two phenomena, Trump’s success, and the conservative movement’s ineffectual efforts to stop Trump, make more sense.

As a general disposition, conservatism is a normal tendency. If we define conservatism as a fear of radical change, then all societies at all times have had a large proportion of conservatives. Indeed, we may even think of conservatism as the default position of most people. For decades, polls have shown that more Americans define themselves as conservatives than liberals. Republicans are especially likely to define themselves as conservatives.

Yet the major institutions of organized conservatism do not define conservatism as a disposition; to the leading journalists and intellectuals associated with the movement, conservatism requires devotion to the free market, support for traditional values, and commitment to an aggressive foreign policy abroad – the so-called three-legs of the conservative stool. These are the hallmarks of a “true conservative.”

Political scientists use different terms for these two types of ideologies. To understand the distribution of Americans across the ideological spectrum, we must understand that operational ideology is different from conceptual ideology – for the best recent examination of this issue, I recommend Ideology in America by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson. Americans, especially Republicans, tend to be symbolically conservative; they love the flag, consider themselves religious, and enjoy rhetoric about liberty and the Constitution. But when it comes to actual policy preferences, their operational ideology, Americans are, on average, pretty liberal.

Most Americans do not support upper-class tax cuts; they are not pro-life purists; they are not eager for more wars. In fact, this is not just true of Americans overall. Most Republican voters reject at least one important element of the conservative policy agenda. In terms of operational ideology, consistent conservatives are not just a minority of all Americans; they are a minority among Republicans.

To get a sense of just how little the Republican electorate supports the conservative policy agenda, we can examine polling data. Looking at the 2012 American National Election Survey, we see that almost 62 percent of Republicans would support new taxes on millionaires; only about 19 percent said they supported cutting the federal budget for education; fewer than ten percent supported cutting Social Security spending. Republicans are also, on average, rather moderate or even liberal on many social issues. Fewer than one in five Republicans said they wanted to prohibit abortion in all circumstances; a majority of Republicans supported legal recognition for same-sex couples. If we define a “true conservative” as a person who supports the conservative position on every policy issue, then such conservatives are a tiny percentage of the electorate.

Professional conservatives are faced with a frightening reality: the GOP has been successful in spite of its conservatism, not because of it. The Republican Party can successfully activate voters by appealing to their symbolic conservatism; but Republican leaders, conservative intellectuals, radio hosts, and talking heads have had little success in selling the operational conservative ideology to the public. Even Tea Party supporters, those ostensibly intractable devotees of supply-side economics, are divided on corporate and high-income tax cuts.

The weak hold that conservatism has on any segment of the electorate is not a new development. But Donald Trump has put the conservative movement’s weakness on very public display. Trump kept the GOP’s conservative symbolism (the flag, appeals to greatness and patriotism), added an implied element of ethnic grievance, and otherwise ignored conservative dogma. Conservative pundits are right that Trump is not a true conservative, and they are right to oppose him on ideological grounds. The National Review cover story denouncing Trump, the #NeverTrump movement, and Glenn Beck’s Trump-inspired tears were all justified.

Unjustified, however, was the belief that the conservative movement’s hostility to Trump mattered. The disconnect between the conservative movement’s influence on public policy and the public’s actual support for conservative policies is one of the dirty secrets of American politics. The real problem that Trump presents the conservative movement is not that he ensures a new Clinton Administration – though he may. Instead, Trump showed that conservatism is a spent force, easily abandoned by ordinary Republicans when they are provided with a right-wing alternative, even a flawed and erratic alternative.

When Trump won the GOP nomination, in spite of conservative objections, we saw definitive evidence that the organized conservative movement has little popular support. If he goes on to win in November, conservatism is finished. If Trump loses to Clinton, conservatives will try to wash their hands of the defeat. But much damage will have already been done.

In contrast to conventional wisdom, the United States is not a “center-right nation.” The American voting public may be to the right of the electorates in other advanced democracies, but it is certainly not conservative in the sense that William F. Buckley used the term. In fact, despite the claims by various talk-radio personalities, Republicans do not lose because they “betray conservative principles.” Those very principles have been a hindrance to greater electoral success. Trump has broken this illusion, and having demonstrated that there is no conservative consensus among GOP voters, we can expect others to follow his lead. Although the Republican Party will likely survive the 2016 election, its status as a uniformly conservative party will not. The end result of the Trump campaign will be an ideological vacuum on the right, one that will likely be filled by something very different from the mainstream conservative movement we have known for six decades.