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Donald Trump Is Remaking the GOP

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The most lasting political victories take place not in the election booth or the law books but in the soul: if you can shift fundamental ideological commitments, you’ll leave an imprint far into the future. In 2002, Margaret Thatcher was asked what was her greatest achievement. A dozen years out of power, the Iron Lady slyly remarked, “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.”

Donald Trump is unlikely to enjoy the world-historical stature of Thatcher, who recalibrated the entire political spectrum. Still, within the ambit of the political right, Trump is turning out to be a major force, destined to leave a far-reaching legacy. In a polarized era, Trump has converted few on the left, but he’s transformed the terms of debate in the GOP. Trump’s peculiar brand of ethnic nationalism, with its mixture of protectionism and xenophobia, is becoming the new Republican orthodoxy.

Even those outside Trump’s fold are now trying to figure out how to make his nationalist agenda work. The inaugural National Conservatism conference, which was hosted last week by the Edmund Burke Foundation in Washington, DC, is perhaps the most impressive of recent attempts to give sinews and bones to Trumpism, a paradoxical effort since many of the president’s ideas are little more than inchoate blathering he sputtered out during rallies to rile up his crowd.

Not everyone who attended the National Conservatism conference was a full-fledged Trumpist, although administration officials like John Bolton were there along with media cheerleaders like Tucker Carlson. Indeed, as Zack Beauchamp of Vox noted, “very few people at the conference wanted to talk about President Trump.” Instead of the blunt jeers heard at Trump rallies, where the name of Ilhan Omar raised the chant of “send her back,” the attendees of the conference spoke in more genteel terms about the need for national cohesion and an immigration policy that respected the nation’s cultural traditions. Yet these more mellifluous words differed from the hooting of Trump rallies only in terms of tone, not intent.

Perhaps the most notable speech was given by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley. At age 39, Hawley is the youngest senator, elected only a year ago but already marked out as presidential prospect. Educated at Stanford and Yale, Hawley has found a niche arguing for ways to rein in tech companies, the focus of increasing hostility among conservatives. The Spectator described him as being potentially “a Liz Warren of the Right: a policy wonk, economic populist.”

In keeping with his growing reputation as a populist, Hawley’s speech was, for a Republican at least, unusually critical of big business, which he accused of sharing an elite preference for a cosmopolitan economic policy that hurts ordinary Americans.

“They run businesses or oversee universities here, but their primary loyalty is to the global community,” Hawley claimed about a group he called the cosmopolitan elite. “And they subscribe to a set of values held by similar elites in other places: things like the importance of global integration and the danger of national loyalties; the priority of social change over tradition, career over community, and achievement and merit and progress.”

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