The horse is no longer loose in the hospital. Comedian John Mulaney’s famous 2018 riff on the Trump presidency — comparing it to an untethered horse rampaging a hospital — has long been an apt description of the unpredictability of the last four years. “I think everything’s going to be okay, but I have no idea what’s going to happen next,” Mr. Mulaney quipped back then.
That proved to be true, even for us on the right. But it’s over now, and, if we’re ever to repair the damage, we’ve got to take stock of what our horse did while he was in there.
First, conservatives must think about how much our movement has changed since Donald Trump descended that escalator in 2015. A Trump presidency brought tax cuts, judicial appointments and a hope for Middle East peace. It also came with a rise in right-wing extremism, a further degrading of political rhetoric and near-catastrophic attacks on our democratic processes. So, yes, conservatives have plenty to celebrate from the Trump presidency. But at what cost?
The last four years were certainly a high point for the conservative legal movement. During Donald Trump’s presidency, more than 200 judges were appointed to the federal bench. Conservatives gained three seats on the U.S. Supreme Court. The 2017 tax cuts were widely heralded by conservatives, receiving praise from several right-wing organizations like The Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity. Until the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Trump oversaw a booming economy, increased wages and lower unemployment.
The peace agreements the Trump administration brokered between Israel and other nations in the Middle East provoked hope in peace for the first time in years. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, established the administration’s hard line policy against Chinese human rights abuses, particularly in regards to the condition of the Uighur Muslim minority group. And no review of Trump foreign policy could neglect the establishment of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
Yet, the Trump administration was hardly all sunshine and rainbows. Many policies emerging from the Trump administration — largely in the areas of immigration and trade, populism and nationalism — laid bare pre-existing divisions on the right that may never be healed. And the 45th president hardly started his term on the right foot. Between the Access Hollywood tape, on which Mr. Trump was recorded spewing degrading and inappropriate comments about women, and his racial comments about illegal immigration from Mexico, the former reality star was hardly the poster boy of typical conservatism.
Donald Trump’s presidency was a four-year experiment revealing what would happen if we elected the “own the libs” meme to the highest office in the world. And where Mr. Trump led, much of the conservative movement followed. Taking delight in the “triggering” of one’s political enemies hardly began with Donald Trump, but having such rhetoric endorsed by the commander-in-chief made it that much more powerful.
“Owning the libs” may feel fun, but the exercise in negative polarization set up a perverted incentive structure that negatively impacted our political discourse. When a movement prioritizes attacking their political enemies, principles fall by the wayside. Why honor Russell Kirk’s “moral order” when making fun of liberal snowflakes feels so good?
Here’s why: Donald Trump’s rhetoric and approach had real world effects. After both the Unite the Right Rally and the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol, right-wing extremists felt emboldened. Donald Trump’s “very fine people” comment after Charlottesville, Virginia, and his awkward “stand back and stand by” message to the Proud Boys were just two examples of his four-year game of footsie with the far right.
His refusal to accept the election results was not only a direct threat on American democracy — it sparked a mob’s descent on the U.S. Capitol and resulted in Mr. Trump’s second impeachment, making him the only president in history to receive such a condemnation.
The various factions of the right (including both supporters and opponents of the 45th president) must face this reckoning together and determine what the shape of the party looks like going forward. These discussions will be difficult and universal unity is hardly a likely goal. Intra-movement squabbles are always present.
But those debates will be fruitless if there is no agreed-upon set of principles. The right must rediscover what we stand for; Russell Kirk’s aforementioned principles may be a good place to start. The future of conservatism is freedom, not Trumpism. The conservative movement must return to principles and no longer be distracted by personalities.
None of this exempts the left from their own future reckoning. You could write a book on the violence wrought by many on the left last summer. But conservatives cannot effectively address the issues within progressivism. We must, instead, deal with the sickness that plagues our own side.
If our party has a future, we don’t have another option. After all, no matter our reasons, the horse wanted in — and we were the ones who threw wide the hospital doors.
• Amy Lutz (@amylutz4) is a historian and Young Voices contributor based in Missouri.