As the Cold War ended and crime rates fell in the 1990s, conservatism again fell out of favor.
“Conservatism became a victim of its own success,” Douthat said. “You voted for a Republican because you wanted to win the Cold War, but once the Cold War was over, that was less important.”
By 2012, the Republican Party seemed in crisis, stuck with an apparent perpetual conflict between an establishment that leaned toward compromise and a base that apparently wanted to “double down on conservative purity.”
“The reality is, politics has a lot more going on than just these big-picture ideas of what America has been or should be,” Douthat said. “What the paradigm missed was that a large swath of Republican-leaning voters felt the party didn’t have anything to say to them.”
Then came Donald Trump, whose primary campaign ran counter to every element of what conservative intellectuals had been defending.
Douthat paused. When he’d first outlined his talk a few weeks before, he’d included lessons on what to learn from a Trump defeat. There are still lessons that the conservative movement should heed, he argued, such as how the future of conservatism depends on its ability to reconnect with economic realities while also rechanneling “more toxic forces.”
“You want a conservatism that can be more populist without being a vehicle for white identity,” Douthat said.
Douthat outlined several possibilities for a Trump presidency. Its ideology might be centrist Republican, he said, or right-wing nationalist, or something in between, and its administration might be anything from authoritarian to incompetent.
In the Q&A session after the talk, when students asked about the future of affirmative action, Supreme Court rulings and foreign policy, Douthat noted that everyone is “groping in the dark” for answers.
“‛I don’t know’ is going to be the answer to all the questions about the future,” Douthat said. “American conservatism has darker elements than I wanted to believe.”