The chief problem in the discussion over Trump is that he is disliked for all the wrong reasons. This is what makes the discussion about Trump's hostile takeover of the Republican Party so utterly frustrating.
The question has become whether Trump is going to change the Republican Party into something other than a conservative party. But the trouble is that the national Republican Party has had a tenuous relationship with conservatism ever since Ronald Reagan left the scene.
People forget that, before Reagan came along, the Republican Party establishment was largely made up of what were then called "country club Republicans." These were people who, generally speaking, wanted a strong national defense, a balanced budget, and a highball by the pool in the afternoon. They were in favor of the military-industrial complex to fix the world, monetary policy to fix the economy, and good security guards in their gated communities to fix their neighborhoods.
Then came the social conservatives.
In the early 80s, an army of Pat Robertson supporters invaded local Republican Party organizations. Because they were uncouth, religious but unPresbyterian or unEpiscopalian, and actually believed in something, the country clubbers fought them—and lost. Reagan, who, although he was really too principled for the country-clubbers, they were willing to accept because of his celebrity background and success as a governor. But, to their shock and dismay, he ended up embracing the social conservatives. Later, he scandalized them even worse by abandoning the stilted foreign policy doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction in favor of Star Wars, and the stilted economics of monetary policy in favor of supply-side economics.
Hence was born post-Reagan Republican conservatism, characterized by the triple doctrines of strong (but not expansionist) national defense, the pragmatic spending policies of smaller government and lower taxes, and advocacy of traditional values.
Since then, although outwardly championing Reaganism, the Party establishment has been moving away from all three of these.
In foreign policy, the Party was captured by neoconservatives who wanted to spread American influence the military adventurism and the religion of democracy. While Reagan bombed Tripoli and quickly left, George W. Bush invaded Iraq and ended up trying to run the place. The first achieved its goal (a less dangerous Quaddafi), the second did not (Iraq is now a satellite state of an even more dangerous Iran).
In economic policy, the Republican brand was ruined by the establishment advocacy of international free trade agreements and the Medicare Part D drug prescription benefit that amounted to a new and costly social entitlement. And while Reagan's advocacy of the free market was a position based upon the pragmatic benefits of policies whose goal it was to get government off people's backs, the increasing influence of libertarians in the Party has resulted in what amounts to a religion of the free market that has, through ostensibly free market trade deals, caused jobs loss at home.
And where once the Republicans were the party of traditional values, their replacement of them by "market values," a phrase that exalts freedom at the expense the common good, has resulted in the abandonment of the commitment to integrity of marriage as the central social institution in particular, and jettisoning of defense of the moral order of the Judeo-Christian ethos in general. And then there is the increasing acceptance among the Party elite of more virulent forms of gender ideology that threaten to displace the common sense categories which are the only basis for even believing in marriage. Ronald Reagan was not a libertarian, he was a conservative, and he knew the difference.
In short, the Republican Party had already experienced a hostile takeover before Trump ever started running for president.
But since everyone seems to have forgotten this, they talk about Trump's policies as if they were somehow opposed to conservatism, when, in fact, many of them are perfectly conservative.
His opposition to foreign military adventurism is perfectly in line with Reaganite restraint. And those people who keep characterizing Trump's foreign policy and economic views (as he has stated them) to the "American First" movement need to go back and listen to Alexander Haig's remarks as he articulated Reagan's foreign policy as his Secretary of State. He talked about "American national interest" and criticized the Soviet Union for its expansionist foreign policy. And they need to go back and take note that it was only with the George W. Bush administration that the United States began signing wide-ranging trade deals that ignored the consequences on jobs at home.
Far from being at odds with conservatism, Trump's views on foreign policy and economics are actually closer to conservatism than the views of the Republican establishment which appears to have forgotten what conservatism actually consists of, at least in its Reaganite form.
The worst criticism that could be leveled against Trump is on social issues, an area of Trump's stated agenda on which the paint has barely dried. It is on social policy that authentic conservatives have the most cause to be worried.
And it is on all these views that conservatives need to ask themselves whether Trump really believes the positions he has taken or whether they are the product of pure political expediency.
It is not Trump's stated positions that are the problem. The problem is whether he has any principles underlying these positions which we can have any confidence will cause him to keep them. Already he is abandoning his positions on his tax plan and the minimum wage are devolving into something different from what he ran on. How do we know his other position won't undergo the same devolution?
Trump is a creature of opportunity, and such creatures don't stay in one political position for long. But let's be clear on the fact that the establishment of the Party left conservatism before Trump ever came along.
The Republican choice this year was between someone who doesn't seem to have any principles and a Party establishment that has the wrong ones.