| 8 mins read
The content and character of US Republicanism has changed and there has been a pronounced shift away from the principles bequeathed by figures such as President George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and Paul Ryan.
Each of the three ‘conservatisms’ upon which the American right was structured from the 1950s onwards—market economics, moral and cultural traditionalism, and national security resilience—has changed fundamentally. The ‘fusionism’ that held Republicanism and conservatism together has been undermined and there is, as a consequence, an emerging new fusionism.
Fusionism in the 1950s and beyond
In its original form, fusionism’s purpose was to heal political fractures and bring together different hues of American conservatism. Although tensions remained it rested upon a significant degree of ideational accommodation between economic and cultural (or traditionalist) conservatives, plus national security, helping to form a coherent movement.
Fusionism secured a degree of reconciliation by drawing a distinction between political goals (freedom) and spiritual goals (virtue) and at the same time finding a constellation of shared beliefs around opposition to ‘big government’. Alongside this, it turned its back on isolationist sentiments. It laid a basis for Reaganism in the 1980s and spurred the 1994 Contract with America.
While the Republicans faced electoral challenges, fusionism continued to bear fruit during the 1990s and 2000s. Their policy reforms had both an economic and a cultural content. Alongside tax cuts, regulatory reform and legal changes to protect firms from ‘frivolous lawsuits’, conservatives rallied around reforms to existing welfare programmes enacted in 1996 which would, it was argued, liberalise the labour market at its lower end, while also encouraging personal responsibility and bolstering the traditional family. Also, although the measure never gained traction in Congress, in 2005 President George W. Bush proposed a partial privatization of Social Security, the public pension system.
In 2012, the Republicans’ presidential nominee, Governor Mitt Romney, repeatedly called for cuts to corporate tax rates. His vice-presidential running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, sought the restructuring of Medicare, and he and many others backed deregulation, comprehensive immigration reform and trade liberalisation. At the same time, Republicanism became increasingly synonymous with opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage while championing “abstinence-only” sex education in schools.
Over the decades the tripartite bloc around economic conservatism, cultural conservatism and national security conservatism appeared solid. The Christian right took an increasingly organized and political form as it mobilised to “protect” the family and coalesced as an important constituency within the Republican Party. In parallel, the implosion of the Soviet bloc gave an impetus to ‘national security conservatives’ who saw democracy promotion as both a moral obligation and as a way of protecting US security interests. The Tea Party movement, which emerged just after President Obama took office and attracted up to 250,000 people to its protests, was structured around all three forms of conservatism
By the second decade of the new century, however, fusionism was under very severe strain. Free market or neoliberal economic policy was not generating sustained or inclusive growth and a large tranche of workers was being displaced. Further, some parts of the federal ‘big government’, notably the Social Security and Medicare programmes, commanded significant levels of support. The prolonged military quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq undermined the neocon case for democracy-promotion and overseas military interventionism.
Against this background a ‘new fusionism’ is emerging. In broad terms, it is still structured around the same three constitutive elements: economics, culture and national security. Yet, there have been significant shifts. The Trump ascendancy marked the victory of a populist economics that challenged the fundamentals of some of the established conservative conventions about the inherent dangers of big government . There was a shift away from the dismantling of largescale government ‘entitlement’ programmes. Whilst still seeking to downsize and commodify provision for low-income households, the Trump White House disavowed the types of radical reform to Social Security and Medicare that Paul Ryan had championed.
At the same time, conservative backing for markets became more conditional and cautious. Indeed, a core feature of the new thinking was that nations trumped markets. ‘National conservatism’ stressed ‘Economic policy must serve the general welfare of the nation’. The Trump administration continued to champion tax reductions and the removal of allegedly burdensome restrictions on commerce, but at the same time adopted a populist tone. Populism asserts that markets have to be tamed based upon an intertwining of economics, nationalism and morality.
This turn was compounded by other developments. First, whilst the US has, taken at an aggregate level, become more secular, conservatives have found new issues have included child abuse, trans-rights, the teaching of so-called critical race theory (CRT), and the threat posed by “woke ideology”.
Second, there was an expansion of conspiracism. A May 2021 poll suggested that 15 per cent of Americans, and 23 per cent of Republicans shared a defining proposition of the ‘QAnon’ movement that the ‘government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation’. These were ideas that built upon, but radically extended, earlier populist attacks upon hidden elites.
Third, the new culture warriors and their efforts to roll back the progressive cultural shifts of recent decades drew succour from changes in the federal courts, most notably Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization (2022) and 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis (2023).
Finally, there was also a shift in the value of international engagement. Indeed, by 2014, more Republicans (40 per cent) than Democrats (35 per cent) were likely to say that the US should ‘stay out of world affairs’. The figure represented a doubling since 2006. This was not however a simple narrowing or straightforward isolationism, but instead, a reconfiguration. Alongside efforts to counter ‘radical Islam’ and Iran, there was also increasing opposition to China.
At the beginning of 2024, Donald Trump seemed to poised to take the Republican nomination and quite possible regain the presidency. Nonetheless, the outcome of the elections in both 2020 and 2022 placed a question mark about the capacity of the new fusionism to lay a basis for victories in presidential and congressional contests. Indeed, there is polling evidence that many of these ideas are out of step with majority American opinion. Whatever future, however, awaits Donald Trump, the ideas that have defined his campaigns have a very firm grip over Republicanism and have the capacity to far outlive him.