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Nationalism V. Conservatism: What Trump's Rise Means For The GOP


The Republican race might seem set, but Republicans are still trying to figure out what Donald Trump is. As to what he isn't, conservatives agree that he's not one of them - conservatives like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.


RAND PAUL: I don't think he's really a conservative at all.

SIEGEL: And Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: I'm a Republican, and he's not. He's not a conservative Republican. He's an opportunist.

SIEGEL: Not to mention the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.


PAUL RYAN: Normally, I do not comment on what's going on in the presidential election. I will take an exception today. This is not conservatism.

SIEGEL: So what is Donald Trump? Avik Roy, who's the opinion editor of Forbes, wrote this recently - (reading) Trump's political philosophy, in fact, is surprisingly coherent, with a heritage that goes back more than a century. That philosophy is nationalism.

Avik Roy, welcome to the program.

AVIK ROY: Nice to be with you.

SIEGEL: Donald Trump seems to think he's conservative. What's the difference between being a conservative and being a nationalist?

ROY: Well, in a lot of European countries, they're seen as the same thing. That is to say, to have a feeling of ethnic and nativist solidarity with your fellow countrymen who all share that kinship, that's the conservative philosophy in the kind of ancient or classical sense of the term.

But in the United States, we've had a different conception of conservatism, at least since World War II, when Bill Buckley at National Review and others came up with the synthesis of what we would originally called liberal ideas of free markets and limited government combined with a cultural traditionalism and an engagement of the Cold War battle against communism.

SIEGEL: That would be contemporary conservatism. You say Trump falls outside of those boundaries.

ROY: Yeah, so what's been interesting about Trump is he has really appealed to this older sense of nationalism as opposed to modern American conservatism. To take economics as one example, he has attacked Hillary Clinton from the left on free trade. He's called that the worst vote that Hillary Clinton has taken, so he and Bernie Sanders have quite a bit of - in common in terms of criticizing the modern American economy as too open to trade with foreign countries.

He criticizes outsourcing of jobs to other countries, things like that. So that's - that's his economic point of view. Then you throw in things on immigration - another area where the nationalists and the kind of Buckleyan (ph) conservatives might disagree. The Buckleyan conservatives are open to skills-based immigration. Let's bring the best and brightest from around the world to America. The Trump view is that those individuals are a threat to the people who live here now, and we should only keep - bring them in in very, very limited numbers.

SIEGEL: You are a conservative, a former advisor to Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio. Can you vote for Donald Trump, the nationalist?

ROY: I really don't know what I'm going to do. I probably won't know until that day. But right now, I'd have to say that I'm not going to support either of them. I'm going to not vote, which - you know, which is a strange thing to feel for someone who cares a lot about politics. But I can't really see myself voting for either of them.

SIEGEL: Donald Trump is not running to be the conservative party candidate for president. He's running to be the Republican Party's candidate. And the Republican Party, in earlier times, has been moderate, even progressive. Could this be a shift, a complete overhaul of the GOP into a nationalist party?

ROY: We've sort of accepted this idea that Trump was this disruptive force that came out of nowhere, like a bolt of lightning out of the sky. And what I'm arguing is that, in fact, while Donald Trump certainly, in some ways, has been a very disruptive force in our election this year, the ground has been plowed for decades to make the Republican Party, and therefore the people who see themselves as conservative in America, more nationalist in orientation and less conservative in that Bill Buckley, National Review sense of the term.

That - for many years, particularly since 1992, when Patrick Buchanan gave a speech at the Republican National Convention that year in Houston arguing that the Republican Party should be about a culture war that takes back our country block-by-block, that's what's led to what we now think of as the dominance of social conservatism.

SIEGEL: Does all of this leave you discouraged about the Republican Party?

ROY: There's more work to do. That's all I can say. And, you know, it will depend, obviously, on how Trump does. If Trump goes down in flames in November, then maybe people will realize that the nationalist approach has had flaws. But if Trump does well, then I think a lot of people are going to say, well, this is what we should be doing. And I think that's - winning and losing is going to play a role in whether Republicans reform themselves, just as it was in 1992, when Democrats had lost three presidential elections in row. And that made them more open to the somewhat centrist message of Bill Clinton in a way they wouldn't have been before.

SIEGEL: That's Avik Roy, opinion editor for Forbes, speaking to us from Austin, Texas. Avik Roy, thanks for talking with us.

ROY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.