But if the pathos is real, it is also ultimately somewhat stupid. A political party is not a church with standards too holy for this world, stooping to govern and then reclaiming its sanctity once it returns to opposition. Conservatism should be a governing philosophy, not an endless cycle of corruption followed by exile and repentance. And the fact that “populism” or “Trumpism” — like “compassionate” or “big government” conservatism before it — exerts an inevitable pull on Republican administrations and majorities is a sign that a Trumpian or George W. Bushian mix of cultural conservatism and economic populism is in fact the natural basis for an American center-right majority, resisted only by a Republican ideological apparatus that persists in believing in a limited-government ideal so fine no actual government can implement it.
This reality was apparent to Trump, in his crude and demagogic way, as it was apparent to Bush before him. But it is not apparent to enough Republicans at the moment for the party to act on it effectively. So instead of a clear focus on the kind of populism that might advance conservative priorities — direct spending to support work and family and marriage, above all — we get doomed cavalry charges against popular programs followed by a shrugging acceptance of more funding for the welfare-state status quo.
Trump is not the right man to break this cycle. But the recent drift back toward campaign-season Trumpism in defiance of the White House’s official blueprints is a sign for those with eyes to see.