As an intellectual movement, conservatism was bankrupt before Trump’s nomination. The Heritage Foundation had become an activist group for the Republican Party, which had nominated Sarah Palin for vice president and flirted with Herman Cain a few years later. Instead of William F. Buckley Jr., conservatives had Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. In September 2015, Rush Limbaugh questioned the value of “conservative principles” as such. “I, for one, am tired of conservatism being nothing more than some intellectual feast every day,” he said.
But Trump’s presidency has exacerbated the problem. In the 2016 GOP primary, the candidates debated an array of ridiculous non-issues, such as the possible involvement of Ted Cruz’s father in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the size of Trump’s hands and other appendages.
Reagan gave the party optimism and ideas — supply-side economics, the Strategic Defense Initiative, etc. Trump gave it hyperbole and incoherence because he had nothing else. Instead of talking about a shining city on a hill, Trump at the time talked about cities whose factories had closed and whose streets were overrun by drug-dealing rapists from Mexico. His appeal was ethno-nationalist, not strictly ideological. He offered no specific solutions to America’s problems, only a vague promise to fix all of them by himself.