As many have noted, Donald Trump’s presidency is an insurgency. Mr. Trump himself is the quintessential insurgent, doing battle with a disingenuous and entrenched establishment. This was his appeal over a field of more conventional Republican candidates in 2016. But last year’s midterm elections were disappointing, and Mr. Trump has gone wanting for political clout in the immigration fight. His successes—a booming economy, tax reform, low unemployment, increased oil production, the abandonment of terrible treaties, new and better trade deals—have brought him little goodwill even from his own party.
Today’s leftist cultural hegemony squeezes President Trump—and conservatives generally—into an impossibility: No matter what they achieve, they are always guilty of larger sins. Make the economy grow if you must, but you are still a racist.
So there is a distinct vulnerability that trails Mr. Trump and his conservative allies. And even being right—especially being right—is of no help against it. This vulnerability follows from a conviction that first flowered in the 1960s: that America’s magnificent founding principles were not enough to ensure a free and morally legitimate society. Once such issues as civil rights, women’s rights and even the Vietnam War become preeminently moral issues, it was clear that freedom itself required a moral as well as constitutional underpinning.
Suddenly our institutions, our politics and our cultural life all had to be morally accountable. This was the great cultural shift that left modern conservatism vulnerable.
You could see this as far back as Barry Goldwater’s infamous acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican Convention. At that historical moment the country was overwhelmed with evidence of America’s immorality. Two weeks earlier, Martin Luther King had won a moral concession from America in the form of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which Goldwater voted against). There followed riots in the streets, an antiwar movement, the beginnings of a women’s movement, and America’s immorality was the subtext of it all.
Yet at the podium, Goldwater was all principles and rectitude. He was a good man, but he was also a man out of time. He seemed to be celebrating a rigorously principled conservatism—a conservatism that was stymied by the ’60s. What Goldwater failed to understand was that in the flux of that decade, adherence to conservative principles was not the point. Evil was the point. And the evil that America owned up to in that era was more than a match for principle. It could destroy whatever principle built. Evil had given us slavery in the middle of a principled democracy. The ’60s gave America the idea of its own evil—and we have not been the same since.
This turn of events opened an extremely prolific vein of power that the left seized upon immediately. Admitting evil obligated America to seek redemption by actually earning an innocence of past sins. Proving your innocence in this way earned you moral authority and, ultimately, political power.
So out of nowhere in the mid-’60s came the Great Society, the War on Poverty, forced busing, public housing, affirmative action and so on—a proliferation of redemptive actions meant to reify innocence as a currency of power. Liberalism became essentially a moral movement more informed by ideas of the good than by constitutional principles—more in thrall to innocence than to freedom.
When Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Mr. Trump’s border wall “an immorality,” she was smearing him with the evil of racism and thus implying that resisting him was innocence itself. The new liberal motto, “Resist,” is firstly an assertion of innocence.
Conservatism’s vulnerability is simply that it has no way to extract power from the evils America owned up to in the ’60s—no way to use the sins of the past to coerce Americans into doing what it wants. Thus conservatism’s heretofore lackluster showing in our continuing culture war.
But today there is a way for conservatism to overcome its vulnerability. The world has truly reformed since the ’60s. Racism remains a dark impulse in humankind, but America has already delegitimized it. Today minorities suffer from underdevelopment, not racism. And here, at last, is conservatism’s great opportunity.
Conservatism is the perfect antidote to underdevelopment. Its commitment to individual responsibility, education, hard work, personal initiative, traditional family values and free markets is a universal formula for success in a free society.
Coming at the end of 60 years of liberal failure, conservatism is now “the new thing” in many minority communities. Liberalism’s greatest sin was to incentivize minorities to reject these values and urge them into dependency. But, given this failure, these values now have an air of historical inevitability about them. Not coincidentally, Mr. Trump’s approval among blacks has risen; one poll had it at 40%.
Justice was always the lens through which the left examined inequality. Justice logically seemed to answer injustice, so it gave the left a framework for understanding the fate of blacks and other minorities—they were victims who had to be socially engineered into equality. But this only put the left on its path to failure.
In reality, justice is both amorphous and impossible. Martin Luther King did not win justice; he won freedom. Justice-focused groups today, like Black Lives Matter, keep casting minorities as victims of America’s old injustices, the better to work white guilt—to extract payoff of some kind. But blacks make little to no progress and, worse, the preoccupation with injustice only leaves them eternally inconsolable and cut off from their own best energies and talents.
Suppose American conservatism begins to argue for progress as the best way to overcome inequality—not to the exclusion of justice, but simply as America’s guiding light in social reform. Progress is possible, measurable and most of all doable. Rather than fight over “microaggressions” and “triggers,” why not, as Booker T. Washington so beautifully put it, “cast down your bucket where you are”?
To put all this on a dangerously romantic level: Why not go back to that perpetually workable thing, the American dream?
Mr. Steele, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is author of “Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country.” This article first appeared at wsj.com on 3-31-19.