Despite widespread agreement in the Republican Party that Trump is a bad candidate, a viable alternative hasn’t emerged. Why? Because forging a path forward will require leadership that the Republican party lacks. In the most recent GOP debate, big personalities squabbled, but no real platforms were suggested. Republican candidates need to let go of Trump’s example, and instead focus their efforts on advancing a positive vision of American flourishing.
Decades of research has shown that a central feature of leadership is uniting people behind clearly-elaborated values and purpose. For instance, whatever you might think of Ronald Reagan’s policies (and there are many valid criticisms), he intentionally advanced a positive vision with clear goals. He didn’t just stand against Jimmy Carter or Communism; he stood for core values like market economics, small government, and strong national defense. For this reason, Reagan’s legacy casts a shadow over his party nearly 40 years after his leaving office.
None of the current Republican candidates promote a positive vision. Instead, they construct their identities based on what they oppose. Ron DeSantis markets himself as the “anti-Woke” candidate, while Chris Christie is anti-Trump, Nikki Haley is anti-extremist, and Ramaswamy is anti-establishment, etc. No candidate has advanced a positive purpose or value to rally behind, instead defining themselves in reaction to others.
This negative character-building rarely inspires confidence or support, and it certainly doesn’t produce positive long-term results. Sure, it can work in the short term—Trump’s 2016 campaign, defined by the nebulous slogan “Make America Great Again” and attacks against “the swamp,” “the deep state,” and “RINOs” did get him elected. However, he also transformed his party into a cult of personality rather than demonstrating any effective leadership. In the long term, such cults lead to identity and leadership crises like those dividing the Republican party today. Without a vision, politics is degraded into mud-slinging.
The Republican identity crisis is on full display in the current primary, with candidates unable to agree on formerly central conservative beliefs. As Nikki Haley pointed out, all Republican front-runners (Trump included) contributed to a massively expanded National Debt, ending any claim of fiscal conservatism as a shared Republican ethic. Candidates’ positions are fundamentally incompatible with each other on a variety of core issues, including the role of markets (e.g., Trump’s ludicrous 10% tariff proposal), criminal justice reform, foreign policy, and abortion.
It’s hard to tell from this primary what the “Republican” stance is on almost any issue, which won’t inspire voter confidence. Given the raging internal conflict and realignment within the Republican Party and broader U.S. politics, it’s critical that Republicans unite the country through a shared vision.
The primary abounds with slogans, from vague abstractions like “truth” and “principles” to Ramaswamy’s alarming and inscrutable claim that he is “on the side of Revolution.” None of these slogans suggest concrete or achievable directions to lead the country; they’re just meaningless words. Public trust erodes when political discourse is dominated by slogans rather than proposals. The ubiquity of such vague non-committal promises is one factor in the all time low institutional distrust wracking America—especially among Republicans.
The slogans in the current Republican primary are unfettered by the chains of realism or achievability. When every other candidate agreed to ban abortion, Nikki Haley reminded them that there is no way to accomplish this in the current political arena. Similarly nebulous posturing defined foreign policy discussion, with widespread agreement that China and Mexico present challenges, but no viable solutions suggested.
If Republicans hope to defeat Trump, they must articulate a platform with clear purpose and a shared vision. A successful candidate’s platform will have the following features.
First, it will be positive. It will advance a coherent vision of what values the candidate is for; who they are, rather than who they aren’t. Second, being rooted in positive values, it will suggest concrete objectives, both short and long term. Thirdly, concrete objectives will suggest concrete results by which success can be defined and measured.
The Freedom Conservatism Statement, which contains all three of these features, is a good example of such a platform. It states its values positively, serving as a declaration of what its diverse signatories believe, rather than what they oppose. Terms like “liberty” and “freedom of conscience” are not used as vague buzzwords, but as clearly defined and elaborated values. In addition, it suggests concrete objectives that allow for numerous policies and directives to be suggested such as working to reverse red-lining, reckoning with the widespread governmental racism of our past, or the widespread racial issues in the criminal justice system.
A successful Republican candidate doesn’t need to embrace the specific principles of the Freedom Conservatism Statement to be an effective leader. They should, however, model its clarity of purpose and vision. If such a leader doesn’t emerge from the Republican ranks to unite the party, then they will be stuck with Trump’s cult of personality and an accompanying electoral failure.