On the Future of the American Right: NEH Lecture with Prof. George Hawley


Focusing specifically in his November 8 talk on how Donald Trump’s candidacy would affect the U.S. conservative movement going forward, University of Alabama Assistant Professor of Political Science George Hawley outlined three possible scenarios, ordered, at the time, according to ascending likelihood and descending benefit to conservatism in America. Given how things played out in the hours after the lecture, it makes some sense to start at the end of Prof. Hawley’s list and work our way backwards.

Scenario #3: Trump loses by a smaller margin than Mitt Romney in 2012

In this scenario, what then seemed to be the likeliest, the narrative would emerge that Trump had been stabbed in the back by the conservative establishment and that a less flawed candidate with more party support would have won. On a more systemic level, Prof. Hawley detailed how this quasi-victory for Trumpism would in turn expose the degree to which a traditional conservative platform—built around the “three-legged stool” of fiscal conservatism, Christian morals, and strong national defense—no longer appeals to self-identified Republican voters.

Scenario #2: Trump loses in a landslide and the Republicans retain control of the Senate

Here, Prof. Hawley noted, anti-Trump conservative iconoclasts would be praised, the Trump camp would be purged from the GOP, and if things broke in a certain way over the four years after the 2016 election, a true conservative candidate could be poised to succeed in 2020. As he was quick to point out, though, that’s a big ‘if.’ More specifically, he explained that this prognostication insufficiently accounts for how, for years, shifts in the demographic map and the secularization of American society have made victory more difficult for conservative candidates. Or conversely, conservative optimism in this case would be predicated on the somewhat far-fetched assumption that a tolerant, pro-immigration candidate who convinced the American working class about the benefits of the free market could effectively bring new constituencies into the conservative fold—a task that the movement has failed at since the days of Milton Friedman and, moreover, a task where improved counting stats would not necessarily correlate to election success.

Scenario #1: Trump wins and the Republican party retains control of the Senate

While this would intuitively seem to be the best case for the conservative movement, Prof. Hawley noted that the positives in this scenario come with two significant caveats: the conservative intelligentsia making peace with Trump and Trump forgiving members of an establishment that had spent the past year-plus vehemently speaking out against him. He added, however, that a Trump White House and Republican House and Senate would almost certainly increase legislative consideration of the work of conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute (a clear win for the movement).

What is the common thread here, Prof. Hawley asked? That there is “no plausible scenario” in which the future of the conservative movement looks bright. As he argued in the closing moments of his talk, given its funding, publications, and institutions, the conservative movement isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Its visibility, though, belies the degree to which the movement is, as he described it, “a Potemkin Village.” Its principles speak to a center-right nation that doesn’t exist, and as seen in the degree to which Trump seized on its symbolism while more or less abandoning its dogma, the GOP is currently successful in spite of, not because of, the conservative movement.

Note: This lecture was a companion piece to our October 27 lecture on the future of the U.S. left, delivered by University of Pennsylvania Professor of Political Science Adolph Reed.

George Hawley is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. His research interests include demography, electoral behavior, political parties, immigration policy, and the conservative movement in America. He is the author of Voting and Migration Patterns in the U.S., White Voters in 21st Century America, and Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism.


The lecture was made possible in large part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and was conducted in partnership with the Missouri Humanities Council. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed during or in response to the lecture do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.