These were the factors, many historians concluded, that made America a “center right” nation. For better or for worse, politicians seeking to lead either party faced a new reality. Democrats had to honor the public’s distrust of activist government (as Bill Clinton did with his call for the “end of welfare as we know it”). Republicans, for their part, had to play the Buckley role of denouncing the political surrealism of the paranoid fringe (Mitt Romney’s furious backpedaling after joking, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate”).
Then the nation’s pre-eminent birther ran for president. Trump’s campaign was surreal and an intellectual embarrassment, and political experts of all stripes told us he could never become president. That wasn’t how the story was supposed to end. National Review devoted an issue to writing Trump out of the conservative movement; an editor there, Jonah Goldberg, even became a leader of the “Never Trump” crusade. But Trump won — and conservative intellectuals quickly embraced a man who exploited the same brutish energies that Buckley had supposedly banished, with Goldberg explaining simply that Never Trump “was about the G.O.P. primary and the general election, not the presidency.”
The professional guardians of America’s past, in short, had made a mistake. We advanced a narrative of the American right that was far too constricted to anticipate the rise of a man like Trump. Historians, of course, are not called upon to be seers. Our professional canons warn us against presentism — we are supposed to weigh the evidence of the past on its own terms — but at the same time, the questions we ask are conditioned by the present. That is, ultimately, what we are called upon to explain. Which poses a question: If Donald Trump is the latest chapter of conservatism’s story, might historians have been telling that story wrong?