Last night’s Wisconsin primary found Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., handily defeating an opponent he has spent most of the election cycle ignoring. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Ryan defeated Paul Nehlen with 84 percent of the vote. The Janesville businessman Nehlen won just 16 percent of the vote.
Needless to say, this was not the next dramatic leadership coup many had feverishly predicted.
From the beginning, the Nehlen campaign strategy was pulled right from the alt-right playbook. He attempted to ride Donald Trump’s coattails into his own local insurgency, but Nehlen’s failure to understand the difference between populism and conservatism was his downfall. Speaker Paul Ryan deserves plenty of criticism for failing conservatives; however, the attack Nehlen attempted to mount was that Ryan deserved to be hated simply for not having sprung from the new wave of outsider anger.
Nehlen ran a vitriolic campaign that was intensely personal and focused on inflaming rage wherever possible. That focus made the election about personalities rather than issues. For example, when it came to policy, he criticized Ryan’s stances on trade, but even that angle quickly shrank from one of substance when he tried to tag the speaker as a “soulless globalist.” He said Ryan was “grown in a petri dish in D.C.”
The vitriol is precisely why Nehlen never had a chance.
As primary challengers go, Nehlen was well poised to get his message out. He had close to a million dollars, early name recognition, interest from national media, and a few mega-stars coming out to endorse him. But the message he broadcast did not take hold, and it wasn’t for a lack of exposure to voters. Voters saw Nehlen and what he represented and rejected him.
For the most part, American voters are unpersuaded by discussions of ignoring the Constitution and deporting Muslim-American citizens strictly for their beliefs. There are cases to be made for limiting new immigration from the Islamic world, but the alt-right and Nehlen in particular do not care to trudge through the nuances of sound policy. They find it boring and bothersome. Instead they prefer for their suggestions to conjure up the mob rule mentality of the French Revolution.
For contrast, look at someone like Jarrin Jackson, who challenged an incumbent in Oklahoma. Jackson had less money in the bank, no significant outside support or nationalized name identification, but ran on the issues and received 40 percent of the vote!
And of course there was Dave Brat in Virginia — an upset that some hoped had paved the way for the rise of Nehlen. Brat beat former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a race that was not at all personal or rage-fueled, but was instead based on the urgency and dimensionality of conservative issues. Cantor lost because Brat could prove that the man was not working for conservatives, and he was able to offer a positive Reaganite vision for replacement.
We will not see serious headway in the fight to win back the nation until we embrace the need to stand for conservatism and not populism as an end unto itself.
In many ways, Paul Nehlen’s loss stirs the fears of Republicans today, as he was a beta test for the Make America Great Again plan of action on a local level. Many conservatives are concerned that Trump is making his campaign about personalities rather than serious voter concerns, and that he will face the same fate as Nehlen should he fail to change course.
It ought to go without saying that as a committed conservative, I will be first in line to support a new speaker should Ryan continue to prove unwilling to stand up for the issues we care about.
If he does not close down the lame duck session, allows massive spending bills to be rushed through Congress, and does nothing with the power of the purse, then yes, Ryan needs to be thrown out in exchange for true leadership. Ryan failed his first test in 2015, and if the remainder of 2016 yields a similar result, conservatives should call for new leadership.
But Americans have waited too long and suffered too much these past eight years for our time-honored movement to surrender itself to aimless, infantile fury. Conservatism does not stand opposed to populism; it can, however, infuse populism with meaning and principles.
Gaston Mooney is the executive editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @gastonmooney.