I want to thank R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, for his New York Times op-ed “Republicans Are Now the ‘America First’ Party.”
You really should RTWT, as it is an instant classic in the burgeoning genre of “Donald Trump is a Political Colossus” punditry. As such, it is an excellent example to dissect.
Reno wrote of his fellow Reagan-era GOPers “We are, by now, the establishment — the senators, governors, think-tank presidents and columnists who, until Mr. Trump came along, got to define what “Republican” and “conservative” meant. My cohort simply cannot accept that Mr. Trump has taken away that coveted role and revolutionized not just our party, but also the very terms of the American political divide.”
He added, in some regally purple prose: “It is obvious to all but the most blinkered Republicans that with or without Mr. Trump, the Reagan era is over. The conservative-donor and think-tank consensus has been exploded. The next smart, ambitious young Republican politician with national aspirations will not adopt Ted Cruz’s strategy of trying to revive the rotting flesh of Reaganism. He will read out of Mr. Trump’s playbook, attacking globalism rather than big government. And he’ll win, because he’ll be talking about what worries voters.”
And at the risk of pushing the envelope on the fair use doctrine, these are perhaps the core grafs of the piece:
“Most commentators struggle to explain Mr. Trump’s electoral success, because they assume he has no coherent political philosophy. This is myopic. As a public figure, Mr. Trump has articulated a consistent message that speaks to a fundamental political challenge facing the 21st-century West: We must affirm nationalism and fight globalism.
“This basic political message is dramatized by his populist rhetoric. At his campaign rallies he did not get cheers for denouncing government waste or championing tax cuts. His applause lines spoke of building a wall, deporting illegal immigrants, renegotiating trade deals and bringing back jobs. The America First, antiglobalist themes won him the election, not freedom-oriented, anti-government ones.”
Reno is correct about a few things. The GOP has in many ways failed to adjust to its Reagan-era successes. Winning the Cold War dissipated the basic Republican anti-Soviet foreign policy consensus. Reagan-era tax reforms removed so many Americans from the tax rolls that marginal rate cuts are not the tangible benefit to middle-class workers that they were in the 1980s. Further cuts also may fall on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve.
He is also correct that nationalism is currently a rising political force in America, as it has been elsewhere in the world. Trump did not run on a freedom agenda. Moreover, Trump’s rhetoric on issues like immigration and trade helped rally white working class voters — many of them former Obama voters — to his side, probably providing his margin of victory in the Rust Belt and the Upper Midwest.
At the risk of being dismissed as blinkered or myopic (easily proved by a glance through my prescription lenses), I submit that those correct observations do not lead inexorably to the conclusion that Trump has redefined conservatism or even the GOP, let alone “the very terms of the American political divide.”
As I have previously noted, there were a host of factors having little or nothing to do with nationalism that helped boost Trump to the White House. It was an open seat election. GDP growth was below two percent. Pres. Obama’s foreign and natsec policies were empowering enemies like Iran and creating a Middle East vacuum that was filled by the Islamic State.
Battleground states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan had been trending toward the GOP for years below the Presidential level, and had unified Republican state governments before the 2016 election.
Hillary Clinton was an awful candidate. She had and has all the charisma of a piece of plywood. She did not appeal to the key demos of the so-called Emerging Democratic Majority in the way Obama did. She managed to make septuagenarian socialist Bernie Sanders look exciting by comparison (his strength was an omen of her weakness, which she ignored).
She was under FBI investigation for her secretive mishandling of classified information. Her personal negatives would have been a record, but for Trump having marginally worse ratings.
Clinton was the nominee of a party which had been shedding white working class voters since 1992, but she chose to ignore the Upper Midwest after her nomination.
While Clinton was a terrible candidate for the Democrats, she was an excellent one for the GOP. Trump’s supporters successfully pushed the argument that a Clinton victory would be the end of America As We Know It.
Remember when the pitch for Trump to typical Republicans was that Clinton winning would be like letting al-Qaeda crash an airliner into the White House or the Capital? Or that voting for Trump was like taking some skeevy cancer cure in Mexico rather than accept certain death? Pepperidge Farm remembers, and so do I.
Those pitches were not an argument for Trump’s economic nationalism. They were an argument against the Apocalypse. The would-be Horsewoman-in-Chief turned out to be too lazy and arrogant to bring it.
The “binary choice” sentiment is clearly seen in the exit polling. The more people voted against the other candidate, the better Trump did. He overwhelmingly beat Hillary among those who thought the most important candidate quality was “can bring needed change.”
The more important SCOTUS appointments were to voters, the better Trump did.
He also cleaned up with the majority that thought the fight against the Islamic State was going badly. This latter figure is significant because more voters cared about terrorism than immigration (and both of these fell well behind the economy in general — an issue Trump lost, btw).
Meanwhile, Trump was outpolled by most GOP Senate candidates and the average GOP House candidate. In key states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Trump won blue-collar areas, but tended to run behind his fellow Republican candidates in white middle-class suburbs that previously backed GOP presidential candidates.
To emphasize the point: The man claimed to have transformed American politics ran behind conventional Republicans appealing to conventional Republicans in most states and districts.
While some may think Trump is the New Hotness, every one of those Representatives and Senators who is more popular than Trump knows they are. Perhaps this is why the Colossus seems to have such difficulty getting his own party to move his agenda — or any major legislation — through Congress.
Lest it go to the legislators’ heads, it must be added that it’s not too difficult to be more popular than Donald Trump these days. The current job approval numbers for this towering, transformational nationalist are below those of every other President since Harry Truman.
Similarly, the polling numbers for Trump’s immigration policies are generally bad. His signature border wall is opposed by a large margin (and roughly the same margin among independents). What immigration hawks (including myself) would call an amnesty generally enjoys roughly 60 percent support.
According to Gallup, support for foreign trade is at record levels, crossing party lines. In fairness, some of the shifts in earlier polling on trade appear to be driven by partisanship — but this only underscores that it may be premature to claim that any effect Trump has had will last.
Finally, Trump has already flip-flopped on a number of issues, including some related to NATO and China’s alleged currency manipulation. The current bill to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year does not fund Trump’s wall or spending cuts for “sanctuary cities,” though the White House is declaring victory anyway.
The Transformer-In-Chief may wind up less nationalist than some of the commentariat believes. So far, Trump voters seem less concerned about it than Trump’s would-be theoreticians.
Could Trump remake the GOP? Sure. A good politician forges and maintains an electoral majority, though note that historically, national parties tend to start bleeding support once they achieve a unified government.
It might also help if Trump becomes a successful President, but even that is no guarantee he will transform the Republican Party. The examples of past heterodox Presidents like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are again instructive.
Jimmy was a failure; Bubba was in many ways a success (though much of this was due to the end of the Cold War and the start of the Internet Age). But Bill Clinton did not transform his party into New Democrats for any significant length of time (in fact, Congressional Dems drifted leftward even during his tenure).
In sum, whether Trump will turn out to transform the GOP, let alone all of American politics, remains very much an open question. The Republican base could turn nationalist or, like the Democrats, continue to simply move further from the center on a traditional left/right axis.
If the first 100 days of the Trump administration are any indication, one could argue the supposed Colossus is equally likely to discredit economic nationalism in America as he is to make it a dominant movement.
PS: Consider subscribing to WHRPT in the sidebar (the posts come straight to your inbox; no muss no fuss). And following WHRPT on Twitter. Thanks for reading and sharing!