Jonathan V. Last thinks President Donald Trump is here forever. Last, the editor of The Bulwark, a conservative site that’s been hostile to Trump, argues that if Trump loses in November, he’ll claim he was cheated out of the election. He’ll force other Republicans to back up his claim. He’ll get a TV show, hold rallies, be coy about running again in 2024.
He’ll still be the center of everything Republican. Ambitious Republicans will have to lash themselves to the husk of the dying czar if they want to have any future in the party. The whole party will go Trump-crazed and brain dead for another four years.
I salute Last for coming up with a post-2020 scenario even more pessimistic than my own!
My guess is that if Trump gets crushed in the election, millions of Republicans will decide they never liked that loser and jerk anyway. He’ll get relegated to whatever bargain basement they are using to hold Sarah Palin. But something will remain: Trumpism.
The basic Trump worldview — on immigration, trade, foreign policy, etc. — will shape the GOP for decades, the way the basic Reagan worldview did for decades. A thousand smarter conservatives will be building a new party after 2020, but one that builds from the framework Trump established.
I think Trumpism will survive Trump because the history of the modern Republican Party is the history of paradigm shifts.
If you came of age with conservative values and around Republican politics in the 1980s and 1990s, you lived within a certain Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher paradigm. It was about limiting government, spreading democracy abroad, building dynamic free markets at home and cultivating people with vigorous virtues — people who are energetic, upright, entrepreneurial, independent-minded, loyal to friends and strong against foes.
For decades conservatives were happy to live in that paradigm. But as years went by many came to see its limits. It was so comprehensively anti-government that it had no way to use government to solve common problems. It was so focused on cultivating strong individuals that it had no language to cultivate a sense of community and belonging. So, if you were right of center, you leapt. You broke from the Reagan paradigm and tried to create a new, updated conservative paradigm.
My own leap came early. On Sept. 15, 1997, William Kristol and I wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal on what we called National Greatness Conservatism. We argued that the GOP had become too anti-government. “How can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?” we asked. Only a return to the robust American nationalism of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and Theodore Roosevelt would do: ambitious national projects, infrastructure, federal programs to increase social mobility.
The closest National Greatness Conservatism came to influencing the party was John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid. He was defeated by a man, George W. Bush, who made his own leap, to Compassionate Conservatism. (You know somebody has made a paradigm leap when he or she starts adding some modifying word or phrase before “Conservatism.”) This was an attempt to meld Catholic social teaching to conservatism.
There were many other leaps over the decades. Sam’s Club Republicans, led by Reihan Salam and my Times colleague Ross Douthat, pointed a way to link the GOP to working-class concerns. Front Porch Republicans celebrated small towns and local communities. The Reformicons tried to use government to build strong families and neighborhoods. The Niskanen Center is an entire think tank for people who have leapt from libertarianism.
Most actual Republican politicians rejected all of this. They stuck, mostly through dumb inertia, to an anti-government zombie Reaganism long after Reagan was dead and even though the nation’s problems were utterly different from what they were when he was alive. Year after year, GOP politicians clung to a dead paradigm, ran the same anti-Washington campaigns and had no positive governing philosophy once they got there.
Steve Bannon’s leap finally did what none of us could do. Donald Trump and Bannon took a low-rent strand of conservatism — class-based ethnic nationalism — that had always been locked away in the basement of the American right, and overturned the Reagan paradigm.
Bannon and Trump got the emotions right. They understood that Republican voters were no longer motivated by a sense of hope and opportunity; they were motivated by a sense of menace, resentment and fear. At base, many Republicans felt they were being purged from their own country — by the educated elite, by multiculturalism, by militant secularism.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump and Bannon discarded the Republican orthodoxy — entitlement reform, fiscal restraint, free trade, comprehensive immigration reform. They embraced a European-style blood-and-soil conservatism. Close off immigration. Close trade. We have nothing to offer the world and should protect ourselves from its dangers.
It would have been interesting if Trump had governed as a big-government populist. But he tossed Bannon out and handed power to Jared Kushner and a bunch of old men locked in the Reagan paradigm. We got bigotry, incompetence and tax cuts for the wealthy.
But by defeating the Reagan paradigm, Trump and Bannon gave permission to a lot of Republican politicians to make their own leaps. Over the last three years, it’s been interesting to watch a series of Republican officeholders break free from old orthodoxies and begin to think afresh. You could see their eyes get wider: Suddenly I can think for myself. The range of possibilities is wider than I thought it was.
Their newfound liberation didn’t extend to crossing Trump, but because the president’s political vision isn’t exactly what you’d call fleshed out, there’s a lot of running room within his paradigm.
The post-2020, post-Trump Republican future is contained in those leaps. And that future is embodied by a small group of Republican senators in their 40s, including Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton and Ben Sasse. They all came of age when Reaganism was already in the rearview mirror. Though populist, three of them have advanced degrees from Harvard or Yale. They are not particularly close to one another. They may be joined by a common experience, but they are divided by ambition.
Each has a different vision of where the country should go, but they start with certain common Trumpian premises:
Everything is not OK.
The free market is not working well. Wages are stagnant. Too much power is in the hands of the corporate elites. Middle America is getting screwed. Finance capitalism is unbalanced. American society is in abject decline. If Reaganism was “Let’s be free,” the new mood is “Take control.”
Economic libertarianism is not the answer.
Free markets alone won’t solve our problems. GDP growth alone is not the be-all and end-all of politics. We need policies to shore up the conservative units of society — family, neighborhood, faith, nation. We need policies that build solidarity, not just liberty.
The working class is the heart of the Republican Party.
Once, businesspeople and entrepreneurs were at the center of the Republican imagination. Now it’s clear that the party needs to stop catering to the corporate class and start focusing on the shop owners, the plumbers, the salaried workers. It needs to emphasize the dignity of work and honor those who are not trying to make millions, not looking for handouts, but just want to build middle-class lives in a stable social order. In Britain, the Conservative Party has built a majority around the working class, and that’s what Republicans need to do here.
China changes everything.
The rise of a 1.4-billion-person authoritarian superpower means that free trade no longer works because the Chinese are not playing by the same rules. The U.S. government cannot just stand back and let China control the new technologies. “Republicans are going to have to get used to the idea of industrial policy to counter China, at least in a few key industries,” Mike Gallagher, a rising star among House Republicans, told me.
The managerial class betrays America.
Many of the post-Reagan positions seem like steps to the left. But these Republicans combine a greater willingness to use government with a greater hostility to the managerial class. The solution to too much corporate power is not handing power to Elizabeth Warren and a cloud of federal regulators. There’s a difference between empowering workers and empowering the Washington elite.
From these common premises the four senators go off in different directions.
Rubio bases his vision in Catholic social teaching.
A year ago, he wrote an essay for First Things titled, “What Economics Is For,” arguing that the purpose of markets is not growth but allowing each person to find dignity in work. He followed that up with a speech at Catholic University calling for “common-good capitalism” (remember what I said about modifying phrases) in which he criticized contemporary capitalism for its obsessive focus on maximizing shareholder value.
His basic position is that American capitalism has become too much about finance. It needs to be balanced toward manufacturing. He, too, supports a “pro-American industrial policy” to meet the Chinese challenge.
Hawley is the most populist of the group.
His core belief is that middle-class Americans have been betrayed by elites on every level — political elites, cultural elites, financial elites. The modern leadership class has one set of values — globalization, cosmopolitanism — and the Middle Americans have another set — family, home, rootedness, nation. Corporate elites have concentrated so much power that they now crush the yeomen masses.
Last November, Hawley gave a speech in which he sought to overturn the last 70 years of Republican foreign policy. He contended that the right had erred in trying to spread American values abroad. “Imperial domination violates our principles and it threatens our character. Our aim must be to prevent imperialism, not to exercise it; to stop domination, not foster it,” he said.
Cotton has a less developed political vision but a more developed attitude: hawkishness.
Whether it’s China, the left, immigration or Big Tech, Cotton is hawkish. He sees a world threatened by disorder and gravitates toward the toughest positions in order to ward off threat. He is the most vocal foe of the Chinese “pariah state.” He wants sharp reductions in legal immigration.
Sasse is the most sociological of the crew.
He is a Tocquevillian localist, who notes that most normal Americans go days without thinking of national politics. His vision is centered on the small associations — neighborhood groups, high school football teams, churches and community centers — where people find their greatest joys, satisfactions and supports. Government’s job, he says, is to “create a framework of ordered liberty” so that people can make their family and neighborhood the center of their lives.
He is the most suspicious of government and politics today. “I think politicians are arsonists,” he told me over the phone last month. “The main thing the GOP does is try to light the Democrats on fire, and the main thing the Democrats do is light the Republicans on fire. That’s why there’s so little trust in politics.”
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Behind these public figures there is a posse of policy wonks and commentators supporting a new Working-Class Republicanism, including Oren Cass, Henry Olsen, J.D. Vance, Michael Brendan Dougherty, Saagar Enjeti, Samuel Hammond and, in his own way, Tucker Carlson.
Cass, for example, has created a new think tank, the American Compass, to push the GOP in a post-Trump direction. Cass, a former adviser to Mitt Romney, argues that free-market economists pay too much attention to GDP growth. What matters is the kind of growth and whether it allows people to lead stable lives. He says there’s too much emphasis on consumption. People should be seen as producers, and government should create the kind of jobs that allow people to earn dignity through work.
He says the core of the economy is the industrial economy: manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure — making things in the physical world. “Investment in our economy has completely discounted the making of stuff,” he told me in a recent interview. “You have a VC industry that goes entirely to software. Private equity financial flow is about buying and trading companies.” Government needs to engage in “predistribution,” to steer investment to manufacturing, and also to those middle American parts of the country that are currently left out.
“The American labor force cannot be changed into what the economy wants,” Cass says. “We have to change the economy to what the American labor force can be successful in.”
The intellectual future of conservatism will be wrestled over at a series of forums at the Center for Social, Cultural and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute that are being organized by Yuval Levin, a scholar there. Right now, the various factions are exchanging sarcastic one-liners on Twitter. Levin is bringing the players together. “People should be talking to each other, not about each other,” he told me.
Levin thinks the prevailing post-Trump viewpoints define the problem too much in economic terms. The crucial problem, he argues, is not economic; it’s social: alienation. Millions of Americans don’t feel part of anything they can trust. They feel no one is looking out for them. Trump was a false answer to their desire for social solidarity, but the desire can be a force for good.
“What’s needed,” Levin says, “is not just to expand economic conservatism beyond growth to also prioritize family, community and nation, but also to expand social conservatism beyond sexual ethics and religious liberty to prioritize family, community and nation. The coalition can be a powerful political force again if its different wings converge on these priorities, without each giving up on its long-standing aims.”
The Republican Party looks completely brain dead at every spot Trump directly reaches. Off in the corners, though, there’s a lot of intellectual ferment on the right. But if there is one thing I’ve learned over the decades, it is never to underestimate the staying power of the dead Reagan paradigm.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page stands as a vigilant guardian of the corpse, eager to rebut all dissenters. Nikki Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, and Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania are staunch defenders of Minimal-Government Conservatism. Sen. Ted Cruz seems to be positioning himself for a 2024 presidential run that seeks to triangulate all the pre-Trump and pro-Trump versions of the party into one stew.
And if Joe Biden defeats Trump and begins legislating, as seems more and more likely, there’s also the possibility that Republicans will abandon any positive vision and revert to being a simple anti-government party — a party of opposition to whatever Biden is doing.
But over the long term, some version of Working-Class Republicanism will redefine the GOP. In the first place, that’s where Republican voters are. When push comes to shove, Republican politicians are going to choose their voters over their donor class.
Second, the working-class emphasis is the only way out of the demographic doom loop. If the party sticks with its old white high school-educated base, it will die. They just aren’t making enough old white men. To have any shot of surviving as a major party, the GOP has to build a cross-racial alliance among working-class whites, working-class Hispanics and some working-class Blacks.
None of this works unless Republicans can deracialize their appeal — by which I mean they must stop pandering to the racists in the party and stop presenting themselves and seeing themselves as the party of white people — and wage a class struggle between diverse workers in their coalition and the highly educated coastal manager and professional class in the Democratic coalition.
Rubio, Hawley, Sasse and Cotton are inching toward a GOP future. What are the odds they’ll succeed? They’ve got to be way under 50-50.