After Trump: GOP Elites Haven’t Realized They Can’t Return to the Status Quo

Editor’s note: This is the first of several “After Trump” pieces we will be running about how the candidacy of Donald Trump has irrevocably changed the Republican Party and American conservatism.

Three pieces this week intertwine to present a picture of the broader challenges facing the political right at the moment: Matthew Sheffield’s important study of the conservative media, Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal column about the Trump campaign, and this New York Times story on the future of reform conservatism.  All three touch on the crisis of paralysis facing the Republican party.

Many have focused on Sheffield’s broader argument that conservatives should not confuse the reach of the right-leaning media with that of the media in general.  However, he also notes that there is a gap between some standard Republican policies and the appetites of the broader public:

More center-right media outlets could also have been able to detect that the GOP’s economically libertarian message has little to no popularity among average Americans. Since these journalistic structures did not exist, however, the popularity of Donald Trump’s abandonment of that orthodoxy took the Republican elite completely by surprise. It shouldn’t have.

Sheffield argues that support for globalization, more tax-cuts for upper-income-earners, bad-faith open borders, cuts to Social Security, and other policies have minimal support with the public, including much of the Republican base.  Some of those policies might be good ideas, but unpopular proposals can’t form the policy foundation for a political party that hopes to be successful in a democratic republic. Running on ending capital-gains taxes, increasing the number of guest-worker programs, cutting Social Security, and cheerleading TPP does not seem a likely route to Republican electoral rejuvenation.

This brings us to Peggy Noonan’s perceptive column in the Wall Street Journal.  The first part of this column analyzes some of Trump’s recent missteps.  But the end of it examines some of the blind-spots within the GOP as a whole:

From what I’ve seen there has been zero reflection on the part of Republican leaders on how much the base’s views differ from theirs and what to do about it. The GOP is not at all refiguring its stands. The only signs of life I see are among young staffers on Capitol Hill, who understand their bosses’ stands have been rebuked and are quietly debating among themselves what policy paths will win the future.
Beyond that, anti-Trump Republicans treat his voters like immoral enablers of a malignant boob. Should Mr. Trump lose decisively in November they’ll lord it over everyone, say “I told you so,” and accept what they imagine will be forelock-tugging apologies. Then they will get to work burying not only Mr. Trump but his issues.
That’s where the future of the GOP will be fought, and found: on whether Trumpism can be defeated along with Mr. Trump.

Noonan here touches on a broader tendency of the GOP in this electoral cycle: its surprising paralysis.  Rather than adapting to the rise of Donald Trump, many of his rivals (with the possible exceptions of Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum)* simply hoped that Trump would flame out on his own.  One of them would be the last candidate standing in the “non-Trump” lane, and he would cruise to victory over The Donald.  That obviously did not happen.

One of the things that prevented an anti-Trump alternative from rising either inside or outside the GOP is the fact that the easiest way to defeat Trump would have been taking on some of his issues–on trade, immigration, entitlements, and so forth.  But taking on these issues might have involved compromising and moving on from some of the current conventional verities of the Beltway. It would not necessarily involved abandoning all the tenets of movement conservatism, but it would have required some imagination and a willingness to address some populist concerns. Thus, paralysis took the place of a proactive policy evolution.

Some perhaps hope that Donald Trump is simply a sui generis, black-swan phenomenon; in that case, conservatism could switch back to its regular programming after a Trump defeat in November (if, that is, Clinton does win in November).  However, there is no reason to believe that the populist forces that elevated Trump will simply disappear on November 9.  And it would be a grievous mistake indeed to think that the proper response to Trump’s rise is more of the same (perhaps with an extra pinch of transnationalism and more identity-politics pandering).  A broader paralysis on policy has hampered the GOP’s quest for a governing presidential majority and threatens the prospects of limited-government conservatism in the 21st century.

One possible way out of this paralysis has been advanced by reform conservatives.  The New York Times today notes how “reformocons” hope that the dis-Trumption gives an opening to new ideas about how conservatives can adapt to the present and govern.  The Times outlines some key ideas supported by some reformocons:

• Reject additional tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 a year, but expand breaks for low- and middle-income workers through tax credits for children, the earned-income tax credit or a new wage subsidy using tax dollars to bring low wages toward the local median level.

• Promote the benefits of global trade agreements, but help displaced workers.

• Rule out privatizing Social Security and Medicare, and reassure workers they will be exempt from cost-cutting.

• Acknowledge that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay, but push for market-oriented changes.

• Disavow mass deportations and promote the economic benefits of legalizing longtime workers who are in the country illegally, but reduce the legal entry of less-skilled immigrants.

Whether or not one agrees with all these proposals, they do perhaps begin to address some of the concerns of those voters who have elevated Trump.

Many voices have been calling for the GOP and conservatism to embrace the spirit of intellectual adventure and inquiry–to escape the deadening paralysis that has proven harmful for both Republicans and the nation as a whole.  As these three stories indicate, those calls have become more pressing than ever.

* Cruz adapted his policies somewhat to the populist currents, and Santorum has been talking about blue-collar issues longer than many of his Republican colleagues.

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  1. 1

    Whatever Mr. Bauer’s leanings, your magazine might reconsider the rush to Reform Conservatism. This movement has, the past several years, represented the establishment in Republican intellectual circles — it’s not fresh, it’s firmly in place.

    Its call for “moderation” and “prudence” in the face of President Obama’s executive overreach was adopted by Messrs. McConnell, Boehner and Ryan to disastrous result. The adoption in Congress of such Reformocon positions as CorkerCardin in foreign affairs, $1.1T Boehner-passed budget bills, the UptonBurrHatch bill that signaled to SCOTUS there was nothing at stake in King v. Burwell, and capitulations on executive-implemented border security have driven the Republican base to seek a savior in the person of any pol not aligned with the originators of Reform Conservatism. Check the primary election-spectrum yourselves. It runs from Reformocon Lindsey Graham, through New-American Marco … on to TraditionalCon Ted Cruz and renegade Donald Trump.

    My hypothesis is not unique: The Republican Establishment created Trump. And the Reformocons created this incarnation of the Republican Establishment.

    Your magazine aims to go deeper than the typical shout fest and rehashing of talking points. Good. You are to be congratulated! So, let’s begin with this. Reformocons aren’t “moderates;” they are truly hard core. But it is not Aristotle, the Framers. or checks-and-balances to which they are sympathetic. It is Plato, Statesmanship, and [tax-credit nudging via] the Administrative State.

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment. And good luck in your new endeavor.

  2. 2

    I’m now of the opinion that the current crop of idiots who run the Right will never learn. They are incapable of understanding that their views never will be enacted because no one is as extremist as they are.

    I used to be a Republican many years ago but the party left me and went off the deep end.

    • 3

      I agree. The consultants control the GOP. I don’t understand why the Koch Bros. and other keep listening to the same idiots who always lose.

  3. 4

    The Country Club Republican intelligentsia is still trying to figure out how they could have packaged Jeb! and Kasich better, in order to have sold them to us more effectively.
    And they’ll never figure out that Trump acquired a plurality of the votes (never mind whether he’s a good candidate or bad) precisely because he is NOTHING LIKE the milquetoast, go-along, get-along Kasich, Bush and their fellow careerist travelers (I can’t even remember half the others, anymore).

    Next time around, find an outsider with some self control (Trump was my third choice; never mind who 1 and 2 were: They’re gone).
    Not another Dole/Bush/McCain/Bush/Romney.

  4. 5

    “no one is as extremist as they are.
    I used to be a Republican many years ago but the party left me and went off the deep end.”

    Yes, nobody’s as extreme: Except for the entire leadership and elected congressional and Senate members of the Democratic Party.
    “Deep end”? Really? JFK and Bobby Kennedy would’ve been pilloried as right wing extremists by the current DNC.

    The “I used to be a Republican” shtick is tired and transparent. Try another one, Mr Biden.

  5. 6

    GOP elite (establishment) will be the cause of the republicans downfall. Voters will never forgive any republican who not only votes for Hillary but endorses her or publicly states they won’t vote for Trump. Thats tantamount to treason and shows the voting public that republicans self centered egos are more important than the security/protection of our constitution. If GOP are to blame for Hillary winning and dominating the supreme court with libeals/progressives then Americas lost her independence/glory/freedoms and all fingers will be pointing to the GOP elites for surrendering the fight by not suporting Trump! Its Trump or Socialism (Hillary will inundate America with illegals and refugees not caring terrorists are among them. She’ll destroy the 2nd amendment and seriously hurt the 1st.

  6. 7

    I’ve read several articles like this, and they all seem to miss one simple point: Good policy will always be good policy, and bad policy will always be bad policy, no matter how few support the former and how many support the latter.

    Free trade is good. Autarky is bad. Crony-capitalist healthcare is bad. Free market healthcare is good. Tax cuts for the rich free up capital which employs more workers and spreads wealth. These things will always be true. They don’t stop being true because Donald Trump says so, and he keeps beating politicians who stand for those ideas.

    If you have to swap out good policies for bad to win elections, all such victories will be Pyrrhic.

    The way conservatives win has always been the same: Lead, and make the argument. Trump has become a phenomenon mostly because conservatives have failed to do either of those things. Once they start again, they will start winning, and people like Trump will be seen for who they are instead of an outlet for vented frustrations.

  7. 8

    Raise wages to the local median? How do you do this…every time you raise the wages the median increases. Like the old conundrum of going from point A to point B by going half of the remaining distance on each step. You never get there.

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  9. 10

    I’ve called myself a conservative and voted a nearly straight Republican ticket for 30 years but this election cycle especially has opened my eyes to the fact there is little difference between the two parties. They just jockey for first feeding rights at the public trough. In 2010 the Republican establishment said if we get the House we’ll stop President Obama. Then 2014 it was we can’t stop Obama without the Senate. Republican leadership did nothing to stop Obama and now they are sabotaging Donald Trump to elect Clinton and protect the status quo. I’ve been with Trump from the start since he was the only one that offered change. The Republican party and conservative movement have done nothing to implement change and I couldn’t care less about either one.

  10. 11

    I’m truly enjoying the design and layout of your website. It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more pleasant for me to come here and visit more often. Did you hire out a designer to create your theme? Exceptional work!

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