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.
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.