Trump's Authentic Republicanism
A stray comment by Donald Trump is being taken as his campaign’s lodestone, the key to all his beliefs. Asked what the Republican Party would become under him, he told Bloomberg Businessweek, “You’re going to have a worker’s party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry.”
If anything more had been needed to stoke the GOP establishment’s ire, that was it: a confession that he wanted the party to attend to the needs of ordinary Americans. How socialist! How fascist! How Democratic! You can easily imagine what Paul Ryan’s hero, Ayn Rand, would have said about this. Equally bad, for libertarians, was the suggestion that, in a Trump administration, Americans should matter more than non-Americans. Of all the nasty words in the libertarian lexicon, none is dirtier than nationalism. But if Randists and libertarians have problems with American First economic policies, so much the worse for them. They don’t get Trump, and more importantly they don’t get free market conservatism. Had they looked about, they’d have realized that the countries that beat us on measures of economic freedom are all ones that more closely resemble Trump’s vision for America than anything the Republican establishment offers.
The establishment is right about one thing, however. The party they thought they owned is dead, as dead as the Whigs in 1856, and a new Republican Party is beginning to emerge, one shaped by two crises that the establishment had ignored: income immobility and corruption. Compared to other First World countries, America’s rankings on both issues are mediocre at best, and this represents a betrayal of the promise of America.
Trump’s Republican Party is not so much a new party, however, as a restoration of the GOP’s original principles. At its founding, nothing was more central to the party’s vision than economic mobility, as exemplified by Lincoln’s rise from hardscrabble poverty and a single year of schooling. Read his 1859 speech at the Wisconsin Agricultural Fair or his July 4, 1861 address to Congress, and what you’ll find is a belief that one’s lot in life should not be fixed, and everyone should be permitted to ascend from the lowest stations in life, as he had himself had done. The Civil War, he said, was essentially a struggle “to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.”
That’s something the Republican establishment has forgotten. Its members deny that we’re immobile; or if we are, they blame it on drug-abusing workers who as a class deserve to die out; or they say it can’t be helped, that it’s caused by the move to a high-tech world. But other, more mobile countries aren’t living in the Stone Age, and most Americans understand that we’ve become immobile. When surveyed, they report that they don’t think their children will be as well-off as they are. That’s new, and it’s transforming our politics.
America was a problem for Karl Marx, for he predicted that capitalist societies would be the first to turn communist. If that wasn’t happening in America, he had an explanation. Social classes were so mobile in America that it was, for the moment, an exception to his theory of history. But wait till you’re immobile, Marx told us. Then you’ll get a Bernie Sanders! And those are the choices we face today: inequality and the Democrats vs. immobility and Trump. Socialism in either case, if you will, but with a crucial difference between Sanders’ socialist ends pursued through socialist means vs. Trump’s socialist ends pursued through capitalist means.
Ah, but he’s not a capitalist, says the commissar of ideological purity. What that misses, however, is that all the barriers to mobility are ones the left has erected: crazy immigration laws, a broken K-12 public education, departures from the rule of law, a regulatory state on steroids. An honest effort to promote mobility is either capitalist or it’s nothing. With Trump, I don’t think it will be nothing.
The Republican establishment has also abandoned its historic opposition to corruption, to the party of Tammany Hall. Oh, it’ll decry crony capitalism, but it’s not about to do anything about it. And yet we’ve spawned the thickest network of patronage and influence of any country at any time, and this imposes an enormous cost on the economy. The establishment obsesses over the mote of entitlement reform while ignoring the beam of a Congress that has become a farm team for K Street. The ordinary voter gets it, however, and so does Trump.
Call it what you will, but Trump’s vision is authentically Republican and authentically conservative.