Some would say that the nomination of Donald Trump for President puts a brand new face on the Republican Party. But is it really a new face, or just a façade masking some of the same old realities?
A common media narrative describes the Trump ascendancy as a takeover by a political outsider with some distinctly un-Republican ideas. Well, the political outsider part is true enough. Trump has less political experience than anyone else in the race, for better or for worse. As for un-Republican ideas, that applies primarily to his position on international trade. Republicans have generally regarded free global trade as a win-win for the participating countries, encouraging each country to create jobs doing what it can do most efficiently. Trump is deeply skeptical of that Republican orthodoxy, and apparently sympathetic to the American manufacturing workers who have been losing their jobs. Even here, however, it remains to be seen how much he would or could do for such workers. Unlike trade critics on the Democratic side, he has not to my knowledge called for making trade agreements conditional on stronger protections for wages and working conditions, or building a stronger safety net for displaced workers. Instead, he has promised to bring back old industrial jobs that most economists believe are irrevocably lost to global competition and new technologies.
Aside from a critical view of world trade, what is new about Donald Trump’s economic proposals? He seems to accept the fundamental Republican commitment to limited government when he advocates lower taxes and less regulation of business. He makes the familiar claim that lowering taxes and regulation on corporations and the wealthy will generate a new wave of job creation. This sounds like the same “trickle-down economics” that Republicans have been running on for years, without much to show for it in income growth for the majority of Americans. It has become a tough sell. Most people now oppose additional tax cuts for the wealthy, as well as any significant roll-back in the regulations protecting consumers, workers and the environment.
To win elections, Republicans have had to appeal to the electorate with something more popular and populist than a non-egalitarian economic message. For many years, Christian conservativism filled the bill pretty well. The appeal was to traditional religious values: pro-life, pro-family, pro-prayer in schools, etc. More recently, the support for the conservative side in the culture wars seems to be waning. Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land; laws against gay marriage have been struck down; and the younger generation is less interested in injecting religion into politics.
With old appeals losing their traction and the party at a crossroads, what Donald Trump offers is not so much a new economic policy as a new populist rationale for voting Republican. Part of that message is American nativism and strict immigration control. There he is only bringing to the forefront a position that was already a strong undercurrent in Republican thought. Congressional Republicans have been resisting immigration reform for years, despite the efforts of leaders who wanted to reach out to the growing Latino population. The other message Trump delivered loud and clear at the convention was “law and order.” This isn’t new either, since Richard Nixon used it to great effect in the 1968 election. What he did, and what I think Donald Trump is doing too, is to shift attention away from the real grievances of protesting minorities, and toward the behavior of the protestors themselves, effectively blaming them for the conflicts in the land. “Law and order” then becomes a code word for resistance to the demands of the poor and minorities, a way of expressing one’s solidarity with the white majority. The disturbing attacks on police officers provided a perfect opportunity for Republicans to dissociate themselves from the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Unlike Christian conservatism, nativism and “law and order” appeal less to morality and more to fear. They introduce an uglier, more dangerous and divisive element into the campaign.
Can it work? Can a façade of “American First” trade policy, American nativism and “law and order” convince a large majority of older, white, blue-collar men that the Republican Party suddenly has their best interests at heart? (I say “older, white, blue-collar men” because Donald Trump’s prospects for winning a majority of women, Latinos, African-Americans, young people or the college-educated seem rather dim at this time.) Congressional leaders such as Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan apparently think it can work. They have been willing to endorse Donald Trump, ugly side and all, for a chance to remain in power and pursue their standard Republican economic agenda, tax cuts for the wealthy and benefit cuts for the rest of us.
But win or lose, the Republican Party has lost something. Gone is the optimism of “morning again in America” (Reagan), “a kinder, gentler America” (Bush 41), or “compassionate conservatism” (Bush 43). What was on full display this week in Cleveland was the pessimism of “vote for Us (or to be more precise, Me), if you want to be saved from Them.” Gone is the pretense of representing all of America, replaced by an appeal to an angry and frustrated slice of America. That appeal seems to be based on an equally dubious premise, that the Republican Party has suddenly transformed itself into the party of the working man, while the Democratic Party has taken its place as the party of Wall Street. Maybe Donald Trump is the perfect candidate to convey this new image of the Party: a casino with a beautiful brand-new façade and a bankruptcy in progress.