Politics & Policy

Should Republicans Embrace a Grown-up Version of Trumpism?

A Texas delegation member holds a pro-Trump sign on the convention floor, July 18, 2016. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
The GOP can't be stitched back together again with nostalgic nationalism.

Convention week is upon us, and conservatives across the nation are looking ahead with courage and hope. What I mean, of course, is that they are looking far ahead, trying to catch a glimpse of the post-Trump world. This moment cannot last forever. In weeks like these, an active imagination is a priceless resource.

In the pages of the New York Times, Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat help us set our eyes on the further horizon. Their “Cure for Trumpism” contains a few notes of “we told you so,” looking back to their co-written 2008 book, which advised Republicans to stop fixating on Wall Street and attend to neglected working-class voters. Such a prescient book probably entitles them to a smug moment, so it’s to their credit that they don’t wallow in it. Instead, they’ve got their noses to the grindstone, still prescribing ways to help working-class Americans, hopefully stitching the party back together and positioning it for a brighter, post-Trump future.

The plan, in a nutshell, is to give Trumpites what they want, to the extent that this is reasonably possible. Lower their taxes, boost their wages, protect their entitlements, curb immigration, and develop a more modest foreign policy. Do whatever we can to tailor our platform to the needs of the working class.

Do we want grown-up Trumpism to redefine the Republican party? Salam and Douthat acknowledge some major flaws in Trumpism (especially the racism, nativism, and Caesarism). Nevertheless, they think that a national-solidarity platform, with an explicit focus on the needs of working Americans, might win back the white working class while also enabling Republicans to find a “plausible path up from white identity politics to a one-nation, pan-ethnic conservatism.”

Grand New Party was an important book. I have deep sympathies with the “reform conservative” project, with its admirable attention to policy and its principled focus on the common good. Still, if I may offer a friendly critique, I would venture to ask: On what foundation will this rejuvenated national solidarity be built? Isn’t there some danger that the agenda Salam and Douthat recommend might come across as just the hollow shell of a 1950s-era social contract that’s already disintegrating?

From an electoral standpoint, appeasing Trump supporters might seem critically important. The GOP needs those voters, lest it become a permanent minority party. This is a real concern, but in a dynamic political moment, appeasement may not always be the best option. Traditional political coalitions are cracking: The younger generation seems badly alienated from both of our major political parties. The political landscape is still dominated by Boomer politics, but the Boomers are aging. Is it wise at such a time to be so fixated on their political demands?

In sifting out the more reasonable elements of Trumpism, Douthat and Salam acknowledge that some components need to be jettisoned in order for the party to have (or deserve) a future. What they don’t mention is the overwhelming nostalgia that has inspired (mostly) older whites to “make America great again” by flocking to Trump. One article can’t address everything, but it’s a concern because the nostalgia is so integrally connected to the nationalism that Salam and Douthat hope to recover.

Entitlements, secure low-skill jobs, low immigration, and a modest foreign policy are all elements of the mid-century America that Trumpites so desperately miss. We can understand why they yearn for that era. But in the 1950s, when these securities were established, America was suffused with pride and brimming with post-war confidence. Our nation was far less ethnically diverse and enjoyed a level of moral, religious, and cultural conformity that we clearly don’t have anymore. Why think, with so few of the needed ingredients, that it is possible not only to recover a robust national solidarity, but even to expand it to a “pan-ethnic conservatism”?

Presumably the authors recognize these concerns, because they acknowledge that “no laundry list of policy proposals can substitute for an eloquent narrative of inclusion.” In other words, the policy is just a start, and some soaring rhetoric will be needed to sell the vision properly.

What’s the vision, though? Which part of that platform is likely to inspire a resurgence of healthy nationalism or a new wave of civic responsibility? Why think that this is the best among the now-available alternatives?

Certainly, we do need some national solidarity. Our coins still read “E pluribus unum,” after all. Still, it does seem that a range of economic and social factors are eroding the middle-class, culturally conformist solidarity of yesteryear. If that’s true, we may need to find a fresh look for our shared national identity. Shoring up the pieces of an old one (and looking for skilled orators to add the lipstick) may just leave us with a grand archaic party.

We would want a revitalized Republican party to brand itself as the champion of the things conservatives value: order, opportunity, freedom, and respect for tradition and organic community.

The new solidarity would still contain cultural components. America will remain the land of football, corn dogs, and apple pie on the Fourth of July. Hopefully it will also be underscored by a high level of the “shared concern” that Salam and Douthat wish to see. Ideally, though, we would ease away from ill-functioning national institutions and start directing our concern towards the more local and community-oriented “little platoons” that Alexis de Tocqueville saw as characteristic of American life. That’s not going to happen overnight, and some entitlements and transfer programs will probably be with us for the foreseeable future. Understanding that, many of Salam and Douthat’s suggestions will probably work as more immediate stepping-stones.

What’s more problematic is viewing entitlements and transfer programs, along with inward-looking stances on immigration and geopolitics, as themselves major planks of the new solidarity. Surely we would want a revitalized Republican party to brand itself as the champion of the things conservatives value: order, opportunity, freedom, and respect for tradition and organic community.

Since the publication of Grand New Party, America has been rocked by a series of semi-coherent social movements that blend some real and compelling grievances with a great deal of confusion, cinematic victim-mongering, and wildly imprudent demands. In this regard, Trumpism is most closely the cousin of Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, but the Tea Party and the LGBT movement had at least some recognizably similar elements, and there’s no sign that our protest culture is losing steam.

All of these movements have sympathetic components. Our modern social and political arrangement has been good for some and far less good for others. In each case, though, the perception of injustice is not leavened by a reasonable perspective about what has happened to our nation, and what might reasonably be done. Millennials demand massive wealth redistribution and “safe spaces.” Black Lives Matter calls for a diminished police presence in high-crime neighborhoods. Trumpites want trade wars and a new Great Wall as they desperately seek a door that can take them back in time.

All of these groups deserve sympathetic attention. None should get what they ostensibly want. Protest movements have their place, but even in grown-up form, they won’t provide the best blueprint for carrying America forward through the 21st century. Our Grand New Party may need a more complete makeover than that.

— Rachel Lu is a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.

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