Donald Trump’s surprisingly good State of the Union speech got a record 70 to 75 percent positive approval rating from those who watched. Even if you discount (as you should) for the Trump haters who can’t bear to watch him and chose another of their 100-plus cable channels, that’s not chopped liver.
If they’d watched, their reactions would undoubtedly have been as sour as those of the Democrats in the chamber who stayed slouching and frowning in their chairs even after some patriotic lines.
White House staffers hinted that the speech would be nonpartisan, a reach out to Democrats from a president whose consequential first-year accomplishments — judicial appointments, tax cuts, regulation repeals, and rewrites — were conventionally Republicanism.
The speech didn’t live up to that billing, though it should not be forgotten that Trump’s willingness to sign legislation giving “dreamers” a path to citizenship, together with other immigration law changes, is a genuine move in that direction.
Rather, what I think we’re seeing is a reshaping of the character of the two major political parties, the emergence of Trump-Republican and anti-Trump-Democratic parties from the dried husks of the parties of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Back in the 1990s, I wrote an article for Irving Kristol’s The Public Interest in which I divided parties that had emerged over the 150 years of electoral democracies in various countries into four types — religious, liberal (classical free-market liberal, that is), socialist, and nationalist.
The Bush Republican party leaned free-market liberal on economics and religious on culture. The Clinton Democratic party leaned mildly socialist on economics and liberal on culture. Both were quietly nationalist.
Trump is different. He has embraced the causes of religious conservatives — as anomalous as that may be, given his persona — but you didn’t hear much about that in his State of the Union address.
He has abandoned much of free market Republicanism. You heard no mention of the national debt, no hint of reforms in Social Security or Medicare entitlements. House speaker Paul Ryan, sitting behind him, must realize with sadness that these are non-starters in the Trump presidency.
You did hear a lot about the new tax law, formerly known to Democrats and mainstream media as the “tax scam,” how it’s producing wage increases and bonuses for those at the low and modest ends of the income scale, and how paychecks will rise when the IRS’ new withholding schedule goes into effect in two weeks.
What you heard most of was nationalism. To some Democrats, including many in the chamber, that sounds like Adolf Hitler’s national socialism. To those who realize that we have no political prisons full of reporters and less government surveillance of the press than in the Obama administration, it sounds more attractive.
Trump did, appropriately, pay more tribute than usual to Americans’ engagement in the world and aid to foreigners. But his repeated theme was that he will always serve Americans first — such Americans as the heroes in the gallery whom he spotlighted with grace.
So though Trump Republicanism has elements of other party traditions, its dominant tone is nationalist. That puts the Democratic party, now suffused with Trump hatred, in danger of positioning itself as anti-nationalist. The withering contempt of many coastal Democrats for heartland Americans who regard patriotism as normal and benign is probably not a political asset.
Two other issues mentioned briefly in the State of the Union address have the potential to move his party away from Bush’s. One is his daughter Ivanka’s proposal for family and medical leave, something free market Republicans have usually spurned.
Democratic versions of this feature yet another Great Society bureaucracy and new taxes on businesses. Trump Republicans might embrace the proposal of lawyer Kristin Shapiro and the American Enterprise Institute’s Andrew Biggs to allow parents to finance leaves through early withdrawals from Social Security in return for delayed retirement. As with Social Security retirement, recipients would arguably be paying something for what they get.
The second issue is infrastructure, on which Trump called for $1.5 trillion in spending. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer pre-emptively attacked the public-private financing Trump is said to support. But public-private financing has been enormously successful abroad, whereas Schumer’s preferred system, the New York Times reports, has produced subway tunneling costs per mile that are seven times the average of the rest of the world.
The State of the Union address probably won’t elevate Trump’s low job approval rating. But competition between Trump Republicans and Democrats wedded to socialism and a religiously intense secularism may not turn out the way the latter would like.