In the latest National Review cover story, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes that Trump needs an openly populist agenda to save his presidency. Dougherty offers six big ideas for how this can be achieved, some of which are quite radical. Here, he talks to Madeleine Kearns.
Madeleine Kearns: You argue that Trump needs a populist agenda. First, what do you mean by “populism”?
Michael Brendan Dougherty: I mostly mean an agenda that serves the Republican coalition that we have. The 2016 and 2018 elections sped up a process that has been going on for decades, where high-income whites in the suburbs are defecting from the GOP, and a larger share of the lower-middle-class and working-class whites are coming into it. The party’s legacy agenda of tax cuts, neglect on immigration enforcement, and general solicitude toward corporate interests no longer serves Republican voters.
MK: Isn’t there an inherent irony in Trump, who was practically potty-trained on a golden toilet, being a champion of working-class Americans?
MBD: Yes, of course. Part of his political appeal was in being a traitor to his class. He was a man who knew the elite in business and in politics, and almost all those people initially rejected him as a candidate and rejected his agenda. He also retained his, shall we say brusque, outer-borough personality. Working-class voters clearly responded to his plainspoken and direct slogans. He doesn’t sound like upper management.
MK: You mentioned Trump’s corporate tax cuts. Will this harm him in the future?
MBD: Yes, I think so. We are now at a time in American life when a tax cut can be broadly unpopular, and the one that Trump signed was unpopular. The most dangerous charge against Trump — and one that has often been true — is that he is a con artist. He promises one thing and does another. In the campaign, he promised to make the GOP a worker’s party. And then one of the first things he did was a corporate tax cut. Yes, it could be argued that the tax cut allows businesses to expand, but I’m sure his opponent will emphasize the stock buybacks and other ways that elites are capturing the gains from that tax cut.
MK: What specifically can Trump do to make “family-friendly adjustments to the tax code and economic reform”?
MBD: Give tax breaks and arrange more benefits for people who are wage-earners providing for families. Namely, expand the earned-income tax credit and the child credit. I don’t think government policy is the primary cause of low-fertility societies, or that it can completely turn around a demographic decline that is perilous to a society whose institutions were premised on growth, but we can make parenthood easier. If the tax code can privilege capital investment for the formation of businesses, it should privilege the human investment in the formation of posterity.
MK: How do such measures compare or compete with the Democrats’ efforts to cater to the needs of working families? For instance, they have long been advocates of paid parental leave.
MBD: Democrats talked more about paid parental leave in the 1990s and have only recently picked it up again. But, again, I think the clientele has changed in our politics. Republicans should advocate for this. We’ve been saying we “value families” — but don’t we also say, “Show me your budget, and I’ll show you what you value”? Right now the federal budget revolves around military spending and old people. It’s time for an adjustment.
MK: “Turn Mexico into a wall” — Michael! Have you gone all Ann Coulter on us?! Seriously, though, what’s your recommendation for a populist immigration package?
MBD: Immigration from Mexico has been declining for some time. Building an actual wall across the entire border is not the best use of resources for controlling immigration. It also won’t be done while Trump is in office. Instead, the high-value play is to make friends with the incoming Mexican president, who has a very strong interest himself in preventing migrant caravans from passing through his nation.
Also, Trump needs to connect the immigration issue to a larger one about fairness, citizenship, and the labor market. America has frequently featured this debate about its need for morally or legally illicit labor. And Republicans were historically on the side of having one labor market. Mass illegal immigration has created a separate labor market that competes with the legal one. This is bad for immigrants long-term; it is bad for our tradition of citizenship and for social integration. We’ve seen the problem of having permanent “guest workers” in a modern democratic republic.
MK: Given that immigration has become such a thorny topic, and that the Democrats will soon control the House, what chance is there of Trump mustering enough bipartisan support to pass such immigration legislation?
MBD: Unfortunately almost none. For now, I think Democrats are helped by ambiguity on the issue.
MK: Protectionism might score political points, but it is widely considered an economic fallacy. Thomas Sowell has described Trump’s trade war as an “utter disaster.” Do you take a different view?
MBD: I do. It matters whether you produce potato chips or computer chips, especially when you are a liberal, trading, commercial superpower dependent on open sea lanes. Capturing the parts of a global supply chain that add value is good for your workers long-term. Countries that do that — Germany, Japan — are able to maintain a large and relatively prosperous middle class, as we did in the middle of the century. In the piece, I wrote that it is the Republican coalition that retains and cherishes in its memory the midcentury middle-class society in America.
MK: You think Trump should take on Silicon Valley. Tell us why.
MBD: Silicon Valley exists because of America’s unique culture, laws, talent pool, and political freedom. If these companies want to empower Chinese people with the products they sell, great. However, some tech companies, hankering after a growing market, are now striking deals with the Chinese Communist Party, lending their technology and expertise to a government that is using it as a tool of suppression. This is unacceptable.
MK: Are there any risks or dangers in the populist provisions you set out?
MBD: Yes, of course. Trump doesn’t seem to do details. He is quick to declare victory. I’m grateful he has men such as Wilbur Ross around him who seem to know their brief inside and out.
MK: You admit that some of your suggestions “break frankly” with traditional Republican and conservative values. Are you suggesting that Republicans abandon principle for pragmatism?
MBD: YES! The whole point of the article is that we have some principles that are essential — defending what’s good about constitutional order and American inheritance, preserving the liberty of our churches and religious institutions, the family. In a democracy, you need a popular agenda, one that motivates the voters who are open to voting for you. And in some cases, these aren’t our principles. Why should we conserve Bill Clinton’s principles when it comes to trade with China, when William F. Buckley was far more sensible, and far closer to Adam Smith, in recognizing that the decision to trade openly had to be subordinated to more essential political questions?
MK: Finally, Michael, what are Trump’s chances of winning a reelection?
MBD: [Laughs] Not great. I think he’s going to be swallowed up in battle with the House Democrats. And I’m skeptical that the Democratic party will nominate someone who unites Republicans has much as Hillary does. For his sake and the sake of his party, that’s why he should scramble to make good on the implicit promise of his 2016 campaign: to change the paradigm in Washington, reorient toward workers and American preeminence.