Fiscal Policy

‘Zombie Reaganism’ Is Alive and Well

President Ronald Reagan at a cabinet meeting in 1987, when he was 76 (National Archives)
Trump's presidency demonstrates the enduring influence of Reagan conservatism.

Since the Trump revolution, there has been much ado about “zombie Reaganism.” The “dead consensus” of free enterprise and limited government, the thinking goes, lost its appeal for a newer (older?) kind of conservative. By no means afraid of government power, these conservatives have learned to stop worrying and love the state. Despite Trump’s defeat, they assure us that the GOP has changed tack: Laissez-faire and procedural liberalism are out; industrial policy and the common good are in.

American conservatives are no strangers to these kinds of intramural debates. But the rapid spread of this so-called consensus is unprecedented in the history of conservatism. Many influential figures take for granted that Trump represented a structural break in conservative thinking. It’s true that some of the Trump administration’s policies, notably on immigration and international trade, were deviations from conservative orthodoxy, but these were hardly successes. The trade deficit didn’t fall; in fact, it hit a record high. And while border security tightened, what we got did not remotely resemble the promised border wall and mass deportations. Both in terms of campaign assurances and sound policy, these aspects of “America First” were unambiguous failures.

Where Trump did achieve policy victories, all were straight out of the zombie Reaganism playbook. This isn’t to say they were always in line with the policies pursued by Reagan himself: Reagan’s brand of conservatism has taken on a life of its own, concisely expressed in the Gipper’s famous quip that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Casey Mulligan, who served at Trump’s CEA and wrote a memoir of his time there, reminds us that the gap between Reaganism and Reagan can be large. Nevertheless, zombie Reaganism represents a specific mythos, one that has infused the GOP for decades. And if Trump’s policy victories are any indication, it isn’t going anywhere.

Trump’s accomplishments fall into two categories: constitutional wins (dealing with how America’s governing covenant is interpreted and applied) and post-constitutional wins (succeeding in the rough-and-tumble melee of partisan politics). The clearest examples of Trump’s constitutional victories are his Supreme Court justice picks. As for post-constitutional victories, it’s hard to beat his tax cuts and deregulation. Both kinds of wins carry the distinctive odor of Reaganism warmed over.

Given the enormous power wielded by the Supreme Court, any president who appoints one justice, let alone three, can make his mark on American politics for decades to come. Trump put Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett on the court. All three are connected to the Federalist Society to varying degrees. And while they do not have equally strong originalist credentials — for example, many experts don’t consider Kavanaugh an originalist — they nonetheless carry forward a tradition of conservative jurisprudence that is tolerably friendly to free markets and limited government. Given the Federalist Society’s influence in steering Trump’s judicial appointments, this isn’t surprising. Zombie Reagan approves.

Trump’s fiscal policies were even more emblematic of the old consensus. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act slashed taxes for both households and businesses. For those who want the dead to stay dead, the reduction in the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent was a chilling encounter with Reaganism from beyond the grave. As for deregulation, Mulligan asserts that “hundreds of regulations have been removed, some of which had been put in place at the behest of large banks, trial lawyers, major health insurance companies, labor unions, and foreign drug manufacturers.” Writing for the Cato periodical Regulation, Keith Belton and John Graham offer a more measured, yet nonetheless optimistic, assessment. Given the byzantine federal rule-making process, even slowing down regulatory growth counts as an accomplishment. Actual deregulation is an achievement to warm even the coldest, deadest zombie heart.

What were the fruits of this necromantic experiment? Trump’s post-constitutional policies resulted in soaring median household incomes. In fact, they reached record levels before the pandemic. (Yes, the figures are adjusted for inflation.) And thanks to Trump’s constitutional policies, any federal power-grabs by the incoming Biden administration have a good chance of getting squashed by the mighty gavel of the Court, now significantly more inclined to rule that the Constitution actually means what it says.

Now for the obligatory disclaimers: Trump was a terrible president by other measures. He coarsened public life to a previously unimaginable degree, and his refusal to concede the election threatens the peaceful transfer of power. And Trump deserves little personal credit for the above accomplishments. His policy successes owe much more to Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and the rest of Conservatism Inc. than his self-proclaimed “high-energy” governing. But that’s the point. To the extent anything good came out of the Trump administration at all, it’s everything the new brand of conservatives assured us was gone forever. The “dead consensus” seems to have some life left in it yet.

Trump can thank the charismatic cadaver whose lingering presence ensured his presidency was not a complete disaster. Zombie Reaganism is alive and well, thank goodness. The GOP should think twice before writing its obituary.

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