Politics & Policy

Trumponomics and Conservatives

On the home page, Fred Bauer — a regular NRO contributor who will not, I think, protest at being described as one of us “reform conservative” types — makes the case for an “enlightened populism” that learns from Donald Trump’s success in the polls.

In the wake of 2012, perhaps some Beltway Republicans thought that an ideal Republican presidential candidate would run on something like the following in 2016: more guest workers, further cuts on capital-gains taxes, a vague celebration of the values of entrepreneurship (say, by trumpeting Uber), a gradual increase in the Social Security retirement age, Medicare reform, an abandonment of social issues, anti-Obamacare rhetoric, and hawkish talk about international affairs. While some of those issues might be valuable, they do not get the GOP to a majority. And while a party running on this platform might gratify the sentiments of some corporate donors, this policy constellation does not help Republicans where they most need it: among the working class and disaffected voters.

Trump has adopted conservative positions on a range of issues from guns to abortion. But the core of his platform — the policy agenda to which he seems most devoted — is less conventionally conservative. It includes protectionism, a moderation in immigration levels, a defense of entitlements, and some tax hikes for rich people. (I say “seems most devoted” because I don’t really know: His current immigration views are at odds with what he has said in the past, and also seem to be a work in progress.) None of this is exactly new: You could see a similar agenda in the Buchanan campaigns of the 1990s, and some of it has been present in Mike Huckabee’s campaigns too. I like the immigration moderation, but overall this agenda would be a wrong turn for conservatism. It is an agenda that responds to some concerns that are widespread among Americans, but not in a way that seems likely to work in the long run. But it is an agenda that could prove popular, and at the very least there are a lot of voters to whom it will be more appealing than a conservatism that does not directly address or even appear to take notice of those concerns.

I do not, as I’ve said before, expect Trump to go the distance. But Republicans could end up responding constructively to the Trump phenomenon, or otherwise. I hope it motivates them to consider an agenda — on health care, taxes, higher education, and immigration especially, but on other issues too — that is both firmly rooted in free-market, limited-government principles and addresses the concerns of people who spend no time in boardrooms. If they do not present such an agenda, then the political market will yield a less conservative response to those concerns. It may already be doing so.

(disclosure)

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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