It is tempting to believe that America is divided between the people (however flawed they might be) and a cabal of cosmopolitan billionaires. But, as Samuel L. Jackson said in Pulp Fiction, that ain’t the truth. Some of America’s most salient divisions are between right-leaning wage-earners and right-leaning business owners and executives. Until we figure out a way to get these two groups to work together toward a common agenda, America—especially the American right—will continue to be a mess.
The Journal of American Greatness was a short-lived pro-Trump blog dedicated to what its anonymous authors called a “greatness agenda”: “secure borders, economic nationalism, [and an] interests-based foreign policy.” Put aside what the JAG thought about Trump. In fact, put Trump aside altogether. We could all use a break. What was fascinating was how the JAG authors described the tensions faced by billionaire Rupert Murdoch as his preference for increased immigration clashed with the pro-Trump beliefs of the viewers of Murdoch’s Fox News:
Murdoch has a problem … in that the audiences of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal [another Murdoch property] are far from identical. The latter naturally embrace the Davoisie agenda in toto and hate Trump with a passion. The former is made up of a lot of middle American patriots who don't like mass immigration and who do like Trump.
It is certainly true that the “Davoisie” (whom the JAG defined as the kind of people who attend events like the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland) have influence. It isn’t nearly as obvious that the Davoisie have captured the “commanding heights” of American electoral politics. For the chief obstacles to the JAG’s greatness agenda, you would be wise to look closer to your hometown.
Let’s look at how politicians are formed—and let’s focus on Wisconsin. Scott Walker was widely hailed on the right as a courageous reformer. He took on the entrenched interests in his state. He attended Wisconsin’s Marquette University and was involved in student politics, but he left school before getting his degree. He served in the Wisconsin state legislature, and then as the spending-cutting Milwaukee County Executive. In all this, Walker was culturally about as far from Davos—even from Capitol Hill and K Street—as one could reasonably hope.
Yet this son of middle America has open-borders instincts. In an interview he gave as governor, Walker said:
If people want to come here and work hard in America, I don't care whether they come from Mexico or Ireland or Germany or South Africa or anywhere else, I want ‘em here. To me, if people want to come and live the American dream, if they want to work hard … and have their kids have a better life, I mean that's what—whether you're folks like my brother's in-laws who immigrated a generation ago from Mexico or whether it's people like my ancestors who came from places like Ireland and Germany and other parts of the world many generations ago, there's a similar pattern there. That is, people who came, who risk a lot, whether it's traveling across an ocean or across a national border.
No billionaire could have said it better. Where did Walker get these ideas? From America—or rather, from those corners of America in which Walker has spent the most time. The cosmopolitan billionaire elite don’t much care for politicians like Walker, and they have little understanding of Republican primary voters. Attempts by the Davoisie to influence right-leaning opinion usually turns into an embarrassing fiasco like the hilariously named Americans for a Conservative Direction.
Walker’s base in Wisconsin was the local business communities. On the state level, the interests of conservative businessmen (including franchise owners and the like) and those of right-leaning wage-earners are usually in sync. They both want effective and efficient public services at an affordable price. On the federal level, things are different. Business owners are more likely to support entitlement reform (which is to say entitlement cuts) and expanded immigration—including expanded low-skill immigration.
One thing to keep in mind is that most of the nice things Republican politicians say about small-business owners are actually true. If small-business owners are in the hospitality industry and someone calls in sick, they end up following a long workday with an overnight shift, followed by another long workday, followed by putting their kids to bed, followed by the sleep of the dead. Many of them have callused hands and work in the sun with their crews. They are patriotic rather than cosmopolitan. They want entitlement reform because they don’t want our country to go bankrupt or be crushed by taxation.
From the perspective of these small-business owners, expanding immigration is something optimistic and entrepreneurial. Where other people see lower wages and more employer leverage, many small-business owners see better and more willing workers who get more work done. For those employers, this is a big part of America’s greatness.
And the influence of these employers doesn’t come from their money. Most of them aren’t rich. They run franchises or landscaping companies, or they are building contractors or what-have-you.
Their influence comes from being deeply embedded in American society. They are in virtually every town’s chamber of commerce, and, in many places, they form the backbone of effective center-right activism. A presidential candidate could campaign from Northern Maine to southern California and speak only to such (small) business groups.
So why did Walker blurt out such an unpopular view on immigration? One reason may be that Walker simply didn’t know how right-leaning wage-earners felt about immigration policies. Where would he encounter such people? These are the people who later became Trump voters—and at the time Walker spoke, they were unlikely to be involved in civic organizations of any kind.
That doesn’t mean that those people don’t matter. As Walker learned, the votes of those civically disengaged wage-earners count for as much as anyone else’s. Finding an agenda that can speak to both business owners and wage-earners will mean having to learn to listen to the wage-earners. It will also mean having to tell America’s genuinely patriotic and hardworking business owners that they will have to compromise on some of their priorities.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.