David Brooks thinks that Sam Francis was the prophet of modern right-wing populism. My sense is that Brooks is missing the bigger story. The most important cause of today’s right-wing politics has been the collapse of the center-right economic consensus. The real prophets of our moment are Henry Olsen and Charles Murray.
First, let us remember that Francis was writing over twenty years ago, and his political advice to Buchanan worked out rather badly. If you look at the exit poll for Buchanan’s win in the 1996 New Hampshire primary, you see some hints of the future Trump coalition: disproportionate support among the economically pessimistic and the less educated. But you see much stronger support for Buchanan among ideological conservatives and evangelicals—areas of relative weakness for Trump in the GOP primaries. Buchanan also ran poorly with secular Republican voters.
There was no exit poll for Buchanan’s strong showing in the 1996 Iowa caucuses, but by eyeballing his numbers in New Hampshire and making adjustments for the more evangelical and conservative turnout model for the caucuses, we can guess that Buchanan’s Iowa support came largely from religious conservatives and pro-lifers.
When you look at Buchanan’s 1996 support, he looks less like a proto-Trump than a proto–Ted Cruz (though it may be fairer to describe Cruz as a retro-Buchanan). The connection becomes even more clear when you look at the 2000 Republican primaries. Buchanan lost his support among social conservatives to George W. Bush, Alan Keyes, and Gary Bauer. As Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum would later learn, social conservatives are not loyal to personalities and are always willing to trade up. Without his social conservative base, and free to run with themes of populism, Buchanan was a blip in the polls. He soon left the GOP to run as an independent.
The reason Buchanan failed was that Republican voters didn’t see the party as intellectually exhausted and morally bankrupt. George W. Bush could run on across-the-board income-tax cuts, and most Republicans saw something in it for themselves. They didn’t see the GOP as simply the vehicle for the priorities of the affluent.
Henry Olsen has chronicled the Republican Party’s descent into the economic politics of business-class self-interest. What is causing the baffling rebellions within the GOP is the establishment’s commitment to high-earner tax cuts, reductions in old-age entitlements, and increasing low-skill immigration all at the same time.
It is the unpopularity of this agenda as a bundle that empowers “populists” like Trump, “conservatives” like Roy Moore, and “moderates” like Lisa Murkowski (who has her job because her opponent was caught expressing hostility to unemployment insurance). They are all, in their different ways, products of an extreme GOP agenda that leaves most people feeling unrepresented.
You might be able to get one of the above agenda items as part of an otherwise popular program. Donald Trump was able to make high-earner tax cuts palatable by swearing off entitlement cuts. You might be able to sell premium-support Medicare and raise the Social Security retirement age, if those policies were bundled with wage subsidies, an expanded child tax credit, and more secure health insurance for people’s working years. The problem is that this set of policies would probably require somewhat higher taxes on high-earners. Shared sacrifice and all that.
Since George W. Bush left office, conventional Republicans have been trying to sell their unpopular agenda by appealing to Reagan nostalgia. They are facing the same problems that Mario Cuomo and Walter Mondale had in using FDR nostalgia to sell 1980s liberalism.
Cuomo and Mondale would remind voters that Democrats had created Social Security and unemployment insurance—but that argument didn’t get traction, because those fights were already over. Worse, 1980s liberalism included many policy positions, such as support for abortion and opposition to the death penalty, that many FDR admirers had never signed up for. The result was that millions of FDR-loving ancestral Democrats voted for the conservative Republican Ronald Reagan.
Conventional Republicans are now facing a similar problem. As Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out, we are in a totally different tax environment today than the one we faced in 1980. More 1980s-style tax cuts would almost exclusively benefit the affluent.
Millions of Republican voters never signed up for tax cuts for the rich plus nothing. They certainly never signed up for tax cuts for the rich plus Social Security cuts for themselves. Hardly any Republican outside the business lobbies signed up for expanded low-skill immigration. Republican politicians keep trying to sneak those policies through, while patting each other on the backs about what good little Reaganites they are. Then they blame the brutish, unprincipled voters when things go sideways.
If Brooks wants to see why the modern GOP is vulnerable to demagogues and flakes, he should look at Charles Murray. In Coming Apart, Murray wrote that elites were sealing themselves into a “bubble” that left them both uncomprehending of, and unsympathetic to, their struggling fellow Americans.
When conservatives read Coming Apart, and thought of someone in a bubble, they probably pictured some left-wing college professor droning on about intersectionality. It turns out that Murray was talking about the National Restaurant Association and the Republican Capitol Hill leadership. The demagogues and flakes have many vices, but at least they don’t pretend that our problems will be solved by reducing the top income-tax rate and increasing low-skill guest-worker programs.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.