The best politicians on the right have wasted the years since Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat. They have chosen to learn nothing of value from their losses, and they have left the field open to eccentrics and opportunists. They irony is that people like Donald Trump and Roy Moore—who often seem to pay little attention to public affairs—have proven more capable of learning than those with fancy degrees and Washington experience. The intellectual laziness and arrogance of the political class in its purest form is exemplified by a recent David Brooks column.
Brooks writes, “The regular Republicans have no story, no conviction and no argument.” This is the opposite of the truth. The regular GOP has nothing but conviction. They are willing to endure terrible indignities, just for a chance of passing their enormously unpopular and self-destructive policy agenda. Why else would Paul Ryan put up with being periodically humiliated by Trump’s behavior? Ryan thinks he has a better chance of getting his agenda through with Trump than with some Democratic president.
Ryan has convictions. Ryan thinks that people don’t care about “distributional tables” that show that his tax policies directly benefit the highest earners while doing little or nothing for wage-earners. He thinks this with great conviction. It isn’t true, but he proceeds, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, as though it were true.
On immigration, regular Republicans like Ryan try to weasel increases to low-skill immigration whenever they think they can get away with it. The public overwhelmingly opposes increasing immigration (the number would no doubt be even more overwhelming if the question were restricted to low-skill immigration). The Democrats are split, and Republican support for immigration expansion is limited to a tiny fringe.
As foreign-born Americans tend to be a Democratic-leaning group (and even foreign-born Americans oppose increasing immigration), all the partisan incentives argue against Republicans’ supporting increasing immigration. Yet it is only terror of their base that prevents regular Republican politicians from passing an immigration expansion.
That is true conviction. Sure, Paul Ryan probably believes that with enough talk about tax cuts for the rich (growth), and increases in the retirement age (responsibility), he will win over these foreign-born Americans. But that isn’t necessary. Just as Ryan keeps insisting, contrary to all evidence and common sense, that people don’t care whether you cut their taxes or those of their bosses, he will keep insisting that his unpopular policies will win over Democratic-leaning voters, even as those voters keep voting Democrat.
Brooks also writes that the “populists” have “a coherent story.” It would be more clarifying if this were so. Unfortunately, there is nothing like a populism around which to cohere. Nothing could be less coherent (or more confused) than a bunch of Trump Republicans sitting around talking about what a post-Obamacare health care system should look like.
Some of them (dissident tea partiers) would want huge spending and regulation cuts, regardless of the effect on people who get healthcare through Obamacare’s exchanges and Medicaid expansion. Other Trump supporters (such as the millions of Obama-Trump voters) would favor more spending on healthcare for struggling wage-earners—even if it meant higher taxes. No one would have any clue about the details. This is why it is so easy for the regular Republican to deflect Trump in favor of (unpopular) policies that are conventionally Republican. The regular Republicans actually know what they want.
This division can be seen in the differences between Alabama Republican senatorial candidate Roy Moore and Donald Trump. One is a pious religious conservative, and the other is a billionaire sybarite. One guy fights for the Ten Commandments. The other guy fights with random celebrities. Moore opposed the Graham-Cassidy (partial) repeal of Obamacare, which Trump supported.
The most important thing Trump and Moore have in common is something they share also with Bernie Sanders. Trump and Moore and Sanders are speaking to the sense that something isn’t right with America, and they are willing to take hits from comfortable elites. None of them has a full suite of good answers, but they are right to say that the answers do not consist of endlessly reenacting the politics of the last thirty years.
This is why Brooks is so wrong when he writes that “the frontier demands a certain sort of individual, a venturesome, hard-working, disciplined individual who goes off in search of personal transformation.” This is insane on several levels. First, it leaves no place for those Americans who, as Henry Olsen describes, just want to work hard at their jobs, raise their families, and retire with a modicum of security and dignity.
Second, it ignores the actual America, where the working class of all skin colors and ethnicities is facing a collapse of marriage, civic engagement, and male labor-force participation. Brooks likes to talk about America as a “universal nation,” but the real America’s institutions have been working badly for our least-skilled workers (and their families) for the last fifty years. Brooks’s rhapsodizing about the frontier (from Manhattan!) and “personal transformation” is romanticism for people who know they are favored by life’s odds in today’s America.
Brooks’s column is basically a rewrite of one that was written by Republican consultant Mike Murphy in 2012. Murphy argued that Republicans should embrace “a more secular and modernizing conservatism that eschews most social issues to focus on creating a wide-open opportunity society that promises greater economic freedom.” Murphy assured us that “the party’s biggest funders, mostly hardheaded business types,” knew the score.
In the next election, Murphy would raise $100 million from the hardheaded business types, and use that money to win Jeb Bush three delegates to the 2016 Republican National Convention. In his 2012 article, Murphy also mentioned something about those business types’ being upset about “providing a virtual blank check to a GOP apparatus that promised much and delivered very little.” Right back at you, Mike.
The tragedy of all this is that Jeb Bush actually seems like a really good guy. I would much rather have him (or Paul Ryan, or Jeff Flake) watch my kids than Donald Trump. These are the people with real political experience, and they sweat the details. They are coherent, and they have conviction—and that is the problem. Their coherent policy agenda of tax cuts for high-earners, spending cuts for everyone else, and increased low-skill immigration favors the business lobbies. They pursue this agenda with fanatical conviction. They have most of the political talent on the center-right, but they have chosen to blind themselves to their own country. Their abdication has left us prey to the demagogues and oddballs of the left and right. We need our regular Republicans to come to their senses.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.