NEW GEOPGRAPHY--Perhaps nothing has been more ironic than the canonization of respectable, moderate-seeming Republicans. People like Mitt Romney and the Bush family, once castigated as practitioners of unmitigated greed or even Hitlerian fascists, have suddenly become laudable in the mainstream media.
In this environment, even the perhaps rightly named Jeff Flake, whose popularity in his state was a rousing 18 percent, or Tennessee’s Bob Corker, now get praise from Democrats largely because they revile Donald Trump. But the much commented fall of what Slate calls “principled conservatism” reflects not more than the malicious work of Trump but largely the fundamental failure of the established right.
What doomed the GOP establishment?
The first disaster for the establishment GOP came with the embrace of the interventionist dogma of neo-conservatism, infuriating both the McGovernite left and traditional Republicans. The GOP has identified itself both with the endless Afghanistan imbroglio and consistently unpopular war in Iraq.
America lost many of its young people, and billions in treasure, to fulfill the neo-con crusade. The electorate was not enthusiastic, one reason they voted for an inexperienced Barack Obama and against a genuine war hero in John McCain.
The right half of the country generally favors a strong military but wants soldiers to defend the homeland, not engage in an ideological struggle. Defeat the Soviet Union without a major war, as Reagan could claim, or kill Bin Laden, as Obama accomplished, or annihilate much of ISIS, as Trump has done, seems a winning approach. Spending endless billions on corrupt governments who cannot even control much of their populace, not so much.
The real issue: Class
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., a charter member of the NeverTrumpers, once told me that while income and other tax cuts are the mother’s milk of donor class, most Republicans, particularly in states like Nebraska, don’t make enough money to fret much over federal tax rates. In their craven appeal to the wealthy, establishment Republicans have failed these people, as the notorious but sometimes perceptive Stephen Bannon, the bane of the corporatists, has pointed out ad nauseam.
Similarly, the establishment’s mindless embrace of often lopsided free trade deals has helped leave huge parts of the country bereft of economic sustenance, while benefiting the upper classes, financiers and real estate arbitrageurs. Some, like the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, even mock Trump’s extolling of the very American manufactured goods critical to many rustbelt communities.
At the same time, essentially unlimited immigration, as espoused by the establishment GOP, benefits places like Silicon Valley, affluent cities and suburbs, but the impact is not so positive on working class neighborhoods which often accommodate poorer, less educated newcomers, many undocumented, in the labor market, public schools and hospitals.
In appealing to these voters, Donald Trump endorsed the old Reagan approach in his 1966 gubernatorial race — “basta ya” or, enough already. Trump may not edify the world, like his far more articulate predecessor, but he has promised a better deal for working and middle-class voters, expressing sentiments traditionally shared by the economic left. If he remains true to this populist credo, the upper-class establishment GOP, as Mike Lind has suggested, will migrate to the Democratic Party.
Can Trump Deliver? Unlikely
Trump has talked a good populist game, but still chose to surround himself with the most avaricious of what FDR called “economic royalists.” Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin and Council of Economic Advisors head Gary Cohen, both from Goldman Sachs, are about as distant from middle class concerns as Mao was from the concerns of the pre-revolutionary banking circles in Shanghai.
Only prisoners of the financial oligarchy’s “echo chamber” would start yammering about eliminating incentives for saving or attack the hoi polloi’s biggest tax break, their mortgage interest deduction. Similarly, as analyst Aaron Renn has suggested, his refusal to enforce anti-trust provisions, much like President Obama, can only further accelerate the consolidation of economic power detrimental to the middle and working classes.
Trump needs to understand that the corporate establishment detests him for reasons both good and bad, leaving him a base largely on Main Street. If the deal maker from Manhattan can appeal to their concerns, and also deliver broad-based economic growth, nothing can stop his takeover of the GOP. Equally strange things have happened, like the transformation of the Democrats from the party of racial obstruction to civil rights to now identarian quota-mongering.
The party of the middle class or nothing
With corporate America, however uneasily, now fused into the Democratic Party, the GOP has only one future: to represent everyone else. Country club Republicanism is facing extinction. The question now is how they craft their message beyond kowtowing to Trump.
The primary danger comes from the prospect that the party, under Bannon’s influence, will elevate lunatic fringe candidates like Alabama’s Roy Moore, whose extremism will undermine this political reconstruction. Trump may be the knife’s edge of this transformation, but it will take a more measured approach to make the transition permanent. If not, the GOP may be tempted to go back to its establishment roots, something that could help the Democrats return to power for decades to come.
Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism).