Take his reasonable ideas on war, trade, and immigration. Reject the rest.
Donald Trump may be a passing fancy, but Trumpism is here to stay. To stop him, Republicans (and Democrats) should steal his best issues.
Which issues? To answer that question, we need to understand his platform, which consists of three broad elements. (Note: We’re looking here at what he says he will do, not predicting what he would actually do, once in office. He is a seasoned negotiator, after all.)
First, Trumpism is nationalistic. It rejects globalism, free trade deals, and open borders and is skeptical of military adventures not clearly in our national interest.
Second, it’s socialistic. It rejects fiscal conservatism in favor of high spending and low taxes. It “sees no evil” when it comes to deficits, entitlements, or cronyism. It just wants to “root out waste, fraud, and abuse.” Trump’s $11 trillion tax cut plan, which is by far the most generous in the race, is also the most irresponsible. And while he favors private enterprise, he’s also comfortable with intrusive federal regulation. On health care, for example, he clearly favors single-payer and the retention of Obamacare’s core mandates, despite what he may say to the contrary.
Third and finally, Trumpism downplays social issues. Although he presents himself as socially conservative, the candidate is personally a social liberal and his supporters don’t seem to be motivated by those issues.
Interpreted charitably, Trumpism is a kind of nostalgia for what I’ll call the Midcentury Consensus: low immigration, moderate tariffs, a small footprint abroad, and at home a pro-family bias and large welfare state, with the latter understood as a safety net rather than a hammock. That policy mix, which reigned from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, coincided with the zenith of American power and prosperity. When Donald Trump says “Make America great again,” his enthusiastic supporters hear: “Go back to the Midcentury Consensus.” And they love it.
And yet Trumpism is rightly unwelcome in the Party of Reagan, because, if embraced fully, it would destroy the Reagan consensus favoring limited government and federalism. The GOP would become, to a large extent, a second Democratic party, differing from the first only on external issues. Conservatives are right to oppose that.
Since the mid-’60s, Washington has moved away from the Midcentury Consensus in favor of high immigration, low tariffs, a large military footprint, radical social policies, and a massive, unsustainable welfare state. Can anyone deny that that policy mix has failed?
The voters clearly think it has.
The fact that businessman Trump, who has never been elected to anything, can easily conquer the GOP should serve as a wake-up call.
Republicans have failed to attract a majority of the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. If they recycle the same platform again this year, they can expect to lose again, regardless of nominee.
Trump’s great appeal is that he offers a new platform that excites millions of voters. How should Republicans respond to it?
They should embrace its external-facing elements and reject the rest. They should, within reason, embrace lower immigration, higher tariffs, and fewer military adventures. On fiscal issues, they should demand balanced budgets and propose broad-based tax cuts paid for with serious spending cuts. Like Trump, they should avoid kamikaze entitlement cuts, and instead plant the seeds of future entitlement reforms, for example, by proposing to abolish the payroll tax, make Medicare voluntary for seniors, and let states fold their existing Obamacare and Medicaid funding streams into a single, capped block grant. On social issues, they should emphasize federalism, referring those tricky issues back to the states, where the Founders wisely left them.
This is a policy mix that would rejuvenate the conservative coalition and, with the right standard-bearer, make it an enduring majority.
But wait. Doesn’t Trumpism entail destructive isolationism and protectionism? No. Apart from a few rough edges, Trump’s policies on war, trade, and immigration are by no means extreme. Immigration is at historic highs; we can afford to reduce or pause it. Tariffs are at historic lows; we can afford to raise them without slipping into protectionism or provoking trade wars.
Is there a risk of devolving into a European-style enthno-nationalism? Only if we lose sight of the meaning of American nationalism, which is rooted, not in race or tribe, but in the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. The axiom that “all men are created equal” logically leads to the moral necessity of individual liberty, local self-government, and civil rights.
If Republicans stand boldly for those self-evident truths, they can create an enduring majority like the one they sustained from 1860 to 1932. If not, in 2016 it’s a safe bet they will suffer a hostile takeover by the Trumpists or lose yet another election to the Democrats. Either way, limited-government ideas will be deemed “no longer respectable” and banished from polite discourse, à la Europe.
The best way to defuse a political insurgency is to steal its best issues. To save conservatism, Trump’s rivals should steal his best issues, namely, his reasonable policies on war, trade, and immigration.
Dean Clancy, a former senior White House and congressional aide, writes on U.S. health care, budget, and constitutional issues. He supports Ted Cruz for president in 2016. Follow him at deanclancy.com or on twitter @deanclancy.