Trump Is a Nightmare Version of the Reform Candidate GOP Intellectuals Have Been Waiting For

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Sam's Clubs To Cut 10 Percent Of Workforce
"Sam's Club Republicans" have found a politician who speaks to their economic fears, but it's not Pawlenty or Rubio.Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

It’s been just over a decade since two young conservative intellectuals penned a challenge to Republican economic-policy orthodoxy at the Weekly Standard after noting the GOP’s dependence on white working-class voters:

This is the Republican party of today — an increasingly working-class party, dependent for its power on supermajorities of the white working class vote, and a party whose constituents are surprisingly comfortable with bad-but-popular liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, expanding clumsy environmental regulations, or hiking taxes on the wealthy to fund a health care entitlement. To borrow a phrase from Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Republicans are now “the party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club.”

Therein lies a great political danger for Republicans, because on domestic policy, the party isn’t just out of touch with the country as a whole, it’s out of touch with its own base.

Ross Douthat (now a New York Times columnist) and Reihan Salam (now at National Review) went on to lay out a policy agenda that they thought might finally begin to align the GOP with the economic interests of its middle-class, non-entrepreneurial supporters, focused on more generous child tax credits and other pro-parenting initiatives; “market-based” health-care reform; wage subsidies (as opposed to minimum-wage mandates); and a retreat from the Bush administration’s immigration policies. 

Douthat and Salam expanded their essay into the 2008 book Grand New Party, and three years later, Mr. Sam’s Club Republican himself, Tim Pawlenty, launched an unsuccessful presidential campaign that mainly just looked like a bland effort to appeal to GOP voters across factional lines. But joined by others who began calling themselves “reform conservatives” or Reformicons (Ryan Cooper wrote a useful taxonomy of them early in 2013 for the Washington Monthly), those calling for a more middle-class-oriented domestic policy stance by the GOP (the Reformicons mostly ignored foreign policy) grew into a loose, if elite, faction that sought influence in various parts of the GOP. In early 2014, Reformicons put together something of a rough policy playbook under the sponsorship of then-high-flying House GOP leader Eric Cantor. And as the 2016 presidential contest took shape, Reformicons were found in prominent positions in the campaigns of Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, and Jeb Bush. Rubio looked to be the best vehicle for Reformicon ideas, given his youth, his warm embrace of “family-friendly” tax policies, and a Hispanic identity that made his sudden opposition to comprehensive immigration reform (an about-face that most, if not all, Reformicons supported) go down easier. Sure, Rubio’s tax plan gave trillions to corporations and wealthy individuals and relative peanuts to working-class families (a good reflection of the balance of power in the GOP), but it won plaudits for heretical courage nonetheless.

And then, like a very bad joke (You call that Sam’s Club Republicanism? Here’s Sam’s Club Republicanism!), along came a presidential candidate who represented what many in the white working class really wanted: not just a GOP Establishment figure who paid their economic interests lip service, but someone who violently opposed liberalized immigration policies along with the pro-trade, “entitlement reform” orthodoxy of wealthy GOP elites, and articulated a fear of cultural change and national decline that most well-off Republicans, continuing to prosper during the current economic “recovery,” could not begin to fathom. Worse yet, it seems Republicans’ best idea for “taking Trump down” was to show he is not a “true conservative” on economic issues. As Reformicons could have told them, neither are most white working-class Republican voters. 

Ross Douthat has acknowledged ruefully that he underestimated Trump’s ability to appeal to white working-class voters:

[Trump’s] faction has turned out to include precisely the kind of voters Romney needed in 2012 and who stayed home instead: Blue-collar whites with moderate views on economics and a weak attachment to the institutional G.O.P.(So weak, a recent New York Times analysis makes clear, that many are still registered Democrats.) These “missing white voters” might not have put Romney over the top, but they certainly would have helped his chances in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan — all places where Trump is running strongly at the moment.

Another Republican intellectual sometimes described as a Reformicon, David Frum, has been more direct in his description of the Trump phenomenon as a product of intra-party class warfare and his warnings that Republican elites are willing to do almost anything to survive other than to abandon their anti-government, free-market pieties. One of the strategies Frum thinks Republicans might deploy to deal not only with Trump but also with the white working-class “revolt” he represents is to emulate Mitt Romney’s 2012 lurch (“self-deportation”) into nativist territory to preempt or buy off the most fractious complaint about standard-brand conservative economics. This is presumably what Ted Cruz offers, though the personal hatred he inspires from other Republicans makes him an unlikely Richard Nixon to Trump’s George Wallace. Another problem with any surgical approach to Trump’s constituency is that it ignores the unruly appeal to atavistic racial and cultural sentiments without which Trump’s “policies,” such as they are, would not create much interest. The New Republic’s Jeet Heer suggests that intellectuals like Douthat and Frum need to come to grips with that reality:

Trump might well be appealing to the constituency that the reformicons want to win, but he’s doing so by offering them a heady brew of xenophobia and nationalism that runs the risk of making the GOP brand toxic, not just to non-whites but even to many conservatives.

Could Republicans have headed off the calamity Trump may represent for them by listening to the Reformicons and paying greater tribute to the white working class? Maybe. But the other possibility is that we are seeing a long-suppressed explosion of conflict between Republicans motivated by cultural discontent and hostility to Democratic constituencies and those who actually buy into economic policies designed to propitiate wealthy “job creators.” This conflict has been exposed by the Great Recession and the very unequal “recovery” that’s currently making GOP elites very happy even as their working-class comrades suffer more than ever. And it’s doubtful a Marco Rubio or even a Ted Cruz can speak authentically to Trump supporters or heal this terrible breach.