Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, is both his party’s past and its future. A former chairman of the Republican National Committee during the Bush era, he has molded himself to its new Trump-era identity even as the former President Bush (and his father) have recoiled in disgust. “He’s closed an enthusiasm gap by rallying around the Trump agenda,” Steve Bannon, the former Trump strategist and avatar of Republican populism, told the New York Times recently. “And I think the big lesson for Tuesday is that, in Gillespie’s case, Trumpism without Trump can show the way forward.”
The anointment of a person who was once a quintessentially Bushian Republican as the avatar of the new Trumpist party might seem puzzling. The connective tissue between Gillespie’s old and new identity is his work as a lobbyist, in which capacity Gillespie served in the interregnum. Gillespie has altered his political style — ditching his previous pleas for liberalized immigration for nativist demagoguery — without altering his vision of governing. Trumpism is ethno-nationalist politics in service of a domestic policy dictated by lobbyists. In that sense Gillespie is the quintessential Trumpist.
A primary source of confusion about the nature of Trumpism is the candidate’s identification as a political outsider who would “drain the swamp.” Campaign journalists and some voters understood this to mean that Trump would launch attacks on entrenched business interests in Washington. The slogan turns out not to mean this at all. By “swamp” Trump and his supporters mean any source of opposition to the president — Democrats, Robert Mueller, federal regulations, the news media. Draining the swamp means handing Trump untrammeled power.
It certainly does not mean clearing out lobbyists. The Republican government has been a bonanza for the influence industry, which has filled the Executive branch at every level. The Department of Education is now run by lobbyists who worked for the for-profit college industry, the Department of Agriculture by lobbyists for agribusiness, the Departments of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency by fossil-fuel lobbyists, and on and on. “During the eight years of the Obama administration, business lobbyists often found the gates to the White House closed tight. They are open now under President Donald Trump,” reports Reuters.
Meanwhile, Republicans are increasingly uninhibited about describing their own agenda as payback for the donor class. Representative Chris Collins pleads for the passage of tax cuts: “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’” This used to be the kind of motivation elected officials would go to great lengths to obscure.
It is striking how tightly Republicans have focused their agenda upon protecting not free markets or small government but the interests of owners of existing wealth. The overwhelming first-order effect of the Republican tax cut is to confer a windfall benefit on people who own and control business. The elimination of the estate tax, combined with the preservation of the loophole allowing capital gains to escape taxation when passed on to heirs, will facilitate the amassing of intergenerational dynasties. As Catherine Rampell points out, its treatment of pass-through income would create special benefits for people who passively own businesses, rather than those who actively create or expand them.
For a Republican, Trump’s rhetoric is strikingly devoid of soaring rhetoric about dynamism and economic openness. He presents his economic agenda as a triumph of the force of his own personality. (“The reason our stock market is so successful is because of me. I’ve always been great with money,” he told reporters.)
The Russia scandal has revealed, among other things, the deep personal and ideological affinities between Trump’s philosophy and Vladimir Putin’s. The two presidents share not only a wide array of business relationships among their inner circles, but a shared vision of how the economy works. They have similar arrangements of mutual protection with their country’s economic elite. They both see wealth as a tool of foreign-policy domination, and place special importance on the role of natural-resource extraction. Their buddies stash their hidden wealth in the same offshore locales. Neither has any illusions about disentangling wealth from political power.
Gillespie’s triumph is that he has demonstrated the vacuity of the economic component of Trump’s formula. A politician who can play the right ethno-nationalist chords does not need even the pretense of outsider authenticity in order to qualify as a populist; one can actually go straight from a career as a Washington lobbyist to a “populist.” He has proven that the Republican Party can embrace its Trump-era identity without any alteration of its domestic-policy formula. He has proven that cynicism runs deeper than anybody suspected. Just as Bannon says, Gillespie has shown the way forward.