Last week, right-wing intellectuals and operatives gathered in Washington for a conference on “National Conservatism,” a putatively new ideological synthesis loosely inspired by, and hoping to add respectability to, the ethno-nationalist ravings of Donald Trump. Critics have naturally sized up this new school of thought by measuring it against Trump’s racism, which coincidentally had one of its periodic spikes just as the conference took place. Most of the attendees had little appetite for distancing themselves from a president adored by the voters they hope to speak for.
But there is another way to gauge the sincerity and coherence of the National Conservatives: comparing their rhetoric to Trump’s economic agenda. Economics, after all, is the National Conservatives’ key point of differentiation from traditional Republicanism. Republican senator Josh Hawley’s much-discussed address seemingly laid down the gauntlet: “An economy driven by money changing on Wall Street ultimately benefits those who have the money to start with.”
At least some progressives have taken the populist rhetoric at face value. “Progressives should recognize there is a real debate on the right about social and political assumptions, probably for the first time in four decades,” says Open Markets fellow Matthew Stoller. “They noticed the financial crisis and the war in Iraq. There’s a conservative rebellion against corporate power.”
But what, if anything, do the National Conservatives plan to do about the money changers and the growth of Wall Street? That question remains largely unanswered. And the gap between Hawley’s amorphous rhetoric and the concrete dilemmas he elides is thrown into sharp relief by the Trump tax cut.
The tax cut represents Trump’s sole legislative domestic accomplishment. It is also an issue Hawley emphasized in his campaign, lambasting his opponent for opposing it (on the grounds that too much of it benefited the rich). The Trump tax cut has failed to bear out any of the hopes Hawley and other supporters placed in it when it passed. It did not increase corporate investment, nor did it encourage enough growth to meaningfully offset the lost revenue. Corporate tax revenue has instead plummeted. The only measurable impact of the cuts has been to give more money to the immediate beneficiaries: business owners and heirs to large fortunes — or, as Hawley put it, “those who have the money to start with.”
Two new reports in the past few days have cast an even more dire pall on the effect of this legislation. The Tax Policy Center examined the latest batch of data measuring employee bonuses. You may recall that the passage of the tax cut was met with a wave of highly publicized announcements of corporate bonuses for workers. “Since we passed tax cuts, over 3 million workers have gotten tax-cut bonuses — many of them thousands and thousands of dollars,” Trump claimed in his State of the Union Address shortly after signing the law.
But the Tax Policy Center found that the tiny bump in bonuses has disappeared:
The whole bonus story was a scam, choreographed in a partnership between Trump and the large multinational firms against which he is supposedly locked in a death struggle.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported Friday on a little-noticed Treasury Department initiative that will “allow foreign banks to largely avoid” paying corporate tax in the United States. The tax cut has already enriched large banks by billions of dollars. The administration’s new rules could expand the windfall to foreign banks.
If you give even the faintest credence to National Conservative rhetoric, lavish American subsidies for foreign banks would seem to be the stuff of nightmare. But if Hawley and his National Conservatives harbor any intention of reversing Trump’s giveaway to coastal cosmopolitan financial elites and the aristocratic heirs to large fortunes, they have kept their plans secret. Meanwhile, the policies Hawley would add to the Trumpist formula — “allow job training, apprenticeship, and certification programs to be eligible to receive Pell Grant dollars” — are comically meager.
American conservatives have long recognized that their small-government formula, which tends to directly and immediately benefit the few at the expense of the many, has limited appeal to the electorate. Inevitably, they have emphasized social cleavages at the expense of class ones. Their answer to the charge of favoring economic elites has been to accuse their enemies of favoring social elites. They may pick identifiably rich targets — Hollywood producers, coastal financiers — but the remedy they offer is resentment, not redistribution.
Christopher DeMuth’s National Conservative manifesto inadvertently lays bare the shell game. DeMuth, a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute, delivered a speech at the National Conservatism conference defining National Conservatism as an indictment of the federal government for having allegedly “failed to secure the national borders”; “delegated lawmaking to foreign and international bodies and domestic bureaucracies”; “acquiesced in, or actively promoted, the splintering of the nation into contending racial, religious and other groups and … favored some at the expense of others”; and sacrificed “separation of powers, due process, the presumption of innocence, local prerogative, freedom of association.”
In other words, DeMuth’s idea of National Conservatism amounts to stricter immigration controls, shrinking government, and opposing multiculturalism. If this sounds suspiciously like a rehash of traditional conservative dogma, DeMuth does not disagree. His essay goes on to confirm that “National Conservatism” is “closely aligned with traditional conservative precepts.”
Other conservatives attracted to the nationalist banner may genuinely want to draw Republican policy away from plutocracy. But the evidence to date suggests they are instead following a well-worn path on the right: substituting cultural grievance for economic grievance and harnessing that sentiment toward the protection of amassed wealth.