‘Working Class’ Conservatism Doesn’t Work Without Unions

When he says he’s a friend to the working man, he’s just joshin’. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s election dealt a fatal blow to the Republican Party’s conventional approach to economic rhetoric – while heralding a smashing victory for its conventional approach to economic policy.

In 2012, the GOP standard-bearer venerated the job creators who “built that,” and disdained the takers who leeched off the former. Mitt Romney’s account of American capitalism was a tale of triumph — its protagonist, the median Koch Network attendee. Four years later, the Republican nominee’s final campaign ad informed America that “those who control the levers of power in Washington” do not “have your good in mind,” as a sign reading Wall St. flickered across the screen. Moments later, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs appeared, cast as an embodiment of the global elite that had “robbed our working class.”

Trump’s appraisal of contemporary capitalism was incoherent, ever-shifting, but invariably seething in its sense of loss and betrayal. By all appearances, the Trumpian narrative had broad resonance beneath the GOP’s increasingly proletarian tent. Red America’s disaffection has been ideologically inchoate, as easily channeled toward ever-more-adamant assertions of libertarian dogma as toward Trump’s welfarist posturing. But the fundamental social fact — that the Republican Party has failed to arrest the decline of the traditional family (whether measured by marriage rates or the hegemony of conventional gender roles in mainstream culture), church attendance, rural American economies, or white America’s share of political and cultural power — was not lost on much of the GOP base. Despite decades of dominance in U.S. politics, the Republican Party has not brought its adherents back to a more familiar, traditionalist polity but rather to an unprecedentedly alien and anti-traditional one. Trump’s economic rhetoric gave voice to this sense of defeat.

Once in power, however, the president pursued an economic program more rigorously Reaganite than Reagan’s own. Whereas the Gipper eventually consented to broad-based tax reform, Trump’s signature legislation was a supply-side tax cut of the purest form. The mogul’s regulatory policies have been so fanatically libertarian, the administration has even opposed environmental regulations that enjoy industry support. In the present moment, Trump’s personal sympathy for fiscally far-right Tea Partiers has him taking a position on coronavirus relief to the right of Senator Romney’s.

Now, as the COVID-19 crisis has rendered Trump’s defeat in November more likely than not — and forced the congressional GOP to embrace sweeping government intervention in the economy (on however temporary a basis) — there is growing chatter about whether a “post-Trump GOP” might translate his irritable rhetorical gestures toward a “working-class conservatism” into a substantive agenda.

I’ve voiced my skepticism about this prospect multiple times. But David Brooks’s survey of the pseudo-populist right’s intellectual landscape helps clarify the basic obstacle to such a paradigm shift on the American right.

Brooks names Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, and Ben Sasse as the four horsemen of Reaganism’s apocalypse. He argues that these young, “populist” senators have distinct visions for what a post-Trump conservatism should look like but that all proceed from five fundamental premises: “Everything is not okay,” “Economic libertarianism is not the answer,” “The working class is the heart of the Republican Party,” “China changes everything,” and “The managerial class betrays America.”

Brooks’s summary of what that last bit means is worth quoting in full:

Many of the post-Reagan positions seem like steps to the left. But these Republicans combine a greater willingness to use government with a greater hostility to the managerial class. The solution to too much corporate power is not handing power to Elizabeth Warren and a cloud of federal regulators. There’s a difference between empowering workers and empowering the Washington elite.

I think this is an apt description of a major tenet of contemporary Republican “populism.” Not coincidentally, it embodies a fundamental contradiction. Josh Hawley & Co. evince interest in curbing the power of multinational corporations that display more reverence for “woke” values than American workers. But they are also committed to opposing the only institutions that could conceivably curb such power — the administrative state and labor unions.

Hawley’s contempt for both corporate and regulatory power is consistent with a genuine — and genuinely broad-based — ideological tradition in the United States. One could trace its roots to the Jacksonian era, if not earlier. The (white, male) small farmers of the early republic had a deep antagonism for the banks that demanded an outsize share of their work product in exchange for credit. But many also found themselves at cross-purposes with a federal government that (occasionally) tried to honor treaty commitments that constrained the freedom of white settlers to expropriate land from native populations. In the context of an agricultural economy — on a vast, unsettled continent with a heavily outgunned indigenous population and in which only white men qualified as democratic agents — an economic populism rooted in constraining both corporate and federal power had some coherence.

But in the 21st century, it has none.

The stated aim of the populist Republicans is to build an economy more commensurate with traditional social values — which is to say, an economy that honors the dignity of blue-collar laborers and provides them wages high enough to support a family on a single salary. As Marco Rubio wrote in an essay for First Things last year:

[M]y immigrant father could come to America in 1956 with little education and find employment to sustain a stable family life. He and my mother owned a home, raised four children, and cared for my grandparents on the annual incomes of a bartender and a maid. We could even afford for my mother to spend most of her time at home when I was young. 


Economic stability for working-class families is not a feature of today’s economy, however. Business profits have become increasingly estranged from production and employment. This is mainly driven by large, transnational corporations. Many of these corporations are now using our country’s resources to speculate on financial assets, including their own share prices. Rather than engaging in real production and innovation with workers here at home—the production that delivers widely shared prosperity—they have sought to reduce their domestic labor costs. 

Josh Hawley has sounded similar notes. But none of the populist Republicans have been willing to reckon with just how radically contemporary capitalism must be changed to deliver “economic stability” to working-class families with a single breadwinner. The median wage among all U.S. workers hasn’t come close to keeping pace with the costs of housing, health care, and higher education; and wage growth among non-college-educated workers has been even more tepid.

Meanwhile, the most heavily Republican, working-class regions of the U.S. tend to be rural areas and/or low-density, post-industrial towns. The GOP’s pseudo-populists make a point of venerating these small communities and rejecting the idea that their residents should be forced to choose between living among kin and attaining prosperity. But the communities they rhetorically celebrate have been bleeding capital for decades. There is no way to deliver economic vitality to these places absent a radical expansion of public investment — or else, heavy-handed regulation of private investment. Which is to say: Realizing the populists’ stated aims requires aggrandizing the power of managerial “Washington elites,” at least to a degree.

The most gaping hole in the populist Republican worldview, though, is its silence about — if not open hostility to — labor unions. There is simply no way to force corporations to give workers a larger share of earnings without either dictating high minimum wages and benefits by government fiat or empowering workers to bargain collectively.

Some of “working class” conservatism’s leading intellectuals actually acknowledge this. Oren Cass, founder of the new populist conservative think tank American Compass, has endorsed sectoral bargaining — which is to say, empowering all of the workers in the same region and industry to collectively bargain with all of their employers, with the state acting as a mediator. Such an arrangement would help to set a floor beneath working standards without rendering unionized firms less competitive than union-busting ones. This arrangement would also force companies to compete on a dimension besides labor-cost minimization, thereby, in theory, spurring innovation.

Such tripartite wage-setting is a core part of corporatist, Catholic, center-right politics in Europe (a tradition that embodies much of what the populist Republicans claim to revere). But it was also a core part of the first New Deal, which the American conservative movement was founded to oppose.

To embrace sectoral bargaining would be to embrace transferring power away from owners of businesses (large and small) and toward both workers and government administrators. It would also involve slashing the Republican donor class’s share of economic growth by transferring income gains from corporate shareholders to ordinary workers. This is what populist Republicans claim to want — but it is also what the contemporary GOP exists to thwart.

Thus, none of the Republican populists have endorsed sectoral bargaining. In fact, Josh Hawley opposed recent efforts to raise Missouri’s minimum wage and roll back its anti-union “right to work” law. Rubio, to his credit, has actually acknowledged the centrality of trade unions to an economic vision informed by “Catholic social teachings,” writing for First Things:

The Church’s tradition cuts across identitarian labels, insisting upon the inviolable right to private property and the dangers of Marxism, but also the essential role of labor unions. The Church emphasizes the moral duty of employers to respect workers not just as means to profit, but as human persons and productive members of their community and nation. 

But as Trump has so well demonstrated, past rhetoric is no indication of future policy. And, church guidance notwithstanding, Marco Rubio boasts an 8 percent lifetime score from the AFL-CIO.

The future that populist conservatives want is a past that is irrecoverable in its broad strokes and fictional in many of its particulars. Delivering economic stability to America’s working families would require Republicans to aggrandize the power of the administrative state (a task that’s antithetical to the party’s dominant ideology) and help organized labor gain the upper hand on capital (a project antithetical to the interests of the primary funders of Republican campaigns and institutions). Until Hawley & Co. demonstrate a commitment to increasing worker power — and thus a willingness to wage war on the actually existing conservative movement — one should assume that their populist noises will prove substantively as consequential as Donald Trump’s.

‘Working Class’ Conservatism Doesn’t Work Without Unions