The Rotten Core of Republican Appeals to the Working Class

Are this man and his party working-class heroes? Photo: Mark Lyons/Getty Images

In the American political tradition “conservatism” and “populism” have usually been at odds, particularly in recent decades in which a self-consciously conservative Republican Party intensified its hostility to activist government and organized labor while faithfully representing the interests of the corporate sector and wealthy individuals. Dating back to Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, conservative Republicans have often been adept at reaching out to white working-class voters with appeals to cultural traditionalism, super-patriotism, and racism. But only with the advent of Donald Trump have Republicans become willing to claim that they are now the party of the working class.

A big question for the GOP now that Trump has left office is whether they revert to their previous conservative ideology with a few Trump-branded demagogic flourishes, or commit themselves to “populism” even if it makes Ronald Reagan roll over in his grave. The case for the latter course was made boldly by conservative House Study Committee chairman Jim Banks of Indiana in a memo to House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy that Axios published Wednesday. Its subject line is unambiguous: “URGENT: Cementing GOP as the Working-Class Party.”

Tellingly, much of the memo is aimed at convincing Republicans that they can still raise campaign dollars while attacking the “corporate elites” that Banks considers Democratic (or at least culturally progressive) constituencies now. He cites his own experience in replacing big corporate donations denied him after he participated in the effort to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the January 6 electoral vote count with small-dollar individual contributions. “Our digital fundraising efforts should be paired with an explicit message: ‘I’m asking for a small donation, so that I can continue to represent your values, not the values of liberal multinational corporations determined to replace conservatives like me.’”

But Banks understands selective corporation-bashing isn’t enough to solidify working-class support, particularly since he and other conservatives, however “populist,” continue to oppose organized labor, progressive taxation, and other efforts to advance the material interests of the horny-handed sons and daughters of toil. So he urges Republicans to double-down on the two economic strategies that do have resonance among at least white working-class voters: nativism and protectionism.

Banks clearly fears backsliding by the GOP from Trump’s violent opposition to “open borders” and his aggressive sinophobic economic nationalist rhetoric, as well he might given the pro-immigration and free-trade proclivities of the Reagan tradition in American conservatism. “There is a embittered and loud minority that finds our new coalition distasteful, but President Trump’s gift didn’t come with a receipt,” he says, suggesting the Rubicon has already been crossed. Banks also recognizes that bashing Mexicans and Asians isn’t enough, either, and offers the “anti-wokeness” crusade so wildly popular among conservatives at the moment as a way to identify white working-class cultural enemies with the Wall Street interests they (and allied small business owners) already mistrust. Banks’s “populist” pitch includes, of course, a concentrated attack on Big Tech, that evil spawn of California guilty of every cultural sin imaginable along with its alleged censorship of conservative views on the social media platforms it controls. And he makes the dubious argument that Democrats promoted coronavirus lockdowns in order to profit the wealthy individuals and corporations that did well as small businesses shuttered and middle-class workers lost jobs and income.

I don’t know if Jim Banks knows much about history, but the ideology he outlines is far from new. There is a lurid tradition in this country, but even more in Europe, for the right to use cultural issues combined with super-patriotism and economic nationalism to convince working-class voters to form a vertically integrated common front with employers and small business people against elite “cosmopolitans,” predatory financial interests, and their underclass clientele. It’s an ideology sometimes called “producerism,” a way of thinking about economic and cultural life that is often associated with Trump’s hero Andrew Jackson specifically, but that was a staple of authoritarian reactionary movements throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, as one academic take on the phenomenon explained:

Producerism begins in the US with the Jacksonians, who wove together intra-elite factionalism and lower-class Whites’ double-edged resentments. Producerism became a staple of repressive populist ideology. Producerism sought to rally the middle strata together with certain sections of the elite. Specifically, it championed the so-called producing classes (including White farmers, laborers, artisans, slaveowning planters, and “productive” capitalists) against “unproductive” bankers, speculators, and monopolists above—and people of color below. After the Jacksonian era, producerism was a central tenet of the anti-Chinese crusade in the late nineteenth century. In the 1920s industrial philosophy of Henry Ford, and Father Coughlin’s fascist doctrine in the 1930s, producerism fused with antisemitic attacks against “parasitic” Jews.

It’s the absence of anti-semitism in the Trump Era’s version of producerism that perhaps most distinguishes it from its proto-fascist distant cousins. But it more than makes up for that in its venomous hatred of feminism, LGBTQ activism, Black Lives Matters, and other “woke” enemies of the conservative Christian patriarchal values that are still strong in elements of the white working class. The Christian Right culture warrior Josh Hawley’s crusade against Big Tech distills contemporary producerism almost perfectly, and reveals its kinship to more sinister antecedents in Europe, as I noted in 2019:

Government-sanctioned culture war against private entities like those which control Hollywood and Silicon Valley is indeed a departure from traditional American conservatism. But it’s entirely consonant with a European brand of right-wing authoritarianism that drew on precapitalist strains of religion-based hostility to liberalism in economics as in culture, and contemptuously rejected modern liberal democracy while utilizing its institutions to seize power whenever possible.

The big question, which the backlash in Missouri and elsewhere to Hawley’s antics on January 6 raises, is whether Banks is right that the producerist themes he is promoting can consolidate GOP support in the white working class without alienating other elements of the population. After all, expelling immigrants, boosting tariffs, and busting up Silicon Valley represent pretty thin gruel for working-class voters when compared to Joe Biden’s high-profile efforts to provide more direct material assistance to struggling middle-class families and small businesses – which the GOP uniformly opposed. The predictable upcoming Republican fight against Biden’s proposed increases in corporate and high-end individual tax rates isn’t going to square too well with Banks’s message that Democrats are now the party of Wall Street while Republicans represent Main Street.

If, as I expect, the inauthenticity of GOP appeals to the working class on economic grounds soon becomes clearer than ever, Republicans will probably crank up the cultural component of their messaging even more. And it’s the culture war that has contributed disproportionately to the unforgiving, polarized political climate that Trump took to a whole new level. Americans do not generally go to the barricades over marginal tax rates or tariffs. But those who believe legalized abortion is genocide, or that White Christian Civilization is being extinguished by “woke” tyrants, or that Big Tech is poisoning their children – well, they are another matter altogether. If Jim Banks is right that such resentments are the key to a Republican working-class majority – or more generally a GOP hold on half or more of the country – we will see a more savage political atmosphere than before, with or without Donald Trump dominating the landscape.

The Rotten Core of Republican Appeals to the Working Class