The 48th post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in April, 2016.
Dear Disaffected Republican Voter:
We, the undersigned members of the Republican Establishment—elected and appointed officials, National Committee members, state and local chairs, donors, pundits, journalists and intellectuals—are sorry.
We failed you. We weren’t consciously trying to fail you, but your reaction to us and to our agenda in this 2016 election cycle has now made it undeniable even to us that we have. As we’ve moved through the stages of grief, our outbursts to and about you haven’t always been fair, kind, true or reasonable. We’ve blamed you for our having failed you—in essence, we’ve tried to flip the script and blame you for having failed us. That’s wrong and we’re sorry for that, too.
We offer the following not as excuses but by way of explanation. Many of you have accused us of doing the bidding of our donors. We now realize that’s very largely true. We can only say that it really didn’t occur to us that doing so was selling out your interests. Certainly, we didn’t do so in order to sell you out.
Rather, we thought: here is a wonderful instance where our own self-interest, the interests of our constituents, and those of the country all coincide! Just like Tocqueville’s “self-interest, rightly understood.” We though that our donors were just people who thought the same as we, but who have more money. We were naturally grateful for their support, because we couldn’t have run candidates, won elections, supported think-tanks, or published money-losing magazines without them.
(Also, to the extent that some of us are donors, a similar dynamic applies. Of course we knew that the policies we pushed, and demanded that those we support push, are in our self-interest. We were just sure that our interests and your interests were identical. We thought we sought the good of the country, and you are part of the country, and so it would all work out.)
We also now realize that our policy agenda is ill-suited for 2016. The tax code hasn’t been the foremost problem facing the US economy since Reagan was president. Sure, it could be simpler and less costly to administer. In an ideal world, we could fix that without spending all our political capital to do so. But we just couldn’t bring ourselves to hear from you that it’s not even near the top of your priority lists. Even worse, as we prioritized tax reform, we did so around the same old agenda of upper income and capital gains tax cuts, not reforms that would actually help you the most.
On trade, we believe our position is more defensible, but still didn’t serve your interests. We honestly believed—and still do—that free trade is the best policy for the economy, the country, and (at the end of the day) for everyone. But we failed to take into account a number of caveats. First, the benefits have been spread unevenly. While everyone enjoys lower consumer prices, the marginal effect of these lower prices is least impactful for those earning lower incomes and who thus must spend a greater percentage of their incomes on necessities such as housing and food, necessities whose prices not only haven’t declined but have increased. Related to this, while the economy has grown under free trade, growth has been much slower than the historic average for the US, leading to wage stagnation and un-, under-, and declining employment for your communities. We honestly don’t believe that tariffs would solve any of this. But we concede that we haven’t made any serious effort to try anything else, and have even shut down debates over trade. Meanwhile, our wealth has continued to shoot up as your prospects have dimmed. Second, we almost completely failed to understand the gigantic difference between free trade today—with billions of people in the developing world suddenly entering the competition—and free trade among more or less comparably rich economies. In the latter case, comparative advantage generally works to the benefit of all. In the former, the benefits accrue overwhelmingly to developing nations and to people at the top over here.
Again, we don’t think protectionism is the answer. And we know that’s what many of you want. We don’t apologize for thinking it won’t work. But we do apologize for dismissing your concerns and refusing to engage you honestly on the issue. We especially apologize for ginning you up over hopeless crusades we either had no intention of following through or knew in advance we couldn’t win, as a way of motivating you to vote, all the while ignoring your real concerns.
On immigration, our record—we must admit—is much worse. You’ve been telling us that you don’t want “comprehensive immigration reform” at least since the idea was first leaked by Karl Rove in the summer of 2001. Even though you’ve said “No!” loudly, every time, we’ve come back to try to ram it through, sometimes via stealth, at least a half dozen times. Each time we’ve been caught in the act and forced to stand down, but we’ve always come back to try again.
In our defense, we do believe, or at least worry, that being anti-immigration in any way will permanently alienate Hispanic voters and doom the Party. That’s the lesson we drew from 1994’s Prop 187 in California. We (or a few of us) have read the counter-arguments and not been convinced. We (or a few of us) also realize that, for now, Hispanics vote against us about 2-1. We think that’s attributable at least in part to the party’s perceived hardline stance on immigration. We also believe that Hispanics are “natural Republicans” who will come our way if we stop gratuitously alienating them. We (or some of us) have heard all the arguments against this expectation but we haven’t changed our minds.
Why not? First, obviously, immigration is what our donors want. Second, many of us are descended from immigrants and it just feels hypocritical to seek to close the doors behind us. Third, many of us live in or even represent districts full of hardworking immigrants so it’s hard for us to see how immigration can be a problem elsewhere. Fourth, we have personal friends who are immigrants or the children of immigrants and opposing immigration seems like an affront to those friendships. Fifth, we really haven’t studied American principles or history with all that much care, so we turned out to be easy marks for leftist bullying about “racism” and rhetoric like “that’s who we are” and all that, which the left insists demands more immigration. We’re embarrassed to have to admit that we fell for this last one.
On war, we also haven’t listened to you. You want less, we wanted to stay the course. You wonder why—with such overwhelming military power—America can’t seem to win any wars or hold any concrete gains. Here, as with trade, we’ve believed we were on more solid ground. Foreign affairs, war and peace have always been issues too complex for the broad range of the people—in any county—to fully understand and deliberate. These subjects require expertise and experience. To be blunt, we thought we had both and you don’t. Actually, we still think that. But we’ve been forced to recognize that, even if it’s true that our grasp of the complexities and details is superior to yours (which it is), it’s possible that we haven’t done a great job at advancing our goals. And, at a minimum, we haven’t done any sort of job at all of explaining to you why we think our policies are necessary. So all you see are dead Americans, fruitless attempts to spread democracy to ungrateful peoples, and no end in sight. No wonder you’re fed up.
You’ve tried to warn us—about trade, immigration, wars and much else—but we’ve consistently refused to heed the warnings. After nominating a private equity baron in 2012, we wrote an out-of-touch explanation for his loss which argued, against the evidence and common sense, that the Party needed to pass “comprehensive immigration reform.” We ignored Eric Cantor’s loss. We ignored John Boehner’s downfall. We tried to replace him with Kevin McCarthy and when you would have none of that, we succeeded with Paul Ryan—a decent man, but one whose every thought is how to pass the same agenda that you’ve told us time and again you reject. We tried again with “comprehensive immigration reform” in 2013, ruining the career of perhaps our most popular and electable political figure in a generation. We put all our chips on Jeb Bush, not just the son and brother of presidents—the very face of the Establishment—but the country’s biggest booster of open trade, open borders and endless wars. And all that was just within the last four years!
Still, we didn’t wake up. Until now.
It took this vulgar buffoon Trump to do it. No, we’re not going to change our opinion about him. He’s not conservative, not really a Republican, he’s embarrassing and unsuited to the presidency and so much else. We may have ill-served you with our ossified agenda—it’s hard for us to admit that, but we’ve seen the light. However, we still remain unalterably opposed to Trump. He is just too flawed a man and has in him nothing of the great leader our great country deserves.
We do recognize, however, that we are partially to blame for his rise. Had we heard your concerns earlier, had we not worked to drum all dissent out of the party, had we not accused and demonized as fringe and disreputable all doubts about our agenda, then the first successful challenger to that agenda would very likely not have been as disreputable and unsavory as Trump. He is, in part at least, a monster we created. But he’s still a monster, and we still can’t support him, even if he’s forced us to see the error of some of our ways.
The question for us—us the Establishment, and you the rank-and-file—is where do we go from here? We’d like to patch things up. We know that means we’re going to have to give up core items on our agenda. We must pledge the party to fixing the immigration system. And that means enforcement first, across the board. Enforce existing law, tighten employer sanctions and, yes, a wall. We can debate what to do about the illegal population already here only after all that is accomplished. It means no more upper-income tax cuts and closing the billionaire loopholes. It means taking a much more skeptical look at trade. We’re not going to promise across the board tariffs, but we will commit this party to trade deals that make sense for American citizens—and if we can’t get other countries to agree, we’re prepared to walk away from the table. Finally, it means no more war without purpose or end. We realize from painful experience that America lacks both the resources and know-how to democratize the world. We intend to be tough in defense of American interests, but limited and precise in how we define those interests.
We fear, sadly, that it’s too late for 2016. We still intend to try to stop Trump but we aren’t sure we can. Even if we can, we’re not confident that we can implement this new agenda throughout the party that quickly. Although, it’s certainly a good thing that of the alternatives to Trump, Ted Cruz comes closer to this agenda than any of the others.
But it’s likely that 2016 is going to have to be written off as the political equivalent of a “rebuilding year” (or, really, a rebuilding cycle). Let’s get to work, then, together, to ensure that in 2018 we elect Republicans at every level who support this new agenda. And for 2020, let’s lay the groundwork for a serious nominee we can all be proud of and wholeheartedly support, who will advance these principles, plus the all those core Republican principles on which you and we have never disagreed.
We know we’ve let you down in the past and that you don’t have much reason to trust us. So please give us a chance to begin re-earning that trust.
The Republican Establishment
EDITOR’S NOTE: The reason you won’t read this anywhere but here is because, with the exception of the part about Trump being awful, not a single person in the Republican Establishment believes a word of it. They would rather see Trump supporters leave the Party if keeping them requires changing the Party one iota in a Trumpian direction. They would rather see the Party split or destroyed than belong to a party that supports secure borders, economic nationalism, and America-first foreign policy.
We believe the Establishment and its court intellectuals are sincere in their dislike of Trump and honest in their complaints about his temperament, lack of knowledge, bad character and general unsuitability. But we also believe that these objections are secondary to their core objection, which is to his program. Had that program been championed by a statesman with the gravitas of Washington, the learning of Jefferson, the intellect of Hamilton, the rhetorical skill of Lincoln, the rectitude of Coolidge, and the decorum of Reagan, we believe the Establishment would still be opposed. In a way, the rise of Trump has been lucky for them. No doubt, they would have preferred no challenge at all. But if there had to be a challenge, how much better for them that it has been mounted by a man they can dismiss as a clown, vulgarian, demagogue and charlatan, and who they can insist has no platform or program at all. A superior statesman would have been much harder to dismiss—though they would have tried just as hard, and possibly harder, given the greater degree of difficulty.
The Republican Establishment will not change. It is too “established” or conservative in the narrow sense. It must either be defeated and replaced or the Party itself abandoned in favor of a new party. Either way, we already have the seeds of necessary new ideas. What’s needed next are new people.