The GOP’s Grand Bargain Fizzles

The 96th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

ESTABLISHMENT FRUSTRATION at Donald Trump’s candidacy is less frustration with Trump himself than with the fraying of the constituency that initially made possible Republican electoral success. During the twelve years of Republican presidents 1981–1993, and especially after Republicans’ seizing of the House of Representatives in 1994, a new conservative intellectual superstructurewas built upon the new base of the Republican Party. As with every superstructure, it routinized the production of its self-justification. The magazines, journals, think tanks and conferences confirmed one another in the certainty that Reagan conservatism, glossed with shiny trade deals and an Internet boom, would remain the formula of the future.

The base no longer wants the superstructure. While the superstructure may pretend that the base’s candidate is simply distasteful to them, what really galls them is that the base and the candidate reject their account of what conservatism is. In one breath, as though it were the same thing, they assert that Donald Trump is not a true conservative and that Donald Trump is not a true Republican. As Charles Krauthammer put it, “Trump has no affinity whatsoever for the central thrust of modern conservatism—a return to less and smaller government,” and yet—and yet!—his policy positions depart from the Republican Platform. (We’re not sure if Krauthammer intended to exclude the Weekly Standard‘s “Big-Government Conservatism.”) Jay Cost too views the party the same way: “The GOP was, for generations,” he says, “the vehicle for advancing conservative ideology.”

Trump was roundly mocked for saying that his party is called the Republican Party, not the Conservative Party. Never mind that a party called “Republican” should preserve the res publica rather than any particular policy agenda. Yet all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put the old coalition back together again. “Folks,” said Trump on April 29, “I’m a conservative, but at this point, who cares? We got to straighten out the country.” 😱 Straightening out the country and preserving the nation is the most conservative thing Trump could do.

The conservative para-intellectual superstructure has forgotten that it is a product of the base. Worse yet, it has forgotten that the base was assembled of disparate parts.

With breathtaking naïveté, writers for the superstructure assert that conservatism is “fusionism”—that is, the fusion of principled social conservatism with principled pro-business capitalism. That intellectual assemblage is only the temporary projection of a now-fissured base.

But even this account is wrong. The real fusion was between socially conservative voters and the pro-business interests that define the Republican Party—excuse us, defined. The Republican establishment has two choices: to remain blind to its fabrication out of an earlier social and economic condition, and so to pass into the night; or to join the new elite.

RECENT OBSERVATIONS that “in a fully-Trumpized G.O.P., Reagan’s ideological coalition would crack up” reverse cause and effect. The causes that first brought the “Moral Majority” into the Republican Party are no longer operative in the way that they were in 1979. They haven’t been operating since the subprime mortgage crisis put an end to the ownership society, that is since Republican economic policies finally ceased helping Middle Americans. And aside from promising a solid Supreme Court appointment (which they have botched before), the Republicans can do little on the social issues at the federal level.

The Culture War, declared in 1992 to domesticate Reaganism’s guardian class, ended on June 26, 2015 with an entry in the L category. (Paul Weyrich had declared it effectively over as early as 1999.) As Mark Tushnet said the other day, “The culture wars are over; they lost, we won.” Washington Republicans could not have been happier that same-sex marriage had been taken off the table of the general election campaign. “Every once in a while, we bring down the curtain on the politics of a prior era,” a relieved David Frum told the New York Times. “The stage is now cleared for the next generation of issues.” We could all move forward on the agenda of economic libertarianism which had been in tension with what were once called “values voters.” And indeed, concern over same-sex marriage had caused Left and Right to overlook the deteriorating structural and economic forms which condition family structure.

Though Tushnet’s comments have prompted consternation across the Lumpencommentariat, ordinary Americans know that he is right. The culture wars are over. The Right lost and the Left won. Bathroom arrangements for transsexuals could only become a national issue once all other important issues of social progressivism were settled. Race has returned as a cause célèbre for the same reason. When every other goal has been attained, return to the beginning.

Trump’s supposed neglect of the social issues is an instinctive awareness of the national GOP’s weakness on the social issues. Great families great with children are a sign of a great nation, he would say. I love families! Families struggle in the toxic environment of economic libertarianism on the right and social libertarianism on the left. Political correctness steals the last dignities of those ordinary Americans who have lost or who struggle to maintain everything else.

The social issues are no longer enough to keep ordinary Middle Americans on the Establishment GOP reservation. The evidence? Trump won. And the social issues are no longer enough to keep ordinary Middle Americans voting Republican at all. The evidence? They didn’t vote for Romney.

Not hating ordinary family life is just another part of not hating America. It is a part, a subordinate or entry-level part, of every Greatness Agenda. It does not entitle a Republican candidate to the support of self-described social conservatives any more than it entitles Vladimir Putin to the support of the same. Countries need families and children to be great. Even the Wall Street Journallaments that the U.S. “is experiencing a baby lull that looks set to last for years, a shift demographers say will likely ripple through the U.S. economy and have an impact on everything from maternity wards to federal social programs.”

For that reason, after the possibility of winning the Culture Wars went away, ordinary Americans’ application of a socially conservative litmus test to Republican candidates disappeared (or at least changed) as well. But ordinary Americans’ love of American greatness did not go away. The neoconservatives paid for loyalty to their military adventures through ordinary Americans’ real chants of “U-S-A!” and countless other expressions of patriotism that no one of the Washington left or right would perform. Again, the matters of life, family, marriage and so forth were never the whole concern of voters who described themselves as socially conservative. They had to be embraced as a defensive posture as the progressive agenda on those matters advanced from the 1960s to today. Flags symbolize victory, though, and the rainbow flag flies high.

WHEN MIDDLE AMERICANS INKED THEIR DEAL with the Republican Party, they were still prospering economically. Ordinary states, not even really special ones like California or New York, had modernized America and made her great: what else did the swan-song talk of the “Greatest Generation” mean? Though American industrial might already began to decline in the 1970s, Middle American had more than enough greatness to last for a while. Americans took home respectable paychecks, could earn interest even in bank savings accounts, and provided for their families. As the tides began to shift, honorable blue-collar work became harder to find and the service sector emerged, progress—though now somehow more uncertain—could at least be understood as advancing in a new way. The massive credit expansion of the 1990s and early 2000s covered over the shift away from wages to credit, and away from industry to finance.

Middle Americans did not see for a long time that their long-term interests were not being served by the Republican Establishment’s interpretation of what free-market economics meant. They voted for Republicans because while Republicans might be stupid, at least they weren’t evil (a parallelism coined by Sam Francis). Stated Republican policies on marginal tax rates, financial deregulation, voucher programs and the like seemed more reasonable than the alternative, and the Southern Strategy had bought off Middle Americans’ earlier sympathy for Democratic Party economics. Meanwhile, any challenge to the complicated legal arrangements known as free trade agreements was (and is) met with recitations of neo-Ricardian maxims. Economists cannot even figure out how to analyze the results of trade deals.

The association of the old “Moral Majority” with the classical, pro-business, pro-trade, pro-immigration GOP Establishment was an alliance of convenience made possible by the Democratic Party’s progressive separation from ordinary, Middle American Democrats. As we said above, the socially conservative mien of ordinary voters is only one expression they can show. Since the Culture Wars are lost, what reason do they have to show their socially conservative face, when their economic stagnation is making it more and more difficult to live a minimally socially conservative life?

Common explanations of why “conservative white evangelicals” would vote for Trump overlook the economic stagnation of many evangelicals, and also overlooks the end of the Culture War (since the Left, as Mark Tushnet implies, is otherwise still fighting it). The New York Times spoke more truth than it realized in calling the old alliance “a lasting deal for Republican candidates.” Merely citing “the extraordinary weakness of what establishment conservatism has stood far” is also inadequate, even though the statement holds.

The constant complaints that Trump isn’t a real Republican or a real conservative overlook the pragmatic relationship between the Republican constituency and the Republican platform over the last thirty years.

What was a platform of convenience is, in response to Trump, being canonized as Principled Conservatism™ by the Lumpencommentariat. Frank Meyer, Jonah Goldberg explained last November, “created an entire philosophical project called ‘fusionism’ to explain why conservatism and libertarianism should remain joined at the hip. In brief, he said that a virtuous society must be a free society, because acts not freely chosen are not virtuous. National Review remains an essentially fusionist enterprise.” But as George Nash explains in the pages of National Review, fusionism succeeded as a “formula for political action” rather than as a “theoretical construct.”

Henry Olsen, also writing at National Review, likened the fusionist political alliance to the Articles of Confederation. “Once the common enemy had been defeated, however, the Articles proved insufficient for the newly independent country to govern itself.” Olsen was right to note the character of fusionism as an alliance, but fusionism hasn’t defeated any common enemy. On the contrary, the Globalization First wing of the Republican Party traded its conservative-fueled electoral success for the Davoisie Agenda. It harmed the economic interests of the Middle Americans who were its own temporary constituency, while occasionally servicing their socially conservative demands. Its complaints about Trump’s “morals and character” are simply an attempt to keep morals-and-character voters on the reservation.

WHEN MARX SPOKE OF THE “BASE,” he did not mean the voters of today’s Republican Party but the totality of economic conditions, property distributions, social interests and means of production that organize and make possible ordinary life. When the socially conservative interests of ordinary Americans were primary due to the decency and thus lower priority of their economic life, they made common cause with the Republican business class. As economic stagnation has gripped large parts of the electorate and as elite indifference toward American Greatness has grown more evident, the Republican elite have seemed less stupid to their own voters—and a little more evil.

Only the superstructure would think that the Republican policy agenda must always be embraced as an agenda rather than, as it has been for ordinary Americans, as the means to realize the goal of American Greatness. That error is to be expected. It is in the nature of superstructures to think such things.

In order to rescue themselves Republican politicians, strategists, theoreticians, journalists and policy wonks will have to stop christening the party’s platform of convenience as Principled Conservatism™. All this time we thought they were more cynical. Yet off they ride, away from convenience into the arms of theory. It is a remarkable time.

As we have noted on a prior occasion, with few exceptions the managerial elite doubt the efficacy of their own solutions. Managing a nation from which one is otherwise detached is terribly inconvenient. It is sad to be a revolutionary class and not recognize what one is. How the members of this class can reorient themselves is a matter best left to them. Their efforts “to dissolve the people / and elect another” have not borne any fruit beneficial to them. The managers’ own policies have altered the base, and if they do not shift then this time they may well be replaced. Hoping that Trump is a passing problem, hoping that they can sprinkle bits of Trumpism atop Ryanism and have a nice dinner—small moves will not save them. To begin they will have to realize why the Greatness Agenda, though its parts change, will appeal to men and women so long as they love their countries. Indicting those people for being insufficiently principled mistakes secondary principles for primary ones.


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