Sept. 2015 article:
"The Republican party has essentially exhausted the two
ideological themes it has ridden on since about 1980-- free markets and
social conservatism -- and needs new ones to survive."
9/30/2015, "Donald Trump Is Trying to Save the Republican Party From Itself," Ian Fletcher, Huffington Post
"I'm neither endorsing nor condemning Mr. Trump, but I do think he's
trying to save the Republican party from itself in a very rational way.
The last thing he is is a clown or dilettante. (OK, maybe a clown.)
Because the Republican party has essentially exhausted the two
ideological themes it has ridden on since about 1980-- free markets and
social conservatism -- and needs new ones to survive.
Any ideologues out there, I'm sorry: American history makes quite clear that partisan ideological themes don't last forever, in either party. They're good for a few decades, then they evolve or get dumped....
First, consider the exhaustion of free-market ideology.
This doesn't mean that free markets per se, which obviously have
enormous validity, are dead as an idea. But it does mean that pushing
even further in the direction of free markets is dead as an idea.
Most obviously, the 2008 financial crisis, whose effects we're still
dealing with, was an effect of markets allowed to run amok, not of
markets being insufficiently free. (Yes, I know you can blame it all on
the government, but that's a tendentious "reality is the opposite of
what you see" argument.)
There's a happy medium between too much
and too little regulation, and we've basically reached the limit of our
ability to improve our economy by deregulating further.
public perception, this wasn't always the case. It certainly wasn't in
1980, when Ronald Reagan rode this theme to victory. And argue the
timing if you like, but surely the reader recalls the romanticism about
markets of the late 1990s? Remember California deregulating its
electricity market in 1996? (Which handed control over to Enron, by the way, and led to blackouts in Silicon Valley.)
"Even freer markets!" has lost its credibility as an ideological theme.
If you disagree, then what industries would you now propose to
deregulate, and how do you think that would improve things?
The increased public interest in economic equality is also playing a role here. There are conservative
policies that reduce inequality, but they're old-school paternalist
conservative policies, not free-market conservative policies. (Some
people will tell you that "conservative" simply equals "free market," but this is simply ignorant of history, though I don't have the space to elaborate here.)
conservatism is a more complicated topic, but in a country where both
public opinion and the Supreme Court support, to take the obvious
example, gay marriage, it doesn't look like a net electoral winner from
So what's the Republican party to do? Luckily,
there are other right-wing themes out there to be had, though not an
infinite number of truly big ones, substantial enough and popular enough
to float a national political party on.
Specifically, economic nationalism, because the economy is what voters
care about most. Mr. Trump's protectionism is a form of economic
nationalism. So is his stance against immigration. (Again, I take no
position on the merits, but anti-immigrationism is definitely a form of
Trump is not the first person to come up with this strategy: as I noted in an article during the 2012 election, Mitt Romney was going in this direction already, albeit much less aggressively than Trump.
Romney pledged to crack down on China's currency manipulation. He
threatened the use of countervailing duties if necessary, a serious and
previously ideologically taboo attempt to blunt America's trade deficit.
He said illegal immigrants should "self deport."
Why was Romney less
aggressive? For one thing, that was several years ago, and the causative
trends hadn't yet gone so far. Two, he wasn't a billionaire, only a
humble multi-millionaire, so he had to cater to the Republican donor
class. Which, while not sincerely socially conservative, very much
adores free-market ideology as the perfect rationalization for their
crony-capitalist reality. (Their interpretation of "free" markets is
"government won't interfere with private distortions of markets in my
Come to think of it, even Patrick Buchanan got there
first, in the sense of taking economic-nationalist positions
(anti-free-trade, anti-immigration) as a Republican primary candidate in
But Buchanan, of course, never attracted more than a
fringe following. It's no mystery why. One, he wasn't a billionaire who
could finance an entire campaign while defying the donor class and
cowing the Republican establishment with the tacit threat of a
third-party run tipping the election to the Democrats. Two, the
credibility of "even freer markets are always the solution" economics
hadn't exhausted itself in 1992. (As noted above, it didn't even peak
until the late 1990s.) Three, there was not yet a collapse of social conservatism forcing a search for new ideological themes.
Even poor old H. Ross Perot fits perfectly into
this picture. He was a trade hawk, anti-immigration, and relatively
socially liberal. But he tried to do it without the legitimacy and
infrastructure of an established party, and his political inexperience
led to him getting spooked out of the race by, among other things,
Republican dirty tricks. Still, astonishingly popular with the voters
for a while.
So economic nationalism is a rich theme that's been
waiting to be exploited for a long time. Like, say, civil rights in the
Mr. Trump's comically blustering persona, which seems
to confuse a lot of commentators, fits perfectly into this picture.
Why? Because it enables him to seem much more right-wing than he really is,
which is essential to retreating from obsolete rightist positions
without incurring the wrath of primary voters. (Trump's the most
experienced show-biz politician since Reagan; of course he figured this
out.) Every time some liberal yaps about
his being a dangerous crypto-fascist menace, it re-glues this mask,
though one of his biggest vulnerabilities is that it will fall off.
bigger joke is that the Republican establishment is fighting so hard
against being saved. They may be the last to figure this all out."
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