The GOP Establishment Would Rather Lose Than Embrace Populism

After a string of losses, Republicans finally can breathe a sigh of relief. The party was able to comfortably hold the open seat in Arizona's 8th district, and another Roy Moore-style nightmare scenario did not materialize in West Virginia, where Don Blankenship suffered a resounding defeat. However, the angst could have all been avoided in the first place if the GOP establishment was willing to compromise with the party’s populist base –- or, at the very least, throw them a couple of bones. The GOP could easily retain control of the House and possibly reach the magical number 60 in the Senate if only they would fund the border wall. That’s all they have to do. Instead, thus far the GOP establishment's attitude has been to extract everything they wanted from Trump -- tax cuts, new military spending, keeping the carried interest loophole, deregulation -- and if this fall the Democrats take over Congress, so be it. 

In retrospect, it was very optimistic on my part –- perhaps naïve might be a more appropriate adjective –- to believe that Donald Trump winning the presidency would cause the GOP establishment to be more humble and willing to entertain some populist policies. It wasn’t so much that Trump’s victory was surprising. It was how he won. Trump didn’t just crack the so-called Blue Wall. He took it down brick by brick, in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and came very close in Minnesota. Trump did exactly what Republican strategists had said for many years the party needed to do: he expanded the electoral map and brought new voters into the Republican Party tent. The GOP should be one big happy family right? Not so fast.

It turns out that the GOP consulting class was only interested in winning if their battle plan –- a.k.a the GOP “autopsy” report -- had been implemented. They are very bitter that a reality television star showed them to be buffoons, and do not intend to ever forgive him. The GOP donor class is determined to promote their policy portfolio of free trade, mass immigration, and endless wars without any deviations. As far as they are concerned, giving into their voters would be undemocratic and reckless –- they believe in democracy without demos. If that means losing elections, so be it.

For decades the GOP consisted of three major factions: social conservatives, defense hawks, and fiscal conservatives –- the so called three-legged stool. What made the coalition work was that the three factions represented different sets of priorities but were not opposed to the policies of the other factions. For example, social conservatives prioritized issues such as abortion or traditional marriage but they did not oppose lower taxes or foreign interventions. The same was true for the other two factions. Defense hawks prioritized military spending while fiscal conservatives were focused on lowering taxes and while many hawks and tax cutters were socially moderate, they were willing to set aside their difference with social conservatives in order to win elections -- and besides, they knew that social issues would be settled by the courts in any case.

The problem that plagues the modern GOP is that the old factions no longer exist and have been replaced by only two factions: globalists and populists. The globalists are essentially the donor class, or the establishment. They consist of the Chamber of Commerce and defense hawks. They believe in the free movement of people, goods, and capital, backed by American global leadership. They see themselves as global citizens, and find the emotional attachment to a particular nation-state a quaint, old-fashioned idea to be exploited in glossy commercials and whenever they want to convince Americans to fund and die in wars. The globalists are the winners of globalization. The other faction, the populists, consists of economic nationalists and social conservatives. They believe in borders and see themselves as part of a particular political community called the United States. They want to preserve their traditions,  history and common language and believe that their economic and security interests should be placed ahead of those of foreign nationals. They chant "USA" and not "We are the world" at rallies and represent the vast majority of Republican activists and primary voters –- the so-called base. They are the losers of globalization and the culture wars.

Given the current makeup of the Republican Party, unless the GOP establishment changes its attitude and embraces some populist policies, the coalition will not hold. The current effort in the House, backed by the donor class, to pass DACA amnesty through the use of a discharge petition will only demoralize the base and hand Congress to the Democrats this fall. The GOP establishment may believe that losing Congress is the best way to ensure that Trump is a one-time event and everything will go back to normal as soon as he is removed -- whether willingly or unwillingly -- from the political scene. But that would be the wrong bet. The more likely outcome will be an escalation of the Republican civil war.