Published November 18, 2016
Donald Trump has won what might be the greatest “change election” in decades. Republicans leaders are only now waking up to the fact that the change Trump’s voters want will end up changing the GOP, too.
Trump’s voters were not voting for less government. Instead, they believe the promise of American life has been taken from them by elites of both parties who neither know nor care what they are doing to their fellow citizens. Trump stepped into this massive credibility gap with the message that he was different. In his talks, tweets and rallies, he identified the problems these people were facing: stagnating wages, shrinking numbers of good jobs, a political and media culture that treated them as though they were aliens in their own country. For years, they had been longing for someone of Trump’s stature to say to them: “I hear you, and I will make things right.”
These voters backed Trump because they want their heritage back. This is not, as has been charged, a racially tinged impulse. Millions of Trump’s supporters voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Rather, it is the heritage that all Americans are of equal worth, that common values and common activities are worthy of respect and reward and confer dignity. Trump said he would “make America great again,” but he could have run on a different, more intellectual slogan: “Make American citizenship count again.”
This citizenship agenda is less interested in shrinking government than in making it work for average Americans. Trump’s signature issues — immigration, trade, law and order, fighting terrorism — all involve the federal government doing more and doing it better. This push for federal action will pose serious challenges to the reigning GOP orthodoxy. However, if the first 100 days of a Trump presidency involve nothing more than tax cuts, deregulation and other traditional Republican ideas, the voters who wanted something different will wonder whether they were simply marks in a skillful con.
Many of Trump voters’ priorities can be addressed in ways consistent with Republican inclinations. Immigration can be reduced but not eliminated; trade deals can proceed if they ensure that benefits flow to average Americans, not just those in finance or exporting industries. Tax reform, which means raising taxes on millions of honest Americans, can make way for tax cuts, and those cuts can be structured so that large proportional gains go to those making less than the median income.
Other initiatives might require more direct government action. Stagnating wages are not going away overnight. Why not create a generous wage subsidy in place of a minimum wage increase? Why not pass a New Homestead Act that gives incentives to Americans in low-growth areas to move to places with greater opportunity? Why not withhold federal criminal-justice funding from police departments with a pattern of civil rights violations, and increase funding for departments that cut crime and eradicate police misbehavior?
This style of governance is not just what Americans want: It also fits with the Reaganite philosophy Republicans purport to admire. In his famous speech endorsing Barry Goldwater, Reagan told Americans: “There is no such thing as left or right. There is only up or down.” Trump voters believe this wholeheartedly. They want government to move up and move beyond the sterile ideological battles of left or right. There’s a reason Trump got the votes of the descendants of the Reagan Democrats: He was communicating the Reagan message that Americans of all stripes deserved a hand up from their government.
Reagan never let ideology get in the way of helping average Americans. Reagan didn’t just support free trade; he subtly encouraged Japan to enact “voluntary” export limits, which forced Japanese firms wanting to sell more cars in the United States to build American factories employing American workers. The Gipper’s tax cuts always included generous exemptions or credits geared toward removing millions of low-income workers from the rolls entirely. Reagan’s two terms are replete with examples of an energetic, active government that was nonetheless limited in its scope and aspirations.
Trump’s victory has given the Republican Party the opportunity of a generation. It can either hear the demands of whom, echoing Reagan and conservative Australian statesman Sir Robert Menzies, Trump calls “the forgotten people” or not. If it does, it will realign the GOP with its Reaganite heritage and work to affirm what Reagan called “the purpose and worth to each and every life.” If the GOP can change back to what it once was, it can enact the change Trump’s voters want and change America for the better.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an adjunct professor at Villanova University. His book “Ronald Reagan: New Deal Republican” is scheduled for publication next year.