Michael Gerson, President George W. Bush’s head speechwriter, paid me the ultimate writer’s compliment last week: he attacked me in print. I count Michael as a friend, as I hope he does me, but in this matter I must follow Aristotle who said of his teacher, Plato, that Plato was dear to him but truth was dearer. There are three truths that Michael and others remain in denial about: Bush-style Republicanism is a minority view within the GOP; it is not the best way to create a durable center-right majority; and Trumpism is not based on “protectionism, nativism and bitter resentment of elites.”
Let’s address the last point first. This is a common view, especially on the Left. But I have been writing about these issues for nine years, and the data I have compiled and discuss in my recent book The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism shows blue-collar white discontent far predates Trump. Emily Ekins of the Cato Institute also clearly demonstrated that Gerson’s assertion is not true.
Her paper, “The Five Types of Trump Voters,” shows that very few of Trump’s voters were motivated by racist concerns or nativism. Many were concerned about immigration, and the president’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration—which Michael has consistently decried as either unconstitutional, racist, or both—was the only single issue that united all four major groups of Trump backers. If Trumpism is beyond the pale, it because his voters’ concerns are beyond the pale—and those people comprise the vast supermajority of all Republican-leaning voters.
Michael surely knows this, which is why he mentions dubious or fringe figures like Joe Arpaio, Don Blankenship, and Corey Stewart as representatives of the deeper appeal of Trump’s dark nature. Of these, one recently finished a poor third in a heavily contested primary, another is running third of three in his primary race, and the other is a Senate nominee in a race devoid of serious Republican involvement. This does not strike me as evidence that the dark interpretation of Trumpism is representative of Republican views.
Tariffs and what he labels “protectionism” is indeed popular among many segments of Republican voters, but one should note that the seeds for this were laid during the Bush Administration. As I have recounted elsewhere, the Bush business cycle was the first we have data for in which median income for non-college-educated Americans declined. Federal data also show that employment rates remained below their Clinton-era record high during the Bush years even after five years of expansion. And the dramatic rise in the number of people on Social Security Disability Insurance began during the Bush years: annual applications exceeded two million for the first time during the 2001-3 recession and remained at historically-high levels for every year during the Bush Administration. Compassionate conservatism did not help working-class, native-born Americans—and its advocates know it.
An authentically compassionate conservatism should place a high priority on getting these Americans, many of whom lost their jobs or middle-class incomes because of the Bush-era immigration and trade policies, back on track. You can’t beat something with nothing, the saying goes. Yet time and time again one fails to hear that “something” from those NeverTrump Republicans who, like Gerson, vociferously oppose Trump’s tariffs. The voters did, however, hear that from Trump. That’s probably why Trump did better than Romney, McCain, and even Bush himself among voters who said the primary quality they look for in a president is that he “cares about people like me”.
These points show why Bush-era conservatism is not the way for the new Republican Party to gain its majority. Voters who are open to voting for Republicans are scared. They are scared about their economic futures. They are scared about the future a religiously orthodox family will face in an America where any expression of Biblical views on marriage might constitute a hate crime. They are scared their children will die in defense of countries who seem to think American leadership excuses them from the obligation to defend themselves. They are scared that they might die in a terrorist act at home with their leaders more concerned about the feelings of foreigners than the lives of Americans.
No Republican leader can build a majority without addressing these fears. Bush-era conservatism pretends these fears don’t exist or characterizes those who have them as beyond the political pale. As any good Texan would say, that dog won’t hunt.
A responsible compassionate conservatism would address these fears with more than pablum and pale pastels from the past. It might call for a federally-funded vocational education program and opioid addiction treatment system that focuses on employment-based rehabilitation. It might make robust defense of religious sentiments and free speech a centerpiece of its cultural agenda. It might follow Ronald Reagan’s example with Japan and place sanctions on China so long as it engages in predatory trade practices and builds its modern military with our money, our ideas, and access to our markets. It might look at how Muslim immigration has destabilized European politics and recognize that a nation fearful at home cannot be resolute abroad. What it cannot do is remain in denial that these concerns are legitimate.
It might also want to recognize that a robust defense of the working-class is also the only way to appeal to America’s growing Hispanic population, as Michael desperately wants the GOP to do. Hispanics are overwhelmingly in working-class jobs and earn below-median incomes. They also believe that more direct government spending is a better way to grow the economy than cutting taxes and spending. Today’s manufacturing worker displaced by automation or competition might be white, but tomorrow’s will likely be Hispanic, black, or Asian. Failing to focus on how government can build ladders for advancement for those who will not graduate from college is not just a failure for today; it is a failure to build the party that can appeal to the growing non-white population that will increasingly influence America.
NeverTrumpers like Michael often make Trump their focus when their real aim is the policy changes he is bringing to the Republican Party. I’ll grant that many of Trump’s statements about immigrants are odious. I too remain unconvinced that he has the skill or the character to be a good president, although I must admit to having some of those fears allayed so far. The question Republicans dismayed by Trump must ask themselves, however, is whether some of the changes he is bringing to GOP orthodoxy are either good or have their roots in legitimate concerns. I think many of them do; many, if not most, NeverTrumpers disagree. That, not Trump, is the real issue in contention, and it is on that point that those who back Trump ought to fight if their support for him is tied at all to any of those considerations.
Michael and other prominent NeverTrump Republicans face a time for choosing. The data clearly show that a return to the Republican Party and conservatism of 2000 is not possible, either within the GOP itself or in the nation at large. If the sentiments that Trump tapped into are unacceptable to them for whatever reason, then they must join forces with their former political opponents, either within the Democratic Party or by creating a new party that takes disaffected Democrats and independents into the fold. Either choice involve compromising on issues NeverTrumpers have said they hold dear, such as abortion, supply-side tax cuts, the Supreme Court, or perhaps even uncompromising support for Israel. I will not begrudge them if they depart on principle, as they are honorable men and women who must act in accord with their beliefs. But they should make that choice with eyes wide open as to what the consequences will be, for them, for their principles, and for the country they so dearly love.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at UnHerd.com where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).