A few weeks after the presidential election, Donald Trump’s economic advisor Stephen Moore told a group of top Republican lawmakers that they no longer belonged to the conservative party of Ronald Reagan but to Trump’s populist working-class party. Moore said Republicans, in this new era of Trump, should be “less ideologically pure” and instead try to help Trump give Americans what he promised them: trade protections, massive infrastructure spending, and a border wall.
This is the same Stephen Moore who up until November 8 had spent much of his career arguing for supply-side economic reforms, ample immigration, and free trade. Not anymore. Trump’s election has turned him into an economic populist. “Having spent the last three or four months on the campaign trail,” he told The Hill, “it opens your eyes to the everyday anxieties and financial stress people are facing.” For Moore, as for Trump, that means the government is here to help.
Moore’s transformation from free market economist to Trump populist is emblematic of a change sweeping the conservative political elite. With Republicans in control of the legislative and executive branches for the first time in more than a decade, skepticism about the federal government among conservative leaders is melting away. Those who have for years defined themselves politically as the only ones resisting the growth of a powerful and coercive administrative state are now, it seems, okay with it. To quote Boromir, this ring is a gift. Why not use it?
Take former Texas governor Rick Perry, Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Energy. Perry vowed to eliminate the agency during his 2012 presidential bid (and infamously forgot its name during a GOP primary debate that year). If Perry thought we didn’t need the Department of Energy four years ago, why do we need it now? The only thing that’s changed is the party in control of the federal government—and the person who’ll be heading up the agency.
Do Conservatives Have Principles?
On a host of issues, from health care to free trade, we’re about to find out whether conservatives really mean what they say. In Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan and other top Republicans made clear last week that repealing Obamacare will be one of their top priorities. They haven’t yet said what will replace it, and there’s ample reason to believe that “repeal and replace” will end up being largely cosmetic, with major features of Obamacare staying in place.
That’s because many Republicans never really opposed major features of the health care law to begin with. Obamacare didn’t just destroy the private health insurance market by turning it into a massive income redistribution scheme, it also made hundreds of millions of federal tax dollars available to states that expanded Medicaid. To date, 32 states and Washington DC have expanded the joint state-federal health-care program for the poor. That includes Indiana, which adopted its Medicaid expansion under Gov. Mike Pence. At the time, Pence sold his “alternative” Medicaid expansion as a “market-driven” reform, even though it had nothing to do with market forces and wound up being worse than a straightforward expansion.
Does anyone seriously think Vice President Pence will support an Obamacare repeal that guts his Medicaid expansion in Indiana and pulls millions of federal tax dollars (or debt) out of state coffers nationwide, kicking millions of Americans out of those state Medicaid programs? What about Obamacare’s supposed prohibition on discrimination against applicants with preexisting conditions? Trump himself has said he’s willing to keep it. As Cato’s Michael Cannon has explained in some detail, the pre-existing conditions provisions are the centerpiece of the law.
“They are the reason the individual-mandate exists. It is those provisions, more than the mandate, that are driving premiums higher,” writes Cannon. “It is those provisions, and not the mandate, that are destabilizing health-insurance markets, reducing choice, and causing insurers to flee.”
In the coming weeks and months, Americans might be surprised to find out how little of Obamacare is actually repealed in congressional Republicans’ forthcoming “repeal.”
The Eerie Silence About Trump’s Protectionism
We might also be surprised at how little resistance conservatives offer to Trump’s trade protectionism. Last week, the president-elect again threatened a car company, saying Toyota would face a “border tax” if it builds a new plant in Mexico.
Toyota Motor said will build a new plant in Baja, Mexico, to build Corolla cars for U.S. NO WAY! Build plant in U.S. or pay big border tax.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 5, 2017
This has become a pattern for Trump, who said something similar about United Technologies, Ford, GM, Boeing, and others. These threats carry real consequences. Ford recently announced it was scrapping plans to build a $1.6 billion plant in Mexico after criticism from Trump.
The president-elect apparently means what he says about trade. The problem is, his anti-trade policies will mean real cost increases for all Americans, and not just for cars once manufactured in Mexico but for a host of other goods and services. But Republicans were strangely silent in the wake of Trump’s shot at Toyota. As my colleague Tom Nichols noted on Twitter, “Imagine the reaction from conservatives if Bernie Sanders were targeting car companies with tariffs.”
Tariffs is the right word. Up until November 8, most Republicans understood the basic economics of free trade—and the benefits. Thanks to global free trade, consumer goods are more affordable for all Americans, even the poor. It’s why you can buy a flatscreen TV at Wal-Mart for about a hundred bucks, or a smartphone for less than $200. Trump and his protectionist boosters either don’t realize or don’t care that tariffs on consumer goods will mean, for example, that middle-class Americans won’t be able to afford iPhones.
Trumpism Is Post-Conservative
Publius Decius Mus, the anonymous blogger whose “Flight 93 Election” essay in the Claremont Review of Books became a touchstone for Trump conservatives during the election, recently spoke with a writer at The New Yorker about the ideological basis for Trumpism. He said rising income inequality is a problem, not for the reasons Democrats often give, but because it threatens social cohesion.
To address it, Decius thinks the federal government should do something. The idea is that subsidies, tariffs, targeted tax incentives, and restrictions on immigration might be justified in order to preserve Americans in a way of life to which they have become accustomed, and to preserve their communities—even in places where the industries that gave rise to those communities have long since left. This is supposedly the big takeaway from Trump’s victories in the Rust Belt, where he won the support of blue-collar Democrats.
For Trump intellectuals like Decius, the goal of all this government action is not really to ameliorate income inequality or increase prosperity but to bolster national solidarity. Trump conservatives often talk about the need for a new sense of patriotism and citizenship to shore up our fragmenting republic. They of course have a point, but in the context of Trump’s stated policy preferences, bolstering solidarity means big government doing more, not less.
The irony is that one of Decius’ central critiques of modern conservatism is that it has done too little—nothing, really—to slow the growth of the administrative state and the march of progressivism. But now, Trump conservatives and a growing number of Republicans want to use the administrative state to advance their own agenda. The basic progressive thesis is that government programs run by massive bureaucracies can improve people’s lives. The emerging thesis of Trumpism seems to be that government action can improve the life of the nation as a whole.
But this is nothing new. Woodrow Wilson, the founding father of American progressivism, espoused the same justification for the creation of the administrative state. Wilson believed that the limits on government power baked into the Constitution no longer applied to the modern era, when government must solve complex problems for the good of the nation by doing “whatever experience permits or the times demand.”
Our massive federal government is an instrument of progressivism, pure and simple. Conservatives under Trump might be losing their skepticism of it out of a desire to harness the powers of the administrative state. But like Sauron’s One Ring, it serves only one master.