While many traditional conservatives are skeptical of President Donald Trump’s brand of populist support, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah believes it can advance conservatism in America.
“We as conservatives can make a case for a unified, principled, and populist agenda that puts the federal government back on the side of the forgotten Americans,” said Lee to an auditorium filled with conservative think-tank staffers at the Heritage Foundation this week.
Lee, who has a 100 percent conservative rating from Heritage Action, asked that his fellow conservatives not dismiss the challenge of populism, but instead embrace it to advance their policies. He prefaced his Wednesday speech, titled “Conservatism for the Forgotten Man,” by addressing the concerns of hesitant colleagues and constituents, saying “conservatives may not support everything this [populist] coalition does, and when we don’t, we should say so and we should make that clear, but we are a part of it now, and within it, I believe conservatives can thrive.”
Three Big Areas We Can Work Together
The junior senator from Utah then outlined conservative solutions to three issues raised by the populist wave: jobs and trade, immigration reform, and “draining the swamp.”
However, instead of protectionist trade policies to inflate the cost of imported goods, Lee called for federal tax reform to foster a pro-business environment. Rather than just “the wall,” he advocated for immigration reform that would welcome highly skilled workers to America. To end Washington’s corrupt self-interests, Lee demanded a return to federalism and states’ rights, not a powerful central government that happens to help a specific voting demographic.
In response to Trump’s stance on trade, Lee did not champion the protectionist policies the president has continually called for. He said the conservative solution to the struggles of the middle class is to not “fight against the global economy, but to put it to work for the American people . . . specifically for the American worker.”
Rather than calling for tariffs, a trade war, or a border adjustment tax, the senator advocated for a federal tax reform. Lee proposed turning America into a tax haven and embracing the global economy would bring in more business and, subsequently, more jobs.
“First, we should eliminate the federal corporate tax altogether, and then we should raise the rates on investment income, dividends, and capital gains to treat it like ordinary income . . . we know that eliminating workers’ share of that tax would redirect billions of dollars from the IRS into workers’ paychecks in every industry across the country,” said Lee.
He also addressed the “bad trade deals” Trump spent much of his campaign decrying. However, he didn’t demand a total withdrawal from these deals, nor did he condemn them. Instead, Lee claimed a zero corporate rate on profits from American companies would create a pro-business climate and spin the effect of these trade deals into helping American workers, not hurting them.
“It would deliver economic protection without the protectionism, and unlike riskier strategies like border adjustment tax and tariffs, this pro-growth, pro-worker reform would work for all Americans, as consumers, as workers, and ultimately as empowered citizens,” stated Lee.
Let’s Make Immigration Work for Americans
For immigration reform, Lee supported the idea of a physical barrier, but added a significantly more nuanced approach than building a border wall: “Immigration provides both real and tangible benefits, both to the immigrants who come here and to those of us who were born here, but that’s only half the story.”
Lee endorsed Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas’ new immigration proposal as a way to start solving the issue. This policy would cut legal immigration in half by limiting the number of extended family members of U.S. residents who enter the country through sponsorships. Under this policy, skilled immigrants who can immediately benefit the economy would get a preference instead.
“Reorienting our entire immigration system around economic need, reducing low-skilled inflows, and recruiting more high-skilled immigrants to help start up businesses and new jobs would help,” said Lee.
In response to Trump’s “drain the swamp” talking point, Lee quoted the president’s inauguration quote about giving the power back to the American people. Instead of seeing this as a chance for a different kind of federal government, he translated it to a call for federalism.
“If Washington let Vermonters run Vermont, and Utahns run Utah, and New Yorkers run New York, all of the above will be happier for it [and] more prosperous for it, except maybe the Washington bureaucrats,” stated Lee. He added, “We cannot fix our broken status quo from the Right or Left by giving more power to the same government [that] has failed for so long.”