GOP leaders can breathe a sigh of relief for the time being, having defeated the second most unpopular nominee ever recorded in the narrowest Electoral College victory since 2004. They can celebrate having finally dismissed the zombie-like Hillary Clinton for good and take consolation that the Senate remains in their hands. But soon they will have to face the difficult task of governing with a big government liberal in the Oval Office.
The GOP will face the unsettling reality that they don’t have much of a mandate for pro-growth conservative policies, or indeed for any specific set of policies at all, having run a campaign almost devoid of policy. Instead the Republicans focused on class warfare and identity politics.
Stoking anger at the so-called “elites,” the “ruling class,” and “oligarchies”—people who studied hard and then worked their way up to high positions—may help win elections, but it doesn’t create a basis on which to govern. The Republican nominee flailed from professed position to professed position, keeping his support through denunciations of “globalists” and other class enemies.
All of these words are meaningless in practice. A “globalist” who builds products in China and licenses his brand name for properties in the Middle East could just as easily be a tough-talking immigration hardliner as he could be a “compassionate” supporter of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Indeed, he could be both at once. “Elites” include billionaires who donate to the Republican Party because they support lower taxes and billionaires who donate to the Democrats because they’re concerned about global warming, both conservative think tank presidents and liberal lawyers.
This kind of grievance-mongering has no relevance to the actual work of governing. It’s a way of cultural signaling. Attempting to explain Donald Trump’s victory, Joel Kotkin wrote at City Journal, “What Hillary Clinton didn’t have was flyover country, the economic ‘leftovers,’ the small towns, the unhipstered suburbs, and other unfashionable places.” As with Mike Huckabee’s book, “God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy,” the focus is on cultural touchstones, not policy.
Ignoring Policy Makes for Big Problems Governing
But it is economic, education, health, and other policies that determine how easy it is to get ahead or to get your problems solved. Access to affordable health care is heavily influenced by the laws and regulations governing health care, for example, yet Trump and running mate Mike Pence have pledged to put in place a government health-care program in the mold of the very Obamacare program that has been blamed for rising prices.
Extreme deficits could affect interest rates and government spending priorities, yet Trump’s plan, more than just ignoring the debt, would actually cause it to skyrocket after years of the annual deficit declining. On other policies, he’s all over the place. Seeing crazy students at the University of Missouri freak out about Trump’s actions for the next four years might be funny to Trump supporters, but it won’t solve their problems.
When substance is ignored, emotional arguments take precedent. While illegal immigration was bandied about, increasing border security has always been a platform of the Republican Party, and Sen. Ted Cruz even called for deporting all 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, but critics attacked him for having a wife who has worked for Goldman Sachs.
In the end, the Republican campaign for president was a war on success, an assault against aspirations. Traditionally Americans have held those who worked their way up to the ranks of the elite as models for the American Dream. The child of a single mother who overcame racial prejudices to become a lawyer and then the first black president. The senator whose immigrant parents worked night and day for him to have a better life than they did. The college dropout who starts a computer company.
Sure, these stories aren’t representative of every success story. There are also a lot of wealthy people who inherited their money from their successful father’s property development empire and then put their children in charge of the firm. Most stories are more mundane, like that of Heidi Cruz: an ordinary American grows up in a boring suburb to loving parents, studies hard, graduates at the top of her class, obtains graduate degrees, then earns a high salary. Why hate someone for making the most of herself?
Stoking Envy Won’t Help Americans
Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and Trump’s talk about a “rigged system” is spreading a message of victimization. It’s hard to win when you don’t think you can. Trump nailed into the heads of his lower-middle-class base that they couldn’t do anything on their own. Only a government with a bully at the throne could help them. “I alone can fix it,” he said at the convention. Two days before the vote, he said, “You have one day to make every dream you’ve ever dreamed for your country and your family come true.” A far cry from, “Government isn’t the solution. Government is the problem.”
Many Pennsylvanians, Wisconsinites, and Michiganders who contributed the decisive votes are feeling sorry for themselves. “Peasant Revolt,” David Haggith headlined his piece at The Great Recession Blog. Never mind that this description isn’t even true—Hillary actually won a majority of low-income voters, while Trump won those earning more than $50,000 a year—who thinks of themselves as a “peasant”? Who, outside of a Sanders rally at Oberlin, invests his hopes and dreams in the government?
The real recipe for making your dreams come true is investing in yourself and your family, not waiting for the government to redistribute the wealth of others. Feeling envious of the kid who left your hometown to study engineering at Stanford University and launch a tech firm isn’t going to help you.
America isn’t a class-based country. Locations aren’t markers of class. “Flyover country,” a phrase that seems to be used more often by aggrieved right-wingers (even vineyard growers who live on inherited farms in Fresno, California), is home to Walmart, Koch Industries, GM, and the headquarters of some of the country’s largest businesses, not to mention huge numbers of future bankers, filmmakers, journalists, and policy wonks.
Californians aren’t a class of people. Being a resident of Washington DC means you were probably born elsewhere. Midwesterners make up 8 percent of those who live in DC, according to Census data. Only 37 percent were born in DC. In California, 55 percent of residents were born elsewhere. We are a country of movers and pursuers.
If conservatives and Republicans want to get back to helping Americans advance themselves by cutting down on red tape and pushing dynamic free-market policies, they’re going to have to end their appeals to class warfare and self-victimization. We need to emphasize the value of education and expertise, rather than demeaning those who pursue higher knowledge. Conservatives have a lot of work to do, and it would help if they had some knowledgeable “elites” who actually know something about the difference between Quds and Kurds in charge when the next foreign or domestic crisis strikes.