At the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Donald Trump Jr. turned a longtime Democratic talking point into an argument for Republican policies. Speaking to a televised audience from the convention stage, he said, “The other party also tells us they believe in the American Dream. They say we should worry about economic inequality and immobility. You know what? They’re right. But what they don’t tell you is that it was their policies that caused the problem.”
The line was powerful, but suspicions of plagiarism swirled when journalists discovered that parts of the speech echoed an article that George Mason law professor Frank Buckley had written several months earlier. These were, in fact, Buckley’s words—he had privately worked with Trump Jr. to write the speech. His latest book, The Republican Workers Party: How the Trump Victory Drove Everyone Crazy, and Why It Was Just What We Needed, mixes policy proposals, personal accounts, and reflections on American politics and culture to supply a measure of intellectual weight to Trump’s political project.
Two years ago, Buckley and his wife moonlighted as a volunteer speechwriting team for the Trump campaign, helping to write a major foreign policy speech that Trump gave in April 2016. Buckley does not exactly fit the profile of a typical campaign volunteer. A Canadian immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 2014, Buckley (no relation to conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr.) wears many hats.
As a longtime professor at George Mason University School of Law (recently renamed Antonin Scalia Law School), Buckley has published several scholarly volumes on contract law in addition to his recent popular books on American politics. Outside of his academic work, he writes frequently as a senior editor of the American Spectator and a columnist for the New York Post.
Betrayal of the American Dream
The first few chapters provide interesting insights into the inner workings of the Trump campaign. Buckley recounts his role with the Trump campaign as an occasional speechwriter and adviser, and he provides details of behind-the-scenes intrigue. According to Buckley’s account, the decision to fire Gov. Chris Christie, the head of the transition team, was actually made three months before the election – it just wasn’t made official until after the election, to avoid controversy. Buckley also detailed his efforts to get the Trump team to hire Michael Anton, author of the controversial essay “The Flight 93 Election,” as a member of the Trump administration’s national security team.
The Republican Workers Party argues that Trump’s revolution gives Republicans the chance to reform a party that had lost touch with much of the country. If the Republican Party wants to succeed, Buckley believes that it must become the champion of the working class and focus on economic inequality. At first glance, this sounds like odd advice. After all, talk of class and inequality has long been a hallmark of progressives who want to tax the rich and redistribute the wealth. President Obama’s 2012 campaign sought to make income inequality the defining issue of the election.
For decades, the Democratic Party understood itself as the party of the working class. Its candidates presented themselves as champions for the laborer against oppressive corporate interests, while the common caricature of Republicans portrayed them as the defenders of wealthy business interests, indifferent to the welfare of the poor and determined to protect of the existing social hierarchy.
Buckley writes that he and Trump found themselves in agreement that “the fundamental political issue was the betrayal of the American Dream in a newly immobile country.” He observes that incomes for those in the bottom 50 percent grew only 21 percent between 1980 and 2014. In the same time span, incomes for the top income brackets doubled or tripled (top 10 percent and top 1 percent, respectively).
Trump and Bernie Sanders both observed that ordinary Americans were being left behind by elite of both parties, but only Trump recognized the nature of the new aristocracy. Sanders blamed capitalism, but Trump realized that the left’s policies on economic regulation and unchecked immigration had restricted opportunity for many Americans.
The Transformation of the Parties
This new class divide is not merely economic. An uncompromising social liberalism is the defining feature of modern liberalism. For all the recent talk of single-payer health care and democratic socialism on the left, race, sexuality, and gender are the central tenets of the church of liberalism. Dissent or tolerance on these issues is not permitted.
A clash of cultures between coastal elites and the heartland forms the greatest difference between the liberal aristocracy and those whom Hillary Clinton scorned as “deplorables” in 2016. Eight years earlier, then-candidate Barack Obama betrayed a similar condescension toward working-class voters in Pennsylvania with his assertion that “they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” to explain why some of these voters did not support him.
Buckley argues that the working-class coalition that rallied behind Trump combined a moderate outlook on economic issues with conservative views on issues like immigration, abortion, and political correctness. The Democratic Party lost these voters by embracing progressive identity politics with religious fervor. Abortion on-demand, white privilege, same-sex marriage, transgender bathrooms, kneeling for the anthem—all enshrined as central tenets of the progressive cultural orthodoxy where neutrality is not an option.
Working-class voters, especially Catholics in the Rust Belt states, saw the left’s attempts to enforce public acceptance of its morality through political correctness and threw in their lot with Donald Trump’s insurgent campaign. For decades, these voters were a key Democratic voting bloc, but their socially conservative views became increasingly unwelcome in today’s Democratic Party.
But the transformation of the Democratic Party is only one part of the equation. Trump’s improbable nomination and victory upended the established order in the Republican Party. Conservative Republicans, Buckley charges, had accepted a false dichotomy between liberty and equality that limited their ability to appeal to the working class.
For example, Republicans often referred to the poor in ways that reinforced the impression of indifference towards the common man, such as former presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s ill-fated comment during the 2012 campaign that “[t]here are 47 percent of the people who will vote for [Obama] no matter what” because they are dependent on government and feel entitled to welfare. In doing so, they failed to contest the meaning of equality and allowed their left-wing counterparts to claim it for themselves. Buckley argues that “[t]he Left had created the problem, but conservatives had failed to blame them for creating the kind of class society that’s wholly at odds with the idea of America.”
By refusing to embrace equality as a conservative principle in their rhetoric, politicians and intellectuals on the right overlooked the connection between liberty and equality that the Founders and Abraham Lincoln understood. They failed to understand that the Declaration of Independence presents equality as the necessary foundation for liberty, that the equality of the Declaration demands an equality of rights. Because modern conservatives tended to conflate this use of equality with the radical egalitarianism promoted by progressives, equality rarely entered their vocabulary.
The Case For a Conservative Nationalism
The central argument of The Republican Workers Party presents the case for a conservative nationalism that stands squarely in the best of the American tradition, not the blood-and-soil nationalism of reactionary fringe movements. It is, first and foremost, a liberal nationalism derived from America’s founding principles. It rests on bonds of common citizenship and a common devotion to liberty and equality. Buckley argues that a Republican Party that wishes to embrace an American nationalism that transcends ties of blood or faith need only look back to its first and greatest president for guidance.
He quotes an 1858 speech on the meaning of the Fourth of July in which Lincoln argued that immigrant American citizens and their descendants had every right to celebrate their identity as Americans. They read the Declaration of Independence and “they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.” He considered the principle that all men are created equal “the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of Patriotic and liberty-loving men together.”
American nationalism distinguishes itself by fostering what President Reagan called “an enlightened patriotism” that directs love of country into a love of constitutional liberties. A dedication to liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion forms a central part of the American identity, and the violation of these rights earns the label “un-American.”
Furthermore, Buckley argues that American nationalists “must distinguish between strangers and brothers, noncitizens and citizens,” and “[t]hey must feel a special sense of fraternity with their fellow citizens” to prefer their welfare before that of noncitizens. For example, the standard by which immigration or welfare policy ought to be judged should be the benefit it will bring to citizens. An anti-nationalist—whether progressive or libertarian—is indifferent between the welfare of citizens and noncitizens on such questions.
Making the GOP Appealing
Buckley introduces The Republican Workers Party as an account of how he “witnessed the death of the old Republican Party and assisted at the new party’s birth,” but his argument in the following pages suggests more of a reformation than a revolution. The key policies that he proposes for bringing back mobility are all sensible: school choice, merit-based immigration reform, and deregulation. While Trump deserves particular credit for elevating immigration control as a major issue, these policies are exactly what conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation have promoted over the past 20 years.
It’s worth noting that George W. Bush faced significant intraparty opposition with his attempts at immigration reform in 2007, and many conservatives rejected Bush’s neoconservative foreign policy approach after the failures of Iraq. The Republican Workers Party is certainly a break from the policies of the Bush-era Republican establishment, but it embraces conventional conservative policy prescriptions on most issues.
Even on trade policy, which is Trump’s biggest departure from the conservative establishment consensus, Buckley professes ambivalence, writing that “If the free trader can seem heartless, the trade protectionist can come across as naive.” Add the other signature policies of the Trump administration thus far—tax reform and the pipeline of originalist judges—and one sees a great deal of continuity with the policies of the pre-Trump conservative movement. Buckley argues that the socially conservative voting base of the Republican Workers Party does not hold a libertarian hostility to welfare, and he contends that it has inherited the mid-century liberalism of JFK that the Democratic Party abandoned in favor of identity politics.
Perhaps the difference between the pre-Trump Republican Party and the Republican Workers Party that Buckley advocates has less to do with policy than politics. Conservative policies could bring increased mobility, but conservatives have failed to persuade working-class and middle-class voters that these policies will bring greater opportunities for them and their children.
Buckley’s greatest criticism of leaders on the right concerns their ability to talk about issues of class and mobility in a way that appeals to working-class Americans. If Republicans can learn to speak in the language of a unifying American nationalism that seeks the welfare and prosperity of all Americans, then the Republican Workers Party may be here to stay long after our current political moment.