The days and weeks after the Trump administration’s departure generated waves of think pieces from the right-of-center about what Donald Trump’s election and tenure could mean for the future of the GOP.
Setting aside the obnoxious and hysterical bloviating about “the end of democracy” that dominated the mainstream press, pundits (myself included) opined about the opportunity for the GOP to make a pivot that embraced the working-class voters Trump brought into the party, to learn from his willingness to update the conservative platform to take on modern challenges, and to follow his fearlessness in the culture wars.
In this year’s approaching midterm elections, it appears congressional Republicans are poised to take back at least one congressional majority — in the House of Representatives. The problem? Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader and presumptive Republican speaker, appears to have forgotten that the Trump moment happened at all.
In an interview with Fox News, McCarthy outlined the top priorities for the GOP should they be given a congressional majority: stopping the flow of drugs and human trafficking on the border, making it easier to start and grow a business, re-establishing America’s energy independence, and passing a parent’s bill of rights.
If you’re sensing shades of elections ranging from 1984 to 2012, you’re not alone. Minus the aberration that was Trump, the Republican Party has been promising the exact same set of goals for my entire lifetime, regardless of what is actually happening in the country. One suspects that a nuclear winter could befall the entire North American continent and Republicans would struggle mightily through the fallout to declare they have the solution to the problem: the reauthorization of the Keystone Pipeline.
It’s not that these policies are wrong or even misplaced. They’re simply mis-prioritized. Yes, more enforcement at the border, making life better for small businesses, securing American energy independence, and enforcing parental choice are good and absolutely necessary policy goals. But they also represent the absolute baseline expectations that voters should have from an even marginally competent Republican party.
What McCarthy is espousing as top policy priorities are the rote, daily business Republicans should be engaging in when running the country, not the bold, visionary agenda of a party that understands and acknowledges the forces that now threaten its voters, and that is prepared to do battle on their behalf.
In other words, Republicans need to present an actually compelling policy vision — one in which the party is prepared to deliver tangible policy relief to conservative voters who are beleaguered by a host of new threats, ranging from the large and impersonal forces of deindustrialization and globalization to the intensely local damage inflicted on families by the petty corporate tyranny of public health czars.
The Republican Ruling Class and the Republican Base
This detachment between Republican politicians and their voters isn’t new in Republican politics. The divide between the GOP and its base has been growing for years, and even when acknowledged by D.C. politicians, often misunderstood.
Former Republican House Speaker John Boehner either completely ignored or misread the frustration that drove the emergence of the Tea Party movement in 2010 and beyond, while the party’s donor class co-opted the energy into solely fiscal concerns, neglecting voters’ expressed frustration with the GOP’s failures to address Obamacare and the country’s health-care system, and Republican efforts to pass massive amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The Tea Party wave election of 2010, which saw the defeat of big-spending Republican incumbents and a rejection of establishment-selected successors to certain Senate seats, was the first shot across the bow. When that failed to resonate with DC’s Republican leadership, Republican voters responded in 2016 by launching a nuclear missile in the form of Donald J. Trump.
McCarthy appears poised to repeat the same mistakes of D.C.’s Republican ruling class by looking directly past the concerns animating the party’s voters. And it couldn’t come at a worse time. Now, more than ever, working-class voters find themselves vulnerable in ways they’ve never been before.
The dominant Covid response exacerbated an already growing wealth gap between rich and poor. As the billionaires grow wealthier, middle-class families are having fewer children and increasingly living on a financial knife’s edge.
Republicans still find themselves without a viable health-care plan as states and hospitals (both of which receive generous federal subsidies) condition access to Covid treatments on racial preferencing. The Department of Justice and the FBI have been turned into a politicized, perpetually rights-violating surveillance arms of the Democratic Party, while the Department of Health and Human Services casually greenlights the sale of aborted fetal baby parts.
The China shock has left middle America hollowed out, its once industrious middle-class manufacturing base impoverished, unemployed, and ravaged by a largely unaddressed opioid crisis. Meanwhile, American mega-corporations happily replace non-college-educated American workers with cheap foreign laborers, exploiting our country’s legal immigration system with impunity. These same corporations happily bend the knee to China, helping America’s biggest geopolitical adversary develop technology and looking the other way as China marches its minorities into forced labor camps.
Women as a unique and celebrated biological class are slowly being erased as their accomplishments in the classroom and on the athletic field are overtaken by men. Americans, including elected officials, are cut off without recourse from the digital public square.
Employees at America’s flagship corporations are punished if they don’t submit to corporate race flogging from HR, while public institutions teach America’s kids that their worth is defined by skin color. Americans are now routinely fired, with the encouragement of the federal government, for refusing vaccines that have been widely available for less than a year.
In the face of all of this, congressional Republicans must do more than simply shrug. A party that cannot even acknowledge the emergence of these threats, much less commit to specific, novel ways of addressing them, is assigning itself to irrelevance.
Republicans Must Deliver for Their Voters
A coherent Republican agenda has to tangibly deliver for its voters — not simply through appeals to broad, free-market concepts, but by directly addressing the hurdles thrown down by the corporate, government, and geoeconomic forces that seek to do them harm.
Trump doesn’t remain the most popular Republican in the party due to some coercion or bullying or mind control. He remains popular with the Republican base because of his willingness as president to speak directly to what was threatening people every day. Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, has exploded in popularity for the exact same reason.
Republicans would be wrong to think that voters are flocking to them in 2022 because they’ve presented a clear and compelling vision for the future. Even political neophytes can see that Republicans are winning not on their own merits, but because Democrats are massively imploding in a spectacle of tone-deaf, racist woke-splaining overreach, unabated COVID power grabs, and legislative incompetence.
But as this Democratic majority has shown, it’s one thing to win power, it’s another to maintain it. The Republican party may have voters turning to them now in desperation, but they’re still waiting for a tangible reason to stay.