One of the front page commentaries in today’s NY Times “Sunday Review” proclaims a new, revolutionized Republican Party, thanks to Donald Trump. The party of Ronald Reagan is dead, the author, R.R. Reno, claims. Trump has overturned traditional Republican/conservative themes while re-framing the terms of the American political divide. It’s no longer about big vs. small government, or more or less regulation. It’s about nationalism vs. globalism. Reno observes that at his campaign rallies Trump didn’t get cheers for denouncing government waste or championing tax cuts. People cheered for deporting illegal immigrants, building a wall and bringing back jobs. Trump, in contrast to the Republicans as well as Democrats who preceded him in the White House, will take up arms against a globalist consensus that empowers a technocratic elite while disenfranchising the vast majority of the population.
Reno sees what he clearly wants to see, and doesn’t see the obvious: the Republican Party of Trump is still the party of Reagan, with some adjustments. Let’s look first at domestic policy. The party of Reagan has long stood for lower taxes on the rich, the deregulation of business, the curtailment of “entitlements,” and restricting, preferably ending, abortion rights. What has Trump done, or tried to do, in his first 100 days? He has proposed massive tax cuts for the rich, initiated a wide-ranging de-regulation of business, tried to abolish Obamacare, and declared war on abortion providers. Trump doesn’t care about big vs. small government? You wouldn’t know it from his budget, which eviscerates domestic policy programs across the board. But he does want a whopping increase in military spending, which puts him squarely in line with his GOP predecessors.
Yes, Trumps’ anti-immigrant campaign runs against the grain of business Republicanism, which loves cheap labor. But Trump’s nativism is hardly a stranger to the GOP. Let’s not forget that it was Republican opposition that killed immigration reform during the Obama administration.
Nor does Trump’s foreign policy look out of line with traditional Republican globalism. Trump apparently enjoys being rude to allies, but substantively, little has changed. He has backpedaled from his earlier anti-NATO and anti-China rhetoric, and demonstrated a readiness to use military force that has won plaudits from neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists alike.
The one area that Trump does depart from Republican orthodoxy is “free trade” agreements. He did drop the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which had overwhelming GOP approval. And he still rails against NAFTA, though now he says that he wants to re-negotiate it, not end it. But Trump has never spelled out what his own alternative international economic policies would look like. I doubt that he knows himself. My guess is that ultimately Trump’s “America First”-ism won’t look all that different from the globalism of his predecessors. “Free trade” agreements, after all, are not so much about breaking down barriers to trade as they are about restricting government regulation of international business. From the American standpoint, they are about making the rest of the world safe for the operations of American corporations. That’s what Trump surely wants as well. Another Times article today reported that the Trump White House has been unusually open to input from American business, having already hosted dozens of sessions with hundreds of corporate executives. These are Trump’s kind of people; they’re “winners,” like him. And you can be sure that the titans of American industry overwhelmingly favor “free trade.” Trump will listen and learn.
Having already downgraded Steve Bannon, the most noxious xenophobe in his entourage, I expect that Trump will eventually disappoint the more polite xenophobes like R.R. Reno. On policy if not on style, this is going to be a fairly traditional Republican administration—one committed to the longstanding GOP mission of comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted.