Republicans Still Don't Get Trump

Column: Trade, immigration, and the new politics of sovereignty

President Trump And Sen. Mitch McConnell Address Media After Working Lunch
Getty Images
March 23, 2018

"The heart and soul of the Republican Party belongs to Donald Trump," writes Lloyd Green. If so, the GOP has an odd way of showing affection. Green cites a lack of Republican criticism of Trump, the president's continued popularity within the party, and Trump's rescue of incumbent Nevada senator Dean Heller from a primary challenge. All true. But when it comes to the president's priorities and the nationalist populist style of politics he represents, Trump and the Republican Congress could not be farther apart.

Trump won the nomination and the presidency after distinguishing himself from the party in four ways. Since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have tended to support global economic integration, immigration, democratic internationalism, and entitlement reform. And yet Trump opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, called to renegotiate NAFTA, and wanted tariffs on China. His 2015 immigration plan championed a wall across the southern border, workplace enforcement, an end to birthright citizenship, and a tripling of border and customs agents. He repudiated the Iraq war and questioned the future of NATO. He swore that Social Security and Medicare would be off-limits. His brashness, colorfulness, insults, willingness to transgress norms, humor, novelty, and lack of political experience separated him from the GOP pack.

This program and its avatar won three Great Lakes states that had been missing from the Republican column for a generation. Trump also came within striking distance in Minnesota and New Hampshire. Obviously we do not know the exact relation between Trump's nationalism and populism and the roughly 78,000 votes in three states that gave him an Electoral College victory. But the unexpected shape of his upset suggests that the trademark Trump issues of immigration, trade, nonintervention, and retirement security played some role both in attracting support for him and depressing turnout for Hillary Clinton.

Yet the 16 months since the election have seen the gradual, fitful, and partial regularization of Trump into the GOP that predated and opposed him. Until recently the president and congressional leadership were aligned: They seated a justice and lower-court judges, rolled back Obama-era regulations, failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, and passed a large tax cut. Trump's foreign policy also became more conventionally Republican. He bombed Syria, turned down his criticism of NATO, maintained a troop presence in Afghanistan despite his instincts to withdraw, and increased defense spending. The signature Trump policies—including the travel ban, exit from the TPP and Paris Climate Accord, and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem—were greeted with friendly skepticism from party elites. By the end of 2017, one would have thought the party would change Trump more than he would change it.

That hasn't happened. Instead, both Trump and the GOP seem to be reverting to form: Trump has pressed for changes to legal immigration, visited prototypes for the border wall, called for the death penalty for opioid dealers, and imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum as well as against China, amid anxiety and dissent and resistance from congressmen of his own party. Trump's instincts and impulsiveness have driven him to re-embrace the portfolio that delivered his electoral coalition at the very moment Republicans in Congress want nothing so much as to return to their districts, publicize the tax cut, and vainly attempt to divorce their campaigns from national politics. And so we are faced with the oddity that Trump's approval rating is creeping upward even as Democrats press their midterm advantage.

Trump and the Republicans operate according to different hierarchies of values. To the degree that his behavior can be categorized by a single idea, Trump's most singular policies address the question of sovereignty: Who rules? Here, in America, the people rule, or are supposed to. Trump's rhetoric defines the people as American citizens, regardless of racial or ethnic identity. The domestic objective of his presidency is to re-assert popular control over judges, bureaucracies, and elected officials. The extent of sovereignty must be defined, which is why we have borders and require a wall to protect a porous one. And national sovereignty is important, too. That is why America must re-establish its privileges and ability to maneuver vis-à-vis multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, international agreements, and the World Trade Organization.

If I had to choose a guiding principle of congressional Republicans, it would be freedom. The freedom of the individual to live the life he chooses, the freedom of people and goods and services to move across borders, the freedom to work, spend, and invest as one sees fit, the freedom of people around the world to govern themselves.

Now, sovereignty and freedom are not necessarily in conflict. They overlap, and they can move in tandem. They often have done so in American history. But one must also balance the other. A sovereign without regard for freedom would be unjust, and increasing social and economic freedom can lead to the loss of sovereignty. The thrust of populist politics since 2016 indicates that voters believe that the mix of sovereignty and freedom is out of whack, that national and democratic sovereignty must be upheld even if it means tighter regulation of the global economy and especially of global migration.

At its most politically successful, the party of Trump pits miners, hard hats, farmers, soldiers, veterans, and public safety officers against CEOs, bankers, lawyers, doctors, bureaucrats, professors, and educators. Yet none of Trump's personal or policy decisions occasioned as much intra-party pushback, including a high-profile resignation, as the imposition of tariffs. Not only do Republicans seem largely ignorant of the fact that Donald Trump's political instincts are better than their own, they also refuse to learn.

This divergence between Trump and the Republicans is apparent in the $1.3 trillion government-funding bill. If there is one thing every American knows about Donald Trump, it is that he wants to build a wall along the Mexican border. Yet Republican congressmen, most of which adhere to pre-Trump views of immigration, secured only $1.6 billion for the project. Democrats are crowing. "Democrats won explicit language restricting border construction to the same see-through fencing that was already authorized under current law," Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. "The bill does not allow any increase in deportation officers or detention beds." Part of the responsibility for this setback goes to Trump, who seems to have been disengaged from the negotiations until the last minute. But the main reason the money isn't there is the fact that congressional leadership had neither the desire nor the stomach to fight for it.

Something similar has happened with trade. Whatever the economic consequences of Trump's protectionism—and they could be bad—it cannot be denied that this is the issue on which he has been most consistent over 30 years in the public eye. Nor can the political appeal of siding with domestic manufacturers over multinational corporations be ignored by anyone who has seen Democrats rhetorically position themselves on the side of the American worker since 1992. By dividing trades and construction union membership against leadership in 2016, Trump called forth the Reagan Democrats who had vanished from the scene, and convinced millions of white working-class voters to defect from the Obama coalition.

They can just as easily switch back, of course. When I visited the websites of the two candidates in the recent Pennsylvania special election, I was struck that it was the Democrat, rather than the Republican, who highlighted infrastructure, opioids, and protecting entitlements, three topics of keen interest to Trump voters. By neutralizing the hot-button cultural issues of guns and abortion, and highlighting Rick Saccone's support for right-to-work and other pro-business measures, Conor Lamb re-appropriated the economic program that Donald Trump used to win Pennsylvania-18 by 20 points. He won't be the last Democrat to do so.

Published under: Donald Trump