There is lots of talk about a new nationalist populist worker movement.
Supposedly, something quite new would institutionalize, define, and solidify the Trump base of aging Reagan Democrats, old Ross Perot independents, Tea Party remnants, newly disaffected Democratic workers, and a few returning libertarians and paleocons. Certainly, together they helped to swung the election in 2016.
But what exactly would be the formal agenda of the proverbial deplorables and irredeemables? And how would it differ all that much from conservative Republicanism of generations past?
After all, despite a much-hyped conservative civil war, a bitter primary, and a NeverTrump movement that won’t quiet, 90 percent of the Republicans in 2016 still voted for Trump. These voters assumed, like deplorable and irredeemable Democrats and Independents, that Trump would push conservative agendas. And they were largely proved correct.
After 10 months of governance, Trump’s deregulations, a foreign policy of principled realism, energy agendas, judicial appointments, efforts at tax reform and health care recalibration, cabinet appointments, and reformulation at the Departments of Education, the EPA, and Interior seem so far conservative to the core.
Illegal Immigration, Trade, and Realism
In the few areas where Trump conceivably differed from his 16 primary Republican rivals—immigration, trade, and foreign policy—the 20th-century Republican/conservative orthodoxy was actually closer to Trump’s positions than to those of recent Republican nominees, John McCain or Mitt Romney.
Vast majorities of conservatives always favored enforcement of federal immigration law rather than tolerance of sanctuary cities. They wanted to preserve legal, meritocratic, diverse, and measured immigration, not sanction open borders. And they championed the melting pot over the identity politics of the salad bowl.
In sum, voters did not believe the United States could continue with open borders, or the idea that foreign nationals could cross the border illegally and at will, and then dictate to their hosts the circumstances of their continued residence—much less accuse their magnanimous hosts of racism and nativism for not accepting the demands of their advocates.
All Trump did was return prior orthodoxy on border enforcement to the fore, albeit often with blunter rhetoric. He called out a loud but minority corporate interest on the Right that wanted cheap labor. And he questioned the wisdom of Republican officials who apparently saw appeasement of illegal immigration as a way to compete for the eventual votes of inevitable and huge annual influxes of illegal aliens.
But again, the rise of the deplorables was not evidence of some new strain of xenophobia and nativism. Rather their views marked a return not just to Republican values, but also the majority position held by most Americans.
On trade, every Republican knew that China, as well other developing and mercantile exporting countries cheated and, in effect, ignored agreements on trademarks, copyrights, and safety regulations.
Trump riled up his base by demanding the government do what Republicans in the past had once assumed to be the commonplace view of things—although in a fashion less radical than the former tariff-policies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Trump further opposed some of the policies of trade blocs like NAFTA. But as in the case of NATO, it is just as likely that in Art of the Deal style, Trump feigned much of his furor to give his subordinates greater leverage to renegotiate a fairer commercial and financial status quo.
On foreign policy, Trumpism is a return to, or a refinement of, Reagan’s and the elder Bush’s principled realism: the acceptance that the United States has to protect its friends and deter its enemies, maintain the postwar order, avoid optional wars, and force allies in the West to shoulder the collective burden. A nation does not have to be perfect, but being better than the alternative, occasionally, should help it to earn American support
Trump’s break from doctrinaire neoconservatism came not over punishing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein (despite Trump’s denials of his initial support for removing Saddam Hussein), but in seeking to rebuild both nations in the image of a Western constitutional state—a task often considered too costly in blood and treasure in the people’s strict cost/benefit analysis.
Reactionary or Revolutionary?
In this regard, Trumpism was again a sort of return to the Republican Party of the 1990s when the Republican-led Congress almost cut off funding for the Clinton Administration’s bombing efforts to remove Slobodan Milosevic—even as American jets were in the air over Kosovo. Certainly, in that aspect, late 20th-century Republicans were more isolationist than a 21st-century Trump.
Again, the Trump foreign policy agenda is far closer to Ronald Reagan’s policies than past Republican nominees. Reagan in 1968, 1976, and 1980 was similarly demonized as an America First threat to Rockefeller Republicanism—whether renouncing the Panama Canal Treaty or opposing détente with the Soviet Union.
So what drives deplorablism?
It is not so much an ideological or even political movement as it is a spiritual and psychological frame of mind that is fed up with hypocrisies of the proverbial establishment, bicoastal cultural elites, and the deep administrative state.
Deplorablism, Rightly Understood
Deplorables grew furious as amnesty Democrats and especially corporate Republicans preached about the values of open borders and unchecked illegal immigration—but never quite experienced first-hand the effects their policies had on distant others. Influential advocates of lax border security tended to put their kids in private schools, lived in mostly apartheid communities, saw illegal aliens largely as cheap labor and personal servants, did not have any personal desire to live among, befriend, tutor or mentor those they championed—and assuaged their guilt by blasting their own fellow conservative with charges of xenophobia and nativism.
I once experienced a lot of Republican orthodox disdain when I wrote Mexifornia in 2003 and discovered how unabashedly some elites believed that cheap labor should trump worries over routine lawbreaking, static wages of entry-level American laborers, and the impediments that that mass illegal immigration posed to the melting pot of assimilation and integration. In some sense, in 2003 the editorial position on illegal immigration of La Voz de Aztlan and the Wall Street Journal were almost indistinguishable.
The deplorables were further enraged about national security that was never defined as predicated first on American interests abroad and at home. Nothing was more surreal than to read Vanity Fair in 2006 and learn that many of the architects of the Iraq War had bailed on the war in mediis rebus. Yet some of such critics had called for a preemptive strike against Iraq as early as the mid-1990s, during the Clinton Administration, as part of the Project for the New American Century agenda of preemptive war.
But rather than to adhere to the old adage that the only thing worse than waging a bad war was to lose it, some who had sought optional wars were now perceived to have disclaimed the very ordeal that followed from the decisions they had once welcomed—even as more than 100,000 Americans were stuck fighting with vanishing elite support. “My perfect three-week invasion, your botched up occupation,” is not a legitimate fallback position once Americans are dying in the field.
The point of calling for “fair” rather than “free” trade was to end the idea that commercial violations by rising powers were considered tolerable because they were better off in the family of nations than outside as renegades.
In truth, the consequences of asymmetrical trade practices fell mostly on Americans who unfortunately were mired in industries considered passé, and therefore they were supposed to pass on with them. As one of “globalism’s sore losers,” I once wrote another book, Fields Without Dreams, chronicling the mass bankruptcies of farmers in a new globalized, vertically integrated world. Foreign subsidies, especially those of the European Union, had helped to crash some American commodity prices. Yet that fact was ignored, by the apology that such foreign cost-cutting at least drove down consumer prices. Foreign subsidies also supposedly forced farmers to “improve” their own domestic “productivity” to compete—and thus made us “leaner.” And ultimately we were assured that foreign subsidies would boomerang on their creators and prove self-defeating for cheating trade partners.
All such arguments were, in theory, logical and were fine and noble thoughts. But again, they were applicable to a distant future—and to an “Other,” rather than immediately relevant to those who embraced such creative destruction agendas. These were also economic rationales that by needs ignored the cultural reality of agrarian annihilation—analogous to Hillary Clinton’s nostrums for the coal industry.
Finally, the deplorables grew weary with sober and judicious Marquis of Queensberry campaigning rules. Republicans had been losing nobly on the national level with presidential candidates who had not achieved 51 percent of the vote since 1988 and had lost the popular votes in five out of the last six elections—even as Republicans made substantial gains in Congressional, state, and local offices.
Trump may have done no better in the popular vote and may have won ugly, but he won nonetheless against the odds and for now, showed that past political appeasement had done no better than fiery deterrence.
In sum, “deplorablism” is mostly a style. The Trump agenda so far is mostly mainstream 20th-century Republicanism. To the degree it is not seen as such on trade, immigration, and foreign policy, it may be that it is far more traditionally conservative than what had become the de facto position of the 21st-century Republican Party.
The departure from conservatism is not what the once liberal Democrat Trump has done since January, but what those who oppose him might likely do in his place.
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