Reports released this week show a Trump economy that is going gangbusters: 145,000 new jobs were added in the final month of 2019. The stock market is at an all-time high, and unemployment rates are at record lows across all demographic groups. Even the New York Times grudgingly had to admit that last year, most Americans got a tax cut.
If James Carville is correct, and the only thing that truly matters in an election year is “the economy, stupid,” then Republicans should be popping champagne corks going into November.
But there is something fundamental about the economy President Trump understands that mainstream Republicans still do not grasp: a strong economy means more than just CEOs doing well—it means a secure and thriving middle class, too.
On the campaign trail, and in office, Trump has demonstrated his intuitive grasp of this principle. It’s the genesis of his aggressive stance against China for their currency manipulation that devalues the dollar and allows them to flood the market with cheap goods. Wall Street sniffs at it derisively; but Middle America, whose jobs and wealth are most affected by it, love it.
They love it for the same reason they love Trump’s re-negotiation of NAFTA, and his threats to levy tariffs against countries that have long taken advantage of America’s formerly dogmatic posture on trade—which, for years, has been to say that all is well if Wall Street makes money, and too bad about rural America getting outsourced.
If electoral politics mean anything, the days of calling on middle class Americans to just move to cities and learn to code should be behind us.
It is this blue-collar populist coalition that sent Trump to the White House, and the same coalition that just may give it to him again. But there are signs that the establishment GOP is still obtuse in the face of the full breadth of what the Trump economy means, outside of a cresting stock market and Wall Street wealth. In neglecting to embrace an economy that is actually good for all Americans, they threaten to undermine the gains that Trump has made for their own party.
Nowhere was this divide more prominently on display than in this week’s public dispute between former-conservative-turned-NeverTrumper columnist George F. Will, and the upstart new Republican senator from Missouri, Josh Hawley.
In the first year of his term, Hawley has positioned himself as the populist voice for the working class within the GOP—in many ways, a Trump proxy in the Senate. He roared onto the scene with withering, self-aware critiques of his own party.
“For too long now,” Hawley declared in July, “this country has been badly led . . . by a political consensus forged by a political class that has lost touch with what binds us together as Americans.”
Hawley has been consistent in savaging the old shibboleths of the conservative-libertarian consensus, taking pointed aim at their slavish and uncritical fealty to corporations and financial centers. The consequences—the offshoring of American jobs, capital flight overseas and to the coasts, and the displacement of U.S.-made products with cheap goods from China—has slowly destroyed rural American communities, left middle-class families broke and bereft, and contributed to the existential hopelessness that’s driving up suicide rates and substance addiction.
Much like the president, Hawley has reinvigorated conservatism, forcing the old scions to engage in lively debate, to dust off old assumptions and examine them to see if they’re still relevant, and otherwise to engage in some self-critical review. Political movements, as a rule, should welcome the chance to defend, update, and re-articulate their ideas; indeed, it is what keeps them politically and culturally relevant.
But as with every political movement, the establishment benefiting from the dusty status quo, whatever it is, will respond with indignation and fits of pique, huffing at the sheer audacity of being challenged by other opinions, rather than welcoming the opportunity to be sharpened, or to sharpen others.
Many of the reactions to Hawley from those on the conservative-libertarian Right have taken this form. Ultimately, they prove his point about the corporate consensus. Their arguments, conveniently, never acknowledge the reality of the economic problems he points out, or the role that decades of corporate deference has played in creating them.
Rather, in cutting examples of the intellectual laziness and mental irritation that now passes for thoughtfulness from some on the Right, they usually just howl something about how he’s a statist or a socialist, as if these ad hominems should pass for argument. And this week, none other than the great George Will joined the pile on.
Will, like other old-style commentators past his prime, is wedded to a conservatism where the primary metrics of success are a booming stock market and a thriving corporate class; where “individual choice” is reduced to having lots of options for cheap Chinese-made TVs at Walmart, and nothing else.
And, conveniently, those metrics also act as a panacea for everything that ails America.
So you got laid off when your job went to India? You dutifully went to college because you were told it was how to get ahead, but now the only thing you can afford to pay is the interest on your massive student debt? You lost your life savings in the 2008 crash, but it’s supposed to be OK because your tax dollars bailed out the rich bankers who were responsible? The only job you can get is at an Amazon warehouse, where you have to pee in bottles and watch your co-workers die on the floor?
Don’t worry, says Will. The market will fix all of it. Eventually. Probably. Maybe. Someday, after you are dead.
To be clear, the indicators Will worships are not unimportant. But, as Hawley has taken pains to show, an overreliance on them results in the Right losing focus on other things that matter. Like the deterioration of communities, the family, and even human dignity—all things that foundational conservatives from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk assigned critical value.
But Will is infected with such a thick strain of corporatist libertarianism that this level of self-awareness appears to be beyond him. According to Will in all of his fair-minded generosity, Hawley—because he asserts that an overemphasis on economic policy has led to the loss of community—is not simply misguided, or misinterpreting the signs, or even just well-meaning but misled. Rather, according to Will, he is a Marxist.
“The poverty of George Will’s political imagination: the only possible postures are libertarianism or Communism/Fascism,” sighed Sohrab Ahmari.
Ahmari has a point. Will has resided for so long in a world where “corporations doing well” means “everyone is doing well” that he sees critiques of corporatism as outright attacks on capitalism.
As if to demonstrate this, he waxes on for an entire paragraph about how we live in the richest country in the world, in the most economically successful age in recorded history. All of this is true, just like it’s true that capitalism and free markets are the superior economic system for creating wealth up and down the income ladder.
But, either intentionally, or through a severe lack of capacity for nuance, he misses Hawley’s point, which also happens to be a political as well as an economic reality: that even despite broad indicators of wealth, huge swaths of this country still feel economically insecure and displaced, and that a majority of Americans believe a strong economy primarily benefits the rich.
So powerful is this belief—and the related conviction that neither establishment Democrats or Republicans could or would address it—that it built out of nothing a bipartisan blue-collar coalition that sent President Trump to the White House. And so visceral is the economic cynicism among millennials (who, by the way, will be the first generation to create less wealth than their parents) that they are turning, in droves, to socialism.
Those on the political Right, like Will, who simply shrug this off by saying well, “Millennials don’t work hard, we live in the richest age, if your town is crumbling just move, and by the way, have you seen the stock market?” are the reason the middle class has lost faith in the establishment political class.
They are part of the reason the GOP base rejected the establishment candidates, purveyors of “what’s been done before,” for an outside disrupter who told them he would buck the political elite, shatter the old orthodoxies, and not be pushed around either by K Street or Wall Street.
But for that center to hold, the mainstream GOP must wake up to economic realities and the intractable political perceptions that have arisen on their watch—and endeavor to address them, rather than dismiss them.
Josh Hawley is doing his best to remind the GOP of what they once prioritized: community bonds, strong families, and an economy that encourages true individual autonomy—not one that just means a bevy of market choices—to flourish.
In some ways, Hawley is doing exactly as Edmund Burke admonished: bringing the old virtues back into the light. George Will, if he still has the capacity to see value in life outside of the stock market, would do well to be reminded.