The big unresolved question of the Trump era is simple: What happens when Donald Trump’s presidency is over? Has the Republican Party really become more “populist,” or will the GOP revert to the neoliberal, neoconservative status quo?
The coronavirus has brought this question into focus like never before. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a supposed populist of the Left, dropped out in a humiliating and shameful surrender, right in the middle of an economic catastrophe that threatens to wipe out what is left of the working class he claims to champion. For his part, Donald Trump has not turned out to be, so far, as aggressive a populist as some might have expected.
President Trump will run whatever campaign he likes, but the playbook has practically been written for him: double down on the pro-worker, anti-globalization politics that won him his first term. Joe Biden, a barely conscious, Wall Street plutocrat—and a stooge for China, no less—is an obvious and easy foil.
Whatever happens this November, it is questionable whether the establishment politics that came before Trump will survive an unprecedented pandemic that is already testing the GOP’s commitment to “limited government.” The coronavirus has unleashed an enormous bi-partisan appetite for spending that is not likely to subside when the immediate health threat goes away.
The meltdown is only just getting started, but the signs of devastation are sobering.
Last week was Wall Street’s best since 1974, but that was cold comfort for 22 million Americans currently out of work. For perspective, that’s one-in-seven U.S. workers. Some predict the unemployment rate could swell to 30 percent, worse than the Great Depression.
When the full impact hits, will Americans tolerate austerity from their government? For the undeceived, the answer is obvious. Of course not. Especially when Wall Street is getting generous bailouts, how will admonitions to stick to “limited government” sound to millions of people living in destitution?
The GOP has already signed on with a $2 trillion stimulus package, the largest in history, and the national debt is reaching its highest level since World War II. At the risk of reading too much into historical parallels, Republicans need to prepare for the possibility that the coronavirus really is a crisis on the scale of the Great Depression, one which, consequently, will force lawmakers to reimagine the role that national governments play in keeping the economy working for regular people.
The Great Depression gave life to the New Deal. As Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) looks for another quarter-trillion dollars to keep small businesses afloat, one Republican senator is looking far beyond that. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), the cerebral freshman and a leading voice of populism, wants to protect “every single job” in the country by having the federal government “cover 80 percent of wages for workers at any U.S. business, up to the national median wage, until this emergency is over.” He also wants to give businesses a bonus for rehiring workers.
Hawley’s Republican colleagues will balk at this plan as an incontinent breach of party orthodoxy—a socialist scheme, even. But the truth is that the “fiscal conservatism” of the Republican Party has long been a myth, and not just because of their failure of nerve.
It was President Reagan who exploded the debt, after all, and Trump has been as happy a spender as any president since. Thrift is hardly a virtue in Washington. It’s about priority. There’s always somehow cash to spend on pointless wars and corporate bailouts, but somehow there never seems to be enough for working people whose lives have become materially worse over the last several decades.
Goodbye (and Good Riddance) to Libertarian Politics
The coronavirus crisis may vindicate one of the central ideas of Hawley and like-minded populists: at some point, the state has some kind of responsibility to the public good, a responsibility on which it alone has the power to make good.
At any rate, it is hard to see this crisis making Republican voters, who are increasingly poor, more tolerant of the kind of libertarian establishment politics that had already fallen out of fashion in 2016.
It was a certain neglect, a “laissez-faire” disregard for the role of government in public stewardship, that helped create the inequities of the social order that voters then rejected by voting for an outsider, a figure who promised finally to enforce immigration laws and put government muscle behind protecting American workers from globalization. If the inequities of that order were intolerable then, the stresses of the new financial crisis may tip the Jenga Tower over.
There’s going to be less tolerance for the kind of Republican who would make things harder for working people by subsidizing the loss of their labor power to Central American migrants or wage slaves in China. Myths about the benevolence of investment bankers, the all-provisioning power of the free market, and the necessity of government staying on the sidelines while ordinary people suffer, will fail to resonate when this crisis has run its course.
When the emergency passes, Republicans may find that the coronavirus will have left the mark of populism that Trump unleashed—and which figures like Hawley champion—on the party for good, perhaps even in spite of Trump himself.
Until now, Trump’s campaign has focused a great deal on socialism, rather than the globalization that he campaigned against in 2016, thanks to the tenacity of an establishment that has ridden his coattails with superficial endorsements of the “America First” agenda. At some point, though, the buck stops with the president. It was only days ago that the DHS was planning to hand out thousands more H-2B visas to foreign workers, right in the middle of the worst economic meltdown in generations.
If Americans are really heading for a depression, then running on an establishment message would be untimely at best.
But there are signs of a pivot already in the Trump movement. Charlie Kirk, who enjoys a rapport with Trump and his family, to the chagrin of those on the Right who think he is a sellout for the donor class, called for the suspension of all workers’ visas until the pandemic passes. This was a 180-degree turn from the very recent past.
As for the party, while it would be foolish to read the GOP’s stimulus spending as some willful shift in principle, it is possible that circumstance will force Republican leaders to chart an unprecedented course. There aren’t many reasons at the moment to find the “return to normalcy” being offered by Joe Biden and the Democrats very plausible.