Everyone wants to be an America-First Republican these days. This includes a bevy of #NeverTrump types who have rebranded themselves as born-again MAGA Republicans.
While I am all for converts, I’m always skeptical of grifters. It should have been obvious that the GOP had gone off the rails prior to Trump. In the Bush years, the country lost its way fighting endless wars in the Middle East while abandoning all fiscal discipline. The fully Republican-controlled federal government presided over the continuing deindustrialization of America and did nothing to stop the disunifying policy of massive, sustained immigration. In 2008 and 2012, the Republican establishment ran sketchy neoconservatives for president, even though neoconservative policies had authored George W. Bush’s failures.
This record of failure and disrespect for voters’ repeatedly stated grievances is why so many people gravitated to Trump. He exposed the Republicans’ lame agenda of corporate giveaways and forever wars, while being equally critical of the Democrats’ treachery and counsel of weakness.
What Does it Mean to Be America First?
Differing in important ways from both parties, Trump’s America First platform was a nationalist one, standing on the three legs of foreign policy restraint, immigration restriction, and nationalist economic policies, such as tariffs. Unlike legacy Republicans, he was no longer aiming to reduce social security or other popular programs that help the middle class, nor was he a pushover, whether with China, the media, or anyone else.
Trump was polarizing, but had a lot of support, particularly among Republicans. Even with the headwinds of the COVID crisis, the contrast in performance with the Biden crew is more apparent every day. Under Trump, wages were going up, while prices were stable, no new wars were begun, and America’s challengers—including North Korea, Russia, Iran, and China—were cowed in the face of Trump’s projection of American strength.
While the America First and MAGA labels are popular, the policies implied by these terms are getting murky. Lately the establishment-endorsed youth movement, TPUSA, has decided it’s all about America First, even though Charlie Kirk wrote in these pages a defense of the “established dogma of the Bush-McCain-Romney years” several years ago. The recently created and auspiciously named America First Policy Institute has among its luminaries a bunch of ineffective Republican leaders from yesteryear, like Larry Kudlow, Rick Perry, and Bobby Jindal.
Much of the GOP and Conservatism, Inc. has worked to corral and redirect the energy of Republican voters in recent years. Behind closed doors, it is obvious they find their voters embarrassing or distasteful. Voters’ concerns for things like a border wall or gay marriage are seen as behind the times. The politicians and the professionals would rather be talking tax cuts and give the occasional, ineffectual condemnation of “cancel culture.”
Any purported America First organization or elected official unwilling to challenge taboos on race, immigration, foreign policy, free trade, feminism, and all the other legacy items of the establishment is unworthy of the name. The only thing such a group will “make great again” is Donor Conservatism.
Republicans’ True Colors Exposed
A good example of Republican weakness is the recent Senate fight over a bill to reverse the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Bill Clinton signed this 1996 law to give states assured control over their marriage laws. Under DOMA, just because one state allowed gay marriage would not oblige other states, such as those with gay marriage bans, to recognize such “marriages.” The law was a defense of both the family and federalism.
The Democrats have shrewdly put the GOP in a pickle by passing a bill in the House enshrining the Supreme Court’s 2015 gay marriage decisions. Many of the Republicans do not want to be dealing with this issue, and while they have paid lip service to family values and resisting out-of-control courts, they are not-so-secretly glad the courts removed the issue from the political process, just as they not-so-secretly enjoyed talking about abortion restrictions when such talk was legally meaningless. Many Republicans have already jumped ship, including self-proclaimed MAGA acolytes like Representative Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.).
As a matter of politics, compared to the nationalist trio named above, sexual morality issues are probably not big political winners. Maybe this has always been true. Whether gays can marry only has an indirect effect on the lives of straight people. Further, many Republicans have embraced parts of the sexual revolution, whether it’s in the form of divorce or personal lifestyle and, thus, are fairly libertarian about such matters.
But even for those disposed to “live and let live,” the gay rights agenda has become more and more intrusive. We are in the age of drag queen story hour, grooming, preferred pronouns, and monkeypox. It is not we, but the Left who interfere with our lives and the common morality of our communities. One can believe people should be generally left alone and treated kindly, without also thinking they should be allowed to marry one another. We can’t marry multiple wives, nor our siblings, yet our human rights remain fully intact.
Gay marriage was foisted on the country by the Supreme Court only seven years ago, after numerous referenda where voters from states as varied as Mississippi and California voted to make it illegal. Gay marriage is an artificial, elite-driven change, and it deserves little respect.
The Power of Belief
For those who counsel a tactical retreat from this issue, consider why the gay marriage movement itself was so successful. It was not popular in the beginning, but public opinion softened not only from the movement’s relentless propaganda, but also from changes to the law, which normalized what is intrinsically quite radical.
The Left pursued its gay marriage agenda without regard to public opinion, because proponents believed they were right. Such single-minded belief in one’s values is a powerful tool in politics, when so many people are weak-willed, have half-hearted beliefs, and their political representatives try to avoid the wrath of the true believers.
The lesson? We on the Right need to have the same single-mindedness, self-confidence, and courage to pursue our beliefs, even when they are not currently popular. This is the whole point of politics: to get power and change behavior, which in turn changes what is popular. Not everything we pursue will be equally popular, but presumably the double-digit inflation and the dementia patient in the White House will ensure a wave victory, even if the GOP embraces mainstream California values circa 2008.
This spirit of defiant self-confidence should be the heart of any authentic America First MAGA movement. It must be an “all fronts” war on the Left and every form of damage they have done to our common life over the last 50 years. And it must be devoted equally to policing wimpy Republicans who want to consolidate the Democrats’ gains of only 10 years ago, as it is devoted to taking power from the Left in political and cultural arenas of our own choosing.
If Republicans are afraid of the wrath of the “they/thems” of the world, along with the woke corporations, they should be even more afraid of the wrath of normal families, who want to reverse the social and cultural revolution that has made life so inhospitable to family life and normalcy.
When it comes to such a fight, those who were #NeverTrump and saw nothing wrong with Paul Ryan are unworthy leaders. If they wrap themselves in the flag of America First and MAGA today, it is mostly a pose, just as the Republican establishment earlier absorbed and defanged the grassroots Tea Party Movement. If politicians are too weak to do the right thing on something obvious like gay marriage, it’s unlikely they’ll hold the line on anything else.
The America First movement is an insurgent movement, and it is also a challenge to the fiscally conservative, socially liberal orthodoxy that has characterized the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan. Trump showed a different way, and while he did not emphasize the sexual morality issues of the culture war, he did emphasize the importance of being strong and tough and uncompromising. Real America First voters should not give the Left an inch, and we should be devoted to acquiring and using power to further our own agenda.
A good way to separate the brave from the timid would be to deal the Left a loss on the modern sacred cow of gay marriage.