Lately, I’ve been noticing the most interesting phenomenon; life-long Republicans who are completely fed-up with the current Republican party. Bruce Bartlett, for example. No, that’s not President Bartlet’s brother. Josiah Bartlet’s brother was named Joseph, plus he was a Democrat, and also, you know, fictional. No, Bruce Bartlett is an historian and economist who worked for Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He recently endorsed Donald Trump for President, which endorsement, given Bartlet’s policy preferences and personality, seemed a bit surprising. Then, when asked in a recent interview why, said this: “my goal is to try to destroy the Republican party.” He then elaborated:
“I think only when it has reached rock bottom can responsible Republicans once again come back and make it a reasonable governing party. Right now the party is just a coalition of cranks, and racists and bigots and religious kooks. The Tea Party have to be run out of the Party completely. And I think Trump is the vehicle that will allow that to happen. I think if he gets the nomination, and I hope he does, he will go down to a historic defeat. I think the Republican establishment will have no choice but to disown him. I think there will be a very substantial “Republicans for Hillary” effort and I think he will lose disastrously and hopefully bring down a lot of Republican senators and congressmen with him.”
Remember, this isn’t from Bill Maher or someone. This is from an eminence grise of the Republican party. Here’s another one, Lindsey Graham, Senator from South Carolina, who appeared on The Daily Show a month ago.
What’s remarkable about this clip is the thinly disguised contempt Graham has for his party’s presumptive nominee, that nominee’s main opponent, and his party in general, which he calls ‘totally screwed up.’
Charles Koch said on Sunday that he and his brother were strongly considering ‘sitting this one out,’ and not donating money to any of the candidates running for President. GOP voters routinely speak of their party’s candidates as ‘sophomoric,’ and ‘disgusting.’
Of course, a lot of this reflects a general mainstream Republican distaste for Donald J. Trump. His xenophobia, religious bigotry and bullying manner are seen, by power brokers and party insiders, as inconsistent with the kind of gentlemanly politics they were raised with. In other words, I suspect that a lot of the opposition to Trump is more stylistic than substantive. Candidates for President of the United States are expected to comport themselves with some dignity. That’s why the candidacy of John Kasich is so appealing to a lot mainstream Republicans. He’s managed to distance himself from the antics of Trump and Cruz and Rubio and the rest of that sad lot.
But there’s a reason Trump voters are so fervid in their support for him. The American economy has done fairly well over the last seven years, but not for some people; not for blue-collar lower-middle class white folks. Trump seems to get it. He says ‘hey, this economy stinks. Vote for me, and we’ll win again. We’ll have so much winning, you’ll actually get tired of all the winning. The problems we’ve had have been caused by Others, by All Those People. We’ll build a wall between the US and Mexico, and we’ll start trade wars with China, and we’ll keep Muslims out, and if we do those things, Americans will begin to win again.’ And that’s an appealing message.
Now, absolutely nothing in the actual policies Trump seems to favor will accomplish any of that. From a wonkish perspective, his policy proposals are nothing but complete and utter rubbish. None of the numbers add up, and there’s no discernible path to prosperity. By rejecting ‘political correctness,’ Trump seems to suggest that we just need to be ruder to each other, and then we’ll be fine. That’s just silly. And to people like Bruce Bartlett and Lindsey Graham, of course Trump’s success is incomprehensible.
But Trump’s supporters are right too. Mainstream Republican dogma insists, for example, that massive tax cuts pay for themselves, that cutting taxes authomatically stimulates the economy sufficiently to create jobs and prosperity. That wealth trickles down. That insight–supply-side economics–was the focus of Bartlett’s work for Reagan. And it’s nonsense too. This new rebuilt, freshly relevant Republican party Bartlett and Graham imagine needs to be built on something substantive. Supply-side economics is not it.
One of the great under-reported stories in politics right now are those states who took supply-side orthodoxy most seriously, cut taxes, and now are in a world of fiscal hurt. Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Florida are all in big trouble, right now, thanks to the ideological conservative purity of their governors and legislators. Cutting taxes confers no particular economic benefit to anyone except for the wealthy folks who get the extra cash.
Voters may not understand policy with much sophistication, but they know a political system rigged against them, and they know a bad economy. That’s where Donald Trump’s snake oil finds customers. But it’s not Trump’s fault and it’s not the fault of the voters. It’s the Republican establishment, pursuing foolish policies for ideological reasons. And if the Republicans do re-invent themselves, dumping ideological movement conservatism might be a good place to start.