National Review’s Useless, Misguided War on Trump

On Thursday night, National Review launched a broadside on Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, urging voters to shun him, and the editors solicited editorials from 22 prominent conservative personalities doing the same. The editorials range from well-reasoned critiques to unhinged attacks, culminating in this final take from the editors: “Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.” Sadly, these editorials are little more than a shout into the anti-Trump echo chamber rather than being a compelling argument to current Trump supporters that they should support someone else. All this does is allow members of a pundit class which too often criticizes rather than offer solutions (criticizing is far easier) to feel comfortable that at least they “warned the base” while staring aghast at the popular will of voters (at least according to current public polling).

For years, conservatives have rightly lambasted liberal media bias because straight news should be delivered without opinion and opinion pieces should be fair and rooted in reality (ie just because a piece is “opinion” does not make the use of misleading statistics to validate a point justified). However, we must apply the same scrutiny to biases we agree with as with bias we disagree with it. On this account, hypocrisy (on both sides) run rampant because it is easier to forgive the missteps of kindred souls. Sadly, personal dislike towards the subject can lower the quality of discourse, and on this count, it does feel like authors of this “National Review Symposium” are suffering a bit from Trump Derangement Syndrome, letting personal animus bleed into their writings, causing them to overstate their case and the danger Trump poses.

I am no Trump supporter and am extremely unlikely to vote for him in a primary (though at this stage, I would support him in a general election vs. Hillary Clinton), but I still feel like we should be fair to him. It is increasingly difficult to find such analysis; there is merely hate and love, few rational pieces. My main sticking point with Trump is his “Muslim ban,” which to me manages to be impractical, irrational, and immoral, but one can feel that way while agreeing with him that politicians are beholden to the donor class. changed his mind. Any voter is free to find these answers unsatisfactory and choose someone else; however, I question the sweeping argument that those “new” to conservatism are unfit to lead it. With the standard caveat that Trump is no Ronald Reagan, the fact is Reagan was an FDR-supporting, New Deal Democrat who left the party in 1962 and ran as a conservative for California Governor in 1966. Based on the arguments in the symposium, it seems the writers would have opposed Reagan in 1966, questioning his sincerity. In fact, I hope they would have; otherwise, they would be holding Trump to a different standard, which is unfair. As Reagan showed though, sometimes betting on a new face can work very well.

Voting for Trump is definitely a wager, given his flip-flops, but he is not alone on this account. Rubio and Cruz are first-term Senators (like Obama) with no major accomplishments in the Senate—voting for them is clearly a gamble. Jeb Bush hasn’t held office for a decade and is comically inept at making an argument. An effective user of the bully pulpit he would not be. Christie’s second term has left much to be desired. In my estimation, Kasich has the strongest record, though some will question his Medicaid expansion (full disclosure: I have donated to the Kasich campaign). Candidates are human beings; they will be flawed. Voters must decide what assets they seek and what flaws are acceptable. It is easy to oppose candidates by focusing on the flaws, which is what National Review did on Trump. Did the writers have the willingness to stand together and support someone else? Of course not. That’d be hard.

Much of the attack on Trump continues to center around his populism, which just boggles the mind. If a candidate isn’t focused on improving the lives of working people and middle class, why are they running? Rather than attack Trump personally, which will merely cause his supporters to tune out, we should embrace his populist focus but argue that different solutions will help Americans more. For instance, a bigger EITC and more progressive code would be a more effective tax plan than Trump’s. On this front, the symposium comes up woefully short. Trump plans are attacked but alternative are not offered. What’s the point of this? Even if Trump’s plans stink, what’s to say others have better plans? After all, Cruz’s European VAT plan is seemingly designed to hurt workers to the benefit of corporations and their owners (read: donors). All we hear from most candidates is a rehash of 1980 economic policy as though the problems have not changed since then. Trump is one of the few to be intellectually honest enough to suggest we try some different policies.

In particular, they signal out Trump’s trade rhetoric, and while not all of his China claims are backed by fact, toughness with China and the threat of some trade restrictions are not inherently anti-conservative. Chinese companies steal our intellectual property, often don’t pay what they owe American companies, get state sponsorship, and the government hacks into our companies to steal trade secrets. While we focus on the currency that is the least egregious thing China does. Should we ignore these actions, which have hurt American workers, in the name of free trade? That seems asinine. Ultimately, the President’s job is to better the country. Heck, even Reagan expanded farm subsidies for exports to the Soviet Union to help U.S. farmers. The rise of China has greatly lowered U.S. inflation, thereby increasing growth indirectly by boosting our purchasing power, but it has not driven much growth directly. Unless, the other country plays fair, free trade for the sake of it isn’t wise or good for the public. That does not mean a 45% tariff is the right policy response, just that mindlessly supporting free trade is neither conservative nor good policy.

Absolute rigidity is a sign of intellectual smallness not of adherence to principles. Opposing the bank bailouts of 2008 (which turned a profit, mind you) is not conservative; they saved this country from Depression. They are one of the few economic policies for which George Bush deserves praise. To criticize Trump for supporting them is laughable. Maybe letting the financial system implode is theoretically conservative, but how is ruining the lives of 100 million people the right thing to do? Again, it is easy to shout from the bleachers when you don’t have to solve the mess transpiring on the field.

Trump is the only leading candidate who consistently speaks to the needs of the middle and working class, demographics the GOP desperately needs to do better with, and there is a greater battle in conservativism here. While Trump is out of the orthodoxy on many issues, many “conservative” intellectuals and politicians have abandoned conservative’s populist roots over the past 15 years, focusing too much on top marginal tax rates, defending things like the carried interest loophole, and emphasizing the elimination of the estate tax. Fundamentally, conservatism is rooted in an optimism of the capacity of ordinary people, which is why we prefer to leave them with power rather than hoard the power among a band of so-called experts within government. In some circles, this optimism in the public has morphed into a simple disdain for government and emphasis on total adherence to principles.

There is a greater war within conservatism between the doctrinaire elites (think George Will) and the pragmatic populists (think Bill O’Reilly), and this National Review-Trump feud is just the latest battle. Trump is an imperfect vessel for his side but the sneering of NRO won’t sway anyone, just entrench both sides further. Being a doctrinaire is easy when on the sidelines critiquing those in the arena, but the fact remains that at the federal level, establishment conservatives and liberals have failed for 15 years to help the middle class. America does its best when pragmatic populists like Reagan lead it, and we should hope this side wins the war for conservatism.

At least Trump is emphasizing the needs of workers. That’s more than most candidates can say. Let’s embrace his focus, prove to those making under $50,000 that conservatives actually care about them (which we have failed to do), and offer different, compelling solutions. What the National Review did surely helped to stroke egos, but it didn’t boost the discourse. It’s high time we realize conservatism’s failures post-Reagan have created Trump. He’s a reminder we’ve lost our way. Directing our ire at him is a waste of time, direct it at the leaders (ie George W Bush), pundits (George Will), and rent-seeking donors whose intellectual rigidity and outdated policies have failed.

Median wages are lower than 15 years ago. Unlike Trump, that is actually something to be embarrassed about and have an emergency symposium on.

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The GOP Establishment Has Itself and George Bush to Blame for Trump’s Rise

With each passing day, it appears to be increasingly likely Donald Trump captures the Republican nomination given his committed base, strong national numbers, a lead in New Hampshire that is insurmountable so long as “establishment” candidates like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie split the vote, and a Teflon-like insulation from his own statements. From George Will declaring a Trump nomination could be the end of the Party to discussions of an anti-Trump PAC, the establishment is up in arms over Trump’s rise and seems to be blaming the base for his success: supporters are falling for a cult of personality, they’re unsophisticated, just looking for a loud candidate, and so on.

I too am a Republican who is no Trump supporter but am tiring of the establishment’s blame game. If they want someone to blame, they should try looking in the mirror lest we forget how Trump was treated in 2012. Rather than ignoring him as a fringe figure, Mitt Romney gladly visited the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas to receive his endorsement in person. Plus, Romney originally planned to have Trump make an appearance at the Convention, only to be cancelled due to a Hurricane. Rather than ignore Trump, the Party decided to embrace and therefore legitimize Trump. If Trump is to be considered a monster, then Romney and the establishment are Dr. Frankenstein. They’ve lost control of their creation (as though they ever had control), and he’s turning out to be quite popular with the villagers.

The establishment’s blame goes beyond the actions in 2012 and is more fundamental. The Republican Party has a George W. Bush problem, and his economic record is partly responsible for Trump. The establishment has yet to come to grips with the economic failings of Bush’s Presidency, which left the working and middle class in worse shape.

The core of Trump’s support comes from working people. For instance, the latest national CNN poll showed Trump with 42% among those earnings under $50k and 46% among those who did not graduate college. The CNN poll is consistent with other national polling. Blue collar workers have clearly gravitated towards Trump.

Now, I am no defender of Barack Obama’s economic policies, and GDP growth during this recovery has been slower than under President Clinton or Reagan. Like many Americans, I blame subpar growth on Obama’s tax and regulatory policies, and the facts are that while job growth has been solid, real median incomes have fallen to $53,657 in 2014 from $55,313 in 2008, per the Census Department. Additionally, in December 2008, America had 12.9 million manufacturing jobs. As of November 2015, that number is 12.3 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For many Americans, the state of the economy is still fragile, and angst remains. Unease with Obama policies could explain why voters are seeking change, which would imply more support for Republicans, but it does not explain why so many voters are totally ignoring establishment choices in favor of someone as unorthodox as Trump. It is here where Bush comes in.

On the positive side, under President Bush, we enjoyed nearly 3 consecutive years of unemployment at 5% or less, roughly full employment. However, the Bush economy was not great for everyone. GDP growth averaged a meager 2.1% during his two terms, and the middle class did not enjoy much of this growth. Just as under Obama, real median incomes fell under Bush, from $57,724 in 2000 to $55,313 in 2008. Even more importantly to understand the Trump phenomenon is the decline in manufacturing employment, from 17.2 million in December 2000 to 12.9 million in December 2008. Of course, millions lost homes in a financial crisis for which Bush bears some responsibility. The political establishment of both parties have failed working and middle class Americans for at least fifteen years now.

Unsurprisingly, republican voters are willing to look outside the establishment, which has failed them economically for years. Moreover, the establishment, by focusing all of its ire on Obama, has not reached out to workers in a compelling fashion to explain how the GOP can make the economy work for them. While he may be selling a false bill of goods (what makes for good politics is not necessarily good or plausible policy), Trump has made a clear and simple case to workers, essentially: you’ve been screwed by incompetent politicians who work for donors not you, who negotiate terrible trade deals with China, and who have let illegal immigrants undercut wages whereas I will work for you and bring back your jobs. Let’s be honest, if you’re a white guy working in manufacturing, it has probably been a tough decade, and this pitch is compelling.

At the very least, Trump is making an overt effort to show he cares about the middle class, something other candidates and the establishment at large have been unable to do. Rather than recognizing the problems of today differ from 1980, we often reflexively revert to Reaganism (perhaps because Bush policies didn’t work so well). Some, like Carson, push flat taxes that would likely hurt the poor. Senator Cruz is pushing a Business VAT that would disincentivize employment (probably not a good sell to workers), and while Rubio has more interesting economic policies given his new child tax credit, he has not made a sustained pitch to the working class on economics, focusing on foreign policy instead, though that may be changing.

For Republicans to win national elections and possibly put Upper Midwest states in play, they need to do better with working and middle class Americans. To do so, the establishment must recognize its economic policies have failed in the 21st century (as have Democratic policies). In many ways, workers are worse off than 20 years ago, which is a stinging rebuke of our political establishment. Until the republican establishment admits failings and modernizes conservative principles to solve 21st century problems (for example, negative marginal tax rates), the GOP establishment will justifiably continue to lack any credibility with its working and middle class voters.

Trump’s proposals are ultimately simplistic and essentially are “blame the other guy (with other guy being China, Mexico, Vietnam, Donors etc.),” but he is the only major candidate arguing to workers he cares about their well-being. No wonder they are flocking to him. The base is not failing the establishment. The establishment has failed its base for 15 years with lousy, outdated, and unoriginal economic policy offerings, and until they recognize this, blue collar republicans will be receptive to outsiders like Trump.

Bush failed the middle class. Unless the GOP intellectual elites cede this and make necessary policy updates, Trump won’t be an aberration. He’ll be the first in a long string of populist outsiders while the power of the establishment continues to atrophy.

No, Trump Won’t Doom Conservatism

As the calendar prepares to turn, one fact has remained constant: Donald Trump is the clear leader in Republican Primary national polls. He is almost certainly trailing Ted Cruz in Iowa but maintains a large lead in New Hampshire where establishment candidates have fractured the vote and should he win there is poised for strong showings through the March 1 “SEC Primary.” While national polls have dubious predictive power, establishment types are increasingly antsy about Trump’s staying-power as they (correctly) believe he would struggle in a general election. Take George Will for instance who last week declared in a column entitled, “If Trump wins the nomination, prepare for the end of the conservative party”:

“It is possible Trump will not win any primary, and that by the middle of March our long national embarrassment will be over. But this avatar of unfettered government and executive authoritarianism has mesmerized a large portion of Republicans for six months. The larger portion should understand this:

One hundred and four years of history is in the balance. If Trump is the Republican nominee in 2016, there might not be a conservative party in 2020 either.”

Now, there are two issues with Will’s column. First, a Trump nomination would not be the end of a conservative party in America. Presidential campaigns lend themselves to hyperbole (“this is a mildly important election” doesn’t turn out the vote so well), and that is the case here. Given his poor standing with Hispanics and women voters, I agree Trump would likely lose and lose badly. The only path I see would be choosing someone like David Petreaus as his Vice-President (to calm voters antsy about making Trump Commander-in-Chief) and go for an Upper Midwest strategy. Against Hillary Clinton, one would have to put the odds of a Trump victory at less than 15%, barring some dramatic economic collapse or terrorist attack that destroys President Obama’s popular standing.

Even if Trump lost though, the GOP is not doomed. Surely, many prognosticators saw disaster for liberals after Michael Dukakis suffered the third straight Democratic ignominy in 1988. In the three elections from 1980-1988, the GOP carried the electoral vote a combined 1440-174. That is called being lost in the wilderness, yet Democrats have proceeded to win 5 of the next 6 popular votes, and in 2008, America elected the most liberal man to be President since at least Lyndon Johnson in 1964 (Ideologically, Obama is probably to the left of Johnson, he is merely less effective at making his agenda law). My point here is that political persuasions are “stickier” or more entrenched than we sometimes give them credit for, and to suggest the GOP is one defeat from obsolescence is over the top, particularly with Republicans controlling the House and 31 Governor’s Mansions from which conservative reform agendas are being carried out. Would a third term for the Democratic Party have significant long-term consequences? Yes. Is the conservative party a terrible candidate away from disappearing? No.

Second, there is this sense that Trump is a cancer on conservatism when in reality Trump is exploiting a cancer that has already grown on the movement. Will is right to call out Trump’s constant boasting as a sign of a lack of self-esteem (this is an ironic charge from a man whose columns read like a self-conscious showcase of as many inane, multisyllabic words as possible in an effort to prove his intellectual superiority), and I too am no Trump fan, taking serious issue with his rhetoric, past policy flip-flops, Muslim travel suspension, and so forth. Trump is no typical conservative by any stretch, but his popularity in conservative precincts is easy to understand.

The intellectual, donor, and corporate establishment has grown increasingly adrift from the base with a rising elitism poisoning the conservative movement. Elements of the party have morphed from capitalist to corporatists with large, entrenched firms enjoying a convoluted tax code that serves to raise the barriers to entry. As explained in a bit more depth below (and in much more detail here) economic policy coming from the party seems to either reflexively reflect 1980s policies or benefit the monied interests. I’ve always struggled as to how a conservative can be an elitist given that the ideology is one optimistic about the skills of ordinary people. We have so much faith in man, we prefer to endow each individual with power rather than leaving it the hands of centralized bureaucrats who deem themselves experts. Conservativism is inherently populist, but often one can feel conservative DC elites looking down at Trump supporters and the citizenry at large.

Justifiably or not, the Republicans are viewed as the party of the elites, and that is problematic. Just examine the 2012 exit polls:

Romney lost 35%-63% among voters earning under $30,000 and 42%-57% among voters earning $30,000-$49,999. Romney lost the overall popular voter 47.2% to 51.1%, but if he had done 5% better among those earning under 50k (going from 38% to 43%), the popular vote would have been 49.2% for Romney to 49.1% for Obama. Obama still would have likely have won the Electoral College (Romney getting 253 instead of 206 votes, short of the 270 needed to win), but it would have been closer. For all of the talk about doing better with Hispanic voters to win elections, doing better with the working and middle class is critical for the Republican Party to win national elections (admittedly, doing better with the working and middle class likely entails doing better with Hispanic voters).

53% of voters thought Romney policies favored the rich; only 34% thought the middle class was favored. 21% of voters believed the most important quality was having a President who “cares about people like me.” Romney lost those voters 18% to 81%, and this block of voters was decisive in delivering the election for the President. Republicans have a clear empathy problem. Now, there are two possibilities here. One, the republicans offer the right policies for these voters and are doing a terrible job communicating them, or two, the policy mix is bad for these voters and they are acting rationally by voting for Democrats. As the Democrats are keen to offer free stuff, winning the communications battle will invariably be tough, but there is definitely room for improvement, especially as conservative policies can help lift working people more than an entangling, 20th century safety net. Plus, republicans don’t have to win these voters outright, just do less badly.

There are strains in the Republican Party that are offering wise policies, focused on improving and expanding the earned income tax credit, eliminating marriage disincentives, and successfully employing charters schools as Washington DC has done. Leaders like Paul Ryan, Mike Lee, and Marco Rubio have each come up with some good proposals in these areas, but Republicans have failed to come out with a comprehensive economic policy that all Americans, poor, middle class, and wealthy, can buy into in part because few in the party seem to recognize that the past 15 years, under both Presidents Bush and Obama, have been lousy for the middle and working class. President Bush’s economic record is far from perfect. This country has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs in 20 years and seen real median income declines since 1997:

Under President Reagan, America saw stellar economic growth, but his policies addressed specific problems, including a lack of capital and squeezed margins. His tax cuts were aimed at fixing specific problems and are not a timeless solution in and of themselves. Today’s problems are different with a job-skills mismatch, burdensome lending regulations, inefficient deductions, and internationally obsolete code, and the solutions need to address these ills while recognizing policies must help the working and middle class lift themselves up (different from the Bernie Sanders approach of tearing the rich down). Has any somewhat viable Republican Presidential candidate made an argument they will help workers?

Trump has. The premise of his campaign is helping workers. He has said Super PACs screw Americans because politicians become beholden to corporate donors. Our free trade agreements have cost us jobs because our leaders are terrible negotiators (and if you were one of the 5 million who lost a manufacturing job, you would have some sympathy for this argument). Over the summer, Trump said, “the middle class is getting clobbered in this country. You know the middle class built this country, not the hedge fund guys, but I know people in hedge funds that pay almost nothing and it’s ridiculous, OK?” It is unsurprising that Trump has built a strong base of support amongst working and middle class voters in GOP primary polls because his campaign is directly targeted to them.

Now, this is separate from arguing Trump policies would actually help the middle class (this is very debatable), but he, being a master brander, has done an excellent job selling it. It has been easy for him because the establishment has shown no interest in reaching out to these voters in years. Did Romney ever prosecute the case as to how ordinary Americans would be better off? Exit polls (and memories of the campaign) say “no;” the establishment has no built in credibility. We’ve gone from Reagan calling all Americans “heroes” to Romney decrying “the 47%” behind closed doors. Plus, no other candidate has made a compelling argument to these voters. Ben Carson has an inspiring life story but has been unable to offer a specific policy vision on economic or foreign affairs. Jeb Bush is just constitutionally incapable of making compelling arguments, and while he has promised 4% growth, he has never articulated how his plans ensure the growth will be enjoyed by all. Rubio hits some of the right notes, like an expanded-EITC, but has focused on foreign affairs (he is best positioned to appeal to working people in my opinion but has failed to make a clear effort). Ted Cruz’s tax plan would likely hurt workers and creates a VAT that disincentivizes employment—it’s an unimaginably idiotic tax plan to be frank.

Trump’s competitors have made it easy, proving utterly incapable or uninterested in offering an inclusive economic message. Given 15 years of stagnation and a republican establishment that has made little substantive effort to include them, working and middle class voters are understandably frustrated and willing to go for an unorthodox candidate. Enter Trump who has a message tailored for them and who has faced no competition on the economic populist front. No wonder he polls so high.

Trump isn’t a doctrinaire conservative, but conservatives have failed to update policies or explain how our vision economic plans can help all Americans. That is the movement’s failing. Blaming Trump voters for being unprincipled for backing a (charitably) inconsistent conservative has proven pointless in bringing down his support and is perhaps unfair to his supporters. If you offer voters nothing, don’t be surprised if they look elsewhere and ignore your warnings. Voters are perhaps willing to look past Trump’s faults because they see no alternative—what has the conservative movement done for a steelworker the past decade?

By failing to build a conservative economic plan that can work for all Americans and then failing to sell our vision in a clear and convincing fashion in all corners of the country from Wall Street to 125th Street, we have left the field wide open for Trump. Within reason, conservatism and populism are not at odds, for what good is a policy that does not benefit most of the populace? Who is better positioned to argue that their policies will help people than the party promising to return power to the people? If there is no conservative party in 2020 or 2024, it won’t be because of Trump. It will be because Republicans have failed miserably in being the Opportunity Party.