For all of the flak Democrats took for supposedly being out of touch with working class voters after last year’s presidential election, almost no one questioned their desire to carve out a bigger role for government in the economy. In fact, Donald Trump made the government’s power to usurp market forces a big part of his pitch to the Rust Belt, as he promised to reverse decades of manufacturing job losses to other countries by getting tough on corporations and ‘globalist’ trade agreements.
In some ways, the real story of the 2016 presidential election is the sheer irrelevance of traditional conservatism as a political option. Nearly a decade after the recession, voters continue to favor a more activist government in terms of promoting fairness for American workers and a bigger social safety net. This remained true of Trump supporters even in the face of his inexperience, incoherence, and affection for authoritarian leaders, all of which tended to preoccupy his conservative opponents. Nowadays, anti-Trump Republicans are something of a staple on left-leaning cable news programs, nodding along feverishly with Democrats who insist Trump is unfit to be president.
They are right, of course. Trump really is incapable of having substantive policy discussions ― probably because his campaign wasn’t anchored in any particular worldview to begin with.
Even Trump’s biggest apologists admit he’s not a real conservative, and that his appeal lies mostly in his ability to tick off liberals on a daily basis. Here’s how Charles J. Sykes, a conservative author, describes Trump’s defenders in a recent op-ed post in the New York Times:
While there are those like Sean Hannity who are reliable cheerleaders for all things President Trump, much of the conservative news media is now less pro-Trump than it is anti-anti-Trump… [T]he real heart of anti-anti-Trumpism is the delight in the frustration and anger of his opponent. Mr. Trump’s base is unlikely to hold him either to promises or tangible achievements, because conservative politics is now less about ideas or accomplishments than it is about making the right enemies cry out in anguish.
Like many anti-Trump Republicans, Sykes prefers to think of Trump as an abscess on the conservative movement, and once he and his ilk are snipped off conservatism can reemerge as a viable electoral force in American politics. Tea Party Republicans came up with a similar, though not as alarmist, narrative about President George W. Bush when Democrats took the White House and both houses of Congress in the 2008 general election. They claimed that Republicans had acted too much like Democrats during the Bush years, growing government rather than tightening its purse strings, and they needed to get back to conservatism’s basics if they ever wanted to win another election.
This apparently meant total obstruction of the Obama agenda, including suing the president, shutting down the government, and blocking dozens of federal court appointees over the course of eight years.
The truth is that Republicans aren’t pining for “conservative principles” because they feel bad about Bush or Trump wanting to spend so much money. Rather, they’ve deluded themselves into thinking that the conservative agenda is one that people actually want, and one that will seriously contend with the issues people care most about.
For all of the criticism Democrats receive for continuing to deny the real reasons they lost last year’s presidential election, Republicans are no more grounded in the reality that Trump won their party’s nomination ― and ultimately the support of many Obama voters in the general election ― by talking more like a Democrat than a Republican on the economy. The Carrier deal announced back in December was a complete PR stunt. But it was the first time voters got to see the soon-to-be president making the market work for them, rather than letting them sweat it out on their own, and it was effective. Now Trump regularly takes to Twitter to claim similar deals, regardless of whether they are actually his to claim.
Republican voters are also coming around to Trump’s past support for a national healthcare system. But the Obamacare replacement bill that was recently passed on a party line vote in the House is the most glaring example of how deeply deluded conservatives are about their own relevance — so much so that they’ve begun lying about what their bill will do.
For years, Republicans painted Obamacare as a government takeover of the healthcare industry that would cause everything from months-long doctor waitlists to death panels. But it turns out that Americans do like the regulations that protect coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and prevent insurance companies from selling junk plans or charging people more money based on their gender. It turns out that more people believe healthcare is a human right and that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that everyone, regardless of income, can get care when they need it.
But Republican leaders cannot admit that they lied to their constituents about Obamacare, so they’ve resorted to covering up those lies with more lies — stating for instance that their healthcare bill, which cuts Medicaid by over $800 billion over a decade, will not lead to any loss in coverage. Were anti-Trump Republicans outraged about this? Surely, they believe that when the Speaker of the House and the head of the Department of Health and Human Services go on national television and lie about the contents of their healthcare bill it is a serious attack on democratic norms.
Or how about when the President of the United States actively sabotages the healthcare exchanges while claiming the collapse of the law is inevitable?
It seems anti-Trump Republicans fear the undoing of democracy only insofar as it fails to advance their raison d’etre: breaking the government. And it is this willingness to promote policies that fly in the face of facts or public opinion that helps demagogues like Trump remain a political option.