The proof is in: the GOP base isn’t small-government libertarian; it’s old-fashioned populist.
Trump has said:
|“Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid. And we can’t do that.”
||“As far as single payer [health care], it works in Canada, it works incredibly well in Scotland. … You can’t let the people in this country, the people without the money and resources, to go without healthcare.”
||“People as they make more and more money can pay a higher percentage” of taxes.
By Michael Lind
Here are some of the things that have been said by the guy who has galvanized the GOP’s Tea Party base and taken the lead in the Republican presidential race:
“Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid. And we can’t do that.”
“As far as single payer [health care], it works in Canada, it works incredibly well in Scotland. … You can’t let the people in this country, the people without the money and resources, to go without healthcare.”
“People as they make more and more money can pay a higher percentage” of taxes.
Only one of two conclusions can be drawn here. Either the Tea Party base—which the media would have us think mainly consists of angry libertarians inveighing against taxes and runaway big government—hasn’t really been listening to Donald Trump, who made all the above statements, or, alternatively, most of the media have read the Tea Party and its true aims and ambitions entirely wrong.
I suggest the latter is the correct answer. The success of Trump’s campaign has, if nothing else, exposed the Tea Party for what it really is; Trump’s popularity is, in effect, final proof of what some of us have been arguing for years: that the Tea Party is less a libertarian movement than a right-wing version of populism. Think William Jennings Bryan or Huey Long, not Ayn Rand. Tea Partiers are less upset about the size of government overall than they are that so much of it is going to other people, especially immigrants and nonwhites. They are for government for them and against government for Not-Them.
This is what explains a lot of what’s going on now. After all, according to the commentariat, the Summer of Trump was supposed to have been the Summer of Rand Paul. It seems like only yesterday that the media were interpreting the rise of the Tea Party as a triumph of anti-statism and predicting that Paul, with his libertarian views on national security and data privacy, represented the future of the American right.
But Paul has all but disappeared from view, polling in the low single digits, while Trump has soared into the lead, and nothing he says, no matter how outrageous, seems to sour the right-wing base on him. Trump is no libertarian; quite the opposite. He is a classic populist of the right who peddles suspicion of foreigners—it’s no accident that he was the country’s leading “birther” raising questions about Barack Obama’s citizenship—combined with a kind of “producerism.” In populist ideology, society is divided not among rich and poor but among producers and parasites.
Populists are suspicious of unearned wealth, including the interest charged by bankers who manipulate “other people’s money” (to use the phrase of Louis Brandeis). And populists the world over are hostile to the idle or undeserving poor who allegedly live on welfare at the expense of productive workers and capitalists. Populists tend to attribute the existence of large numbers of the idle rich and the idle poor to government corruption. In the words of the 1892 People’s Party platform: “From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”
To anyone paying attention, it should have been clear from the 2010 elections onward that Tea Party voters were at odds with the libertarians in the Republican donor class and Beltway think tanks. Further confirmation came when David Brat, an obscure college professor, defeated Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 Republican primary in a shocking upset. Cantor was punished for supporting more legal immigration and amnesty for illegal immigrants, something favored by Republican elites but opposed by conservative voters. Of immigration, Brat told Fox News: “It’s the most symbolic issue that captures the differences between me and Eric Cantor.”
The hostility of the Republican right to illegal immigration is usually attributed by establishment pundits to pure racism, no doubt correctly in many cases. After all, according to traditional free-market libertarianism, open borders are good (“There shall be open borders,” was the mantra of the late Robert Bartley of the Wall Street Journal, summarizing the credo of the free-market right). But in the moral universe of populists, illegal immigrants of any race are classic “parasites” preying on hard-working producers. To begin with, they are all cheaters by definition, violating U.S. immigration laws, unlike legal immigrants who obey the law and wait in line for limited quotas. In addition, according to recent data, 51 percent of immigrant households receive some kind of welfare, compared with 30 percent for native-led households. Reflecting differences in education and income, welfare use is much higher for immigrants from Latin America than from South Asia, East Asia and Europe. Inasmuch as the populist right in the U.K. is galvanized in part by opposition to “Polish plumbers,” it is a mistake to attribute the opposition of populists solely to racism. Populist fears that the country is becoming a welfare magnet for the foreign-born poor also play a part.
Trump has catered to these fears while alienating the Republican establishment by delivering xenophobic putdowns of Mexicans and saying he wants to build a wall along the Mexican border: “I want it to be so beautiful because some day they’re going to call it the Trump wall.” When it comes to trade, Trump is an economic nationalist who has called for tariffs on imports from China and Mexico.
In domestic policy, Trump’s rejection of orthodox conservatism is just as dramatic. The establishment right supports cuts in Social Security and the voucherization of Medicare; Trump does not. No apostasy on Trump’s part is more unforgiveable to the conservative elite than his heresy on taxes. Conservative orthodoxy holds that the rich—no matter how they make their money—are by definition “wealth creators” and “job creators” and that the best way to grow the economy is to lower their taxes further. Trump, however, favors progressive taxation and despises “paper-pushers” on Wall Street: “The hedge fund guys didn’t build this country. These are guys that shift paper around and they get lucky…. But a lot of them—they are paper-pushers. They make a fortune. They pay no tax. It’s ridiculous, ok?”
A Marist poll of April 18, 2011, proves that Trumpist populism was a fully fledged worldview among Tea Party voters years before Donald Trump announced his run for the Republican presidential nomination. In the survey, 81 percent of self-identified Tea Party supporters opposed raising the federal debt ceiling. But majorities of Tea Party supporters also favored reducing the federal debt by raising taxes on those with incomes over $250,000 (53 percent) and opposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid (70 percent).
It was the Great Recession that catalyzed the contemporary Tea Party movement. Like Occupy Wall Street activists, but from the right, Tea Party conservatives objected to the federal government’s bailouts of what they perceived as the rich parasites of the financial sector.
The famous on-air rant on February 19, 2009, by Rick Santelli of CNBC that helped to inspire the movement targeted a second group of parasites or moochers or takers—the potential beneficiaries of a proposal to bail out some homeowners threatened with losing their homes because of their inability to pay their mortgages. In classic producerist fashion, Santelli denounced the unfairness of bailing out “losers” while other hard-working Americans had to struggle to make their mortgage payments:
Government is promoting bad behavior. … Do we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages? This is America? How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage? President Obama, are you listening? How about we all stop paying our mortgages? It’s moral hazard.
A further clue to the values of the Tea Party right was provided by Representative Rob Inglis (R-S.C.), who was reportedly told by a constituent, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” This was widely interpreted by snobbish progressives to indicate that Tea Partiers are too stupid to understand that Medicare is a government benefit. But in fact Tea Party populists are being consistent, if selfish, in favoring universal, earned benefits that benefit people like them, while opposing means-tested welfare, which they suspect is encouraging laziness among the “idle poor.”
Trump’s establishment rivals, like Jeb Bush, accuse him of not being a true conservative. That is true, if conservatism is defined by the beliefs of the Republican Party’s elite donors and the think tank experts whom they subsidize. But if conservatism is defined by what the voters who make up the conservative base actually believe, then it is the deviations of the GOP establishment from right-wing populist orthodoxy that must be explained.
For years the Republican elite has gotten away with promoting policies about trade and entitlements that are the exact opposites of the policies favored by much of their electoral base. Populist conservatives who want to end illegal immigration, tax the rich, protect Social Security and Medicare, and fight fewer foreign wars have been there all along. It’s just that mainstream pundits and journalists, searching for a libertarian right more to their liking (and comprehension), refused to see them before the Summer of Trump.
(Michael Lind is a Politico Magazine contributing editor and author of Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics.)