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Cultural Anxieties, Not Economic Woes, Drove the Trump Train

Many conservative elites know that cultural resentment has the potential to take the Republican Party in an ugly direction. That’s why so many of them cling to the alternative explanation: “It wasn’t racism or misogyny that was motivating Trump voters! It was righteous anger that their government hasn’t done more to protect them from the ravages of globalization!” In reality, to the extent that the Trump coalition was unified and energized by anything, survey data suggest that it was cultural issues, not economic ones.

If there’s one thing the “post-liberal” conservatives can agree on, it’s that 2016 should have been a wake-up call for the Republican Party. According to the new conventional wisdom within the conservative movement, Donald Trump’s shocking electoral victory four years ago represented a blue-collar economic revolt against GOP elites, who had lost touch with their base. Rural and small-town Americans, disillusioned with the globally integrated modern economy, were desperate for a hand up. Trump alone noticed, and they rewarded him with their energetic support.

These basic assumptions undergird a push by many conservative commentators—and a concomitant pivot by a number of Republican officials—to reimagine the GOP as the party of workers, comfortable with much more direct government intervention into the economy than ever before. As Sen. Marco Rubio put it in a 2019 speech, “Our challenge is an economic order that is bad for America.” And David Brooks wrote last year that “over the long term, some version of Working-Class Republicanism will redefine the G.O.P.”

The post-liberals take great satisfaction in labeling the libertarian economic agenda of open trade, low taxes, and deregulation with sneering epithets like “zombie Reaganism” and “market fundamentalism.” They are persuaded that voters overwhelmingly share their disdain for the free-market economic regime. The empirical evidence for that belief, though, has always been thinner than they appreciate. To the extent that the Trump coalition was unified and energized by anything, survey data suggest that it was cultural issues, not economic ones.

 

A New Nationalism Emerges

In an August 2020 essay for The New York Times, Brooks explored three possible paths forward for Republicans. Notably, he insisted that each option begins with the Trumpian presumptions that “the free market is not working well” and “economic libertarianism is not the answer.” He’s not alone. Both money and attention have been lining up behind a new conservative nationalist element in the last few years. In July 2019, a multi-day conference convened in Washington, D.C., to hash out a better conservative economic program. As I reported at the time:

Practically speaking, the nationalist agenda is largely focused on the need for a federal “industrial policy.” For Breitbart’s John Carney, that means tariffs, and lots of them. Americans need to be willing to pay higher prices to protect the jobs of their fellow citizens, according to [activist David] Brog. For American Affairs founder Julius Krein, “protectionism is not sufficient. . . . It’s not radical enough.” The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass laid out a plan involving research and development subsidies, infrastructure investments, preferential tax rates for favored firms, punitive taxes on companies that move jobs overseas, “trade enforcement” to make other countries play according to our rules, and more. “We should have a National Institutes of Manufacturing just as we have a National Institutes of Health,” he said.

It’s true, of course, that President Trump was a free trader’s nightmare, surrounding himself with radical protectionists and slapping import levies on goods not just from China but from many of our closest allies, often with devastating effects. He also embraced a sort of economic strongmanism in which a president may dictate business decisions to private companies and use the full arsenal of federal powers to compel their submission. You know, for the common good. All of this is pretty far from the libertarian economic ideal.

At the same time, the Trump years saw one of the largest tax cuts in American history, alongside some noteworthy efforts to roll back the federal regulatory burden—two archetypally Reaganite policy moves. More to the point, these years also saw mixed support—at best—for top-down management of the economy.

Polls Show Broad Support for Free Enterprise

The new economic nationalists posit that, to remain competitive, the Republican Party must learn from 2016 and jettison its crippling commitment to economic libertarianism. Yet public polling suggests that America is still a country of people who broadly support free enterprise. In the fall of 2019, Gallup found that just 28 percent of Americans (and just 7 percent of GOPers) think there is too little government regulation of business and industry. But a desire for greater oversight of market actors—stronger fetters, if you will—is at the core of the nationalist alternative that people like Cass are articulating.

Pollsters also found support for foreign trade increasing over the course of the Trump presidency. According to Pew Research Center, the proportion of Americans who thought free trade agreements have been a good thing for the country jumped from 45 percent in 2016 to 65 percent in 2019. According to Gallup, 58 percent of Americans said in February 2016 that free trade represented an opportunity for increased economic growth, compared to 34 percent who saw it as a threat to the American economy. Three years later, 74 percent said it was an opportunity (a 16-percentage-point increase), compared to 21 percent who saw it as a threat (a 13-percentage-point decline).

These numbers all predate the COVID-19 crisis. Amid a once-in-a-century event, it should come as no surprise that support for emergency spending would be sky-high across the board—and so it is. Still, recent data reinforce the supposition that something other than broad disapproval of limited government and free market capitalism animates today’s Republican coalition. A January survey commissioned by the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) found that only 35 percent of 2020 Trump voters thought the United States should reduce trade with foreign countries. Meanwhile, 93 percent agreed that “government doesn’t create wealth; people and businesses do.” Again, these figures are among self-identifying Trump supporters. Ask yourself: Does this sound like a cohort mobilized primarily by disgust with “zombie Reaganism”?

While the evidence is mostly anecdotal at this point, it has even been posited—including in the left-wing Mother Jones—that the Democratic Party’s socialist turn explains the unexpected gains for Trump in places like South Florida last year. Where there are sizable pockets of immigrants from countries with less than rosy experiences of state-controlled economic systems, people may have shifted toward Trump out of a last-ditch desire for relatively more economic freedom.

 

Cultural Anxieties Are the Real Driver

There was always good reason to suspect that cultural anxieties, far more than economic anxieties, were driving support for Trump. His success was indeed evidence of a backlash. But voters, rather than retaliating against supposedly stale GOP talking points on NAFTA, likely were acting on something more primal: a strong feeling that people like them are under attack from powerful cultural institutions in America. Under such conditions, it is tempting to conclude that extreme medicine is warranted.

This sense of being besieged is epitomized by two issue categories that every journalist and congressional staffer knows garner disproportionate, and disproportionately passionate, attention from the public: the perceived dual threats of runaway political correctness and legal assaults on religious liberty.

Immediately following the 2016 election, my colleague Robby Soave drew attention to the former phenomenon. “Ever since Donald Trump became a serious threat to win the GOP presidential primaries,” he wrote, “I have warned that a lot of people, both on campus and off it, were furious about political-correctness-run-amok—so furious that they would give power to any man who stood in opposition to it.” Soave acknowledged the phrase is difficult to define but argued that “the segment of the electorate who flocked to Trump because he positioned himself as ‘an icon of irreverent resistance to political correctness’ think it means this: smug, entitled, elitist, privileged leftists jumping down the throats of ordinary folks who aren’t up-to-date on the latest requirements of progressive society.”

On the religious liberty front, I too speak from experience. After four years of writing about the Obama administration’s efforts to make evangelical Christian colleges pay for their employees’ birth control, state and city governments’ efforts to forbid wedding vendors from opting out of same-sex marriage celebrations, and the ACLU’s efforts to force Catholic hospitals to provide elective abortions and gender transition services, I had no trouble understanding why conservative voters might feel radicalized, even if I reacted with equal horror to the man they appointed to do something about it.

Last month’s EPPC poll bears this theory out. While a mere 2 percent of Trump voters thought the federal government was too small, 89 percent said “Christianity is under attack in America today.” 90 percent said “Americans are losing faith in the ideas that make our country great.” And 92 percent said “the mainstream media today is just a part of the Democratic Party.” Only 20 percent agreed that “white people have an advantage in today’s America because of their skin color,” while a staggering 87 percent were worried that “discrimination against whites will increase a lot in the next few years.”

Here, not on economic questions, is the overwhelming consensus. Many Republicans—and even some non-Republicans—feel that people who look like them and believe what they do have been unjustly branded as enemies by Hollywood, academia, the mainstream media, and the tech sector. More than a few of them are prepared to strike back in any way they can.

A quick aside: It’s clear that most Trump supporters are highly skeptical of immigration. The EPPC poll found, for instance, that 86 percent support building a wall on America’s southern border, 89 percent support a federal requirement that employers verify their workers are here legally, and 65 percent think the United States should reduce the number of people it allows to come here from abroad. What’s less clear is the extent to which these views are rooted in cultural concerns (e.g., a fear that white Americans are being replaced by ethnic minorities) or economic ones (e.g., a fear that an influx of workers are driving down wages). Although I suspect the latter concerns are often used as cover for the former, the data are not particularly clear on this point.

 

Against Grievance Politics

History books are full of reasons to be exceedingly nervous when identity-based grievance politics finds a foothold in your country. This is no less true when it happens on the right, among “regular folks,” than when it happens on the left, among “historically disadvantaged groups.” It’s also just as true when, as is virtually always the case, there’s some validity to the underlying grievance.

I think many conservative elites know that cultural resentment has the potential to take the Republican Party in an ugly direction. That’s why so many of them cling to the alternative explanation: It wasn’t racism or misogyny that was motivating Trump voters! It was righteous anger that their government hasn’t done more to protect them from the ravages of globalization!

Brooks and Cass and the other new conservative nationalists are trying to offer a constructive policy agenda that reflects this alternative story. But in doing so, they’re building on a foundation of sand. The data just don’t support the idea that most Republicans reject free markets or free trade. And the further the GOP moves in a big-government, economically interventionist direction, the more it risks losing fusionists like me.

If the 2016 election was a wake-up call, it was for the left, not the right—a warning to the Democratic Party that dabblings in socialism and critical theory are suited to college dorm rooms, not the national political stage. We saw in 2016 that pushing past the electoral center of gravity will provoke a backlash you probably won’t much like.

Now that I think of it, that might be a lesson both sides need to hear.

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